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The Oresteia of Aeschylus

The Oresteia of Aeschylus

by Robert Lowell

Greek poetry was born in the similes of Homer, and reached its maturity— and surprising modernity—in the metaphors of Pindar and Aeschylus. This may not be obvious to those who have only read their classics in English translation. Homer's style seems to pose no problem for the translators, all of whom faithfully describe Achilles charging the Trojans "like inhuman fire." But for some unfathomable reason they balk at translating even the simplest of Greek metaphors. This is without justification either ancient or modern. To Aristotle, mastery of metaphor was the acme of art. And do we not live in an age when fog regularly comes in on little cat feet?

This inexplicable uneasiness in the presence of metaphor has at times even affected our finest translator from the Greek, Richmond Lattimore. In Pythian 8, Pindar speaks of man being skias onar, "the dream of a shadow." But in Lattimore he becomes "the shadow of a dream," a less powerful image of the ethereal, ephemeral quality of human life. More to the point, it is not what Pindar actually said. Such lapses are rare in Lattimore; in most versions they are rife.

According to Aeschylus, Prometheus stole for man anthos pyros, "the blossom of fire." Yet the flower has been plucked in at least half the translations I have checked. Admittedly, Aeschylean style can at times be purple-patched. But the translator's task is not to sit in judgment. He should render what he sees and allow the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Given the "metaphoraphobia" just described, Aeschylus has been an astonishing lodestone for poet-translators. Twenty years ago, a critic counted over 60 English versions of the Agamemnon, including one by Dryden with music by Purcell, and dozens more have been published in the interim. Yet there has never really been a version which has moved readers to "look at each other with a wild surmise/Silent, upon a peak in Darien." Still, Aeschylus continues to attract translators the way a Himalayan peak draws climbers to its most dangerous face. He is tall and majestic; the closer one gets the more frightening the task appears. If Scott, Tennyson and Shelley could try, why not Lowell?

This question is more than rhetorical. No critic denies Lowell a place beside the best poets of our age. Some even consider him an important playwright. But over his translations the John Simons pour out a veritable Hudson of philological contempt. Homer may be allowed to nod, but Lowell must be forbidden to translate. Perhaps, in a half century, Lowell's Imitations (1961) will be granted the same critical tolerance now accorded Pound's Propertius. Surely when any artist attempts to translate into English works ranging from Homer to Montale, there are bound to be infelicities. There are even likely to be felicities. Lowell was, in fact, a fairly good linguist, if no polyglot, and his Phaedra is as good a version as anyone is likely to produce in English. Curiously enough, when Louis Simpson praised the work, his one criticism was that Lowell's language was a bit too rugged for Racine, too much like Aeschylus.

Though he had written the first two-thirds of his Oresteia in the 1960s, Lowell was still working on the final portion when he died. His purpose, put forth in the brief preface, was to produce an acting version "to trim, cut, and be direct enough to satisfy my own mind and at a first hearing the simple ears of a theater audience." He did not work from the Greek (though he had studied the language), but instead used as his model Richmond Lattimore's "elaborately exact" translation. This was a crucial error, even though Lattimore himself has praised the new version. When Lowell "imitated" Russian poetry his raw material was a literal trot. But it is Lattimore's particular genius that his precision is also poetic. Lowell left himself little room to operate.

The language of Aeschylus is dense and difficult, full of striking word coinages which, even if literally rendered, can evoke a frisson in the modern reader. (Critics still argue about whether the Greek audience could appreciate them at first hearing.) This would seem attractive to Lowell's own style. But his version is a deliberate stripping down of the poetic diction. Whereas Lattimore has both the courage and skill to render those Aeschylean metaphors, Lowell has systematically excised them. The result is a playable drama about Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes, but an oddly prosaic one. Lowell has produced a muted Lattimore, a literary curiosity like L A. Richards's Wrath of Achilles.

In terms of scene construction and dialogue, Aeschylus was the least dramatic of the Greek tragedians, but he was the most poetic. Therefore, to remove the metaphors, as Lowell has, is to take the blossom from Prometheus's fire, where is the voice of Lowell himself, aptly praised by Richard Howard as "igneous poetry"? A few specific examples will show us what has happened to both Lowell and Aeschylus.

The prologue of the Oresteia sets the mood for the entire trilogy. There is night in Argos, both moral and physical. An apprehensive Watchman scans the skies for the torch signal that will indicate that Troy has fallen. He is too frightened to speak of what has gone on in Agamemnon's palace while the king was at war. What disturbs him even more than the adulterous behavior of Aegisthus is the unseemly masculine behavior of Clytemnestra. She has acted with "male strength of heart" (Lattimore). In Lowell's version we have no inkling that the Watchman is worried about Clytemnestra at all. We only hear that "she has the mind of a man." Does this (actually an over-literal rendering of the Greek) convey anything to the modern reader? Do we understand that Clytemnestra is being accused of hubris tic trespass into the domain of the superior sex? This basic theme of the entire trilogy has many ironic reverberations in its language. Thus when Clytemnestra realizes that vengeance is about to be wrought upon her, she fights back, crying "bring me quick, somebody, an axe to kill a man" (Lattimore). The Greek is very specific, indeed it might even be construed as a husband-killing weapon.

This verbal echo is typical of Aeschylus's style, which, like Virgil's, has an elaborate and consistent structure of imagery. Like the Roman poet, Aeschylus will sustain a metaphor over hundreds—and sometimes thousands— of lines. He has planned to conclude his trilogy with a torchlight parade, and from the earliest moment, his language prepares us for that final scene.

The preparation begins with the prologue. The Watchman is unable to sleep because, he says, his bed is nuktiplagkton, "stricken with night" (Lattimore). This strange compound adjective appears but four times in extant Greek literature—and all of them in this trilogy. Lowell has ignored what Aeschylus wished to emphasize. The impact of the play is inevitably weakened. For in Aeschylus, the metaphor is the message.

At another point, the Chorus speaks of the sacrifice of Iphigenia—-which has given some justification to Clytemnestra's desire to murder Agamemnon. Lowell presents a tender picture of the young princess being lifted toward the altar: "she looked at her familiar killers . . . and sang with her weak, clear voice in honor of her father."

But once again, a crucial metaphor is missing. In the Greek, Iphigenia glances at her killers "with arrows of pity." While one should not demand slavish adherence to the text from a poet of Lowell's stature, one has to point out that he is undermining Aeschylus's carefully wrought imagery. For later in the play there is a deliberate echo of the innocent victim's pitiful arrows—when the playwright describes the arrival of Helen to Troy. Once again, the eyes of a woman shoot arrows, but this time they are soft (the adjective malakos even has a sensual connotation) and they strike eros into the hearts of all. Having ignored the first metaphor, Lowell also omits the second. A powerful irony is lost.

And yet now and then there are moments when Lowell is more Aeschylean than Lattimore. As, for example, when Orestes presents himself to Athena in the final part of the trilogy: "My father was Agamemnon, king of Argos,/the king of men who captained the great fleet,/and as your soldier crushed Troy / to a citiless mound of dust. . . ." The Greek literally says that with Athena's help Agamemnon "uncitied the city" of Troy. Here Lowell is infinitely more poetic than Lattimore's "you made the Trojan city/of Ilium no city any more."

Lowell has clearly consulted the Greek original on many occasions. In fact he has retranslated a line—with grammatical justification—which directly contradicts one of Lattimore's interpretations. In the second play, when Aegisthus is killed, Clytemnestra rushes onstage and asks what the commotion is. Lattimore's Chorus replies, "I tell you he is alive, and killing the dead." But Lowell prefers a second interpretation, which may legitimately be inferred from the ambiguous Greek indirect discourse: "the dead are killing the living. "This seems more appropriate to a tragedy in which the ghosts of the past play so powerful a role.

The high point of Lowell's version is Orestes's revenge upon his mother. Here the translator is at his freest—and most dramatic. Even Pylades, Orestes's legendary friend, who has one of the most thankless roles in literature—for he must stand patiently through an entire play to speak but three lines—has, in Lowell's version, three better lines. When Orestes has a moment of Hamlet-like hesitation and asks his friend if he dare kill his own mother, Pylades replies: "Kill the killer of Agamemnon. Apollo / has spoken. The gods guide you. Will/you be hateful to the gods, as well as to man?" Lowell even improves Clytemnestra's argument as she pleads with Orestes for her life: "I had a loved daughter, Iphigenia./Agamemnon took her from me and butchered her./These deaths were determined by the gods, Orestes."

As he is about to kill her, she once again asks him to prove she deserves death. Orestes answers that she has acted basely for "a price."

Clytemnestra: What price?

Orestes: Argos and something I will not name that waits for you in the women's apartments.

Clytemnestra: Name Cassandra and your father's other pleasures.

None of this is in the Greek text, but it all was in the mind of the Greek audience. Lowell has translated the spirit of the murder by articulating the unspoken emotional undercurrents. He has also added to the drama with imaginative stage directions, and clarified some of the mythological allusions by glossing them within the dialogue. For example, "Zeus pardoned/ even Ixion, who killed his mother's father. . . ." And by dividing the speeches of the Chorus into various solo utterances, Lowell has eliminated the single most distracting element in modern performances of Greek drama: the garbled chanting, which often sounds like the responsive reading of a desultory church congregation.

The final play of the Oresteia trilogy has always posed a problem. The real action is over. Orestes is still haunted, but could really have been cured by Athena at the end of Part Two. In point of fact, there is no mythological material from which to weave yet another play. C. J. Herington is doubtless right in suggesting that the connected trilogy was Aeschylus's own innovation (we know of no other playwright who composed them) and that in each case, the third play is pure Aeschylean invention. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with cutting loose from the moorings of myth—Euripides is at his most fascinating when he does so. But Aeschylus seems to have used his "free" time purely for propaganda. The fragments suggest that Part Three of his trilogies are always expressions of his politico-religious credo, the Solonic faith in world order, the perfectability of man and his institutions. Thus the Oresteia, his only complete extant trilogy, concludes with a celebration of Athens and its jury system. It is really a ploy on the author's part to curry favor with the judges of the dramatic festival.

As in most political rallies, fireworks help. So Aeschylus brings in a whole new chorus of torchbearers for the finale. It must have been a grand spectacle in the Theater of Dionysos especially if, as most scholars agree, the aging poet was granted the honor of presenting his work at the end of the day. Darkness would be growing, torches would be glowing—a graphic restatement of his theme that the light of justice had come at last to the nightstricken House of Atreus. It is spectacular theater.

But Lowell gives us no torches. Mercifully, however, he does pare down the propaganda, since it is hardly palatable to a modern audience. Orestes is absolved because, as the Greeks believed (and Athena agreed), a woman is less important than a man, and therefore killing a mother is less horrendous than killing a father. If this seems barbaric, let us not forget that over a century later Aristotle was still making the same value judgments. One might have expected a man like Lowell to "improve" this part of the Oresteia.

And perhaps he would have, had he lived. We must always bear in mind that his Third Part was a draft, and that he never saw any of the work staged. He would surely have sharpened it, and removed some of the infelicities (like "pray for the morning, Electra"). Lowell nowhere tells us why he was drawn to the Oresteia. I would doubt that it was merely as a translator's challenge. The fact that he also wrote a Prometheus demonstrates how much he shares with Aeschylus a deep concern for justice—social, if not cosmic. This explains a great deal, and makes literary pronouncements somewhat peripheral. Nobility of soul is more important than metaphors.

Erich Segal teaches at Dartmouth and Wolfson College, Oxford.