Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

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.

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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;...

(The entire section contains 548 words.)

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