For several years, I have been assigning W. H. Auden’s poem “The Shield of Achilles” to my literature students, and they all have to write a paper on it. The poem is very rich, and I continue to learn new things. One student this year, for example, pointed out that the reader is supposed to share Thetis’s grief at the end of the poem, when she realizes what Haephestos has made for her son, Achilles. This made me wonder if the reader is also supposed to share Thetis’s expectations, expressed throughout the poem, about the contents of the shield. If so, the poem is about the reader’s or the modern world’s loss of innocence. Before WWI, Europeans looked at the war as an opportunity for heroics on the scale of the ancient heroes, but the results were far different — “weed-choked fields” and a “blankness” on which stand “a million eyes, a million boots in line, without expression, waiting for a sign.”

Here’s the poem:

The Shield of Achilles
W. H. Auden

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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