‘The Shield of Achilles’, based on Homer’s Iliad refers to the shield used by Achilles when he fought against Hector. Hephaestus, the Greek God of blacksmiths made the shield that represented the world of God and men in nine concentric circles. Similarly, the poem has nine stanzas. However, these verses are juxtapositions between ancient Greece and contemporary world. Therefore, Auden alternates between a ballad style, iambic pentameter and rhythm royal to signify change between past and present. Through an anti-thesis of expectation versus reality, Auden brings to light themes of modern day warfare, despair, immorality and makes us question our heroes.
The poem begins with Thetis, Achilles’ mother looking over the shoulder of Hephaestus as he crafted the shield, expecting ‘vines and olive trees’, peace, prosperity, opulence and adventure. However, any hope for ‘ships upon untamed seas’ lay under dark, foreboding clouds in ‘a sky like lead’.
Auden mentions this ‘artificial wilderness’ to bridge a description of empty wastelands after war. These lands were ‘bare and brown’, devoid of vegetation. Yet ironically, an ‘unintelligible multitude’ of innocent men were assembled without any ‘sign of neighbourhood’; frightened, obedient soldiers. The voice of a nameless authority rose in a tone as ‘dry and level as the place’. Without any cheers or discussion, the soldiers almost submissively marched forth. The men become as nameless and faceless as the statistics that justify their vague cause. Just like a mother blinded by the love for her son, soldiers are found blindly ‘enduring a belief’, oblivious to the reality.
Thetis hoped for ‘ritual pieties’, ‘libation and sacrifice’ to the Greek Gods. However instead of any divine blessings, Hephaestus was creating a scene as morbid as concentration camps. Within the ‘barbed wire’ of such camps, lay the bloodiest, brutal cruelties. Auden juxtaposes apathetic ‘bored officials’ cracking jokes beside a silent crowd of enslaved German Jews. This censure on bureaucracy is also found in other works such as ‘Refugee Blues’. The innocent, ‘decent folk’ watched as three men were led to their graves. This Biblical allusion to Jesus who was killed along with two others possibly suggests how religious insensitivity is lost and how the Jews didn’t die as martyrs but as victims. The ‘mass and majesty’ of the human soul lay in the hands of fanatics. In the camps, all hope was lost and ‘no help came’. Such cruel enslavement killed any spirit, pride and dignity. Just like the wastelands, Hephaestus was crafting a ‘weed choked field’ foreshadowing Achilles’ fate while Thetis hoped for athletes and dancers. Auden clever depiction of dancing ‘sweet limbs’ is a contrast to the ‘a million boots’ of marching soldiers.
Auden returns to the blank landscape as described in the beginning. A scruffy young boy walked around ‘aimless and alone’ in this loss of community. Exposed to warfare, rape and murder were ‘axioms to him’. Auden depicts the casualties of war, displaced children orphans, and the psychological trauma endured. It is a tragedy of how men foolishly deprive themselves of ‘a world where promises were kept’ or where ‘one could weep because another wept’. The only world the boy knows is a violent one. It is unsurprising when although bored and loitering, he throws ‘a well aimed stone’ to a bird, ready to inflict pain on a harmless creature.
In the end, Hephaestus hobbled away ‘thin lipped’ for the shield had spoken for itself. The hopeful Thetis ‘cried out in dismay’ for what she saw the prophecy of her son ‘who would not live long’. Though the shield is never described, the badlands and bleak landscapes described by Auden suggest that that was what the armourer was depicting all along. Hephaestus was not only depicting Achilles’ fate but also man’s and how there is only a dark end to conquest and violence. The description of soldiers is critique on blind obedience and passivity. Perhaps the lack of dialogue throughout the poem helps represent the danger of silence. Auden also makes us question our heroes such as Achilles’ in relation to the glorification of war. Where is the nobility in ‘man-slaying’ acts? We call our heroes ‘iron-hearted’ but perhaps their hearts are just made of stone.
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