Failure to recognise what is human
ASENSIBLE introductory paragraph for a review of a book based on The Iliad might say the greatest epic poem in Western literature is about 28 centuries old and concerns an absurd and exhausting war between Greeks and Trojans. About 240 named characters die over the span of The Iliad’s 15,000 lines. Homer is explicit: the bit player Euchenor, for example, dies when an arrow lands in his ‘‘ ear and jaw beneath’’.
The late stages of the Trojan War find Helen of Troy weaving a figured tapestry describing the battles being fought for her city. Helen blames herself for the violence — she’s the object of the war as well as its first author, in a sense — and she makes this guilt bearable with the idea her tapestry constitutes a proper memorial to the dead.
The Iliad shows us that Helen’s tapestry, an analogue for oral poetry, will be replaced by an epic poem. Already grounded in Homer is the sense that stories are somehow addressed to a precursor, and new adaptations of old tales are simply natural developments, a precondition for the unbroken lines of storytelling that help some cultures continue to make sense.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial is an adaptation of Homer; in her words ‘‘ a translation of The Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story’’. From the original Oswald takes the battle scenes and extended similes, leaving the quarrels between the Greeks, the gods, the ransoms, all the kismet of the Trojan War.
When a character dies in The Iliad we are told the name of the dead man, some biographical detail, and the manner of his dying. This rhythm of information is kept up by Oswald: ‘‘ EUCHENOR a kind of suicide / carried the darkness inside him of a dud choice / either he could die at home of sickness / Or at Troy of a spearwound . . . It was no surprise when an arrow pierced his neck / He recognised that prick of darkness.’’ Elsewhere a character dies and ‘‘ Now somebody has to tell his father / That exhausted man leaning on a wall / looking for his favourite son’’.
Memorial’s many passages of battles paraphrase Homer’s, mingling also the dimensions of lament poetry and the ancient casualty list. Oswald’s book dwells in the mystery of human cruelty, bereft of optimistic conclusions. But her poem does build a coherent scene from the images of violence: Memorial at times resembles an atrocity exhibition, as its title declares, a thing purposed to appeal to the collective