The poem's title and events are derived from The Iliad, an ancient Greek epic attributed to Homer. The Iliad follows the finest Greek warrior, Achilles, during the Trojan War. This poem’s title indicates an allusion to Book XVIII in particular. Achilles’s mother, the goddess Thetis, visits the palace of Hephaestos, god of craftspeople, and asks him to forge new armor for her son. He agrees, crafting an ornate, gleaming shield that depicts the heavens, the natural world, and picturesque representations of everyday life in Greece alongside romanticized battle scenes.
Like The Iliad, “The Shield of Achilles” begins in media res—the reader is thrust into a dramatic narrative with little contextualization. The speaker uses the vague pronouns “he” and “she” when referring to Hephaestos and Thetis, only confirming their identities in the final stanza. It is therefore crucial that the audience recognize the poem’s overarching allusion to understand what is taking place.
In addition to creating a sense of cultural kinship between the speaker and the reader, this “barrier to entry” ensures that the poem’s audience will pick up on its thematic meaning. In other words, if a reader is able to identify Thetis and Hephaestos, they understand that the epic is infused with passion, beauty, adventure, and grandeur. Therefore, the allusion to such a well-known and elaborate example of war’s romanticization serves as a stark foil for the speaker’s portrayal of war as bleak and destructive.
Furthermore, the allusion places this poem within a wider literary tradition of reinterpreting ancient stories and applying their themes and styles to later events. As such, it allows the reader to question whether The Iliad and other epics are suitable models for discussing modern wars.
The speaker also alludes to World War II through various anachronisms. World War II was fresh in the minds of Auden’s contemporary audience and its impacts are felt and studied today. It is known as the largest and deadliest war in history. The Holocaust casts a particularly dark shadow over this point in history. The Nazi party’s systematic murder of millions of Jews and other minority groups stunned and horrified the world. The speaker’s allusions specifically point to the “millions” of lives impacted by the war, as well as the concentration camps and other imprisonments erected by the Nazis all over Europe (infamously enclosed by barbed wire, which is mentioned in line 31). By alluding to such a tragic, cruel, and far-reaching conflict, the speaker is able to appeal to the emotions and experiences of a wide audience.
Finally, the crucifixion of Christ is commonly represented by three crosses—one for Jesus and the others for two thieves alongside whom he was hung. The “three pale figures … bound / To three posts” in the poem’s fifth stanza therefore likely allude to the Bible. The casual tone of this scene and the disregard of its onlookers is shocking, given that this story of martyrdom is retold and studied all over the world today. As such, this allusion deepens the existing juxtaposition between violence and apathy, suggesting that such indifference is inappropriate. Moreover, the allusion highlights that individual victims become anonymized in times of war—reduced to “statistics.” Finally, the biblical allusion creates subtle (Christian) religious undertones. Within the poem, a lack of faith is coupled with moral failings, perhaps suggesting that religion has the power to correct the ethical degeneration of society.
The speaker alludes to very well-known instances of violence, preventing the poem’s message from becoming too obscured. All of the above allusions reference different locations and time periods, demonstrating that violent conflict has always been part of human civilization. Their commingling also invites the reader to compare the events of these conflicts, as well as their artistic portrayal and contemporary attitudes towards them.