The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden: Summary

The Shield of Achilles is composed by W.H. Auden in 1955 where he represents the Homeric theme in a mock-heroic way making necessary changes. Thetis, the mother of Achilles, in Greek mythology, looks at the shield hung over the shoulder of her son.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

The shield was made by Hephaestus, the Greek blacksmith of gods, for Achilles during the Trojan War. She had expected to see olive trees and vines and marble cities and ships on windy seas carved on the shields but Hephaestus has made it quite different. He forged “an artificial wilderness” under a leaden sky. The plain is shown bare and brown, but a big mass of boots stand ready for war. There are depiction of the artificial and deserted life of the contemporary wasteland without anything to eat or a shelter. This is the modern wasteland, full of puppets like people who are unable to think for themselves, and unconsciously follow their leaders' and rulers. They are all hollow within. The speaker over the radio speaks in an impersonal voice proving statistics that their cause is just for the war, and so persuade them to go to the war.

Thetis wanted to see the scenes of religious piety carved on her son’s shield, but there is barbed wire encloses a military camp in “an arbitrary spot,” and civilians watch from a distance some pale faced prisoners are being punished. The prisoners died before their bodies died. The crucifixion of the Christ was necessary for the regeneration and redemption of mankind. But the massacre of the innocent people in the name of war or any form of violence does not bear any significance. These acts of haphazard killings are signs of spiritual degeneration of the modern people.

In the third stanza, Thetis looks for the people enjoying dance and music but she finds carvings of growing weeds where a poor child is alone throwing stones at birds, a girl being raped, boys killing each other. The children have never heard of love and harmony not even human sympathy. Modern life is shown so brutal and beasty that Thetis cries in horror at the end of the poem.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden: Summary." BachelorandMaster, 3 July 2017,