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Literature Case

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The Shield of Achilles was a poem written by W. H. Auden, first published in 1953, although it also shares this name with a book he had published in 1955. The poem is composed of nine stanzas, with four stanzas composed of eight lines each and the rest made up of seven lines each. The poem can be interpreted as a critique of the perception some people might hold for the glory of war, when in reality it is anything but glorious.

One of the primary devices used in the poem is the use of Contrast, and by extension Duality and Parallelism. This can be easily seen through the two obviously different stanza lengths and metrical measures, but also in the temporal settings and themes--the poem alternates between a scene from the Illiad, set during Classical times, to what could be interpreted as images of the Modern era. Each 'classical' scene utilizes the eight-stanza pattern, with the second line rhyming with the fourth and the sixth with the eight, while each scene ostensibly set in the 'modern' era use a seven-line form called a rime royal. Another device used is Irony, and although it is not as obvious at first, there is something bitterly ironic about the expectation of one of the poem's characters for the eponymous Shield compared to the purpose why it was wrought.

The poem begins with a scene from the past. Although it is not directly mentioned at first, it is a scene from the Illiad, where Thetis, the mother of Achilles, watches expectantly as Hephaestus, God of the Forge, makes a shield for her son. In particular, she seems to be anticipating how the shield would be decorated, and given the level of craftsmanship involved, expects a thing of beauty, and as such idyllic scenes spring to her mind ("For vines and olive trees/Marble well-governed cities/and ships upon untamed seas"). This is where the irony makes itself first apparent, as she seems to fail to realize the fact that such decorations would seem awfully out of place on an implement of war. However when she glances over the shoulder of Hephaestus she doesn't see these, and beholds an altogether different scene ("an artificial wilderness/And a sky like lead") instead; her expectations were grand in scope, but misplaced.

It is here where the poem first shifts temporally and structurally, juxtaposing the classical scene with a vision of a decidedly bleak image. The scene? A ravaged landscape (a plain without a feature, bare and brown/No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood/Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down) bringing to mind the trampled and barren moonscapes one would expect in those old pictures from World War I or II... Indeed, it could very well be during one of the many confrontations during those conflicts, from Marne to Verdun (the scenes of some of the bloodiest trench warfare during World War I), where armies stared at each other (An unintelligible multitude/A million eyes, a million boots in line/without expression waiting for a sign) over endless plains of barbed wire-lined trenches, tank traps, and mine fields, waiting in dugouts for the sign to go 'over the top' and rush across the no-man's land amidst a hail of bullets and artillery just to come to grips with their enemy. The atmosphere is heavy and cheerless (without expression), as no glory awaited the soldiers, no battle with a worthy adversary, just an ignominious death from a bullet fired from an opponent whose face they would never see.

And the order does come (Out of the air a voice without a face), from voice far from the front lines espousing justice of their side of the conflict (Proved by statistics that some cause was just), which reveals the inherent hypocrisy of some systems of government, where leaders force their countrymen to war yet have never really been exposed to its horrors... But the soldiers do, and yet they're the ones that can't do anything about their situation, as being part of the military means that they have to follow the senseless orders (In tones as dry and level as the place: No one was cheered and nothing was discussed) from the leaders of the government they serve. The only sense it made was it was going to, in one way or another, lead to their deaths in a place far from home, but it was an order (They marched away enduring a belief/Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief) and thus had to be followed; a soldier followed their commanders, this much has remained true from the time of Homer.

The poem once more returns to Hephaestus' workshop, and Thetis still struggling to get a glimpse of the decorations being placed upon the shield. The scope of her imaginings contracts



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