(Author’s note: some of my less-than-stellar academic work, saved on this blog to give me something to laugh at in years to come)
The Shield of Achilles was a poem written by W. H. Auden, first published in 1953, although it also shares this name with a book he had published in 1955. The poem is composed of nine stanzas, with four stanzas composed of eight lines each and the rest made up of seven lines each. The poem can be interpreted as a critique of the perception some people might hold for the glory of war, when in reality it is anything but glorious.
One of the primary devices used in the poem is the use of Contrast, and by extension Duality and Parallelism. This can be easily seen through the two obviously different stanza lengths and metrical measures, but also in the temporal settings and themes—the poem alternates between a scene from the Illiad, set during Classical times, to what could be interpreted as images of the Modern era. Each ‘classical’ scene utilizes the eight-stanza pattern, with the second line rhyming with the fourth and the sixth with the eight, while each scene ostensibly set in the ‘modern’ era use a seven-line form called a rime royal. Another device used is Irony, and although it is not as obvious at first, there is something bitterly ironic about the expectation of one of the poem’s characters for the eponymous Shield compared to the purpose why it was wrought.
The poem begins with a scene from the past. Although it is not directly mentioned at first, it is a scene from the Illiad, where Thetis, the mother of Achilles, watches expectantly as Hephaestus, God of the Forge, makes a shield for her son. In particular, she seems to be anticipating how the shield would be decorated, and given the level of craftsmanship involved, expects a thing of beauty, and as such idyllic scenes spring to her mind (“For vines and olive trees/Marble well-governed cities/and ships upon untamed seas”). This is where the irony makes itself first apparent, as she seems to fail to realize the fact that such decorations would seem awfully out of place on an implement of war. However when she glances over the shoulder of Hephaestus she doesn’t see these, and beholds an altogether different scene (“an artificial wilderness/And a sky like lead”) instead; her expectations were grand in scope, but misplaced.
It is here where the poem first shifts temporally and structurally, juxtaposing the classical scene with a vision of a decidedly bleak image. The scene? A ravaged landscape (a plain without a feature, bare and brown/No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood/Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down) bringing to mind the trampled and barren moonscapes one would expect in those old pictures from World War I or II… Indeed, it could very well be during one of the many confrontations during those conflicts, from Marne to Verdun (the scenes of some of the bloodiest trench warfare during World War I), where armies stared at each other (An unintelligible multitude/A million eyes, a million boots in line/without expression waiting for a sign) over endless plains of barbed wire-lined trenches, tank traps, and mine fields, waiting in dugouts for the sign to go ‘over the top’ and rush across the no-man’s land amidst a hail of bullets and artillery just to come to grips with their enemy. The atmosphere is heavy and cheerless (without expression), as no glory awaited the soldiers, no battle with a worthy adversary, just an ignominious death from a bullet fired from an opponent whose face they would never see.
And the order does come (Out of the air a voice without a face), from voice far from the front lines espousing justice of their side of the conflict (Proved by statistics that some cause was just), which reveals the inherent hypocrisy of some systems of government, where leaders force their countrymen to war yet have never really been exposed to its horrors… But the soldiers do, and yet they’re the ones that can’t do anything about their situation, as being part of the military means that they have to follow the senseless orders (In tones as dry and level as the place: No one was cheered and nothing was discussed) from the leaders of the government they serve. The only sense it made was it was going to, in one way or another, lead to their deaths in a place far from home, but it was an order (They marched away enduring a belief/Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief) and thus had to be followed; a soldier followed their commanders, this much has remained true from the time of Homer.
The poem once more returns to Hephaestus’ workshop, and Thetis still struggling to get a glimpse of the decorations being placed upon the shield. The scope of her imaginings contracts once more, and while less idyllic, they still hold a positive tone, with scenes of piety and worship (White-flower garlanded heifers/Libation and sacrifice). However, through the flickering torchlight of the workshop (which could easily signify the limited perceptions of a person), instead of the altar of worship, another scene unfolds, something decidedly more profane in nature, a clear contrast to what she was hoping for.
The setting once more returns to the present. It’s not entirely clear, but the speaker seems to be describing a place of execution (Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot/where bored officials lounged/And sentries sweated for the day was hot), complete with wordless crowds (watched from without and neither moved nor spoke) and a trio of prisoners being marched to the place where they are to meet their fate. There is a faint echo of the Crucifixion of Christ, with the triumvirate of convicts and the three upright poles that awaited them, but it’s a twisted one, a profane echo of the scene from the Bible, as instead of an inkling of hope, of a possible rebirth, there is none; their lives quite literally lay in the hands of others (Lay in the hands of others; they were small/and could not hope for help and no help came), and one is given the impression that the owners aren’t exactly in the mood to be lenient…or that those at the gallows had any leeway in changing their destiny. The oppressive atmosphere doesn’t help matters, and with the absence of hope there’s no dignity to the spectacle (…they lost their pride/And died as men before their bodies died); one imagines cries and pleas falling upon deaf ears before the end came, and even then there was no guarantee that end was a quick or painless one.
The viewpoint once more returns to Thetis and Hephaestus. Still she expects wondrous things, and again her imaginings lessen in scope, to events more personal, more kinetic, more lively: men and women dancing to a lively tune perhaps, and athletes performing on the field. But yet again her expectations are way off the mark.
Well-moved lawns where competitors perform are not part of the scenes the God of the Forge embosses upon the shield, and instead in the next stanza we are treated to another barren landscape, where weeds are overgrown, and the only soul in sight is an urchin. Far from the symbol of strength and vitality that the athletes represent, he is malnourished, not only in body, but also in spirit (who’d never heard/of any world were promises were kept/or one could weep because another wept); upon seeing a bird, traditionally a symbol of freedom of ideas, and the drive to reach or learn what’s over the horizon, his first impulse is that to stone it, for he was obviously not born from a world that encouraged idealism (That girls were raped, that two boys knife a third), or dreamers.
Eventually, Hephaestus finishes his work, and hobbles away, leaving Thetis to admire his work. It is no surprise that she is dismayed to find that, instead of the idyllic or even idealistic scenes of peacetime activity she had expected, she instead finds scenes of despair. Once more Irony rears its head at her reaction: what better decoration for an implement of war than scenes of war, as well as the results that follow? That she herself doesn’t realize this, that she is more horrified at the decoration on the shield instead of the shield itself, and all the consequences of its use. An even greater irony succeeds this one: the fact that, the recipient of the shield, Achilles, won’t live much longer after receiving it, a victim of the war that his mother could not comprehend.
As mentioned in the beginning, it is easy to see why many readers view the poem as anti-war work. Scenes of peace (what Thetis expects) and war clash in an interesting milieu, in some instances examining the meaning of responsibility, as well as moral hypocrisy, during times of war. Take Thetis for example. The fact that she had a shield, an implement of warfare, made makes her complicit in the slaughter that her son could and would commit on the battlefield, and yet she expects scenes of peace to be embellished upon its surface, where in most instances it would be covered in blood. Much like the politicians that hide behind their rhetoric and political diatribes, espousing concepts like justice or honor and pushing others to war because of those ideals, all the while remaining safe far from the front lines…They are as much responsible for the slaughter that commences as the soldiers pulling the trigger, virtually faceless and innumerable masses whose individualism were suppressed for dubious ends.