The Shield of Achilles Poem summary line by line

The Shield of Achilles Poem summary line by line

The Shield of Achilles Poem summary line by line-The Shield of Achilles, authored by W. H. Auden in 1952, presents a contemporary interpretation of themes from Homer's "The Iliad." This poem serves as a modern reflection on the characters and concepts within the ancient epic.

The Shield of Achilles Poem summary line by line

The Shield of Achilles Poem summary line by line-Auden's poem focuses on the shield crafted by Hephaestus for Achilles, symbolizing various aspects of human life. Through vivid imagery and symbolic representation, Auden delves into themes of power dynamics, conflict, and the human condition. The shield acts as a medium through which Auden portrays contemporary society, addressing issues such as warfare, politics, and moral decay.

The Shield of Achilles Poem summary

"She looked over his shoulder" - The speaker describes a woman observing something.

"For ritual pieties," - The woman expects to see religious rituals or ceremonies.

"White flower-garlanded heifers," - She anticipates seeing sacrificial offerings, such as adorned cattle.

"Libation and sacrifice," - She hopes to witness offerings and rituals involving pouring out liquids and making offerings to gods or spirits.

"But there on the shining metal" - Instead of the expected religious scene, she sees something unexpected on a reflective surface.

"Where the altar should have been," - She notices the absence of the expected place for religious rituals.

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"She saw by his flickering forge-light" - The woman sees illuminated by the light of a flickering forge, indicating industrial activity.

"Quite another scene." - Instead of religious rites, she observes something entirely different.

"Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot" - The scene is marked by the presence of barbed wire fencing around a seemingly random area.

"Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)" - Government officials are present, exhibiting boredom and casual behavior, even cracking jokes.

"And sentries sweated for the day was hot:" - Guards stand watch in the heat, indicating a sense of discomfort and tension.

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"A crowd of ordinary decent folk" - There is a gathering of common people, characterized as decent and ordinary.

"Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke" - The onlookers observe the scene but do not intervene or react.

"As three pale figures were led forth and bound" - Three individuals, described as pale, are brought forward and restrained.

"To three posts driven upright in the ground." - The individuals are tied to posts in the ground, suggesting a form of punishment or execution.

"The mass and majesty of this world, all" - The power and grandeur of the world are held by others, leaving these individuals powerless.

"That carries weight and always weighs the same" - The world operates with consistent and unchanging rules.

"Lay in the hands of others; they were small" - These individuals are insignificant and have no control over their fate.

"And could not hope for help and no help came:" - They are helpless and receive no assistance.

"What their foes liked to do was done, their shame" - Their enemies have carried out their wishes, subjecting them to humiliation and disgrace.

"Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride" - They suffer the worst fate imaginable, losing their dignity and self-respect.

"And died as men before their bodies died." - Despite their physical demise, they maintain their humanity until the end.

"She looked over his shoulder" - The woman continues to observe.

"For athletes at their games," - She expects to see athletic competitions.

"Men and women in a dance" - She anticipates witnessing men and women dancing joyfully.

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"Moving their sweet limbs" - The dancers move gracefully and rhythmically.

"Quick, quick, to music," - The dance is lively and accompanied by music.

"But there on the shining shield" - Instead of dancers, she sees something unexpected reflected in a shield.

"His hands had set no dancing-floor" - The creator has not depicted a space for dancing.

"But a weed-choked field." - Instead, there is a neglected field overgrown with weeds.


"A ragged urchin, aimless and alone," - The poem begins with a description of a destitute and neglected child, wandering without purpose or companionship.

"Loitered about that vacancy; a bird" - The child is idling around an empty space, while a bird flies away to safety from a stone thrown by the child.

"Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:" - The bird manages to escape harm from the stone thrown by the child.

"That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third," - The poem presents grim realities of violence and brutality, such as sexual assault and lethal attacks among youths.

"Were axioms to him, who'd never heard" - These acts of violence are commonplace occurrences to the child, who has never been exposed to a world where such atrocities are not the norm.

"Of any world where promises were kept," - The child is unaware of a world where people honor their commitments or keep their promises.

"Or one could weep because another wept." - The child is unfamiliar with empathy or compassion, where one person might cry because they see another person in pain.

"The thin-lipped armorer," - The poem shifts focus to Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths and craftsmen, who is described as having thin lips.

"Hephaestos, hobbled away," - Hephaestus, who is also depicted as lame or crippled, moves off from the scene.

"Thetis of the shining breasts" - Thetis, a sea goddess and mother of Achilles, is described with luminous or gleaming breasts.

"Cried out in dismay" - Thetis expresses distress or sorrow.

"At what the god had wrought" - Thetis is upset by the actions of Hephaestus, which have caused harm or distress.

"To please her son, the strong" - Hephaestus' actions were intended to satisfy Achilles, Thetis' son.

"Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles" - Achilles, known for his ruthless and deadly nature in battle, is referred to as having a heart of iron and being a killer of men.

"Who would not live long." - Despite his prowess in battle, Achilles' fate is mentioned as being short-lived.

The Shield of Achilles Poem Themes

Violence and Cruelty: It unveils a world where violence and brutality are pervasive, illustrated by references to rape and deadly assaults among youths. This theme underscores the harshness of life and the prevalence of suffering.

Desolation and Neglect: Through the image of the ragged urchin meandering aimlessly in an empty space, the poem evokes feelings of desolation and neglect. This theme suggests a society indifferent to the plight of its most vulnerable members.

Ignorance and Apathy: The urchin's lack of awareness of a world governed by empathy and integrity reflects a broader theme of societal indifference and apathy towards the suffering of others. The normalization of violence highlights the erosion of moral sensitivity.

Repercussions of Actions: The poem hints at the consequences of human deeds, particularly Hephaestus' crafting of weapons and armor to satisfy Achilles. This theme emphasizes the unforeseen and detrimental outcomes of decisions and creations made with specific intentions.

Mortality and Destiny: The mention of Achilles, renowned for his martial prowess but fated for a short life, delves into themes of mortality and predestination. Despite his strength, Achilles remains subject to the whims of fate.

Parental Concern and Remorse: Thetis' anguish over the repercussions of Hephaestus' actions underscores themes of parental apprehension and regret. This aspect reveals the complex emotions intertwined with parenthood and the yearning to shield one's offspring from harm.


"The Shield of Achilles" by W. H. Auden stands as a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of timeless themes through a contemporary lens.

Auden's reinterpretation of Homer's epic offers readers a vivid portrayal of human existence, addressing issues of power, conflict, and morality. Through the symbolism of Achilles' shield, Auden paints a vivid picture of modern society, inviting readers to reflect on the complexities of the human condition and the enduring relevance of ancient mythologies.


1. What is "The Shield of Achilles" about?

"The Shield of Achilles" is a poem by W. H. Auden that draws inspiration from Homer's "The Iliad." It explores themes such as power dynamics, conflict, and the human condition through the symbolic imagery of Achilles' shield.

2. What is the significance of Achilles' shield?

Achilles' shield, crafted by the god Hephaestus in Homer's epic, symbolizes various aspects of human life and society. In Auden's poem, the shield serves as a canvas for exploring contemporary themes and issues.

3. How does Auden reinterpret Homer's epic in "The Shield of Achilles"?

Auden's poem offers a modern perspective on the themes and characters found in Homer's "The Iliad." Through vivid imagery and symbolic representation, Auden addresses contemporary issues while drawing inspiration from the ancient epic.

4. What are some of the themes explored in "The Shield of Achilles"?

Themes explored in "The Shield of Achilles" include power dynamics, conflict, morality, and the human condition. Auden's poem prompts readers to reflect on these themes and their relevance to both ancient mythology and contemporary society.



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