Through the dead in a long-lost battle, a modern poet finds purpose in life, and what’s worth dying for…

“Then he knows his knees are going to lift him forever, and a grassy cloth has been spread on the fields for his pleasure…

–Alice Oswald

Sometimes, when I am enraptured by patriotism, I think back to Horace, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “it is both sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” There is some comfort in the delightfully broad notion that death, bleak, black, and cold, can still be both sweet and fitting. It is even still more comforting if a “good death” only demands that we die in a particular fashion, as if to die is an olympic dive with a thirty point score. It is difficult to maintain this sentiment when reading Alice Oswald’s Memorial, which details the lives and deaths of those who perished during the Trojan War. Where is the sweetness in leaving your wife widowed, your mother grieving, and your family broken? How decorous is it to die with a helmet crushed and reshaped into the outline of your skull?

In reading Oswald’s poem, there are a litany of gruesome and indecent killings, each upsetting in their own right. However, despite every instance of grotesque violence, Oswald does not claim that there is no sweet and fitting time to die. In fact, there are moments within the poem when death seems not only welcome, but also attractive. But if not in service of a higher power, like one’s country, when is death desirable? What are the qualifications that make someone comfortable with their own death? In reading Oswald’s poem, it  does not seem that there is nothing sacred inherent to war; however, upon a closer reading, it does seem that a sweet and decorous death comes from a certain internal acceptance of mortality rather than something external like patriotism.

On the subject of war, Oswald’s outlook is bitter. War, in Memorial, is presented as an unholy institution, which God looks down upon: “God rains on the roof hammering his fists down/ he has had enough of violent smiling men.” Further, as well as being unpleasing to god, it seems that those who are memorialized by Alice Oswald are not particularly thankful for their deaths either, despite the honorable purpose of dying for their country. The most stark example of this comes from the story of Dolon, who is only killed after offering to give up his family’s entire fortune and every weakness he knows of the Trojan army. Dolon dies a traitor, begging for his life: “[he] was still pleading for his life/ when his head rolled to the ground.” The general consensus of the soldiers seem to be negative on the subject of death as well. For example, Asius dies believing himself to be “stupid,” for having gone to battle instead of dismounting and returning to his camp; Satnius, the child of a river goddess, dies in a river so cold that “you’d never think it was his own mother,” and at night, when the violence is over, men at war ask the mainland “is there anybody there please help.” It is clear that war, no matter what “higher purpose” it provides (cultural, civic, or otherwise), soothes neither those soldiers who are dying on the field of battle, nor those who are awaiting death in their camps.

It is in the case of Euchenor, however, that death first seems to be presented as desirable. Euchanor comes to Troy because he is dying of some disease, and he would prefer to die in battle. The description of his death is perhaps the most positive in the entire poem:

“like a stallion tugging at a rope breaks loose at last

and his gallop is a drumbeat shaking the valley

longing to wash in that clattering rush of cold

when he holds his head high and runs like a king under the banner of his mane

then he knows his knees are going to lift him forever

and a grassy cloth has been spread on the fields for his pleasure.”

This is one of the only examples in the text of a man knowingly running towards death. Why is it that Euchanor can feel such comfort with his own mortality, while many other heroic men around him die, terrified? It seems that familiarity is the virtue which allows him to demonstrate such grace at his own murder. Euchanor is described as carrying the darkness (death) “inside of him” because of his sickness. When it comes time for him to die, and he is shot in the neck by an arrow, he recognizes “that prick of darkness.”   Because he has some intimate knowledge of death, due to his illness, he can accept it when it comes to him. This passage is also one of the few instances including a positive depiction of the afterlife, which seems to be akin to a picnic with a blanket on the grass. It is in fact so delightful in appearance that Euchanor is described as a horse finally losing its yoke and proudly galloping like a king to his end. Here, Oswald shows us that a truly good death does not come from purpose or anything external. Euchanor’s death is as random as any other, but it is his own attitude and conceptual understanding of his own mortality that creates such a glorious and valiant image.

The story of Euchanor is comparable to the story of the deer, the lion, and the wolves found earlier in the poem, in that it depicts another favorable portrait of death. It is a story wherein a deer is chased by dogs until it eventually gives up and resigns, after a long and torturous chase, to be eaten. It is only after the dogs begin to eat her that an angel of death, in the form of a lion, pounces down from the mountain and claims the life of the deer. One of the particularly interesting parts of this passage is in the final lines: “at evening a lion appears…and the dogs scatter.” This is another ultimately positive description of death. The deer which has been torturously attacked gives up on the possibility of escape: “a deer in the hills wounded/ keeps running in pain…until it happens in some shadowy wood on a hilltop/ she gives up/ and the dogs set about eating her.” The reward for her giving up and accepting her own death is that all of the dogs that tortured her are scattered away, and the characterization of the lion as an “angel” clearly places death as a benevolent force. Thus, in this case too, death can be desirable when one has accepted it.

Another perspective on death and acceptance within Memorial that helps fill out the insight behind it is in the story of the mule, which accompanies the story of Medon who, despite a very harsh and unpleasant life, still resists death by “kicking” it when he is eventually killed. Oswald follows this story by describing a mule which refuses to move from his spot because he wants to continue eating corn, despite the fact that he is being beaten by children with sticks: ”nothing moves that lump of donkey/ from the fixed statue of his eating/ until he is full and of his own Iron will/ walks on.” The key word in this passage is “will.” Oswald is telling us that the will to live is far stronger than external forces like pain and wrath, but at the same time, that will is malleable. It can direct the animal to sit and eat and it can direct it to move on. It is also interesting that the will of the donkey is determined by satisfaction. It is only after the donkey has eaten enough corn that he is willing to get up.

This tells us something important about life in the context of Memorial. Just as will exists to make a donkey eat corn, despite how hard the world may seem to him, a will exists to make people strive to live. And if these wills are comparable, we can then determine that the will to live is dependent at least partly upon satisfaction. If one is satisfied with their life, then they will be more content to move on to another state of being. This passage represents yet another examination of the “good death” and comes to the same conclusion as the other above passages because in essence, to accept death and to be satisfied with life are one and the same: one who has not accepted death is not willing to die.

In reading Memorial, I was continually reminded of the first statement in The Code of the Samurai by Daidoji Shigesuke: One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind, by day and by night . . . the fact that he has to die. That is his chief business.” Oswald, in memorial, reminds the reader, through every killing, that death is inevitable, and that those “violent smiling men” who charge into battle, full of arrogance and unaware of life’s finality, are destined to die, afraid and disappointed. Memorial tells to us to remember that to give up one’s life is seldom sweet. It asks us to be aware of our own inevitable ends and to find some way to make peace with them, so that when death comes we may gallop to it with grace.

Part of the Spiricorps Chronicles

Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk.  All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton create them if they were writing the Federalist Papers today.  We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!

Anatolia, Turkey, originally Troy. Who’s the guy on the right, and why is he here? Well…

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