The Shield of Achilles

by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

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Throughout a long career as a poet, Auden returned again and again to three themes that appear in “The Shield of Achilles”: the spiritual emptiness that arises from oppressive government, the essential loneliness of modern individuals, and the ultimate hope of redemption provided by the Christian God. As a child in England during the Great Depression and then as a young man in the United States during World War II, Auden saw many examples of the mindless acts and hopeless figures that he places on Achilles’s shield, but he found in Christianity a way to escape the despair that arises from life on Earth. In much of his poetry, Auden attempted to speak universal truths that might change the world. He rejected grand but ultimately artificial language and wrote about the world outside rather than about his interior life and personal struggles.

Auden worked for a short time as a political propagandist in Spain during that country’s civil war, and he saw at first hand that modern totalitarian governments are capable of stripping away the humanity of their citizens. During the 1930’s, much of Auden’s writing was overtly political, concerned directly with the rise of fascism and the possibilities for justice offered by socialism and Marxism. Over time, however, he came to see that fighting oppression with oppression, or fighting violence with violence, destroyed everyone involved. Unlike Thetis, he came to see that even a just cause can be corrupted when those who support it use evil means.

The modern figures in “The Shield of Achilles” are faceless and voiceless. They are not individuals, but rather packs or multitudes, and they have no ideas of their own; they wait for orders and follow them, without thinking or arguing, reduced to nothing but “a million eyes, a million boots.” The only person who is seen individually in the modern sections of the poem is the “ragged urchin,” who is not a part of a multitude but completely alone. He has nothing particular to do, and no one to wonder where he is; seeing a bird, a thing of beauty in a desolate landscape, his first impulse is to throw a stone at it. This is what the modern world has created: a child who has never known love, who has no reason to expect loyalty or compassion. He is the product of Thetis, who even as she watches the creation of a weapon expects to see images of beauty and peace.

Auden was not hopeless, in spite of the bleak picture he presents of the world. He believed that meaning and purpose could be found in Christianity, and he placed a reminder of that hope within the poem. Although the guards and the “ordinary decent folk” watching the three figures being crucified are unmoved by what they see, the figures are clearly representations of Christ and the two men crucified with him. Christ’s ultimate sacrifice brought hope back to a despairing world and demonstrated the eternal presence of God’s love. Though the culture of violence and oppression may crush the spirit, for Auden the possibility of redemption offered by God is always present. The lone bird can still fly “up to safety,” and the poet can induce the reader to “weep because another wept.”

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