The Oresteia of Aeschylus
translated by Robert Lowell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 129 pp., $8.95
Lowell called his reworkings of foreign poems imitations. As a purely descriptive term, appropriations would do equally well. Where Pound’s translations are selfless, so many attempts to find voices through which the dead could speak, Lowell’s are (again neutrally) egotistical. All his poets talk Lowell and where they won’t or can’t, the result is chaos. Leopardi spoke of le sudate carte, his laborious pages: a theory of composition. In Lowell’s hands this becomes “the heat / of my writings made the letters wriggle and melt / under drops of sweat.” (Always the concrete particular!)
Lowell’s best translations are an extension of his original work and hardly separable from it, a way of establishing his place in the tradition, a search for the fathers who must make room—sometimes make way—for the son. The strong personal accent has led some people to wonder how far he can be called a translator at all. This over-simplifies. He did not always or even usually do what he did with Racine’s Phèdre, devastate the original and set up house (very stylishly) in the ruins. (His Phaedra is outrageous, I suppose: the kind of outrage that only a strong writer can commit.) Sometimes, for example with his handling of the last section of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur,” all we can say is, Yes, this is perfect. It moves as the original does, answering to almost everything there and importing very little of its own.
What more calls for attention is his command of the strategies of the craft, his skill in finding formal equivalences, compensations, interchanges, the delicate play of give and take that constitutes the life of translation. From Hugo: “Hier la grande armée, et maintenant troupeau….” “Yesterday, the Grand Army, today its dregs!” French, not English, rhetoric; “dregs” replacing troupeau via Latin grex. Almost routine work, not at all showy, yet very competent. In the stanzas from Villon’s Testament, by docking the French octosyllabic of two syllables he borrows for his own line something of the movement of Nash’s “In Time of Pestilence” with its lingering echoes of medieval piety and resignation. He is at his cleverest with Montale, beautifully calculating the differences between the verbal and metaphorical resources of English and Italian, heightening his original but keeping the proportions, so that Montale emerges speaking (Lowellian) English and yet still recognizably Montale. The feat is the more remarkable since Lowell’s Italian was rudimentary.
In this sense the last of the great modernists, Lowell claimed all the past for his own, or at least as much of it as he wanted. He was learned in poetry in a way that I think no poet now is, and behind the literatures of modern Europe and America he always heard the ancestral voices of antiquity. With Roman poetry he felt very much at home. (“English is a half-Latin language,” he once said, “and we’ve done our best to absorb the Latin literature …