W H Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’, written in 1952, is also the title poem of the collection in which it was published in 1955. The eponymous shield features in book 18 of the Homeric epic poem the Iliad, in a passage which has become famous as an example of ekphrasis: the ‘extended and detailed literary description of any object, real or imaginary’, according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary.
In book 16, the hero Achilles – the greatest of the Greek warriors – has allowed his companion Patroclus to go into a battle of the Trojan war wearing his armour; the god Apollo has stripped him of it, and the Trojan Hector killed him. On hearing this, Achilles vows revenge, regardless of warnings from his mother, Thetis, that he will die just after he gets it. New armour – including the shield – is made for Achilles by Hephaestos, blacksmith to the gods. Following the Homeric tradition of epithets, Auden describes him as the ‘thin-lipped armorer’.
Like Hephaestos, Auden has created a complex, interlocking art object, with repeated motifs and references to the world outside of it. As is clearly visible on the page, the poem is divided into stanzaic form. The first three alternating stanzas of eight shorter lines each begin ‘She looked over his shoulder’. They each describe Thetis examining the shield for the type of scenery which is described in the Iliad’s version of the shield – an allegorical depiction of what seems like a well-ordered heaven and earth, replete with dancing, agriculture and justice. By the end of each stanza, however, she has again been disappointed. The alternating stanzas of seven longer lines – known as rhyme royal, and used by Auden in other poems such as ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (1936) – show what looks more like an image of the violence and injustice of the world after the Second World War, and compare it with the heroism of Homeric combat.
The lines ‘Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot’ and ‘A million eyes, a million boots in line’, fall some way short of the individual heroism of Homeric combat, and the ‘three posts driven upright into the ground’ recall Christ crucified with a thief either side of him, ‘as ordinary folk looked on’. Yet whatever the differences from the original, or the changes in the nature of war or society, in the end, our Achilles will still ‘not live long’.