A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
W.H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” written in 1952, is the title poem of the collection that won the 1955 National Book Award. The poem is composed in alternating seven-line stanzas of rime royal (ABABBCC) and eight-line stanzas in a ballad format (ABCBDEFE).
In Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad, the goddess Thetis, the mother of Achilles, asks the god Hephaestos to create a shield for her son so he can triumph in the war against Troy. Achilles’ 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. 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.
In contrast to the scene described by Homer, Auden’s poem begins with Thetis looking over the armorer’s shoulder with disappointment. She hopes to see images of civilization, joy, piety, athletics and arts. She loves her son and is thinking ahead to what he should be fighting for. 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.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)
The Shield of Achilles as interpreted by Angelo Monticelli, from Le Costume Ancien ou Moderne, ca. 1820.