Water Music

Falling Awake

by Alice Oswald
Norton, 81 pp., $25.95; $15.95 (paper)
Alice Oswald at her house, South Devon, England
Jim Wileman/eyevine/Redux
Alice Oswald at her house, South Devon, England, 2016

That there would be no English literary tradition without Greek and Latin is almost axiomatic. The Earl of Surrey invented blank verse by translating Virgil; Milton trained to be Milton by translating Latin poets, then translating his own verse into Latin; when Auden wanted to adapt Marianne Moore’s syllabics to his own sense of line, he turned to Alkman’s meter (alcaics, also adapted into Latin by Horace); and to this day, reading classics at Oxbridge is a conventional start to a poetry career. Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek” is incandescent on the radical nature of the Greeks in particular: these ancient people, who transacted their lives out of doors in the sunshine (unlike northerners),

admit us to a vision of the earth unravaged, the sea unpolluted, the maturity, tried but unbroken, of mankind. Every word is reinforced by a vigour which pours out of olive-tree and temple and the bodies of the young.

Not only do they transmit vigor, they are “decided, ruthless, direct.” “There is the compactness of expression. Shelley takes twenty-one words in English to translate thirteen words of Greek.” But above all, “Greek is the impersonal literature…. These are the originals, Chaucer’s the varieties of the human species.” Innocence, vigor, concision, impersonality: although we do not even know what the language sounded like, it vitaminizes our spirits like an impossibly distant but inextinguishable Elysian sun. A thousand academic pundits could not rationalize a return to a classical curriculum, but the proof is in our poets.

In 2011 Alice Oswald made a startling contribution to the long tradition of Homeric literature in English: Memorial, a version of the Iliad stripped of its narrative—no gods, no Helen, no heroes. What was left after this massive erasure was a double list-poem itemizing the manner of death of every warrior mentioned by name (two hundred and fourteen, by my count), ending with Hector; and an interpolated translation of all the epic similes. In her introduction to the book she called it a “bipolar poem,” contrasting lamentation with lyric, violent death with sublime nature, justified in part by the Greeks’ own practice of antiphonal dirges, in which a professional poet led the rites versus a chorus of women “offering personal accounts of the deceased.” The effect on the page was somber and static, or should I say electrostatic: a bardo state charged with small shocks of sentience at every turn. It really did give the world a new and different Homer.

Memorial was and was not a departure for Oswald. She, yes, studied classics at Oxford. Her style strives for those Greek virtues of innocence, vigor, impersonality. Yet her work was built on the foundations of a regional lyricism, centered on southwest England. Her first book, The…


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