The Shield of Achilles is a poem of nine stanzas where the author W.H.Auden has used an episode from the famous Homeric epic ‘Iliad’, as the name suggests. Achilles as we know was the greatest hero of the Trojan War and his shield as mentioned here has its reference in the book eighteen of the Iliad. There Thetis, the sea goddess and Achilles’ mother requests Hephaestus the divine blacksmith to make a shield for Achilles whose armor has been taken away by the Trojan hero Hector when he killed Patroclus to whom Achilles had lent it. Auden here has narrated the episode of the Iliad where this shield is in the making. Interestingly unlike the epical shield which was decorated by Hephaestus with stars and constellation, two beautiful towns full of people, scene of cultivation, a vineyard laden with grapes, herd of cattle, dancing girls and boys, the shield in question presents a scene of lifelessness, destruction and decadence of a moribund society of people. The poem starts with an unnamed woman and a man whom we later identify as Thetis and Hephaestus. She is looking over his shoulder to watch the shield which is being made there.
Contrary to her expectations she finds the shield being decorated with barbed wire enclosures and bored officials, weary sentries, detached and dispassionate men folk, a weed-choked-field and a frustrated young boy who knows nothing about love being always exposed to murder and rape. In the poem whenever Thetis peers over the blacksmith’s shoulder hoping to see some beautiful decoration of natural beauty being embossed on the shield, some morbid spectacle is sure to greet her eyes. Finally when Hephaestus leaves after finishing the shield, Thetis is distraught to find a horrific picture which makes Achilles’ doom all the more evident.
The poet has used a method of flashback to emphasize the deplorable condition of the modern human society. Whenever Thetis looks over ‘his shoulder’ Auden gives us a glimpse of the beauty of the past by mentioning what she expects to see and what gruesome sights unfold before her. The poem shows a contrast between the ancient world of real heroes and the modern world of debasement. The poet W. H. Auden thus uses the shield of Achilles as a subject but all the beautiful descriptions of Homer have been replaced to show the poet’s disgust with blankness and shallowness of the modern society.