Alice Oswald and Re-Writing Mythology
Seren looks at Alice Oswald's Memorial next to its mythological predecessors, exploring Oswald's distinctive approach to myth.
There are few works that have stood the test of time as well as Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Their stories have been major influences on generations of western literature, and inspired numerous creative retellings, from Hollywood blockbuster films to gender-swapped sci-fi comics.
Due to their original form in Ancient Greek, all retellings could be argued to be a sort of translation of the texts, just as translating is a form of retelling. It’s impossible to literally translate a thousand-year-old poem and still retain its original meaning and literary achievement, and each translation reveals as much about the translator’s style as it does about Homer’s, because each translator must decide what they want to retain and adapt.
Nature poet Alice Oswald told her own version of the Iliad in a collection called Memorial. Described by Oswald as a ‘translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story’, it’s a poem that forgoes the plot of the Iliad almost entirely in favour of describing the lives of the individual soldiers who died at Troy, weaved together with repeating descriptions of the landscape.
Oswald's work is both clearly Homeric while still demonstrating her distinctive voice and style. Putting her translation side-by-side with one done by Robert Fagels, one of the most well-known classical translators, paints an interesting contrast:
‘And Telamonian Ajax struck Anthernion's son,
the hardy stripling Simoisius, stilI unwed ...
His mother had borne him along the Sirnois' banks
when she trailed her parents down the slopes of Ida
to tend their flocks, and so they called him Simoisius.
But never would he repay his loving parents now
for the gift of rearing-his life cut short so soon,
brought down by the spear of lionhearted Ajax.
At the first charge he slashed his right nipple,
clean through the shoulder went the brazen point
and down in the dust he fell like a lithe black poplar
shot up tall and strong in the spreading marshy flats,
the trunk trimmed but its head a shock of branches.’
-Robert Fagels and Homer, Iliad
‘SIMOISIUS born on the banks of the Simois
Son of Anthemion his mother a shepherdess
Still following the sheep when she gave birth
A lithe and promising young man unmarried
Was met by Ajax in the ninth year of the war
And died full tilt running onto his spear
The point passed clean through the nipple
And came out through the shoulderblade
He collapsed instantly an unspeakable sorrow to
-Alice Oswald, Memorial
It’s obvious from reading these two stanzas that Oswald has stuck to Homer’s text very closely, while still obviously being an adaptation. Fagels’ translation starts with Simoisius’ death and weaves in the tale of his life, Alice delivers the story chronologically and cuts down the need for repetition. It’s also an interesting translation in terms of the small details, like Simoisius’s mum being described with more agency as a ‘sherperdess’ who is ‘following the sheep’ rather than having ‘trailed her parents’. These translations are minute, but reveal a lot about the translators and how they interpret the text, with Alice’s interpretation being a more subtly feminist reading.
Alice, who studied classics at Oxford University, references and reimagines classical stories in much of her poetry. Apart from Memorial, the most obvious example of this is her poem Tithonus from her collection Falling Awake. The poem’s focus is on the mythological character of Tithonus, a man who fell in love with the goddess Dawn. In the myth it’s said that Dawn asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal so that they could be together forever, but he was only granted immortal life, not youth, dooming him to spend eternity wasting away in age but never dying.
Tithonus is a great poem with vivid natural imagery, but what really makes it a unique re-telling is its’ delivery. Written as a spoken word poem that, when performed at the exact right time, will coincide with the ’46 minutes in the life of the dawn’. Not only is this a stunning technical feat, it’s also a poignant way to honour the original story and re-tell it in a way that is new and compelling, while also going back to the Homeric tradition of poetry as a performance.
Translating ancient mythology in the modern day is often a fraught task, with stories like Homer’s having thousands of years of history behind them into which the writer is supposed to spin into something new. Alice Oswald’s poetry has infusions of classical elements with her contemporary style that makes her translations feel original while still honouring the original myths. Every writer has their own take on translations, and Alice has certainly managed to leave a mark.
by Seren Livie