English Literature
The Shield of Achilles

The Shield of Achilles

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The Universal Themes in "The Shield of Achilles" by W.H. Auden

The ancient Trojan War and modern warfare may seem worlds apart, but British-American poet W.H. Auden reveals the shared elements of politics, desolation, and death in his powerful poem, "The Shield of Achilles." With a thought-provoking reimagination of Homer's The Iliad, Auden sheds light on the inhumanity and suffering that define war, using the mighty shield of Achilles as a symbol of barbarity, brutality, and devastation.

A Closer Look at "The Shield of Achilles"

Originally published in 1952, "The Shield of Achilles" was later named the title poem of W.H. Auden's 1955 collection, earning him the National Book Award in 1956. It was written during the later years of his career, when he focused on theology and Christianity. Auden was born in 1907 in England and studied at Oxford, greatly influenced by Marxist and psychoanalytical theories. He was also well-known for his collaborations with friend and sexual partner Christopher Isherwood.

Some saw Auden's move to America in 1939 as a betrayal, believing he was running away from World War II. However, the truth is that he attempted to enlist in the United States Army, but was rejected due to his sexual orientation. After the war, he was recruited by the U.S. Army's Strategic Bombing Survey to investigate the effects of Allied bombing on German cities. His experiences during the war and the Spanish Civil War greatly influenced his views on war.

"The Shield of Achilles" was written after World War II and during the Cold War, reflecting Auden's anti-war sentiment in the face of the destruction he had witnessed.

A Summary of "The Shield of Achilles"

In "The Shield of Achilles," Auden puts his own spin on the classic Greek myth of Achilles. Like in Homer's Iliad, Achilles' mother, Thetis - a sea-goddess - asks Hephaestus to create armor for her son. However, in Auden's version, Hephaestus portrays war as a desolate and dehumanizing force. His depiction includes millions of soldiers, ready to die in a barren landscape of barbed wire and destruction, with apathetic officials overseeing it all. Thetis is left horrified, realizing that her son will soon meet his end.

An Analysis of "The Shield of Achilles"

The poem makes extensive use of literary devices, such as allusion, ekphrasis, and juxtaposition, to create a stark contrast between the romanticized notion of war and its harsh reality. Symbolism, similes, and repetition also play a significant role in conveying the poem's central themes.


Auden uses allusions to Greek mythology throughout the poem, starting with the title and continuing through the various characters. These characters are only fully revealed in the final stanza, where the speaker notes that Hephaestus, with his thin lips, hobbles away, leaving Thetis - with her gleaming breasts - crying out in dismay at the god's creation. The speaker then reveals the intended owner of the shield - the iron-hearted, man-slaying Achilles, who will not live long (lines 60-67).

The use of allusions in literature, such as The Iliad, adds depth and complexity to the writing by referencing familiar subjects, events, or figures in an indirect manner. In The Iliad, the legendary warrior Achilles is renowned for his extraordinary strength and prowess in the Trojan War. Despite his seemingly invincibility, his demise was ultimately caused by a single vulnerable spot: his heel. This event has since become a popular allusion, representing a person's sole weakness.

By reimagining the famous shield of Achilles, Auden's "The Shield of Achilles" serves as a thought-provoking commentary on the devastating effects of war, highlighting the desolation, inhumanity, and death that are common elements in both ancient and modern forms of warfare. Through his use of powerful imagery and literary devices, Auden's poem continues to resonate with audiences, serving as a reminder of the consequences of violence and inhumanity.

The Mythological Allusions in The Iliad and Their Analysis

The tale of Achilles and his tragic downfall is intertwined with the stories of two Greek gods, Hephaestus and Thetis. Hephaestus, the god of fire, was known for his ability to forge weapons and armor for the Olympian deities. Thetis, a mortal hero and goddess of water, was also known as the mother of Achilles. In ancient times, Hephaestus was believed to be the son of Hera, but thrown off Mount Olympus due to his physical deformities. However, another version claims that he was exiled by Zeus for defending his mother, Hera. Regardless, Thetis rescues Hephaestus and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, Hephaestus forges Achilles' armor, while Thetis makes him nearly invincible by dipping him in the River Styx, holding onto his heel. This explains why Achilles' heel is his only weakness despite his otherwise unbeatable armor.The theme of maternal protection is prominent in The Iliad, as Thetis is portrayed as a powerful and caring deity, fiercely devoted to her mortal son. The inclusion of Thetis and Achilles' relationship adds depth and significance to their characters, contributing to the themes of mortality, heroism, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child.Another significant allusion in The Iliad is the comparison to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The sacrifices made by soldiers in the name of war and glory are likened to the death of Jesus and the two criminals crucified with him. The soldiers, driven by political motivations in the Trojan War, suffer the same fate as Jesus did for being seen as a political threat. This allusion highlights the senselessness of war and its destructive consequences on individuals and society.The Iliad can also be viewed as an ekphrasis, a literary form that vividly describes a piece of art, whether real or imaginary. Homer's original depiction of Achilles' shield, symbolizing glory and nobility, is contrasted with W.H. Auden's interpretation. In Auden's version, the shield portrays a desolate plain devoid of life or vegetation, with a vast and indifferent army assembled in uniform lines. This striking comparison between the two descriptions highlights the underlying tensions and themes of the poem, such as the glorification of war versus its harsh reality.The use of juxtaposition in The Iliad is also significant, as it emphasizes the stark contrast between Thetis' idealized view of war and the brutal reality shown on the shield. This juxtaposition highlights themes of disillusionment and the devastating effects of war on individuals and society.In conclusion, the allusions used in The Iliad, including the Achilles' heel, add complexity and depth to the story, exploring themes of mortality, heroism, maternal protection, and the futility of war. The inclusion of allusions, along with the utilization of ekphrasis and juxtaposition, contributes to the overall impact and significance of this epic poem.

The Significance of Barbed Wire in "The Shield of Achilles"

In W.H. Auden's poem, "The Shield of Achilles," the speaker uses powerful metaphors to critique modern warfare and the indifference of leaders towards the suffering of soldiers. The symbol of barbed wire, often associated with defense and imprisonment, represents the cruel reality of war and the control of those in power over the lives of ordinary people. Through anachronism, metaphor, and repetition, Auden paints a bleak picture of war and society.

Anachronism: the use of something from a different time period than the one in which it actually exists

Throughout the poem, the speaker utilizes anachronism to comment on the nature of war. The reference to the Holocaust, where barbed wire was used to surround and terrorize prisoners, links the barbarity of modern warfare to a time of great suffering and inhumanity. This highlights the speaker's true target: the leaders who sit comfortably while their soldiers bear the brunt of war.

Metaphor: a comparison of two unlike things

The use of metaphor in "The Shield of Achilles" emphasizes the power dynamics in war. The phrase "the hands of others" controlling the mass and majesty of the world represents the imbalance of power between those in authority and the ordinary people at their mercy. This metaphor also serves as a commentary on the larger societal structures where the actions of a few control the fate of many.

Repetition: the use of the same phrase or words for emphasis

The repetition of the line "She looked over his shoulder" serves as a haunting reminder of the true nature of war. Each time the goddess looks, she is met with devastation and destruction, undermining her hopes for a positive outcome. This repetition highlights the brutal and inhumane nature of war, regardless of the time period or the justifications used by those in power.

The Bleak Reality of War in "The Shield of Achilles"

Auden's use of simile in the poem adds to the dark and mournful tone. The description of the sky as an "artificial wilderness" and "like lead" symbolizes death and destruction, emphasizing the inescapable nature of war. The comparison of the sky to the toxic metal used in bullets further highlights the grim reality of war and its consequences. As the poem progresses, the tone only becomes darker, reflecting the devastating effects of war.

Simile: a comparison using the words "like" or "as"

"The Shield of Achilles" presents a bleak commentary on war, society, and the dehumanizing effects of violence. Through powerful literary devices, Auden exposes the horrors of war and the apathy towards its victims. The poem serves as a chilling reminder of the consequences of war, both on the soldiers who fight and the civilians who are caught in the crossfire.

Themes in "The Shield of Achilles"

"The Shield of Achilles" delves into the themes of war, apathy, and the dehumanizing effects of violence. The poem highlights the commonplace nature of war and the far-reaching consequences it has on soldiers and civilians alike. Auden's use of vivid imagery paints a harrowing picture of the devastation caused by war and the indifference of those in positions of power.

Apathy in the Face of Violence

The poem also explores the theme of apathy towards violence. The indifferent reactions of bystanders and Thetis, the mother of Achilles, highlight how easily people turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in times of war. The loss of innocence and dignity for women and children in war-torn cities is portrayed through the image of an orphaned child, representing the dehumanizing effects of war on all aspects of life.

Uncovering the True Meaning of Auden's "The Shield of Achilles""The Shield of Achilles," a renowned poem by British-American poet W. H. Auden, is a powerful commentary on the devastating effects of war. Drawing from his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, Auden masterfully uses mythical imagery to convey his anti-war message.Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, where the fear of nuclear weapons loomed heavily over civilians and soldiers, "The Shield of Achilles" exposes the destructive and dehumanizing nature of modern warfare. The poem challenges the glorification of war and reveals the true cost of human life in the pursuit of power.Thetis, a symbol of powerful leaders who seek glory through military strength, represents the apathy and indifference towards violence in the pursuit of power. This mirrors the actions of world leaders during the Cold War, where their desire for glory blinded them to the devastating consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, ordinary people were left to fear the consequences of these leaders' actions.Published in 1952, "The Shield of Achilles" remains a powerful reminder of the true cost of war. Auden's words paint a chilling picture of war as a force that invades every aspect of life, leaving nothing but destruction in its wake. This poem serves as a poignant critique of modern warfare and a call to always question the motives behind it.Auden's "The Shield of Achilles" challenges our perception of war and its glorification, serving as a timeless reminder of its true destructive nature. As warfare continues to plague our world, this poem stands as a powerful plea for peace and unity. Let us never forget the human cost of conflict and strive towards a more peaceful and compassionate world.

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