Notes on "The Shield of Achilles"
The narrative of the Iliad is interrupted while Hephaestus makes Achilles new armor for Achilles' mother, the goddess Thetis, to carry to her son. He has lost his armor, and needs some new armor to fight. But re-entering the fray means he will die soon, so he has chosen to die as he seeks to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus.
The action stops while we are treated to the description of the shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles. Such a description that interrupts the action is called an ekphrasis, a term we have encountered before.
Auden's poem is a contrast between what Thetis expects to see and what Hephaestus actually embosses on the shield. What Thetis expects to see is taken from Homer's description. She looks for "vines and olive trees," "cities," "ships," "ritual pieties," "athletes," "Men and women in a dance," etc.
These are all elements in the shield as described by Homer. Homer inscribed his version of the shield with the whole world as he perceived it.
Homer has a shield showing the cosmos as he understood it -
Auden sees a very different world & puts that new world on his version shield. Auden contrasts the heroic world of Achilles with the debased world of the mid-twentieth century. What both eras had in common was burtality and mortality.
- The earth, sea, sun, moon, stars at the center.
- A city at war & a city at peace around that.
- Grapes, plowing, & reaping around that.
- Cattle, sheep, & dancing around that.
- The ocean on the outside enclosing everything.
- Auden reverses Homer's order. Homer describes civilization by two cities--one at peace, one at war. Next he describes the fields and crops. Auden describes fields without crops, "A plain without feature, bare and brown."
- Auden's world, like Homer's, has war. He describes a million of soldiers awaiting orders: ("a million boots in line, / Without expression, waiting for a sign.") It is inspired by "a voice without a face" (perhaps coming over the radio?) explaining how just the cause is. Auden's further describes a brutal execution of three men, much like Christ's crucifixion (31-44).
- "As three pale figures were led forth and bound
- To three posts driven upright in the ground."
It was a humiliating execution that killed them as men before killing their bodies. They "died as men before their bodies died."
- Auden is at perhaps the most extreme in his final description. Homer describes a village at peace, where the weddings takes place.
- He wrought also two cities, fair to see and busy with the hum of men. In the one were weddings and wedding-feasts, and they were going about the city with brides whom they were escorting by torchlight from their chambers. Loud rose the cry of Hymen, and the youths danced to the music of flute and lyre, while the women stood each at her house door to see them. In Auden's world, the brutalized brutalize others - a "ragged urchin" - probably a homeless child - throws rocks at a bird, and boys rape and kill girls.
Such is the world Auden's Hephaestus makesTo please her son, the strong Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles Who would not live long.