“Memorial” and Anachronism

Brink Productions debuted Memorial at the Adelaide Festival for performances from 1-6 March 2018. The production came to the Barbican, London, 27-30 September 2018.


In 1940 Simone Weil declared that ‘The true hero, the true subject of the Iliad, is force’ (Weil, Besplaoff, McCarthy 2005), directing us to interpret the poem’s protagonist as mēnis (rage). The power of Weil’s reading is to strip away the focus on character and urge us to appreciate the poem’s structuring and destructive tendencies. Alice Oswald takes up the baton from Weil in Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (2011), her poetic to the Iliad. Oswald turns away from the thundering and galloping and raging and squabbling of the main Greek and Trojan heroes. In an extraordinary formal experiment, Memorial asks with Simone Weil, “what would it look like to read the Iliad without Achilles?”

Oswald’s answer is altogether less austere and relentlessly form-focused than Weil’s. Memorial seeks to commemorate the nameless and the barely mentioned, the 215 fallen men that Homer skims by and whose sole claim to posthumous fame might lie at the business end of Diomedes’ spear, or an inglorious spew of brains on that windy Trojan plain through which Achilles stomps, or the barely logical narrative hook from which hangs an abundant Homeric simile. Oswald describes her processing of the Iliad as ‘an attempt to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, to take away its narrative, as you might rip the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping’ (Oswald, 2011, ix). She is also highly aware that junking most of the plot and the focus on the main heroes constitutes ‘a reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’ (Oswald, 2011, x). Oswald’s poetic sensibility is both tender and rock-and-roll, eyeing up eternity and the bright immediate now – in other words, anachronistic.

Oswald’s insistence on the humanity of each individual that she can recoup from the Homeric poem radically reshapes the kind of poem she offers as a response to the Iliad. It also reshapes the form of the Brink Productions recent performance of Memorial. Demurring from merely cataloguing the dead, in the manner that Homer gathers ships, or Hesiod women, Oswald toggles between creating biography and simile for each man and his death, a ‘bi-polar’ mode. Her invented biographical details are agonizingly specific: see for example, ‘Polydorus… who loved running/ now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ looking for his favourite son’ (Oswald, 2011, 64). And make no mistake, Oswald is an excellent reader of Homer – I snorted out loud at the epithet “neurotic” for Cassandra.

Particularity is precisely what is squeezed out of the Iliad for these men – there simply is no room for such mass of detail in a narrative in which the hot and heavy stirrings of the Hero (capital H)’s heart must be carefully tracked. Oswald’s procedure has a paradoxical effect – to individualize and restore humanity to hundreds of men, but in doing so, rendering the crowd of soldiers the protagonist of the poem. In this production, a non-professional group of volunteer men, women, and children form the chorus, drawn from local London community choirs and theatre groups. This chorus plays out the destruction of the city, the men who die, and even the Trojan plain itself – the play starts in darkness with a field of bodies peeling themselves up from the floor. Later, the chorus forms the din of battle (not unlike the stock footage of city streets that accompanies news reports on television, or murmurations of starlings, with clear internal logic and patterns that can only be appreciated by an onlooker). Homer’s similes do a lot of work to imagine worlds full of sympathetic and sensuous connections – it is quite another thing to see a river of bodies literalized as the Scamander, or a crowd of two hundred people gather round and form the walls of Troy.

Screenshot 2018-11-10 22.15.33

Oswald does not entirely eschew the Iliadic plot – there are obvious moments that re-create episodes such as Odysseus and Diomedes’ (textually and ethically dubious) night time raid on the camp of Rhesus in Iliad Book Ten. Not focusing on Achilles’ rage or the politicking of the Greek kings or the Trojan princes means that Oswald is able to lay bare their brutality, stripping back the presentation of Agamemnon to a commander who showed no mercy to a defenseless and naked young man who begged for his life.

This production chooses to linger on Hector’s death, as Memorial does, with significant change from the final books of the Iliad. Instead of the formality of ransoming of Hector’s body and the citywide mourning for the hero’s final journey home, the last we see of him in this production is (a character that we can assume is) Andromache, awkwardly dragging her husband’s much larger body off stage. It is a quietly powerful rebuttal to the endgame of Achilles’ rage, produced by the radical de-centering of character and plot.

 Helen Morse, grande dame of the Australian stage, performed the only speaking role, a modern rhapsode who was capable of communicating each soldier’s brief moment in the spotlight with gravitas and empathy. An older female Homeric narrator on stage, in the long tradition of contesting Homer’s gender (see Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897) as well as in the more recent controversy caused by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey (2017), was a canny move in the context of Oswald’s investigation of the conceptual motor of the Iliad.

Screenshot 2018-11-10 22.15.50.png

Morse’s tremendous performance compelled Memorial on, keeping compassion fatigue at bay and interest high – she spoke continuously for nearly two hours, tracing lives that flashed for a moment, lamenting and making each grief anew. (Not rendering lament monotonous is a feat in itself – I remember feeling numb at Juliette Binoche’s relentless Antigone, performed at the same theatre a few years ago). It is astonishing to hear the powerful roll call of the dead, carefully named, each death mourned as an individual loss.

Oswald’s memorializing procedure is passionately humanizing – to that end, it feels as though it could be a memorial for all time, or for every moment that we need reminding that war is the worst manifestation of human power. The gloss of the eternal has the potential to reduce Oswald’s poem to a solemn exercise in commemoration. Brink Productions opted for two particularizing strategies that chip away at this sense of timelessness, to drag Memorial into historical and geographical specificity.

The first is Jocelyn Pook’s achingly beautiful score, using mainly two singers from Bulgaria and Macedonia, along with oboe, clarinets, brass and shawm, a medieval woodwind instrument. Director Chris Drummond at one point called this production of Memorial an “oratorio” – the evocative blend of word and song was distilled in the geographical and cultural specificity of using Balkan women’s lamenting voices.

If this production of Memorial pinned itself down in place to great effect, its temporal unpinning worked well too. About two thirds of the way through, soldiers dressed in World War One uniforms appear, dotted through the crowd, conspicuous in khaki among the chorus dressed in light, contemporary style, loose clothes. It was just a moment and more heavy-handed direction would have visually emphasized the connection between the mythological and historical wars. The point of not doing this, I take it, is not to bewail the pity of war in a facile way. Rather, Brink Productions’ handling of their commission to contribute to WWI commemorations layers over the universal significance of Memorial with the gentle insistence that that those who died in between 1914 and 1918 will fade from living memory too, their specific contours will blur, and they too will need commemorations that seek particularity. Faced with the anachronistic community of the war dead for just a moment, Brink Productions showed us a glimpse of the un/timeliness, as well as the deep compassion, that moves under memory.



  • Butler, S. (1897) The Authoress of the Odyssey (London &c.)
  • Oswald, A., (2011) Memorial (London: Faber)
  • Weil, S.,  Bespaloff, S. (2005) [1945, 1947] War and the Iliad translated by Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review of Books).
  • Wilson, E. R. (trans.) (2018) The Odyssey (New York: W.W. Norton)





Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

One of our previous postings, Of Sundials, suggested that scientific discovery was a great generator of anachronism within antiquity. Here we turn to a related area of ancient enquiry, geography – and to the challenges posed to Greco-Roman mappings of the world by new information about a strange group of islands set in the wide expanse of sea north of the European mainland.

reconstruction of Herodotus' map
The encircling sea characterises reconstructions of Herodotus’ description of the world: this version is from HG Wells’ Outline of History, 1921.

One of the most striking features of the image of the world presented in Homer is a great encircling river known as Okeanos – the Ocean. By the time of Herodotus, however, that Homeric picture no longer seemed adequate: ‘It is impossible to argue against the person who spoke about Ocean, transporting the story (muthos) into the realm of uncertainty. I do not know the existence of any River Ocean, and I think that Homer or one of the other poets from past time invented the name and introduced it into his poetry.’ The encircling river is not, however, an anachronism for Herodotus: he simply does not have the knowledge to disprove the story. What he finds objectionable about the old poets is that they did not have any proper geographical knowledge either, but simply invented an encircling Ocean.

Change in geographical knowledge, as well as change in geographical features, plays an important role in discussions of anachronism in ancient criticism. Among the numerous complaints that Polybius brought against the Sicilian historian Timaeus was his out-of-date information on the geography of Africa. Diodorus noted that new geographical knowledge refuted the view that the Argonauts sailed on their return journey along the River Ister (the Danube) from the Black Sea to the Adriatic (which received the waters of a different River Ister). And within the wide-ranging field of Homeric scholarship, geographers such as Strabo were interested in the question of whether Homer’s narrative reflected the geographical realities known to the poet or those known to his characters.

What about the Ocean itself? By the time of the Roman empire there was rather more knowledge about areas outside the Mediterranean than in Herodotus’ lifetime. An interesting discussion is contained in the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, in an entry on the Roman empire. I here modify slightly the translation offered in the invaluable online edition of the Suda:

This empire surpassed by far the empire of the Assyrians and Persians and Macedonians, the previous ones. In the East it is bounded by the Indians and the Red Sea and the Nile and Cataracts and lake Maeotis. As regards the west, it is bounded by Ocean itself, which was shown by the Romans’ accomplishments to be no myth; nor did the poets falsely sing its name for entertainment, since in fact the land of the Britons, which is an island surrounded by Ocean, has now been discovered and is considered part of the Roman empire.

The author of this piece is probably Dexippus, an Athenian statesman and historian of the third century AD, who wrote a world chronicle covering 1,000 years, an account of the events after the death of Alexander, and a contemporary history, the Scythica. I say ‘probably Dexippus’ because that name is preserved in the Suda after the citation, and so it is possible that what Dexippus actually wrote are the words that follow rather than precede the name.

Whoever the author, one of the implications of this Suda entry seems to be that Herodotus’ dismissal of the poets’ account of the Ocean is anachronistic. The advance of the Roman empire has replaced uncertainty with the clarity of knowledge and proved the poets right. But the fragment is not so straightforward as that. There is uncertainty over the text as well as over the authorship. Editors often assume that some words have dropped out after ‘as regards the west’, perhaps mentioning the great rivers normally seen as the bounds of the Roman empire, the Danube and Rhine. More to the point here is that the translation offered above translates an emendation in the crucial phrase about the Ocean’s status as myth: hon mê muthon for hon dê muthon.

Felix Jacoby in his great edition of fragments of the Greek historians offered a different interpretation of the passage (FGrH 100 F 12). He preserved the manuscript reading in that clause while including a different emendation (the addition of a single Greek letter, an eta meaning ‘than’) later in the same sentence. According to the text he prints, the Ocean ‘was shown by the Romans’ accomplishments to be a myth, its name nothing other than something sung by the poets for entertainment’. With this text, Herodotus’ geographical judgement is vindicated – though Herodotus himself is still an anachronism: the Ocean is a myth, but Dexippus (unlike Herodotus) can prove it.

The argument of the passage as a whole supports Jacoby’s interpretation. To show that the Ocean was no myth did not require the conquest and circumnavigation of Britain. A trip to the northern coast of Gaul or the western coast of the Iberian peninsula would have done just as well – or just as badly. After all, Herodotus could rightly object that the mere discovery that the Ocean flowed around Britain scarcely justifies the poet’s account of the Ocean as a whole. What the conquest of Britain does prove is that the poets were wrong – because they posited a River Oceanus that was undifferentiated and uninhabited.

Debate over this Suda entry is perhaps appropriate at a time when the British face the long-term consequences of an anachronistic commitment to a particular myth of British insularity. It is also a valuable reminder that our sense of the difference of classical antiquity is partly based on the fragility of our own knowledge of it. Much of what we say about the ancient world is nothing but wild surmise about fragments laden with interpretative problems. And yet ­– as we shall see in another blog – the historian Dexippus himself is a wonderful example of the unexpected leaps in our knowledge that can occur thanks to the eagle eyes of modern technology.


http://www.stoa.org/sol/ (Adler number: rho 246 = Jacoby, FGrH 100 F 12)

Herodotus 2.23; Polybius 12.3.1-3; Diodorus 4.56.7-8; Strabo 1.2.23, 1.2.31, 12.3.23.


Seeing Homer

Rubens’ The Death of Hector is a scene from the Iliad replete with un-Homeric details. The armour and red cloaks recall Roman soldiers. Putti are common in Renaissance paintings but not in ancient Greek representations of the Trojan war. For viewers familiar with the Iliad, the putti’s role as spectators is jarringly different from the poem’s presentation of the gods, and Hector’s family, watching the battle (recalled in the painting by the onlookers on the walls). And yet these ‘anachronisms’ are not mistakes, as it would be to say that Rubens lived and worked in fifth century BC Greece. Showing Achilles and Hector in the dress of a later age creates a tradition of heroism in which they act as exemplars, while the putti remind viewers that they necessarily see the painting through modern eyes.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Death of Hector, Musée Des Beaux Arts, Pau, c. 1630-35

This capacity of ‘anachronistic’ phenomena to be more than simply redundant or out of place prompts Jacques Rancière to push aside the pejorative ‘anachronism’ in favour of ‘anachrony’. He uses this term to refer to ‘a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left “its” time’. He locates the power of anachronies in their ‘capacity to define completely original points of orientation’, from which we might see the world, and our temporal experience of it, in unexpected and revealing ways. Such reorientations emerge in many creative engagements with Homer and other ancient writers, and they play a particularly important role in Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a poem that fragments the Iliad into similes and casualty lists. Hers is a poetics that acknowledges its difference from Homer – she aims to convey the poem’s ‘atmosphere, not its story’. Yet by reaching towards the Iliad’s ‘bright, unbearable reality’, she also transplants readers into a frightening, alien world, using the words of the Greek text ‘as openings to see what Homer was looking at’.

This balancing of dependence and departure is especially pronounced in her renderings of the Iliad’s narratives, which she terms ‘paraphrases’ and which often fold complex scenes out of a few sparse hints. Homer’s characterization of Abarbarea as ‘a nymph of the springs’ (νύμφη / νηῒς Ἀβαρβαρέη, Il. 6.21–2) becomes

There was a blue pool who loved her loneliness
Lay on her stones clear-eyed staring at trees
Her name was Abarbarea …

Oswald cleaves closely to ‘what Homer was looking at’ by accentuating the nymph’s strange dual identity as woman and water. We first meet Abarbarea as ‘a blue pool’, while a few lines later her lover ‘jumped … into her arms’. We can see in her ‘clear-eyed staring’ both a fully anthropomorphic gaze and the pool’s water reflecting the trees. Yet ‘loved her loneliness’ is an un-Homeric notion; isolation tends to be associated with despondency or suffering in the Iliad, as when Achilles stares out to sea after his quarrel with Agamemnon, and there is no word in Homer that corresponds precisely to ‘loneliness’. Similarly, no Homeric character manifests the contemplative absorption evoked by ‘staring at trees’. Like Rancière’s ‘anachronies’, these phrases open up a new ‘orientation’ by making us imagine Abarbarea’s experience of her world.

In other passages, Oswald uses vocabulary and ideas that are even more obviously ‘anachronic’, in the sense of not belonging to Homer’s world. Isos and Antiphos ‘came home as proud as astronauts’ before riding out to their deaths, while Hector

… used to nip home defended by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running.

In a rendering of a simile, ‘tribes of summer bees’ are ‘A billion factory women flying to their flower work’. The astronauts, the running motorbike, and the factory show the poet’s workings, tracing imaginative equivalences through which the Iliad becomes freshly meaningful. Hovering between the modern and the ancient, lines like these lay bare the untimeliness of our engagement with Homer. They create a ‘time’ untethered either to that of the Iliad or the experiences of the modern reader, while also intimating that we as readers can never quite be at home in it.

Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978

Distance from Homer is also at issue in Cy Twombly’s series Fifty Days at Iliam. Representative of its attempt to reprogramme our sense of what it might be to ‘see’ the Iliad is ‘Achilles’ Shield’, in which the refusal of canonical representational conventions is the more provocative for being directed at the foundational ecphrasis of ancient literature. Whereas Homer represents the shield as an ordered series of pictures encompassing a range of social, political, and military activities, Twombly sets a title alongside swirling, apparently amorphous brushstrokes. Homer’s highly structured opposition between scenes of war and peace is replaced by contrasting colours. The painting invites us towards a ‘point of orientation’ in which something is represented to us, while also encouraging us to find between the marks on the canvas and the ‘shield’ of the title correspondences formally different from those that paintings such as Rubens’ establish with their subjects. The position of the ‘shield’ to one side of canvas creates an impression of movement, and we might see the blur of lines as enacting the impression the shield makes on its viewers within the story: at the beginning of Iliad 19, for instance, Achilles’ soldiers are seized by fear at the sight of the shield, and cannot bear to look at it.

Rubens, Oswald, and Twombly create new means of encountering the stories the Iliad tells, but they also evoke a ‘bright, unbearable reality’ that emerges from (their readings of) the poem, and yet is separate from it. Their ‘anachronic’ realizations of this domain remind us that the Iliad itself is not entirely ‘of its time’. The very clarity with which the Iliad projects its world ensures not only that that world can be encountered as an endlessly compelling imaginative resource, but that it can be apprehended as a ‘reality’ in relation to which the poem itself is epigonal.

  • Oswald, A. (2012) Memorial: an excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber).