Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes
Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound
Ever since Greek tragedy was rediscovered by the West in the early Renaissance, it has been more widely read in translation than in the original. Greek in the modern world has always been an elite accomplishment and the Renaissance editions of Greek tragedy, like many of their modern counterparts, were bilingual—Latin translation on the facing page. What is surprising is that when the time came for English translation, tragedy was so badly served: unlike Homer, it did not attract the poets—it has no interpreter even remotely comparable with Chapman or Pope. Dryden, the translator-general of his age, Englished all of Vergil, much of Lucretius, Ovid, Juvenal, and Persius, some of Horace, Theocritus, and Homer; he versified Boccaccio, modernized Chaucer, and even converted Paradise Lost into an opera “in Heroickal Verse,” but he never laid a finger on Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides.
Shelley translated a play of Euripides but it was the satyr play Cyclops (bowdlerized at that), and Browning produced a sentimental travesty of the Alcestis and a typically eccentric version of the Agamemnon. But these two poet-translators are the exception: for the whole of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Greekless reader saw Attic tragedy through the distorting spectacles of verse written by scholars whose acute perception of the nuances of ancient Greek was exactly matched by their crass insensitivity to the sound and sense patterns of English. Aeschylus paraded in the rococo trappings of Potter—“But you, my friends, amid these rites / Raise high your solemn warblings…”—or played the reluctant clown in the archaic shreds and patches of Morshead—“I rede ye well, beware!” “Speak now to me his name, this greybeard wise!”
By the early years of this century, those Greekless readers (a condescending Victorian equivalent of “deserving poor”) were no longer an embarrassed minority of the educated; they were now an important intellectual constituency to be won over for the classics. For tragedy this task was undertaken with enthusiasm and success by the Regius Professor at Oxford, Gilbert Murray, a great Hellenist and also a public figure whose impact on the life of his time, like that of Jowett before him, was not confined to Oxford—as Shaw’s affectionate caricature of him in Major Barbara testifies. Murray’s verse translations (of Euripides and Aeschylus) were intended for performance and were in fact extremely successful on stage: they were also accepted by the public at large and some of the critics as English poetry in their own right.
This is a judgment time has rescinded. Murray would occasionally in the choral passages rise to giddy Swinburnian heights (he could also sink to nameless bathetic depths), but for the dramatic dialogue he adopted a form which only Donne could handle successfully—rhymed couplets which are, for the most part, not closed. One can understand his recourse to rhyme as a protest against the lifeless blank verse of his predecessors (“Blanker verse ne’er was blunk,” to quote Walt Kelly) and in this he had …
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Dryden & Oedipus January 22, 1976