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.1 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.”) He translated a satire of Juvenal and made several goes at the odes of Horace, the least translatable and among the least exhaustible of poems, centered forever on their steady middle ground of human experience. And there is the version from Propertius in Lord Weary’s Castle, “The Ghost,” one of his most formidable things, pure Lowell and yet extending our sense of Propertius’ range as Pound’s Homage had done.
Greece was not nearly so close to him. (“There’s nothing like Greek in English at all…. Greek wildness and sophistication all different, the women different, everything.”) Lowell knew or once knew “some” Greek, but the version from Homer in Imitations suggests little feeling for the style of Greek poetry, hence perhaps his decision to do the Prometheus in prose. Yet this debt too had finally to be paid, and in his own medium, verse, and he left behind him a translation of the Oresteia. It did not receive a final revision and is not quite complete, but there is enough to show Lowell at work on a major Greek text.
There is no use pretending it isn’t a sad disappointment, the more so since Aeschylus is the one Greek poet Lowell might have come to grips with. His old poetic shock tactics would have stood him in good stead here and worked, at least on the level of diction, even if the result might have sounded more like Seneca than Aeschylus. The poet who saw the Aegean “flowering with corpses” could have spoken to the poet of “Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors.” Orestes’ nightmare vision of the Furies squinnying at him, “working their eyebrows in the dark,” or however the extraordinary line should go, might have played into the hands of the author of “Night Sweat.” The translation is in fact more lively here than usual, but most of the time he does not seem to be hearing Aeschylus at all.
The explanation is not or need not be simply that he made no direct contact with the Greek but worked, as he tells us in a prefatory note, from other translations. Though no substitute for the original, the right translation might have given him much that he needed: a literate word-for-worder that set down the explosive particles of Aeschylus’ great mix one by one and challenged him to recompose them from the ground up. And encouraged him to nose around the Greek on his own. Poets pick up a good deal this way. Browning’s brave, mad version might have helped. (“At night began the bad-wave-outbreak evils…. Back shall he come, for friends—copestone these curses!”) Instead, Lowell relied mainly on the version by Richmond Lattimore, praising it for being “so elaborately exact.” Well, yes, but the trouble is that Lattimore is often not exact or close enough to provide Lowell with what he wanted. Clytemnestra, dreaming that she has given birth to a snake, woke screaming (Lattimore writes) “as torches kindled all about the house, out of / the blind dark that had been on them.” Evidently feeling that this was too wordy, Lowell reduced it to “Torches were lit all over the house.” But Aeschylus speaks of torches blinded by darkness, and the words, combining literal and metaphorical, physical and metaphysical, have the whole weight of the trilogy behind them. No one could guess from Lowell’s flat line that there is a dramatic poetry here comparable to “light thickens” in Macbeth.
In the lyric dialogue between Clytemnestra and the chorus after Agamemnon’s murder they speak of Helen, who caused so many deaths at Troy, and say something like “Now you have flowered, or garlanded yourself, with a final garland that will never be forgotten, [through?] blood not to be washed away.” The text is corrupt, a headache for the scholar but for the poet an opportunity. Robert Fagles, in his recent energetic version,2 writes: “Now you are crowned / with this consummate wreath, the blood / that lives in memory, glistens age to age.” Lattimore is briefer: “You alone, to shine in man’s memory / as blood flower never to be washed out.” This is vivid. What is wrong with it, for Lowell’s purposes, is that having already achieved its own poetic form it gives him no basis to build on. So he took the easy way out and snatched at a trite image: “Ah Helen, Oh scarlet rose, / you are stained with our blood.” Trite, and also foolish. If the flower is already scarlet, the stain of blood will not show.
The same sad story could be told of passage after passage. Though the verse is mostly workmanlike and in its unadventurous way dramatically speakable, there are crucial moments when Lowell simply doesn’t give the actor (or the reader for that matter) what he needs. Orestes, seeing the snake-enwreathed Furies for the first time, is made to say “No, no, Attendants on Electra, / look closely.” But he is screaming in mortal terror and these words won’t scream. If Lowell had had the right kind of translation (or worked in tandem with someone who knew Greek) he would have learned of two acceptable emendations which remove these unwelcome attendants from the text and replace them with “what women” or “grim women.”
The introductory note suggests another reason why he failed Aeschylus. His aim, he wrote, was to “trim, cut, and be direct enough to satisfy my own mind and at a first hearing the simple ears of a theater audience.” Eliot was I think responsible for this dispiriting view of dramatic poetry (poetry, he said, must be put “on a thin diet in order to adapt it to the needs of the stage”), and it led him down from the Four Quartets to The Cocktail Party and down further to The Confidential Clerk. Aeschylus did not think of the language of verse drama in this way, nor did Sophocles, nor did Shakespeare, nor did Yeats, who might have provided a better model than Eliot. The language of Purgatory is immediately effective on the stage and though bare it has not been watered down. The consequence of this doctrine is that, all too often, our simple ears have to make do with this sort of thing—Lowell’s version of the start of the tremendous speech when Cassandra comes out of her visionary trance and talks straight:
No more circling, I’m on the scent.
I hear the choir of your Furies.
Do not try to conceal them from me.
They are established here as your closest friends.
They will not leave the house of Atreus.
Faced with so much hobbled writing, one longs for a touch of the old wanton Lowell, even the Lowell of Phaedra, disrupting the text with his own preoccupations but at least bringing it violently alive. There is only one example of this license here, and it is wholly disastrous. In the long opening lyric of the Agamemnon, the chorus, moving between the former crimes of the house of Atreus and the new crimes they dimly foresee, suddenly make a direct, vertical appeal to Zeus. Earlier readers found this passage singularly sublime. The learned now prefer to see Aeschylus as a fine poet to be sure but no great thinker. Whatever view of Aeschylus’ theology is taken, few have held that it amounts to as little as this, Lowell’s three lines answering to twenty-two very dense lines of Greek:
Glory to Zeus, whatever he is:
he cut off the testicles of his own father,
and taught us dominion comes from pain!
Reduce the religious thought of the trilogy to this and you are left with not much more than the story of a wife who murdered her husband and was in turn murdered by her son. Lowell seems not to have thought seriously about the theme of the Oresteia, or about the form in which that theme is embodied, hence his treatment of the long choral odes in the Agamemnon which are rearranged and cut to pieces. Certainly these odes are very hard to bring powerfully over into English since they correspond to nothing in our own poetic tradition and draw allusively on patterns of thought which are strange to us. Yet they are the bedrock on which the whole trilogy is built, the ground swell of lyric meditation and vision on which it moves.
Lowell seems to take a curiously old-fashioned view of theater as primarily the verbal interaction of actors advancing the plot, a plot constantly interrupted by odes. Artaud, who wanted to rescue drama from “its servitude to psychology and ‘human interest’ ” and spoke of a “unique language halfway between gesture and thought,” might have helped here. For the Oresteia is not simply one of the greatest of literary texts. It is the sole Western survivor of a lost form that built dramatic action, chant, and dance into a whole that we can only barely guess at but may still strive in some shape to recover. It is significant that Lowell’s chief success is with the choral lament over Agamemnon’s tomb in the Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers), a musico-dramatic composition scored for three voices designed to restore the shattered fabric of the house of Atreus and enlist the buried powers of Agamemnon for the avengers—and thus shatter the fabric once again. Here Lowell cuts only glancingly and preserves the sequence. Because, I think, he saw this as dramatic action contributing to the plot, not just “poetry” unsuited to our simple ears.
That we need a fine translation of the Oresteia can presumably be granted. What is perhaps less obvious is the role that the poet-translator could play, not merely in ensuring that this great poem continues to shine in the life of the world but also in advancing the task that is thought to belong purely to scholarship. With a work as textually corrupt as the Oresteia, the scholar must spend much of his time coaxing into intelligibility battered syllables beneath which an overwhelming poetry may lie waiting to be released. Working by the strict rules of his craft, he can however go only so far. Often he must simply give up and clamp his despairing obeli on a passage he judges incurable.
This is where the poet-translator might come to his aid. The text of Aeschylus as we read it in any printed edition is to an unusual extent a construct, sometimes almost a fiction. It is based on a manuscript tradition where the true reading may be buried beyond recovery or garbled into nonsense, and draws on four centuries of scholarly emendation ranging from the very rash to the very pedestrian. The editor’s instinct, in such a situation, is to play safe; by temperament and training he is reluctant to admit into his text strained turns of speech or extravagant images. (“Odd and unusual, perhaps corrupt,” Aeschylus’ most recent English editor remarks of a word in the Agamemnon.)
But with a poet as boldly inventive as Aeschylus, playing safe is not necessarily the road to truth. It is unwise, with an author who when the fit is on him will write almost anything, to assert “Aeschylus could not have written this,” even though no parallel usage occurs or has survived, even though Professor X proved conclusively in the Rheinisches Museum that the construction is illicit. The poet-translator might reach out or down for meaning in places where no self-respecting scholar would tread and find beauty in what duller eyes had taken for gibberish. A poet possessed of some learning, or with access to learning; a poet who wanted to live his way into Aeschylus’ poetry, not use it as the occasion for his own.
In a desperately corrupt ode from the Choephoroi Lattimore writes: “Much else lies secret he may show at need. / He speaks the markless word, by / night hoods darkness on the eyes / nor shows more plainly when the day is there.” This is not only good poetry (better than what Lowell gives us); it helps toward the interpretation of the Greek. Lattimore is of course a classical scholar but it is poetry, not scholarship, that guides him here. His lines make sense, and make poetry. Whatever the manuscript tradition offers, or conjecture can provide, that brings the Greek closest to what Lattimore has written may well be what Aeschylus wrote. A better poet than Lattimore might go further and retrieve other passages that learning has had to abandon.
Amazed at Clytemnestra’s brazen triumph over the death of her husband, the chorus ask what poison she can have taken, earth-bred or sprung from the …sea. From the flowing sea, our editions read, rhutâs, a seventeenth-century emendation. The tradition, however, offers rhusâs, wrinkled. For several reasons this is probably wrong, though that intrepid conservative Douglas Young accepted it in his translation. Probably wrong, but with a poet like Aeschylus you cannot be sure, and “wrinkled,” with its suggestion of the monstrous, is poetically attractive. (“The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,” Tennyson wrote.) Few scholars would wish to take “wrinkled” into their text, nor I imagine should they. But the poet-translator, with his special commitment to language (to his own language and that of Aeschylus and to the mysterious linguistic region where they might fuse), could afford to take this sort of risk. And in so doing, even though he is wrong in one place or another, would protect scholarship from its tendency to cut great poetry down to its own measure.
Facing death at her son’s hand, Clytemnestra says, “I feel like someone who laments to a tomb,” “Yes,” Orestes replies in most of our editions, “for it is my father’s fate that establishes your death.” The word “establishes” is conjectural, and also dull. The single manuscript on which the Choephoroi depends first read porizei, which hardly makes sense, corrected to s’ horizei which with a further slight change yields the word most editors print. The late-nineteenth-century scholar Verrall, a rash, brilliant, maligned man, proposed surizei, “my father’s fate hisses your death.” The Greeks associated snakes with tombs, and Orestes has said that he will turn snake to kill his mother. “Alas, this is the snake I bore,” Clytemnestra goes on to say. Verrall’s conjecture seems to have sunk almost without trace. Very likely it deserved to. And yet perhaps a poet should look into the matter. Poets sometimes understand poetry better than scholars do, and even classical poetry does not actually belong to classical scholars. What is needed, though, is collaboration, not competition, and the point is simply that scholarship should not be left in sole possession of this field.
We have for some time been inclined to suppose that a translation is “creative” to the extent that it ventures to diverge from the original. But venture may move in the reverse direction, toward the original. George Steiner has argued brilliantly that the supreme model of translation may be the interlinear version in which the poet, putting at risk what he holds most dear, his own language, brings it “into the charged field of force of another language.” There is as yet almost nothing of this kind of translation in English, though Janet Lembke, in the versions from Pindar now circulating in manuscript, may be moving somewhere near it.3
But this was never Lowell’s style, and anyway he is dead. We started sneering at him while he was still here, though he wrote better than anyone now alive. This Oresteia won’t help his reputation and no doubt we will sneer some more. To hell with us.
March 8, 1979
Lowell: “Helen has paid this debt—/ no one who dies dies well.” Nash: “Queens have died young and fair, / Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.” Villon moves differently: “Et meure Paris ou Helaine, / Quiconques meurt, meurt a douleur.” ↩
Aeschylus, The Oresteia (Viking, 1975), p. 160. ↩
Her translation of Aeschylus’ Suppliants (Oxford University Press, 1975), the bravest handling of a Greek play we have seen for a long time, is on the whole creative in the more familiar sense. She published a version of Pindar’s fifth Pythian ode in Arion n.s. 2/2 (1975). ↩