The Shield of Achilles

The Shield of Achilles #

W. H. Auden, 1907 - 1973

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer, Hephaestos, hobbled away, Thetis of the shining breasts Cried out in dismay At what the god had wrought To please her son, the strong Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles Who would not live long.

Analysis - Janet Strachan #

The Shield of Achilles W.H. Auden (1952)

Using the dramatic archetypes of Thetis, Hephaestos and Achilles from Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, in a post-World War II context, Auden’s much anthologised poem is famous for its quiet pace, understated feeling and conscious simplicity of diction, all of which give it a moving grandeur.

In the Iliad, Thetis asks Hephaestos (Vulcan in Latin) to make new armour, including a shield, for her son, Achilles after his own armour had been captured by the Trojan Hector son of Priam, King of Troy. Achilles had refused to fight, full of wrath against the leader of the Greek army, King Agamemnon, because the commander in chief had stolen Briseis, Achilles’ slave girl and thus insulted Achilles’ honour. Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus went into battle instead, wearing Achilles’ armour because he thought the sight of it would strike awe into the Trojans. Instead he was killed by Hector and the armour and shield lost. In the Iliad, the detailed description of the shield is a work of art within a work of art (ekphrasis), as it is in Auden’s poem.

When giving readings, Auden used to say that the shield in the Iliad portrayed only beautiful scenes, an exaggeration as there was a besieged city and plenty of slaughter in it. But the world of the Iliad is the world of a warrior culture, inhabited by gods, demi-gods and heroes. The world of Auden’s poem has no heroes, no humanity and no meaning.

The first, fourth, seventh and ninth stanzas use a light-hearted skipping metre and beautiful confident rhymes to tell the story of Thetis looking over Hephaestos’ shoulder (repeated in the first lines of all but the last stanza) as the blacksmith fashions a shield for her son, to protect him in battle but also to reflect an image of the world for which he was fighting. Homer describes the shield’s reflection of a harmonious universe and a cultured, orderly (albeit violent) society.

The expectations of this modern-day Thetis, written during the Cold War with memories of the Holocaust still horribly fresh in living memory, are however to be disappointed, as the world she sees on this shield are of ‘[q]uite a different scene’. The second, third, fifth, sixth and eighth stanzas ironically employ stately and beautiful rhyme royal to paint this ugly alternative world, quite antithetical to Thetis’s expectations. Perhaps Thetis represents all those who expect art to reflect only beauty.

In the first stanza, Thetis looks for a cultivated landscape, an orderly society and symbols of expansion and progress. Instead, in the second and third stanzas, she sees a dark and sterile plain on which a vast and robotic army wait passively to march to their doom in response to fatal and impersonal orders from a disembodied voice.

In the fourth stanza, Thetis looks for signs of religious ceremony and respect for the gods. Instead she witnesses a grotesque parody of the crucifixion in which, with chilling indifference, some concentration camp guards lead three figures out to be tortured, humiliated and killed. With devastating irony, the poet describes how ‘a crowd of ordinary decent folk’ watched this atrocity and did nothing to prevent it.

In the seventh stanza, Thetis looks for signs of civilised activities like athletics, music and dancing. Her hopes are again dashed as all she sees is a boy throwing stones at the birds, a lonely ragged urchin who knows no better as he lives in a brutal world where violence is commonplace and there is no understanding of compassion or human sympathy.

In the final stanza, his work completed, Hephaestos limps away and Thetis cries out ‘in dismay’ when she sees the whole picture he has ‘wrought’ on the shield to please her son. The ending is ambiguous. It might show a glimmer of hope that the ‘iron-hearted’ and ‘man-slaying’ Achilles ‘will not live long’. It may also imply that the beautiful shield offers no protection on the field of battle, just as ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’

Edward Mendelson #

Edward Mendelson gives an overview of his interpretation of the poem.

‘The Shield of Achilles’, the opening poem of the middle section of the book of the same name, has become an anthology piece thanks to its apparently straightforward sentiments against war, cruelty, impersonality and regimentation but the poem is more subtle than its overt sentiments.

Its hidden subject is the way in which impersonal speech makes possible inhuman actions. The stanzas in which Thetis watches Hephaestos create Achilles’ shield report on actions for which neither is personally responsible: until the final stanza (where Hephaestos hobbles away from his creation and Thetis cries out in dismay at it), ‘she’ looks at what ‘his’ hands do, but neither is an ‘I’ or ‘you’ and neither chooses anything.

The shield made by ‘his hands’ portrays equally impersonal scenes of a barren landscape with an army of ‘a million eyes, a million boots’, but no individual persons except for the ‘ragged urchin, aimless and alone’ who lives in a solitude where individuality is meaningless because it can imagine no relations to other individuals.

The poem became popular partly because it could be read as flattering its readers with the assurance that they are not unjust like faceless authorities and violent youths but, as always in later Auden, the poem is a deeply unflattering portrait of the reader as the passive, observing Thetis, and of the poet as the indifferent craftsman Hephaestos, each allowing the worst to happen by their failure to protest against it in first-person speech.

The overt themes of The Shield of Achilles are large matters of war and injustice but the covert themes are Auden’s argument with himself about his art and his relation to it.

Edward Mendelson ‘The European Auden’ in ed. Stan Smith The Cambridge Companion to W.H.Auden, CUP 2004.