Shield of Achilles by Auden Essay
Analysis of W.H.Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”.
“The Shield of Achilles” belongs to W.H.Auden’s collection The Shield of Achilles published in 1955The classical myth of Achilles is employed by Auden to exemplify the contrast between the valiant past and unheroic present. The myth of the past is juxtaposed with the reality of the present. The classical world is set against modernity. Monroe.K.Spears asserts that the shield symbolizes images of the human condition.
The poem portrays the insignificance of Life devoid of conviction. The poem thematically is quite similar to Eliot’s “Wasteland” in its depiction of a world devoid of principles and ethics, that in its march for success has lost the true meaning as echoed in phrases like “an unintelligible multitude”, ”column by column in a cloud of dust”. etc. The Homeric myth is rendered into an allegory of the contemporary times.A conceptual construct drives us from myth to reality, where reality is supposed to demythify myths. It is Auden’s disgust at the totalitarian regime of the modern world where the individual is relegated.
The Achillean world serves as his mouthpiece to comment on the stagnation of the Modern world. Thetis, the mother of Achilles looks at the shield of Achilles that was hanging over his shoulder, Achilles is the celebrated Greek warrior of the Trojan War. The shield at once acts as an emblem of art, and a historian, in that it reflects the civilization of a certain time. It was specially made for Achilles by Haphaestous, the blacksmith of the Gods . The mother searches for: For vines and olive trees,Marble well-governed citiesAnd ships upon untamed seas,But there on the shining metal His hands had put insteadAn artificial wildernessAnd a sky like lead.It reflects the hollowness and futility of a life that verges on nothingness. The word artificial points to the superficiality of this sort of life.
The sky like ‘lead’ echoes the metallic, frigid and cold human behaviour. The plain is without any feature, it has no individuality. There is no blade of grass-no vegetation and therefore it is barren. No sign of neighbourhood-no communion.
In an era of competition, people have a shortage for the basic amenities of living. What foregrounds the background to Thetis is a multitude of soldiers. The soldiers waits for the command of their leader.
They are an “unintelligible multitude” just like a herd of cattle no ability to rationally think or speculate. They are “without expression”: without the power to communicate. The modern life is one that is based on logic and reasoning.It is characterized by lack of sentiment. Just as the tone was ‘dry and level’.
The issue for war was not discussed with the multitude-it was an authoritarian assessment. Statistics was enough to prove that the cause was just. The face ordering the same is not visible either, he has no identity, is a construct by himself. The line: “No one was cheered and nothing was discussed” echoes Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: Their’s not to make a replyTheir’s not to reason why,Their’s but to do and die.
Thetis searched the shield for scenes of Greek life as depicted on Keats’ Grecian urn. The phrase ’white flower garlanded heifer” echoes the same. The term ‘ritual pities’ reflects the same.
The ‘libation’ refers to the pouring fourth of wine in honour of a God. In their flickering forge-light, in the dim light of the blacksmith’s workshop, she observes yet another scene. The scene is of a concentration camp where prisoners of war are kept. Officers cracked jokes to while away the time. The enemy soldiers amidst of such callousness are captured and tied to three stakes and killed.
The irreverence of the picture, is a reminder of the crucifixion of Christ filled with overwhelming reverence. The modern society with the loss of religious conviction is juxtaposed against an act that is emblematic of the redemption of mankind. The image depicted here is a travesty of Christ’s ordeal. The claustrophobia of confinement and enslavement is referred to in the line: “Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot.” The people of the world are cheated by the so-called commander into the logic of their reason.Little did the common people comprehend that though they were small in comparison, nothing could be done without their acceptance.
They could not hope for help, and therefore no help came. Nevertheless, redemption lay in their own hands. They die before their bodies, as their self-respect is crushed under the totalitarian forces. She looks for athletes at their games, and men and women in dance rhythmically swaying their limbs to the beat of the music. But in the reflective shield that he held there was no such ‘healthy’ images, but only those of decay and decomposition-“a weed-choked field”.
What one is finally left with is aimless, impulsive peoplese out o hurt each other for no reason at all.Just like the ‘ragged urchin’ mentioned. People regress into primitivism and develop an animal-instinct. Unwarranted violence,rape,broken promises and lack of humanity was the order of the contemporary times. Hephaestos is the god of fire and metal-smith who made the shield of Achilles.
Thetis, the mother of Achilles cries out in despair at the thought of the inevitability of death, at the idea of the death of her son. “The strong/ Iron-hearted man” referred to in the poem is Paris destined to slay Achilles. War, a metaphor of life, where people are caught in the race of survival of the fittest, spares no one and one eventually succumbs to the same.02.
1952She looked over his shoulder For vines and olive trees,Marble well-governed citiesAnd ships upon untamed seas,But there on the shining metalHis hands had put insteadAn artificial wildernessAnd 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, stoodAn unintelligible multitude,A million eyes, a million boots in line,Without expression, waiting for a sign.Out of the air a voice without a faceProved by statistics that some cause was justIn tones as dry and level as the place:No one was cheered and nothing wasdiscussed;Column by column in a cloud of dustThey marched away enduring a beliefWhose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.She looked over his shoulderFor ritual pieties,White flower-garlanded heifers,Libation and sacrifice,But there on the shining metalWhere the altar should have been,She saw by his flickering forge-lightQuite another scene.Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spotWhere bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)And sentries sweated for the day was hot:A crowd of ordinary decent folkWatched from without and neither moved nor spokeAs three pale figures were led forth and boundTo three posts driven upright in the ground.The mass and majesty of this world, allThat carries weight and always weighs the sameLay in the hands of others; they were smallAnd could not hope for help and no help came:What their foes like to do was done, their shameWas all the worst could wish; they lost their prideAnd died as men before their bodies died.She looked over his shoulderFor athletes at their games,Men and women in a danceMoving their sweet limbsQuick, quick, to music,But there on the shining shieldHis hands had set no dancing-floorBut a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,Loitered about that vacancy; a birdFlew 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 heardOf any world where promises were kept,Or one could weep because another wept.The thin-lipped armorer,Hephaestos,hobbled away,Thetis of the shining breastsCried out in dismayAt what the god had wroughtTo please her son, the strongIron-hearted man-slaying AchillesWho would not live long.03.Achilles is the Greek hero and the protagonist of Homer’s military epic the “Iliad.” Homer chronicles in great detail and in a grand manner the heroic deeds of Achilles during the Trojan war.
During the course of the war, Achilles had lost his armour after lending it to his dearest friend Patroclus who was killed in the war by Hector. Achilles’ mother Thetis asks the blacksmith of the gods, Hephaestus to make new armour for Achilles. The new shield which Hephaestus made for Achilles is described in great detail by Homer in Book 18, lines 478-608 of the “Iliad.” It is a classic example of an ‘ekphrasis’ or ‘ecphrasis,’ that is, a dramatic and vivid description of a visual art.
Homer describes vividly the images which decorate the shield in nine concentric circles or layers. There are various interpretations to the images found on the shield, but what is central to the images is the all comprehensive variety, vitality and fecundity of human life in general. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” (1953) is his direct ‘modern’ response to Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield. The numerical symbolism of the nine layers or concentric circles of Homer’s Achilles’ shield is mirrored in W.
H.Auden’s poem which has nine stanzas.To quote from the refernce link of enotes: “Stanzas 1, 4, 7, and 9 are set squarely in ancient Greece, and the reader’s gaze is directed toward Thetis and Hephaestos.
These stanzas are composed of eight three-stress lines; the second and fourth lines rhyme, as do the sixth and eighth. The other stanzas, in which the scenes of modern life are presented in detail, are quite different. These stanzas are in the seven-line form known as rime royal. The lines are in iambic pentameter, with the rhyme scheme ababbcc. The contrast is striking, both visually and aurally, and it is impossible not to notice the movement between stanzas focused on Thetis’s innocent expectations and those focused on the harsh realities depicted on the shield.” In Homer’s “Iliad” war although destructive had a certain grandeur and larger than life appeal.
On the contrary, Auden’s three (a platoon of soldiers going out to battle, three men being executed, and “a ragged urchinaimless and alone”) images cynically describe the meaninglessness and futility of modern day warfare and life in general “where promises were [not] kept.”