Thursday, April 23, 2015

W. H. Auden Forges "The Shield of Achilles"

“And first Hephasestus makes a great and massive shield, blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface, raising a rim around it, glittering, triple-ply with a silver shield-strap run from edge to edge and five layers of metal to build the shield itself.” 
The Iliad, book XVIII

So begins Homer’s lyrical account of how the blacksmith god forged the famous Shield of Achilles. The god then hammers the shield into five sections and covers them with images of the earth, sky, sea, sun, moon, and stars. He then forges onto the shield pictures of two cities, a wedding celebration, a murder trial, an advancing army, domestic and wild beasts, a war, a field full of plowmen, a vineyard, a meadow, and dancing boys and girls. Homer’s description occurs in the 18th chapter of The Illiad, which I’ve been reading lately—as well as Alice Oswald’s “excavation” of it called Memorial. Homer’s is among the earliest examples of “ekphrasis”—a poetic rendering of a work of art.

In the aftermath of WWII, W. H. Auden reimagined Homer’s story in his poem "The Shield of Achilles," replacing the glorified images with apocalyptic ones: barbed wire and bare fields, rape and murder, bureaucrats and sentries. Listen to Auden reading his great anti-war poem here 
Frans Floris, Venus at Vulcan's Forge, 1560-64.
The goddess of love waits while 
her husband
 forges the armor for Achilles's Trojan conquest.

The Shield of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And 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, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved 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 shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched 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, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And 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 shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But 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 breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles

Who would not live long.


  1. This is an amazing piece of work - like music from heaven. Beautiful images, great text and incredible poems. Congratulation Elana.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Greatest contemporary poem related to the understanding and extension of Greek mythology.