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Shield of Achilles

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The Shield of Achilles

- W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

W H Auden's early poetry primarily focused on social and personal problems. His later work was however essentially skeptical and ironic. 'The Shield of Achilles' draws on the Greek legend of the shield which was given to Achilles by his mother. The lame armourer, Hephaestus, had made the shield. The shield becomes an instrument by which the worlds- one dystopian (representing the modern world) and the other cultured and civilised (representing the classic world) - are juxtaposed against each other. The poem also focuses on the concept of a 'broken individual', where 'State' takes precedence over an 'Individual'.

In the first stanza, we see Thetis looking over Hephaestus' shoulder, hoping to see inspiring and uplifting images, such as "vines and olive trees" which represent abundance or "marble well-governed cities" which represents peace and prosperity. Instead of seeing these images, though, she sees an image quite dull and contrasting to that which she imagined and hoped to see.

She sees a barren ground, contrasting the vines and trees she hoped for instead. Furthermore, basic human requirements such as food and a place to rest are absent. The only thing present is a large crowd of people, in whom no individuality is shown.

Auden was disillusioned by the totalitarian state of the modern world which completely buried the growth of the individual. He felt that people existed as the 'State' and not as the 'Individual'. He therefore reflects the contrast between the modern world and the Achillean world. Auden deliberately interprets the images drawn on the shield to speak of the ills of the modern world.

Auden juxtaposes two civilizations- the modern one which is savage, has no respect for human life, is dangerous and quietly menacing, and the ancient, pagan civilization from which we should learn. Thetis is looking for order, for divinity, for all that is good, but instead she finds a decline in society's values as well as a decline in the physical world. There are weeds, which do not allow other plants to come up. Society has men who behave like weeds. People have no individual identity. This is dangerous for a nation or society.

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