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 -

    1. The earth, sea, sun, moon, stars at the center.
    2. A city at war & a city at peace around that.
    3. Grapes, plowing, & reaping around that.
    4. Cattle, sheep, & dancing around that.
    5. The ocean on the outside enclosing everything.
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.


Such is the world Auden's Hephaestus makes

          To please her son, the strong
       Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
          Who would not live long.