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.

In various Ancient Greek myths, Hephaestus was disabled from birth, after being thrown from the heavens by Zeus for ratting. He was known as the divine artificer for his metal working.

This faithful reworking or adaptation comes from Homer’s The Iliad Achilles chooses a short heroic life over a long uneventful one, so his mother Thetis, in an attempt to thwart is fate, dips him into the river Styx to make him invulnerable and later has Haphaestus make him the best shield possible. So as to not get her fingers wet, Thetis
neglected to submerge Achilles' heel, leaving it vulnerable for a poisoned arrow shot by Paris from the safety of Troy’s Walls.

According to Srimay Sinha -

Both in form and content, Auden’s innovations in “The Shield of Achilles”, written in 1952, is brilliant. It is a mock-heroic lyric, divided into three parts and each part consists of three stanzas. The opening stanzas are shorter in length and incantatory with frequent Homeric echoes. The later stanzas have longer lines and are written in iambic Pentameter, however lack the lyrical quality of the initial stanzas. Auden employs the classical myth of Achilles and his shield to bring out the contrast between the heroic past and unheroic present. This technique of using myth is popularized by T.S.Eliot to comment on the modern desolation. Auden, thus does not use Greco-Roman mythology to glorify his subject matter, he is not celebrating any kind of Utopia, rather presents a dystopia.

Utopia is what Thetis, the mother of Achilles, hopes to see depicted on the shield of Achilles being made by Hephaestos. Dystopia lies in what is actually depicted by Hephaestos on the shield. The use of myth enables the poet to juxtapose the past with the present where the past serves as a running commentary on the present. In the first part of the poem, the binary is very clear between Achilles’ shield on which >

Marble well-governed cities/ And ships upon untamed seas’ is painted, and the shield of contemporary society: ‘No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,/ Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,’

Stan Smith explains that since Hephaestos effects a ‘transformation of pain and disorder into art ‘ the opens up ‘a division between the beauty of the representation and the ugliness it represents’. According to Niladri Ranjan Chatterjee this poem attacks the Keatsean notion of Beauty being truth and Truth being Beauty. Auden sees Thetis as someone who expects ‘beauty’ to be the ‘truth’. Lucy McDiarmid suggests that what Thetis expects to see on the shield not only is not depicted but cannot be depicted, because she invests her pretty images with an aesthetic quality which implies a spiritual presence. Hephaestos refuses to present any kind of comforting correlation with the aesthetic and the spiritual, because art cannot depict spirituality. So if there is a spiritual presence in the poem it is there by virtue of its absence. Mcdairmid speaks of the rhetorical form of praeterito (saying something while maintaining that it cannot be said).

From: (“(DOC) Auden | Srimay Sinha -”)