The Memorial by Alice Oswald

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The Memorial by Alice Oswald
Oswald’s translation of the Iliad does not focus on the story, but rather on the extended
similes by Homer and the biographies of those who died during the war. Through various tools
and form, Oswald attempts to present not just names, but unforgotten people who died and lived
unforgettable as Homer copiously attempted to convey. Since the Illiad was orally narrated, but
not written, Oswald attempts to deliver it in a manner that the audience feels that it is listening to
it as opposed to reading it. This discussion presents Oswald’s aim of relating the unforgotten
names and the unforgettable lives and deaths of warriors through similes, hence recreating the
original poem’s enargeia.
Oswald aimed at paying homage to the warriors who died during the war. Since this goal
is attained by relating the autobiography of the individual warriors, she mentions the actual
names of the warriors and capitalizes them to place emphasis and to allow the audience to focus
and relate the experiences that follow with an actual person. For example, she indicates, “Made
AGASTRAPHUS get out of his chariot…Of course, he was wounded, he lay dying(Oswald 38-
39). She further states, “ADRESTUS almost survived it was horrible” (Oswald 38-39). When
one sees that emphasis placed on the names, the audience cannot help but relate the experiences
to the names of the people standing out in the context.
As in the case of an actual memorial, Oswald’s Iliad was meant to bring forth the sensory
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experience of war. The poet aimed at making the audience feel that it was part of the war to make
the experiences more personal. The poet is quick to indicate “Like a fish in the wind(Oswald
38-39) to indicate how the soldiers behaved and acted to save their lives. When a fish is caught in
the wind, it will do its best to go to an area that is least influenced by the wind. Similarly, Oswald
presents this simile to show how Agastraphus must have felt during his regret: “what was I doing
thinking I could walk through all that iron on my own” (38-39). The simile is clear to show that
Agastraphus had shifted from a bad situation to a worse one in the process of saving his life.
There are other scenarios where the war’s sensory experience and fear have been
captured through similes. When describing how Adrestus and Amphius met their death and their
fate was sealed as their father had begged them not to go to war, the poet indicates:
Like a goatherd stands on a rock
And sees a clod blowing towards him
A black block of rain coming closer over the sea(Oswald 37)
Some soldiers such as these two brothers and Agelos had their fate sealed from the
beginning. It was known by themselves or others that they would die at war. The poet presents
this fear by conveying analogies. For instance, she indicates that Agelaos “Noticed the death
cloud Diomedes towering towards him” (27-28). This fear and experience are emphasized by
comparing them to a man who puts “a wand of olive in the earth” and takes care of it of which it
turned out to be a wave and became “a whip a spine a crown” (27-28). To show how lonely, they
were when these warriors died, the poet closes the stanza with the simile by stating that they
were a woodpile in a lonely field.
The similes and repetition used concurrently have been used to convey the poem’s
enargeia. The stanzas that have the simile statements or phrases have been repeated
consecutively. Each simile stanza has been repeated in the subsequent stanza. As an outcome, the
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audience can feel the weight of the poem, while relating with the diverse experiences of the
warriors and showing empathy to them and the other people that may have been affected by the
war. The repetition can convey desperation in the eyes and hearts of the warriors, while in some
scenarios it shows regret or the agonizing pain that the victims may have been experiencing at
some point.
It is also evident that the narrative aspect of ancient stories has been stripped of Oswald’s
Illiad. As an outcome, the audience is left with an obituary, which is characterised by a strange
luminous quality, hence the vocative aspect of the poem. When going through the poem, one gets
the feeling as one reading through the lives of people who have just died and are about to be
buried. In another sense, one can feel that they are in a funeral where there is a person reading
through the eulogy of the soldiers about to be buried.
Through the contemporary freshness of language, the poet can dissect the various
experiences of the warriors so that she is able to keep with the speed which the events take place
and without compromising on the actual experiences, thoughts and occurrences of the individual
warriors. She shows how Pandarus regretted leaving behind his wealth, wife and other comforts
to participate in the war. She also shows the desires of some soldiers such as Pandarus who
swore that he would “smash this bow and throw it with my own hands into the fireif he failed
to “get home” and “see my wife and my high-roofed house(Oswald 18-19). Regardless of these
desires, the poet is also quick to show how Pandarus died a horrifying death where a Diomedes
spear passed through between his eyes, splintering his teeth, cutting his tongue, breaking his jaw
and coming out through the chin.
When one is going through the Illiad as portrayed by Oswald, one cannot help but ask
various questions. The audience tends to ask why Oswald found the need to narrate or retell the
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Illiad, yet it was already evident in Homer’s Illiad. From the beginning to the end of this poem,
on identifies the warriors by name, and progressively encounters their experiences at the
individual level as each soldier dies after another, as anticipated. Nevertheless, one cannot help
but wonder why Oswald found the need to take the audience through such an agonizing and
painful experience even though none of the people in the audience knew the soldiers.
Another aspect conveyed by the poet is the environment in which these soldiers were in
when they were warring or dying. The poem then exceeds the role of an obituary or eulogy. The
environments are mostly described by the similes evident in specific poem stanzas. The poet
talks about a “fish in the wind” (38-39), “good axe in good hands” (25-26), gathered stands on a
rock” (37) and “a wand olive in the earth” (27-28), amongst others. This narration of the
environments makes the experiences more real to the audience which was not at the actual
This question can be answered through several ways. First, like any other memorial,
Oswald’s memorial is a remembrance of a war and more importantly, the people who took part
in that war. Memorials take place repeatedly as long as the people find it important to remember
the subjects. When this aspect is considered, Oswald’s work can be done as many times as
possible as it will be fulfilling its purpose.
Oswald also tends to use this translation as a window that allows the audience to see the
intentions or purpose of Homer when he first wrote the Illiad. This is a different use of
translation where the words (Greek) are translated into another language (English). Oswald’s
purpose is not simply to convey her agenda but to communicate the enargeia of the poem as was
initially intended by the original poet.
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This argument shows how a poem can use the form to convey a message, relate to the
audience and retain the spirit of the poet who originally wrote the poem. In this case, Oswald
uses similes to convey the message of the poet as well as retain its enargeia. Additionally, the
reader can relate to the actual experiences that were encountered by the warriors during the war
and feel the pain of the people who were affected by the war, hence remembering them.
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Works Cited
Oswald, Alice, and Homer. Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. London: Faber and Faber,
2011. Print.

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