W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” is a nine-stanza poem that uses an episode from Homer’s ancient Greek epic Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1616) to meditate on the violence and brutality of the modern world. The poem begins with an unnamed woman looking over the shoulder of an unnamed man; the two are named in the last stanza, but those who know the Iliad well will immediately recognize from the poem’s title that the woman is the goddess Thetis, the mother of the Greek hero Achilles. The man over whose shoulder she looks is Hephaestos, the god of fire and metal-working, who is commissioned by Thetis in book 18 of the Iliad to make a shield for Achilles to carry into battle. In the first stanza, Thetis looks to see how Hephaestos is decorating the shield. Expecting to see conventional symbols of victory and power, she sees instead that Hephaestos has used images of “an artificial wilderness” and a “sky like lead.” The next two stanzas depict in sharper detail the images engraved or embossed on the shield: a barren plain filled with expressionless people standing in line, “waiting for a sign.” As they stand, a voice comes from above declaring the justice of “some cause.” Without discussion or reflection, the people march away in lines to serve that cause, which eventually brings them to grief. In the fourth stanza, the poem returns to Thetis. Where she expects to see “ritual pieties” in the forms of sacrificial cows and ceremonial offerings, she finds instead “Quite another scene.” Again, the following two stanzas describe the scenes depicted on the shield. This time, she sees a barbed-wire enclosure, where bored sentries and a crowd of detached observers watch as three figures are crucified. “They” have no hope, no pride, and the lines are written so that “they” might be the crucified figures—the crowd, or the sentries, or all three. They have lost their humanity, and “died as men before their bodies died.” The seventh stanza returns to Thetis...
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