“The Shield of Achilles” is one of W. H. Auden best-known poems and appears in his 1955 collection of the same name. The poem reimagines a scene from the ancient Greek epic The Iliad in which the goddess Thetis watches Hephaestos (god of blacksmiths and metalworking, among other things) craft armor for her son, Achilles (of Trojan War fame). Thetis expects Hephaestos to forge a beautiful shield filled with romantic ornamentation that glorifies war and battle, as is the case in the original myth. In the poem, however, Thetis finds only images of bleak desolation and horror upon the shield. Written in the decade after World War II, the poem contains references to the events and technologies of 20th-century conflicts and explores the relationship between war and modern society. The collection in which it was published earned Auden a National Book Award.
She looked over ...
... sky like lead.
A plain without ...
... for a sign.
Out of the ...
... else, to grief.
She looked over ...
... Quite another scene.
Barbed wire enclosed ...
... in the ground.
The mass and ...
... their bodies died.
She looked over ...
... a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, ...
... because another wept.
The thin-lipped armorer, ...
... not live long.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Auden Reads “The Shield of Achilles” — Listen to a recording of the author reading the poem aloud.
Auden's Life Story — A detailed look at the author’s life and works from the Poetry Foundation.
"The Shield of Achilles," First Edition — Scans of Auden’s 1955 poetry collection, including the title poem in its original format.
Visualizing Achilles’s Shield — Browse various artistic interpretations of Achilles’s shield.
The Iliad Study Guide — A guide to Homer’s Iliad from LitCharts, including a concise summary and a discussion of the shield of Achilles as a symbol.
1 She looked over his shoulder
2 For vines and olive trees,
3 Marble well-governed cities
4 And ships upon untamed seas,
5 But there on the shining metal
6 His hands had put instead
7 An artificial wilderness
8 And a sky like lead.
9A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
10 No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
11Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
12 Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
13 An unintelligible multitude,
14A million eyes, a million boots in line,
15Without expression, waiting for a sign.
16Out of the air a voice without a face
17 Proved by statistics that some cause was just
18In tones as dry and level as the place:
19 No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
20 Column by column in a cloud of dust
21They marched away enduring a belief
22Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
23 She looked over his shoulder
24 For ritual pieties,
25 White flower-garlanded heifers,
26 Libation and sacrifice,
27 But there on the shining metal
28 Where the altar should have been,
29 She saw by his flickering forge-light
30 Quite another scene.
31Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
32 Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
33And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
34 A crowd of ordinary decent folk
35 Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
36As three pale figures were led forth and bound
37To three posts driven upright in the ground.
38The mass and majesty of this world, all
39 That carries weight and always weighs the same
40Lay in the hands of others; they were small
41 And could not hope for help and no help came:
42 What their foes like to do was done, their shame
43Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
44And died as men before their bodies died.
45 She looked over his shoulder
46 For athletes at their games,
47 Men and women in a dance
48 Moving their sweet limbs
49 Quick, quick, to music,
50 But there on the shining shield
51 His hands had set no dancing-floor
52 But a weed-choked field.
53A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
54 Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
55Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
56 That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
57 Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
58Of any world where promises were kept,
59Or one could weep because another wept.
60 The thin-lipped armorer,
61 Hephaestos, hobbled away,
62 Thetis of the shining breasts
63 Cried out in dismay
64 At what the god had wrought
65 To please her son, the strong
66 Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
67 Who would not live long.