Classically Inclined

October 18, 2012

The Shield of Achilles

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:06 am
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I recently sat down and read through The Shield of Achilles, a slim volume of poetry by W. H. Auden that won the 1956 National Book Award for Poetry, drawn in by the classical title (and a sense of vague inadequacy that I had not previously read any Auden). It’s a lovely little collection, organised into three sequences of poems, each poem with its own style and meter. The first group, titled Bucolics, clearly sees itself as the descendant of Virgil’s Georgics and the tradition of bucolic poetry; every poem praises a different part of the natural world – Winds, Woods, Mountains and so on. The third group plays with the sequence of liturgical hours and walks through the process of a Good Friday (perhaps, sometimes, maybe, the Good Friday). The middle group, In Sunshine and In Shade, does not have quite such an obvious uniting theme, but tends towards examining modern mankind through an ancient lens.

With that in mind, I want to look at the first poem of the In Sunshine and In Shade grouping, the eponymous Shield of Achilles poem – I’ll quote the text, and then make a very few comments on it, as in the main it speaks for itself.

The Shield of Achilles – W. H. Auden

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.


For those who have looked into Chapman’s Homer, this poem obviously reworks the famous armour-creation scene in book eighteen of the Iliad, where Hephaestos forges the Shield of Achilles and the reliefs upon its surface on Thetis’ request. This particular passage has been a bit of a crux for scholarly interpretation, not least because Homer’s shield of Achilles is actually impossible to draw (not that people haven’t tried, mind). There’s too much going on, the images don’t match up to what you can get on a shield, the description looks nothing like any other description of shields in the Iliad or the Odyssey. It’s one of the best known examples of ecphrasis in ancient poetry, and is the model for later classical poets to do similar kinds of descriptions in their works; Auden’s deliberately chosen a very well-worn poetic trope here.

There’s also a lot of discussion about what Homer wanted the shield to represent. The description includes plenty of scenes of happy bucolic life which feel incongruous in the middle of a poem about brutal warfare. The world of the shield does include signs of death, destruction and strife, although other things (poverty, trade and religion, for instance) are absent – but it’s a full world in balance rather than the battlefield of the poem as a whole. It’s been argued that this description of life continuing as normal outside the world of war helps readers contextualise the Iliad and remember that it’s only one microscopic part of a much wider world. It also provides a meta-comment on the poem itself – it functions as a stand-in, a substitute for the Iliad, making Hephaestus a Homer-parallel, both artworks dealing with warfare and human relations.

I’d argue that Auden was very aware of the balance that Homer brought into his description of the shield – because in this poem, he abandons it, and Thetis searches in vain for those scenes of cities and dancing floors, life as usual. The comment appears to be that in the modern world, there isn’t a normal life carrying on outside warfare. War is absolute, and taints all parts of life – there is no bucolic escape out of the battle. There is no joy. There is no relief or hope. And are we to read Auden himself into the thin-lipped Hephaestos at the end of the poem, a comment on the sort of person who must write the sort of poetry Auden writes? Perhaps. But the sense of the shortness and brutality of life captured in the tragic death of Achilles, the unspoken sadness of the Iliad and of Thetis, here is foreshadowed rather than forestalled. Auden knows his Homer well enough to have more than a feeling that we’re not in Ilium any more, and isn’t afraid to make use of the intertext.


  1. My English professor spoke of the poem as a critique of the heroism of modernists, and there’s probably a whole lot more to it. Interesting read, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Andreas — October 18, 2012 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  2. I hadn’t come across this poem before, thanks for posting it. I think there’s a nod to book 24 of the Iliad at the end of the penultimate stanza. Do you know Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’? One of my favourite poems with a classical allusion.

    Comment by annareeve — October 18, 2012 @ 10:49 am | Reply

  3. This bring back happy memories of tutorials with the great Oliver Taplin, who got us to read the Auden when ‘doing’ Iliad XV111; also Simone Weil. Such a relief from the dead hand of Parryology, then in vogue.

    Comment by Francis FitzGibbon QC — October 18, 2012 @ 11:22 am | Reply

  4. It’s for sure an unheroic world pictured on this shield, the world of fascist Spain, of Nazi Germany, of Orwell’s 1984, a black and white Goya-world, a world in which a man pisses himself in terror of his imminent death–and then Achilles himself, a counter and in a bizarre way, a completion of the urchin–some kind of evil, hardened, debased version of a Dickens orphan–Achilles, robotic, formulaic, the inhuman man who will, for a moment with Priam at the very end, feel that he and the old man both understand the absurd life they’re living, but there’s nothing to do but keep living it, for it’s the only game in town.

    Comment by ed hack — September 25, 2013 @ 5:22 am | Reply

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