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Poetry Analysis:W.H.Auden's “The Shield of Achilles”
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 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.
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 reply
Their’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...
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