lyric/epic modes and the recognition of persons

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the poem as trace of an event 2 I mentioned that the American poet and theorist Susan Stewart in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (2002), offers an interesting discussion of the ethical element of lyric when she distinguishes between lyric and epic poetry: she suggests that epic poetry is the voice of the nation (it voices the official perspective of the nation at war) while lyric poetry is the voice of the individual, who may be caught up in that war, but speaks alone, as one:

“I would like to take seriously [Rorty’s] suggestion that literature is a vehicle of moral progress if by such progress we mean an increasing recognition of individual persons and a reciprocal attention to the consequences of actions in relation to intentions. But I would argue that we can as readily find an analogue to the contrast between the abstracted and sublime view of human suffering and the immediacy of first-person experience in the contrast between two poetic modes: the first associated with public representations of war and the expression of tribalism and nationalism — the epic — and the second associated with the expression of the senses and emotions out of first-person experience — the lyric.” (p.296)

She goes on to argue that the lyric mode is best able to present the idiosyncratic consciousness of an individual, those “senses and emotions” that arise from first-person experience, over the engineered ideological pronouncements of the state. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the Iliad, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial (2011), which could be described as a reworking of Homer which attempts to rescue the individual soldiers and their deaths from the relentless (at times cinematic) narrative of battle in the original poem.

Oswald writes in her preface to Memorial, that

“ancient critics praised [the poem’s] enargeia, which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality.’ It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves. This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, 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 made of similes and short biographies of soldiers, both of which derive (I think) from distinct poetic sources: the similes from pastoral lyric (you can tell this because their metre is sometimes compressed as if it originally formed part of a lyric poem); the biographies from the Greek tradition of lament poetry [….] I like to think that the stories of individual soldiers recorded in the Iliad might be recollections of these laments, woven into the narrative by poets who regularly performed both high epic and choral lyric poetry.” p.1-2

Her “translation” then is based on her interpretation of the Iliad as “a kind of oral cemetery — in the aftermath of the Trojan War, an attempt to remember people’s names and lives without the use of writing.” p.2 As such, and in light of Stewart’s comments above, Oswald is working against the grain: to salvage the individual perspective by lifting it from its surrounding epic (state) narrative, to give us tiny glimpses of individual soldiers at their deaths, of who they were, their preoccupations, their loves.

In practice, Oswald constructs the bulk of Memorial by presenting first a description of a soldier’s death, followed by an epic simile, which is repeated twice. The repetition suggests a certain ceremonial, religious aspect, as in a litany or a prayer for the dead. It also suggests the ways in which memory circles back, returning again and again to recall the ones we have lost. As example, I’ve selected her description of the death of Skamandrios (Scamandrius in Oswald’s version):

First, here is the death of Skamandrios, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:

The henchmen of Idomeneus stripped the armour from Phaistos,
while Menelaos son of Atreus killed with the sharp spear
Strophios’ son, a man of wisdom in the chase, Skamandrios,
the fine huntsman of beasts. Artemis herself had taught him
to strike down every wild thing that grows in the mountain forest.
Yet Artemis of the showering arrows could not now help him,
no, nor the long spearcasts in which he had been pre-eminent,
but Menelaos the spear-famed, son of Atreus, stabbed him,
as he fled away before him, in the back with a spear thrust
between the shoulders and driven through to the chest beyond it.
He dropped forward on his face and his armour clattered upon him.  Bk. V. l.48-58

Here is Oswald’s translation or version, including the twice-repeated simile she adds to the biography:

SCAMANDRIUS the hunter
Knew every deer in the woods
He used to hear the voice of Artemis
Calling out to him in the lunar
No man’s land of the mountains
She taught him to track her animals
But impartial death has killed the killer
Now Artemis with all her arrows can’t help him up
His accurate firing arm is useless
Menelaus stabbed him
One spear-thrust through the shoulders
And the point came out through the ribs
His father was Strophius

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip


Some of the personal information of Skamandrios is in the original, including the irony of the hunter now becoming the hunted and the slain.  Oswald draws more however upon the senses and emotions Stewart points to as the province of lyric; it’s as if we see through his eyes (what he used to hear in the “lunar/No man’s land of the mountains”). And the shorter line is more familiar to us than the original hexameter of epic poetry. But it is in the simile where Oswald diverges widely from Homer. The simile itself isn’t in the original, at least, not attached to Skamandrios’s death; rather, it appears at the opening to Book 16, when Patroklos comes to Achilleus:

and stood by him and wept warm tears, like a spring dark-running
that down the face of a rock impassable drips its dim water;
and swift-footed brilliant Achilleus looked on him in pity,
and spoke to him aloud and addressed him in winged words; ‘Why then
are you crying like some poor little girl, Patroklos,
who runs after her mother and begs to be picked up and carried,
and clings to her dress, and holds her back when she tries to hurry,
and gazes tearfully into her face, until she is picked up?
You are like such a one, Patroklos, dropping these soft tears.

(Bk.16, lines 3- 11)

Achilleus is not so sympathetic to Patroklos and his sorrow for the wounded Greeks; the implication is that such “soft tears” are not the appropriate response of a warrior; rather, they are the response of a child — a girl child no less, who seeks the comfort of her mother. Yet we know that Patroklos will in fact take on the heavy responsibility that is Achilleus’s to bear, and lose his life for it.

Oswald takes (or maybe rescues) this simile of a young child who desires to be picked up and carried by a mother and attaches it instead to the death of Skamandrios, and in so doing, transfers the emotions of the young girl-child wanting her mother to those of the soldier at his death. She is true to the original simile, but adds some lovely details: in the truncated grammar from the child’s perspective, its entire being suffused with wanting the mother (“wants help, wants arms”); in the idea of “wanting to be light again,” lifted from the heaviness that life has become; and in that final realistic detail, missing in the original, but so true to a mother’s experience, wanting to be “carried on a hip.” I envy her these lines.

Other adapted and transposed similes in Memorial come equally from the human world of labour, and the natural realm, each simile drawn from the original poem, but now married to the description of a soldier’s death. For example:

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads. (Memorial p.14)


Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift
Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles
And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars
Making tiny dents in the ocean (Memorial p.43).

The strength of Oswald’s technique in Memorial is in the particularized description of each death, lifted out of the original narrative of war; each soldier and his death is given equal weight, no longer subsumed by the larger story of Achilles. And each death is then attached to a simile, as if a ritual mourning for that death. At its best, as in the example of Skamandrios above, lyric’s potential to tap into emotion and sensual experience is used to particularize the soldier’s death and present him as individual.

Yet, sometimes I feel that the similes drawn from the natural world — by which the soldier is transformed into grain, into waves, into earth, into sounds — begin to naturalize and thus possibly even sanction such deaths, these bloody deaths in the service of the state. That is, that Oswald attempts to resist the ideological ‘gravity’ of the Iliad by using lyric elements to lift the soldiers’ deaths out of the epic narrative — to carry them on the hip — but that Memorial is ultimately dragged back down into the Iliad’s heavy ideology because of the naturalizing similes, and may become complicit to some extent with the viewpoint of the state embodied by the epic form of the original. It’s as if the similes at times in Memorial erase the event’s trace, and the death is made clean. In this, the similes work against the particularizing force of the initial description of the soldier and his individual death; it is his death, yet it is given without question to the state.

At other times, I think there is something more positively transformative happening in Memorial, as if the Iliad is a cloth of many stitched pieces which Oswald has ripped apart at the seams and then rescued and stitched back together again, these lyric scraps meant to create a new hybrid poem to challenge the original epic, reframing its energeia, its “bright unbearable reality.”

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