An Oresteia: Part 1: Agamemnon by Aiskhylos, Elektra by Sophokles
An Oresteia: Part 2: Orestes by Euripides
It is hard to capture in English what Robert Browning called the “eagle-bark” of Aeschylus. Browning’s English was just odd enough to give him a good shot at it in his oddly neglected translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Anne Carson, who has translated five plays of Euripides and one of Sophokles, makes her own first attempt at Aeschylus (or Aiskhylos, since she prefers Greek forms throughout) with Agamemnon. The play begins with the musings of a servant on the lookout for news from the Trojan War. His mistress, Klytaimestra, has stationed him on the palace rooftop. This slave is as shrewd as a jester in Shakespeare, and his language ranges from cosmic majesty to basic earthiness. He crouches on the roof, he says, like a lookout dog, and he is so afraid of his mistress that he quotes a proverb about an ox standing on his tongue. Yet he has a poetic feel for the night sky. Carson translates:
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars—bright powerful creatures blazing in air,
the ones that bring summer, the ones that bring winter,
the ones that die out, the ones that rise up….
Many scholars, from Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Eduard Fraenkel, have considered that last line spurious, on linguistic and metrical grounds. It also betrays the sense. The watchman sees the stars as a “night council” (nykterōn homēgyrin), a meeting of “rulers” (dynastas)—the language is political. What Carson translates as “die out” is phthinōsin, “wither.” It makes no sense to say rulers wither (or to call them “creatures”) when you are stressing their power. The watchman crouches under the heavenly rulers as under his earthly mistress. Browning gets it right:
I know of nightly star-groups the assemblage,
And those that bring to men winter and summer,
Bright dynasts, as they pride them in the aether.
Carson rightly says that Aiskhylos favors great compound words—which is what Aristophanes caricatured him for doing. Some of these she manages well—though she overdoes it when she takes one adjective, “purple-strewn,” and gives us
Make his path crimsoncovered! purplepaved! redsaturated!
Other times she blunts the force of a compound. When the night watchman describes his mistress Klytaimestra, he refers to her “manplanning” and “hopeful” heart. Since the guard is waiting for news from Agamemnon, that might seem what she is hoping for. But in conjunction with “manplanning” we realize that she is hoping to do something sinister when her husband comes. Carson omits the “hoping” and weakens the “manplanning”:
Those are the orders I got from a certain manminded woman.
Again we need Browning:
The man’s-way-planning hoping heart of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.