Prometheus Bound derived from Aeschylus

Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell; drawing by David Levine


Aeschylus’s PROMETHEUS BOUND is probably the most lyrical of the Greek classical tragedies. It is also the most undramatic—one man, a sort of demigod at that, chained to a rock, orated to, and orating at, a sequence of embodied apparitions. In translation, the poetry seems lofty and dead, and the characters statues. Something living somehow burns through even the worst translation. I took one of the dullest I could find. Almost never was there any possibility or temptation to steal a phrase. Yet I kept the structure, either roughly rendering or improvising on each speech. Half my lines are not in the original. But nothing is modernized. There are no tanks or cigarette lighters. No contemporary statesman is parodied. Yet I think my own concerns and worries and those of the times seep in. Using prose instead of verse, I was free to tone down the poetic eloquence, and shove in any thought that occurred to me and seemed to fit. My hope was for some marriage between the old play and a new one.











We’ve reached the end of the road, the topmost stone on the rooftop of the world.


Beyond here, everything is downhill.


You’ve hauled Prometheus here; you’ve done your job. Not a very kind or subtle job, but who thought you had talents for a painstaking gentleness? Go home; you’re not needed now; go back to your stonebreaking and volcanoes. You can go, but I must stay here, and give my finishing touch and binding-knot to your labors. Prometheus is a god…yes, we gods also have our loyalties. Shall I imprison him in endless winter? Oh, I suppose I will do it very willingly. I can be twisted as easily as my own burning metals. Each step I take tells me what it is to go against Zeus. I didn’t go very far. My Father straightened me out with his thunderbolt. Crooked legs learn to walk a straight line. (Turning to PROMETHEUS) Oh, Prometheus! You know that I act as much against my own will as yours. Here are your chains, here is your rock. No hand will loose you. You will never hear the voice of man. Here, your flesh, that frail flower, will wither and go black under the rays of the all-healing sun. You will hate the sun, and yet night-long you will pray for sunrise to dim the cold simmer of the stars, and melt the frosts of morning. Each day will bring you the fertile heat of summer; each night, the barren cold of winter. Every season, every month, and each minute in each hour will tell you that your present suffering is the worst you can live through. Time will tell you that your deliverer is still unborn.

Even though you were a god,…

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