The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden: Critical Appreciation

"The Shield of Achilles" is the title poem in the volume of poems entitled The Shield of Achilles, published in 1955. The lyric is divided into three parts, and each part consists of three stanzas. Thus, there are nine stanzas in all. It is a fine lyrical poem in which Auden puts the classical myth of Achilles and his shield to the service of his art as a modern poet to bring out the contrast between the heroic past and the unheroic present. Auden's handling of the myth is dexterous and highly appropriate in underlying the desolation, cruelty and uninspiring barrenness of the contemporary scene.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

"The Shield of Achilles" derived its theme front the Iliad. Auden represents the Homeric theme in a mock-heroic way, making necessary changes in conformity with the tone. The shield represents imagery in art which the artist displays. The viewer is the people here. The view of life presented is controlled by dictators ruling over multitudes of common men. The ceremonies in Homer are reproduced in a mockery of crucifixion organized by officials and witnessed by people and the act is a deliberate mockery of human dignity.

Thetis searches for the mythical rites in pieties in vain. The sight of three people led to the spot of execution, watched by an apathetic crowd, is a mockery of the situation of crucifixion. The situation that follows the execution is intensely mocking.  A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,

                                                                             Loitered about the vacancy, a bird

                                                                             Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:

                                                                           That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,

                                                                       Were anxious to him, who'd never heard

                                                                     Of any world where promises were kept,

The world of Homer and the world of the present is put into contrast through the images.

In this lyric Auden has used the mythical technique popularized by TS. Eliot to make his comment on the modern condition. The mythical method consists in juxtaposing the past and the present, with the past serving as a comment, on the present. In order that the parallelism may be effective, Auden alternates the reminiscences of the glorious past of the classical world and its legendary beauty with the contemporary scene which cuts into this past and produces an antithetical and negative effect. The contemporary scene is rendered in terms of military operations and senseless violence with implications of religion and art. Thus, Auden's poem is a carefully balanced and well–integrated whole in which we find more than one level of meaning. The myth has been worked to a deeper significance. In the poem "the shield symbolizes art, an image of the human condition. Auden's version, however, is mock-heroic, contrasting the Homeric description of the life, the modern artist must represent. In the shield Hephaestus (the artist) shows Thetis (the audience), not the classical city, but the plain of modern life on which multitudes are ordered about by totalitarian rulers (a faceless voice reciting statistics through a loudspeaker). Instead of the "ritual pieties", we have barbed wire enclosing an "arbitrary spot" where there is a travesty of the crucifixion being performed by bureaucrats—while "ordinary decent folk" watch, in which helpless individuals are shamefully deprived of human dignity before death. Thus, by using the mythical technique Auden has telescoped whole ages of history within the compass of a small lyric, and commented upon the spiritual decay and solution in the modern age. He expresses emotion directly with simplicity. This poem is unusual in presenting tragedy without comment.

In "The Shield of Achilles", we find a successful example of Auden's use of a conceptual construct instead of direct treatment of experience. Thetis's observation of her son's shield, in expectation of seeing the views of her own design, provides a dramatic context for an objective presentation of the horrors of a world without faith. Auden's mythopoeic imagination enables him to attain a double focus and thereby turn the Homeric legend into a befitting analogy to the post-war world of today. The beauty of the poem lies in the double-edged irony which suggests, on the one hand, a paretic; between the classical world and the present and on the other reveals the contrast between the expectations of Thetis and the reality painted on the shield. Although the intention of the poet is not chiefly the symbolic painting of landscape, the mode of description is highly suggestive. The picture of "A plain without feature, bare and brown," as also without any sign of vegetation and neighborhood, persists throughout the poem as a contrast to the cherished virtues of the classical city of "vines and olive trees," of "ritual pieties", dances and games.

'The Shield of Achilles' is Auden's one of greatest poems: central diction, the normal and logically ordered syntax, the form heightens without hindering the sense, and the rare rhetorical devices are kept strictly relevant to the needs of theme. Though not vocative in the way of most odes, but rather a crisp narrative of vivid scenes and actions, this poem possesses the main features usually associated with the ode: namely, a certain elevation, a sense that the poet is rising above personal mailers to speak in a measured responsible way on something of general importance, and the use of a contrasting and comparative method. The legendary shield is presented as a magic mirror, revealing the future as well as the present and showing what is true rather than what is desired.

Auden uses myth as a symbolic metaphor, in that it both concretizes and universalizes. It is unlike history because it is not factual, but like history in that it is explanatory; and it is unlike the novel because it is not mimetic, but like the novel in that it is invented. All these features are to be found here. Auden is enabled to present, in its essence, one of the direct forms of 'the baffle of being': the contrast between the ideas of harmony and humane community, and practices of mass manipulation, moral blindness, and militarism he is able to condense recognizable worlds, as it were, into a timeless metaphor of themselves.

The first three stanzas express the State as organization, the next three the State as Idea (Sublimated into religion and, 'therefore, involving the persecution of heretics) while the last three exemplify the consequences entitled by such a State. More particularly, the detailed revelation remarkably combines plainness with power, largely because of very subtle stylistic effects and very cogent choice of metonymic examples.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "The Shield of Achilles by W.H. Auden: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 2 July. 2017,