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...
(The entire section is 495 words.)