The Poem

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

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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.”

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, pious, and happy. The actual images on the shield, however, are quite different. The landscape is bleak and infertile, and the people are without emotion or hope. Far from dancing and competing in athletic games, they stand silently, blankly, or they march in columns without passion or reason. Instead of “well-governed cities” she sees an “unintelligible multitude”; instead of “ritual pieties” she sees a crucifixion that clearly echoes Christ’s, with an audience of uncaring observers; instead of athletes and dancers gathered in celebration, she sees one lone boy. The plain language and imagery of barbed wire and statistics in these passages set them in the modern world.

Auden emphasizes these contrasts by using two different stanza forms. Stanzas 1, 4, 7, and 9 are set squarely in ancient Greece, and the reader’s gaze is directed toward Thetis and Hephaestos. These stanzas are composed of eight three-stress lines; the second and fourth lines rhyme, as do the sixth and eighth. The other stanzas, in which the scenes of modern life are presented in detail, are quite different. These stanzas are in the seven-line form known as rime royal. The lines are in iambic pentameter, with the rhyme scheme ababbcc. The contrast is striking, both visually and aurally, and it is impossible not to notice the movement between stanzas focused on Thetis’s innocent expectations and those focused on the harsh realities depicted on the shield.

Irony is another important device used in the poem. Thetis does not see it, but it is ironic that she would expect a shield, an instrument of war, to be decorated with images of pastoral beauty. Her son is a soldier, an “iron-hearted man-slaying” hero, yet she is dismayed at the idea that Hephaestos would create images of desolation and ruin to please him. By commissioning a weapon she becomes complicit in acts of war and aggression, yet she responds with horror to the physical, social, and spiritual destruction that is the only possible result.