The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 433 words.)