The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” is a nine-stanza poem that uses an episode from Homer’s ancient Greek epic Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1616) to meditate on the violence and brutality of the modern world. The poem begins with an unnamed woman looking over the shoulder of an unnamed man; the two are named in the last stanza, but those who know the Iliad well will immediately recognize from the poem’s title that the woman is the goddess Thetis, the mother of the Greek hero Achilles. The man over whose shoulder she looks is Hephaestos, the god of fire and metal-working, who is commissioned by Thetis in book 18 of the Iliad to make a shield for Achilles to carry into battle. In the first stanza, Thetis looks to see how Hephaestos is decorating the shield. Expecting to see conventional symbols of victory and power, she sees instead that Hephaestos has used images of “an artificial wilderness” and a “sky like lead.”

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The next two stanzas depict in sharper detail the images engraved or embossed on the shield: a barren plain filled with expressionless people standing in line, “waiting for a sign.” As they stand, a voice comes from above declaring the justice of “some cause.” Without discussion or reflection, the people march away in lines to serve that cause, which eventually brings them to grief.

In the fourth stanza, the poem returns to Thetis. Where she expects to see “ritual pieties” in the forms of sacrificial cows and ceremonial offerings, she finds instead “Quite another scene.” Again, the following two stanzas describe the scenes depicted on the shield. This time, she sees a barbed-wire enclosure, where bored sentries and a crowd of detached observers watch as three figures are crucified. “They” have no hope, no pride, and the lines are written so that “they” might be the crucified figures—the crowd, or the sentries, or all three. They have lost their humanity, and “died as men before their bodies died.”

The seventh stanza returns to Thetis and Hephaestos. Thetis looks this time for athletes and dancers, symbols of strength and agility. Instead of a playing field or dance floor, she finds a “weed-choked field.” The only person in that field, as described in stanza 8, is a poor and dirty boy with nowhere to go and nothing to do but idly throw a stone at a bird. The only world he knows is one of rape and murder and betrayal; he knows nothing of tenderness or compassion.

As the poem ends, Hephaestos finishes his work and limps away and Thetis has her first full look at the shield. She is horrified by what she sees, and by the thought that her son will carry representations of violence and cruelty into battle. In the last line of the poem, the narrator points out something that neither Thetis nor Hephaestos knows: that Achilles himself will soon die in the war against Troy.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

The most important rhetorical device in “The Shield of Achilles” is contrast, between what Thetis expects to see on the shield and what she does see, and between the ancient world and the modern world. Three times, Thetis looks over Hephaestos’s shoulder, expecting to see idyllic and pastoral scenes of civilizations enjoying peace and prosperity. The images she expects—olive branches, sacrificial animals ornamented with flowers—are from the classical world, and the language of these stanzas invokes an earlier time, with phrases such as “untamed seas,” “ritual pieties,” “Libation and sacrifice,” and “flickering forge-light.”

The people in Thetis’s imagined scenes are strong, adventurous,...

(The entire section contains 928 words.)

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