The oldest known work of literary history is The Iliad. It is a work that has inspired works of art for more than three thousand years, and readers of this blog, dedicated to historical fiction, might be interested in a recent work, “Memorial” by Alice Oswald, a prize-winning English poet.
Oswald attempts in modern language to capture the spirit more than the narrative of the ancient work. Or, as Oswald words it in her introduction, her poem is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” This is an audacious task to say the least and therefore the most remarkable thing about Oswald’s work is that it succeeds remarkably well – as far as it goes.
The Iliad is a lengthy, complex work in which Gods, heroes and mere mortals interact on a grand canvas that stretches from the fertile valley of the Eurytos across the broad Aegean to the topless towers of Troy. The names of the principal protagonists have echoed down the centuries: Achilles and Hector, Helen and Paris, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Ulysses, and the rest. The Iliad, for most of us, stands for the story of Helen’s abduction (whether voluntary or not), and the war that ensued and ended in the utter destruction of a great city. The Iliad is about ambition, hubris, pride, lust, jealousy, cowardice, betrayal, conjugal and fraternal love, heterosexual and homosexual love, vengeance, grief – and just about any other human emotion that I may have forgotten.
Oswald’s poem in contrast is “just” 70 sparse – not to say laconic -- pages. Nor does it attempt to reconstruct a story that Oswald (like Homer himself) expects her readers to already know. The charm of “Memorial” is that reminds us that the Iliad itself was intended as a verbal memorial to the dead. Oswald draws the reader’s attention to the Greek tradition of “lament poetry.” This was burial ritual of the ancient world in the mourners remembered the dead in verse composed specifically to remember the deeds of the deceased. The Iliad is littered with the laments for individual combatants. Oswald’s poem makes us stop and consider these men – Protesilaus, Echepolus, Elephenor, Simoisius. Never heard of them? That is exactly the point. These are men, mortals, not the demigods, the kings the heroes. Yet they too gave their lives. Oswald’s poem reminds us of them.
Oswald’s images are brutal because she has translated the original, which was famous for its reality. Thus “Diores.. struck by a flying flint, died in a puddle of his own guts, slammed down into the mud he lies, with his arms stretched out to his friends….” Or: “Pherecles… died on his knees screaming. Meriones speared him in the buttock and the point pierced him in the bladder.”
Yet this poem is anything but an orgy of blood and guts. On the contrary, rather than glorifying the violence and brutality, it makes it all the more horrible by directing it at individuals that are – sometimes with only the barest, outline – a mere brush-stroke in words -- nevertheless given individuality and humanity. Thus Pherecles was “brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen,” while Pylaemenes had a heart “made of coarse cloth and his manners were loose like old sacking.” Harpalion was “not quite ready for life, not quite solid, always shifting from foot to foot, with his eyes sliding everywhere in fear.” Yet another woman’s son “was the tall one, the conscientious one, who stayed out late pruning his father’s fig trees.” Or simply: “Koiranus…of Crete was a quiet man, a light to his loved ones.”
And their families too are brought to light with vivid urgency: “The priest Hephaestus, hot-faced from staring at flames, prayed every morning the same prayer, “Please God respect my status, protect my sons Phegeus and Idaeus, calm down their horses, lift them out of the fight…Hephaestus heard him, but he couldn’t hold those bold boys back, riding over the battlefield too fast they met a flying spear….” Or: Laothoe, one of Priam’s wives, never saw her son again. He was washed away. Now she can’t look at the sea She can’t think about the bits of unburied being eaten by fishes.”
Yet even this might have been too much blood, guts and grieving if Oswald had not interspersed her laments with sublime similes that are so evocative they are breath-taking. "Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains, The thud of water losing consciousness, When it falls down from the high places…." Or: "Like fawns running over a field, Suddenly give up and stand, Puzzled in their heavy coats." Or: "Like thick flocks of falling snow, In winter when god showers his arrows at us, Pouring them down putting the winds to sleep, Until the hills the headlands the grassy lowlands, All the ploughs and crops fo the earth every living twig, Is wiped out white with snow it goes on and on, Falling and falling on the grey sea, Blotting out harbours and beaches, And only the breakers can shake it off, endlessly rushing at the shore."
Other images, however, evoke more than nature itself. Like a flash of lightning, they briefly illuminate scenes from the age of Homer, or offer vignettes of everyday life in the age of Achilles. For example: "Like a good axe in good hands, Finds out the secret of wood and splits it open." Or: "Like two mules on a shaly path in the mountains, Carrying a huge roof truss or the beam of a boat, Go on mile after mile giving it their willingness, Until the effort breaks their strength." Or: "Like a goatherd stands on a rock, And sees a cloud blowing towards him, A black block of rain coming closer over the sea, Pushing a ripple of wind inland, He shivers and drives his flocks into a cave for shelter."
Memorial is a poem, not an epic poem, novel, play or history. It’s magic is in its ability to evoke an image and an emotion with the minimal use of words. As such it is both laconic and Laconian. I recommend it.
Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, by Alice Oswald, faber and faber, London, 2011.