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The first to die was PROTESILAUS

New poems

The first to die was PROTESILAUS

Maria S. Mendes


The first to die was PROTESILAUS

A focused man who hurried to darkness

With forty black ships leaving the land behind

Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs

Where the grass gives growth to everything

Pyrasus         Iton    Pteleus                      Antron

He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore

There was his house half-built

His wife rushed out clawing her face

Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother

Took over command but that was long ago

He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years


Alice Oswald, “The first to die was PROTESILAUS”, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Londres: Faber, 2011.

I like this poem because it is written through Homer, instead of being a translation. Like the rest of Memorial, this is a fragment of the Iliad and of a soldier’s life, prematurely cut short, like the half-built house and the lands which, left behind, have here been reduced to a mere sequence of names with long spaces between them. The second part of the title of Alice Oswald’s book promises an excavation, and the author does indeed rescue Protesilaus, the first to have died in the war, from the Iliad’s interminable flux of action (and from the unpunctuated scriptio continua) – exhuming someone who has lain within the poem for millennia.

The very arrangement of the biographical elements interrupts the sequence of the Iliad and creates new associations between the fragments. In Homer’s poem, Protesilaus is mentioned in the context of the catalogue of ships in book 2, in reference to the men from Phylace whom he led. The widow and the unfinished house appear as separate elements and function as a prelude to the moment that most stands out in terms of heroic conventions: death. Oswald, in turn, begins by briefly relating the hurried death of someone who, having come from a land lit by flowers, rushed to meet darkness: “He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore”. Postponed till after the narration of his death, the relation between house and wife now gains cinematic continuity, as when a camera focuses on an object and then follows the movement that unfolds: we first see “his house half-built”, then watch the wife rushing out from it, overcome by grief, “clawing her face”.

On the other hand, Oswald plays with the double temporality created by the paraphrase to this short biography. Protesilaus is replaced by Podarcus (a much less impressive brother, in a variation of the commonplace of the fearless hero, who is substituted by the presumably more prudent officer) as head of the army he had led to Troy. The narrator adds: “but that was long ago”. In the Iliad, nine years elapse between Protesilaus’s death and the episode of the catalogue of ships, while, at this point, canonical translations of the poem mention only the passage of “many years”. But the last line revises this temporality in laconic terms: “He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years”. The syntactic structure that begins with “but”, in the previous line, may lead the reader to think that the last line would elucidate the one before it, but, in truth, the lines hold an ambiguity that allows us to contemplate disparate temporalities. The penultimate line may refer to the time of the Iliad’s events, but the last line refers to our time, since the thousands of years are counted back from us, not from the Greeks in Troy. We are no longer looking at a poem that intimately addresses Patroclus as “you”, but at a post-Schliemannesque excavation of a distant Troy that has been reduced to fragments.


Robert Fagles’s translation of the Greek verses paraphrased by Alice Oswald

Then men of Phylace, Pyrasus banked in flowers,

Demeter’s closed and holy grove and Iton mother of flocks,

Antron along the shore and Pteleos deep in meadows.

The veteran Protesilaus had led those troops

while he still lived, but now for many years

the arms of the black earth had held him fast

and his wife was left behind, alone in Phylace,

both cheeks tom in grief, their house half-built.

Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him,

first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches.

But not even then were his men without a captain,

yearn as they did for their lost leader. No,

Podarces a fresh campaigner ranged their units–

son of Iphiclus son of Phylacus rich in flocks–

Podarces, gallant Protesilaus’ blood brother,

younger-born, but the older man proved braver too,

an iron man of war. Yet not for a moment did his army

lack a leader, yearn as they did for the braver dead.

Under Podarces sailed their forty long black ships.


Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, London: Penguin, 1991, p. 122 (book 2, lines 793-811).



Miguel Ramalhete Gomes is exactly halfway between two jobs. I.e., he is unemployed. He was a post-doctoral FCT fellow at FLUP, with a project on Shakespeare during the period of austerity. Fortunately, he is thrifty, though not with words.