The classical myth of Achilles is employed by Auden to exemplify the contrast between The valiant past and the unheroic present. The myth of the past is juxtaposed with the reality of the present. The classical world is set against modernity.
The Shield of Achilles is the shield that Achilles uses to fight Hector , famously described in a passage in Book 18, lines 478-608 of Homer's Iliad . In the poem, Achilles has lost his armour after lending it to his companion Patroclus . Patroclus has been killed in battle by Hector and his weapons taken as spoils. Achilles' mother Thetis asks the god Hephaestus to provide replacement armour for her son.
<ul><li>Homer gives a detailed description of the imagery which decorates the new shield. Starting from the shield's center and moving outward, circle layer by circle layer, the shield is laid out as follows: </li></ul><ul><li>The Earth, sky and sea, the sun, the moon and the constellations. </li></ul><ul><li>"Two beautiful cities full of people": in one a wedding and a law case are taking place; the other city is besieged by one feuding army and the shield shows an ambush and a battle </li></ul><ul><li>A field being ploughed for the third time. </li></ul><ul><li>A king's estate where the harvest is being reaped. </li></ul><ul><li>A vineyard with grape pickers. </li></ul><ul><li>A "herd of straight-horned cattle"; the lead bull has been attacked by a pair of savage lions which the herdsmen and their dogs are trying to beat off. </li></ul><ul><li>A picture of a sheep farm. </li></ul><ul><li>A dancing-floor where young men and women are dancing. </li></ul><ul><li>The great stream of Ocean. </li></ul>
The numerical symbolism of the nine layers or concentric circles of Homer's Achilles' shield is mirrored in W.H.Auden's poem which has nine stanzas.
The passage describing the shield is an early example of ecphrasis (a literary description of a work of visual art) and influenced many later poems, including the poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952) by W. H. Auden, which imagines Homer's description in 20th century terms.
The shield’s layers are a series of contrasts – i.e. war and peace, work and festival, although the presence of a murder in the city at peace suggests that man is never fully free of conflict.
Auden was disillusioned by the totalitarian state of the modern world which completely buried the growth of the individual. He, therefore, reflects the contrast between the modern world and the Achillean world.
Auden deliberately interprets the images drawn on the shield to speak of the ills of the modern world.
This Greek vase from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows the goddess Thetis overseeing Hephaestus as he polishes the shield he has just made for her son Achilles. Above are "a pair of greaves, a helmet, tongs, hammer and saw." As described in the Iliad, the shield is famously elaborate. Auden’s is a reconstruction.
In his poem Auden contrasts the order and ritual -- symbolized by the original shield -- that gave meaning to both life and death in ancient times with the meaningless, cold brutality of existence in his own century. The final words, "the strong/ Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles/ Who would not live long," are right out of the Iliad.
Auden's poem is written in two different stanza forms, one form with shorter lines, the other with longer lines. The stanzas with shorter lines describe the making of the shield by the god Hephaestus, and report the scenes that Achilles‘ mother, Thetis, expects to find on the shield and which Hephaestus, in Auden's version, does not make. Thetis expects to find scenes of happiness and peace like those described by Homer. The stanzas with longer lines describe the scenes that Hephaestus creates in Auden's version, scenes of a barren and impersonal modern world. Different Stanza Forms
She looked over his shoulder 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.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown, No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood, Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood An unintelligible multitude, A million eyes, a million boots in line, Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face Proved by statistics that some cause was just In tones as dry and level as the place: No one was cheered and nothing was discussed; Column by column in a cloud of dust They marched away enduring a belief Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
She looked over his shoulder For ritual pieties, White flower-garlanded heifers, Libation and sacrifice, But there on the shining metal Where the altar should have been, She saw by his flickering forge-light Quite another scene.
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke) And sentries sweated for the day was hot: A crowd of ordinary decent folk Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke As three pale figures were led forth and bound To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all That carries weight and always weighs the same Lay in the hands of others; they were small And could not hope for help and no help came: What their foes like to do was done, their shame Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride And died as men before their bodies died.
She looked over his shoulder For athletes at their games, Men and women in a dance Moving their sweet limbs Quick, quick, to music, But there on the shining shield His hands had set no dancing-floor But a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone, Loitered about that vacancy; a bird Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone: That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third, Were axioms to him, who'd never heard Of any world where promises were kept, Or one could weep because another wept.
The thin-lipped armourer, Hephaestus, hobbled away, Thetis of the shining breasts Cried out in dismay At what the god had wrought To please her son, the strong Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles Who would not live long.
Auden reflects bitterly on the differences between the Achaean world as described by Homer—a world where, even amid warfare, imagination naturally ran to scenes of peace—and the world of totalitarian horror Auden himself imagine. At the same time, Auden criticizes Homer for attributing glory to warriors. Auden's moral opprobrium is directed, not at Thetis or Hephaestus, but at "the strong iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles. The shield described by Auden is made by the god to please Achilles: the horrid world depicted there (and not the delightful world depicted in the shield described by Homer) is the natural result of the sort of iron-hearted manslaughter Achilles, and his comrades and rivals, practice.
I believe that Auden was trying to protest what the world has turned into instead of the utopian society that we are lead to believe as children. But instead are world is full of hatred and crimes. When Thetis came to Hehaestpus she was looking for a shield of protection, instead she found the reality of life. After reading this poem it made me wonder what I am lead to believe that’s not true. Will I be like Thetis and have someone reveal the truth to me or will I be like Hehaestpus and reveal the truth to someone else.
Credits Wikipedia (Of course, what else?) http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.18.xviii.html Google Images