'The Shield Of Achilles' by W.H. Auden
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1952She looked over his shoulderFor vines and olive trees,Marble well-governed citiesAnd ships upon untamed seas,But there on the shining metalHis hands had put insteadAn artificial wildernessAnd 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, stoodAn unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,Without expression, waiting for a sign.Out of the air a voice without a faceProved 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 shoulderFor ritual pieties,White flower-garlanded heifers,Libation and sacrifice,But there on the shining metalWhere the altar should have been,She saw by his flickering forge-lightQuite another scene.Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spotWhere bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:A crowd of ordinary decent folkWatched 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, allThat carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were smallAnd 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 shoulderFor athletes at their games,Men and women in a danceMoving their sweet limbsQuick, quick, to music,But there on the shining shieldHis hands had set no dancing-floorBut 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 armorer,Hephaestos, hobbled away,Thetis of the shining breastsCried out in dismayAt what the god had wroughtTo please her son, the strongIron-hearted man-slaying AchillesWho would not live long.
Editor 1 Interpretation
"The Shield of Achilles" by W.H. Auden: A Masterpiece of Irony and Criticism
"God fashioned the shield of Achilles, the shield of a perfect man." Thus opens W.H. Auden's poem "The Shield of Achilles," which is considered one of the greatest achievements of modernist poetry. Written in 1952, the poem takes its title from the famous Homeric epic, but instead of glorifying war, it exposes the brutality and absurdity of human violence. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, form, and literary devices used in "The Shield of Achilles," and how they contribute to the poem's ironic critique of modern civilization.
The Themes of "The Shield of Achilles"
At the heart of "The Shield of Achilles" is the theme of disillusionment, which pervades the modernist literature of the early 20th century. Auden's poem exposes the hollowness of the Western civilization that emerged from the ashes of World War II, with its scientific, technological, and bureaucratic machinery that dehumanizes individuals and reduces them to mere cogs in the system. The shield of Achilles is not a symbol of heroism but a reflection of the dark side of humanity, a mirror that shows the horrors of war, the suffering of the oppressed, and the emptiness of the consumerist society.
The poem also explores the theme of myth and its relevance to contemporary life. Auden uses the shield of Achilles as a metaphor for the modern world, where the myths of progress, democracy, and freedom have replaced the ancient myths of gods and heroes. But he shows that these modern myths are no less illusory than the old ones, and that they serve as a cover-up for the real issues of poverty, inequality, and violence. By juxtaposing the mythic imagery of the shield with the mundane reality of modern life, Auden exposes the gap between illusion and reality, and invites his readers to question their own myths and values.
The Form of "The Shield of Achilles"
Auden's poem is written in a complex form that combines modernist experimentation with classical tradition. The poem consists of four stanzas, each of which describes a different scene on the shield of Achilles. The stanzas are connected by a refrain that emphasizes the central irony of the poem: "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 stanza structure of "The Shield of Achilles" is modeled after the "shield of Achilles" episode in Homer's Iliad, where the shield is described in a series of concentric circles. Auden's poem adopts this circular structure and uses it to create a sense of unity and coherence, even as the scenes on the shield become increasingly fragmented and chaotic. The form of the poem thus mirrors its content, as the circularity of the shield suggests the eternal recurrence of violence and suffering in human history.
The Literary Devices of "The Shield of Achilles"
Auden's poem is notable for its use of literary devices that heighten its irony and critique. The most striking of these devices is the contrast between the mythic imagery of the shield and the modernist language of the poem. Auden uses archaic language and epic diction to describe the scenes on the shield, but he also injects modernist slang and colloquialism to undermine the heroic pretensions of the mythic world. For example, in the second stanza, he writes: "Bridges and aqueducts sprang up like weeds," which conflates the ancient and modern worlds and suggests the triviality of human achievements in the face of mortality.
Another device that Auden uses is irony, which permeates the entire poem. The scenes on the shield are full of ironic juxtapositions, such as the "hospitable" cities that are "invaded by the seas," or the "dignified" judges who "dance like flies on the still hot noon." These images expose the contradictions and hypocrisies of human society and challenge the reader's assumptions about what is heroic and honorable.
Auden also uses allusions to literary and historical texts to enrich the meaning of the poem. For example, the image of the "massacre of innocents" in the third stanza alludes to the biblical story of Herod's slaughter of the infants, while the image of the "dying generations" in the fourth stanza echoes T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." These allusions create a network of intertextual references that enrich the poem's meaning and connect it to a broader cultural tradition.
In conclusion, "The Shield of Achilles" is a masterpiece of modernist poetry that exposes the hollowness of Western civilization and challenges the reader's assumptions about heroism and progress. Through its intricate form and literary devices, the poem creates a complex web of meanings that invites the reader to question their own myths and values. Auden's ironic critique of modernity is as relevant today as it was when the poem was written, and it serves as a reminder of the enduring power of poetry to reveal the truth about human nature and society.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
The Shield of Achilles: A Masterpiece of Modern Poetry
W.H. Auden's "The Shield of Achilles" is a masterpiece of modern poetry that has captivated readers for decades. This powerful poem explores themes of war, violence, and the human condition, using vivid imagery and powerful language to create a haunting and unforgettable portrait of the world we live in.
At its core, "The Shield of Achilles" is a meditation on the nature of war and its impact on humanity. The poem takes its inspiration from the famous shield of Achilles, which is described in Homer's Iliad. In Auden's version, however, the shield is not a symbol of heroism and glory, but rather a reflection of the brutal reality of war.
The poem begins with a description of the shield itself, which is crafted by the god Hephaestus. The shield is adorned with a series of scenes that depict the world of men, from the peaceful countryside to the horrors of war. The first scene shows a group of young men playing a game, while the second shows a wedding procession. These scenes are contrasted with the third, which shows soldiers marching off to war.
As the poem progresses, the scenes become increasingly violent and disturbing. We see soldiers killing each other in battle, women being raped and murdered, and cities being destroyed by fire. The final scene shows a lone figure standing in the ruins of a city, surrounded by the bodies of the dead.
Throughout the poem, Auden uses powerful language and vivid imagery to convey the horror and brutality of war. He describes the soldiers as "blackened corpses" and "bloody rags," and the cities as "smoking ruins" and "charred bones." These images are designed to shock and unsettle the reader, forcing us to confront the reality of war and its devastating impact on humanity.
At the same time, however, Auden also explores the deeper philosophical questions raised by war. He asks whether there is any meaning or purpose to the violence and destruction that we see on the shield, or whether it is simply a reflection of the chaos and randomness of the universe. He also questions the role of the gods in human affairs, asking whether they are responsible for the suffering and pain that we see on the shield.
Ultimately, "The Shield of Achilles" is a deeply moving and thought-provoking poem that forces us to confront some of the most difficult questions of human existence. It is a testament to Auden's skill as a poet that he is able to tackle such weighty themes with such grace and power, creating a work of art that is both beautiful and haunting.
One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its use of imagery. Auden's descriptions of the shield and its scenes are incredibly vivid and evocative, painting a picture of a world that is both beautiful and terrifying. The contrast between the peaceful scenes of the first two panels and the violence of the third is particularly striking, highlighting the sudden and brutal nature of war.
Another key element of the poem is its use of language. Auden's writing is incredibly powerful and emotive, using words and phrases that are designed to shock and unsettle the reader. His descriptions of the soldiers as "blackened corpses" and the cities as "smoking ruins" are particularly effective, conveying the horror and devastation of war in a way that is both visceral and immediate.
At the same time, however, Auden also uses language to explore deeper philosophical questions. His use of the word "charade" to describe the scenes on the shield suggests that he sees war as a meaningless and futile exercise, while his references to the gods raise questions about the nature of divine intervention in human affairs.
Overall, "The Shield of Achilles" is a masterpiece of modern poetry that continues to resonate with readers today. Its exploration of the nature of war and its impact on humanity is as relevant now as it was when the poem was first written, and its powerful imagery and language continue to captivate and unsettle readers. If you have not yet had the chance to read this incredible work of art, I highly recommend that you do so.
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