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How Auden Engraves New Meaning from The Iliad
Julia Albert


In his ekphrastic poem “The Shield of Achilles,” written in 1952, W. H. Auden vividly describes the making of Achilles’ new shield with desolate and inhumane imagery, in juxtaposition to Homer’s joyous and civilized depictions. Auden distorts the images from their original context in order to comment on the idealization of war and to subvert the empty promises of political authorities who justify wars that often have no winner.

In Book 18 of The Iliad, Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, has just been killed while fighting the Trojans on Achilles’ behalf. Upon hearing of his best friend's death, Achilles is distraught and covers himself with “soot and filth”, as if his grief has killed his soul and he wishes to bury his body, despite not having physically died yet (Homer 18.25). Achilles’ devitalizing grief at the loss of his best friend is echoed in Auden’s description of the victims of war, perhaps more specifically Holocaust victims and their family members, who “died as men before their bodies died” (Auden 46). Achilles’ deep sadness quickly turns into uncontrollable rage as he vows to kill Patroclus’ murderer, Hector, even if it means losing his own life. Meanwhile, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, asks “the god of fire”, Hephaestus, to make her son a new shield for his return to battle (Homer 18.720).

In Homer’s description of the shield, Hephaestus carves images of cosmic majesty, scenes of piety and morality, and illustrations of pastoral calm. In contrast, Auden paints images of irrationality and brutality, where “three pale figures” are executed seemingly arbitrarily, where “girls are raped” and where “boys knife” one another (40, 64). Writing after World War II, Auden is offering a political critique of fascist dictators like Hitler and Mussolini who insisted that war was the only answer in order to become prosperous and dominant countries again. Auden assumes his readers are familiar with The Iliad and that this juxtaposition between descriptions will demonstrate the stark contrast between the fascist propaganda and the horrific reality of the Second World War, which left millions of people killed, displaced, and morally distraught, as well as many women raped by Red Army soldiers in the aftermath of the war[1]. The insistence on war for the sake of restoring justice or reasserting dominance, as Hitler and Mussolini did, is much like the Trojan war, which was launched as an expedition to reclaim Helen, the wife of Meneleus, to the Acheans after she was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris. Fascist dictators, like Greek warriors of the past, expertly weaved narratives into their reason for fighting and laid out idealized images of the worlds that would result from them winning the battle, like the ideal images Homer describes Hephaestus carving onto Achilles’ shield.

As is well known, the destruction of WWII left much of Europe and Asia in ruins, as many as 60 million people dead, and the ethical repurcussions of dealing with the murder of 6 million Jews[2]. Rather than the idyllic and fruitful images of the shield in The Iliad, Auden depicts the savagery and banal evil that transpired during WWII. He illustrates the lack of empathy that resulted from such fear and propaganda when he describes a young urchin child who does not understand a world “where promises [are] kept” nor where “one could weep because another wept” (Auden 60, 61).

In the 1950s, the Cold War became increasingly tense as the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies became more hostile. With this increased tension, the capacity for mass destruction on a global scale also became foreseeable, as each side innovated their nuclear weaponry. The irrationality and absurdity of the potential outcome of the Cold War, being nuclear annihilation, is also reflected in Auden’s powerful imagery. For instance, Auden describes the paradox of “an artificial wilderness”, which could never logically exist, just as humanity could not logically persist if the Cold War would have concluded as many individuals worried it might in the 1950s and 1960s (Auden 7). Auden’s description of a “sky like lead” might very well refer to the massive atomic and hydrogen bombs that both the United States and Soviet Union had the ability to drop from the sky during these tense times (Auden 8).

Essentially, Auden’s poem urges readers to reflect critically on the atrocities that humans are capable of committing if they fail to act rationally and lose the ability to empathize. He achieves this message by using the literary technique of ekphrasis, in describing the images on the shield that Hephaestus engraves for Achilles in The Iliad. In distorting Homer’s original joyous descriptions, Auden engraves new meaning into the shield of human history. He subverts political figures who idealize war, and instead demonstrates the illogicality and horror that results from unchecked power and subservient citizens, directly commenting on the political turmoil of his time. Just as no winners are alluded to in Auden’s poem, Homer’s Iliad consistently demonstrates the pain and suffering on both the Achaean and the Trojan sides of the war. Just as Auden yearns for a world where “one could weep because another wept”, Homer too calls for a world of empathy (Auden 61). He recounts the instance between Priam and Achilles in Book 24, when Priam weeps for the loss of his son, sparking Achilles to weep at the thought of his own father’s sadness once he inevitably dies. Ultimately, Auden successfully comments on the idealization of war and all the suffering that comes with it, in an effort to encourage a world of empathy and critical reflection.

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P.S. In Auden’s poem “from In Time of War”, he remarks how “the hospitals alone remind us / Of the equality of man” (Auden, “from In Time of War”). I cannot help but think how the current COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the equality of humans, who can each be affected by the virus, no matter our nationality, economic status, sexual orientation, religion, or race. Indeed, on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, Paul Rogers, an expert on international security, mentioned how tensions between Iran and the United States have lessened since the COVID outbreak, and a general diminution of tension in some parts of the Middle East, out of necessity for dealing with each country’s own medical situation. It will be very interesting to see how things progress and what other global conflicts will be put on hold. I wonder how things will resume, and whether we will go back to our old ways once the virus settles down, or learn an important lesson about international cooperation and unity going forward.


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Jenn Aswald