Thetis looks at the images on the shield that Hephaestos has been making for Achilles during the Trojan War. She expected to see olive trees and vines and marble cities and ships on windy seas, but Hephaestos has forged “an artificial wilderness” under a leaden sky. The plain is bare and brown, but a great multitude of boots stand ready for war. A faceless voice dryly explains with statistics why war is required for justice, so they march forth.
Thetis also expected scenes of religious piety, but that is not what Hephaestos has been making. Barbed wire encloses a military camp in “an arbitrary spot,” and civilians observe from a distance while the camp punishes three pale prisoners by binding them to upright posts. No hope comes from outside. The prisoners and the citizens are too “small,” and the prisoners (perhaps also the other characters) “lost their pride / And died as men before their bodies died.”
Thetis has looked a third time over the shoulder of Hephaestos while he works. She looks for athletes and dancers enjoying games and music, but on the shield there was a “weed-choked field” instead of a dancing floor. One poor child wanders about alone, throwing a stone at a bird that flies away to escape. To him rape and murder seem normal. The child has never heard of a place with kept promises or even human sympathy.
Hephaestos limps away, revealing the whole shield to Thetis, who cries out in horror at its imagery. This is what the armorer decided to put on the shield of Achilles, son of Thetis, Achilles the man-slayer doomed to soon die.
“The Shield of Achilles” provides a chilling confrontation between love and war. Written in 1952, it was included in his volume of poetry of the same name, which was published in 1955. The volume won the National Book Award in 1956. It is written in alternating seven-line stanzas of rime royal (ABABBCC) and eight-line stanzas in a ballad format (ABCBDEFE).
The contents of the poem derive from Homer’s Iliad, an ancient epic poem concerning a key part of the Trojan War. A lot has happened by this point. In book 18, the goddess Thetis, the mother of Achilles, asks the god Hephaestos (Latinized as Hephaestus) to create a shield for son so he can triumph in the war against Troy. Achilles’s earlier shield was taken by Hector after he killed Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, who had taken the armor into battle thinking that seeing this armor would scare the Trojans (Achilles had stayed out of the fight over a dispute with Agamemnon about a woman). Homer goes into great detail describing the shield that Hephaestos makes; it contains a veritable history of the world in its scenes of pastoral calm, marriage, war, the cosmos, art, and nature.
The poem begins Thetis looking over the armorer’s shoulder with disappointment. In each of her three stanzas, employing the repetition “She looked over his shoulder” in the first line, she is hoping to see images of civilization, joy, piety, and peaceful employment of athletic and musical arts. She loves her son and is thinking ahead to what he should be fighting for. But instead she sees images of irrationality, war, wilderness, immorality, injustice, and punishment. The contrast between what Thetis expects and what Hephaestos delivers, what Thetis desires and what the armorer thinks appropriate for Achilles, is stark.
The pattern of hope and disappointment occurs all three times, followed by the concluding stanza wrapping up the point: after all, Achilles is doomed to live a short but heroic warrior’s life. Achilles, like people in general, can try to live average but boring lives instead, but Achilles has chosen heroism, and his mother is dismayed.
Critic Scott Horton argues that the poem has contemporary resonance for Auden and his audience, reflecting a warning about the Cold War and the authoritarian warmongering of the 1950s: “Auden is not portraying the tragedies of the last war as such. He is warning of a world to come in which totalitarian societies dominate and the worth and dignity of the individual human being are lost. He warns those who stand by, decent though they may seemingly be, and say nothing.” This perspective is supported by anachronistic images on the shield. Thetis sees a scene that seems more like one from the Second World War: barbed wire around a military base. Modern war engages “millions” and spreads propaganda through “statistics.”
Another allusion on the military base concerns the three people punished. A crowd watches from a distance as three figures are brought forth and bound to three posts in the ground. This scene alludes to the Crucifixion of Jesus between two others, as though the three posts are crosses, and it makes the horrors of war seem more universal. Horton writes, “the anonymous image also displaces the greater spiritual significance of the Christian sacrifice, suggesting that in the modern world such sacrifice has lost its ultimate meaning and that the victims, Christ in particular, have become nameless and insignificant.” Poet Anthony Hecht has noted that the executed men were not martyrs, just victims. One also might see in this image an allusion to the Jews and others killed in Nazi concentration camps.
When Hephaestos hobbles away (in myth he is lame) without comment, the shield is his only statement. He put a mirror up to reality and reproduced it on the “shining metal.” In contrast, Thetis’ “shining breasts” reflect her motherly love, less with reality than with hope. Auden once said, “A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the virtues of beauty, order, economy, and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a horror.” As much as we might strive for the virtues, reality—whether presented by Hephaestos, Homer, or Auden—shows us a different, more distressing world.