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Memorial, Alice Oswald

Memorial is a 'stripped-back' translation/adaptation of The Iliad. In the introduction, Oswald

opens with "this is a translation of the Iliad's atmosphere, not its story".

The poem, as the title suggests, is a memorial. Fragments of stories read like epitaphs, woven
together to recreate the Iliad. Key stanzas are repeated, spoken twice as a type of call and
response. Oswald has taken what is a 15000 line poem and produced a poem that is somewhere
around 1800 lines.

The title - Memorial. Why?

The title of the poem serves as the gate to a war monument, whilst the ‘catalogue of the dead’
stands for the main site of attraction. The form and content of the poem is devoted to pay credit
to the unheralded dead soldiers of the Iliad without omitting the fragile finality of human

 “This version . . . takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in
order to remember what you’re worshipping. What’s left is a bipolar poem. Why
do you think Oswald calls her poem bipolar?

Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral
lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition.

 Oswald strips away the narrative of the Iliad as if it is unnecessary. Why do you
think Oswald chose to take the narrative away?
‘As one might lift the roof of a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping. The Iliad
is an institution. Like a church, with all of its glam and spectacle, it’s hard to sometimes see the
wood for the trees. What are we worshipping in the Iliad? A bunch of dead people who have not
been formally acknowledged.

 Why do you think Oswald subtitled her poem: An Excavation of the Iliad.
Oswald aims to dig up the truth concerning Iliad’s nature, which is the everlasting relationship of
human nature with death.

 What are the functions of the homeric similes?

With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile – where the action pauses
momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural
world – becomes doubly important: there’d otherwise be no breathing room at all. Oswald
seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the
chorus of a song. The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before
rushing back headlong into the fray.
Catalogue of the dead
The opening of the poem - a catalogue of names of all the people who die in the Iliad. What
function does it have in prefacing the poems? Does this catalogue say anything about how 21st
Century western audiences deal with the fallen?
21st century memorials share a common purpose - to focus on the individual life. Unlike the Iliad,
where there is a dissymmetry in the verses spent for those who die depending on their
importance in the narrative, modern societies tend to pay the same amount of respect to all
individual lives. In other words, a modern war memorial acts as a reminder about the duty that
we have that the names of all fallen soldiers are not erased from collective memory. In addition
to this, the absence of a hierarchy as regards the individual importance of the casualties highlights
the idea that all men are equal in their death: a so-called phenomenon of democratization of
mortality that is opposed to the heroically centered political organization of the Iliad.

Hector dies last and he appears at the end of the catalogue of deaths. What point is
Oswald trying to make here?

Democratisation of mortality. No person is more significant than another. In death we are equal.

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