The Agamemnon of Æschylus, Robert Browning
The Agamemnon of Æschylus
Robert Browning
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Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright whose dramatic monologues put him high among the Victorian poets. He was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus is an 1877 dramatic poem. In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was a king of Mycenae, the son, or grandson, of King Atreus and Queen Aerope, the brother of Menelaus, the husband of Clytemnestra and the father of Iphigenia, Electra or Laodike, Orestes and Chrysothemis. Legends make him the king of Mycenae or Argos, thought to be different names for the same area. When Menelaus's wife, Helen, was taken to Troy by Paris, Agamemnon commanded the united Greek armed forces in the ensuing Trojan War.

The Agamemnon of Æschylus

Robert Browning


May I be permitted to chat a little, by way of recreation, at the end of a somewhat toilsome and perhaps fruitless adventure?

If, because of the immense fame of the following Tragedy, I wished to acquaint myself with it, and could only do so by the help of a translator, I should require him to be literal at every cost save that of absolute violence to our language. The use of certain allowable constructions which, happening to be out of daily favor, are all the more appropriate to archaic workmanship, is no violence: but I would be tolerant for once — in the case of so immensely famous an original — of even a clumsy attempt to furnish me with the very turn of each phrase in as Greek a fashion as English will bear: while, with respect to amplifications and embellishments, — anything rather than, with the good farmer, experience that most signal of mortifications, “to gape for Æschylus and get Theognis.” I should especially decline — what may appear to brighten up a passage — the employment of a new word for some old one, — πόνος, or μέγας, or τέλοσ, with its congeners, recurring four times in three lines: for though such substitution may be in itself perfectly justifiable, yet this exercise of ingenuity ought to be within the competence of the unaided English reader if he likes to show himself ingenious. Learning Greek teaches Greek, and nothing else: certainly not common sense, if that have failed to precede the teaching. Further, — if I obtained a mere strict bald version of thing by thing, or at least word pregnant with thing, I should hardly look for an impossible transmission of the reputed magniloquence and sonority of the Greek; and this with the less regret, inasmuch as there is abundant musicality elsewhere, but nowhere else than in his poem the ideas of the poet. And lastly, when presented with these ideas, I should expect the result to prove very hard reading indeed if it were meant to resemble Æschylus, ξυμβαλεῖν οὐ ῥᾴδιος, “not easy to understand,” in the opinion of his stoutest advocate among the ancients; while, I suppose, even modern scholarship sympathizes with that early declaration of the redoubtable Salmasius, when, looking about for an example of the truly obscure for the benefit of those who found obscurity in the sacred books, he protested that this particular play leaves them all behind in this respect, with their “Hebraisms, Syriasms, Hellenisms, and the whole of such bag and baggage. “For, over and above the proposed ambiguity of the Chorus, the text is sadly corrupt, probably interpolated, and certainly mutilated; and no unlearned person enjoys the scholar’s privilege of trying his fancy upon each obstacle whenever he comes to a stoppage, and effectually clearing the way by suppressing what seems to lie in it.

All I can say for the present performance is, that I have done as I would be done by, if need were. Should anybody, without need, honor my translation by a comparison with the original, I beg him to observe that, following no editor exclusively, I keep to the earlier readings so long as sense can be made out of them, but disregard, I hope, little of importance in recent criticism so far as I have fallen in with it. Fortunately, the poorest translation, provided only it be faithful, — though it reproduce all the artistic confusion of tenses, moods, and persons, with which the original teems, — will not only suffice to display what an eloquent friend maintains to be the all-in-all of poetry — “the action of the piece” — but may help to illustrate his assurance that “the Greeks are the highest models of expression, the unapproached masters of the grand style: their expression is so excellent because it is so admirably kept in its right degree of prominence, because it is so simple and so well subordinated, because it draws its force directly from the pregnancy of the matter which it conveys … not a word wasted, not a sentiment capriciously thrown in, stroke on stroke” So may all happen!

Just a word more on the subject of my spelling — in a transcript from the Greek and there exclusively — Greek names and places precisely as does the Greek author. I began this practice, with great innocency of intention, some six-and-thirty years ago. Leigh Hunt, I remember, was accustomed to speak of his gratitude, when ignorant of Greek, to those writers (like Goldsmith) who had obliged him by using English characters, so that he might relish, for instance, the smooth quality of such a phrase as “hapalunetai galené;” he said also that Shelley was indignant at “Firenze” having displaced the Dantesque “Fiorenza,” and would contemptuously English the intruder “Firence.” I supposed I was doing a simple thing enough: but there has been till lately much astonishment at os and us, ai and oi, representing the same letters in Greek. Of a sudden, however, whether in translation or out of it, everybody seems committing the offence, although the adoption of u for υ still presents such difficulty that it is a wonder how we have hitherto escaped “Eyripides.” But there existed a sturdy Briton who, Ben Jonson informs us, wrote “The Life of the Emperor Anthony Pie” — whom we now acquiesce in as Antoninus Pius: for “with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes satin.” Yet there is on all sides much profession of respect for what Keats called “vowelled Greek” — “consonanted,” one would expect; and, in a criticism upon a late admirable translation of something of my own, it was deplored that, in a certain verse corresponding in measure to the fourteenth of the sixth Pythian Ode, “neither Professor Jebb in his Greek, nor Mr. Browning in his English, could emulate that matchlessly musical γόνον ἰδὼν κάλλιστον ἀνδρῶν.” Now, undoubtedly, “Seeing her son the fairest of men” has more sense than sound to boast of: but then, would not an Italian roll us out “Rimirando il figliuolo bellissimo degli uomini?” whereat Pindar, no less than Professor Jebb and Mr. Browning, τριακτῆρος οἴχεται τυχών.

It is recorded in the Annals of Art that there was once upon a time, practising so far north as Stockholm, a painter and picture-cleaner — sire of a less unhappy son — Old Muytens: and the annalist, Baron de Tessé, has not concealed his profound dissatisfaction at Old Muytens’ conceit “to have himself had something to do with the work of whatever master of eminence might pass through his hands.” Whence it was — the Baron goes on to deplore — that much detriment was done to that excellent piece “The Recognition of Achilles,” by Rubens, through the perversity of Old Muytens, “who must needs take on him to beautify every nymph of the twenty by the bestowment of a widened eye and an enlarged mouth.” I, at least, have left eyes and mouths everywhere as I found them, and this conservatism is all that claims praise for — what is, after all ἀκέλευστος ἄμισθος ἀοιδά. No, neither “uncommanded” nor “unrewarded:” since it was commanded of me by my venerated friend Thomas Carlyle, and rewarded will it indeed become, if I am permitted to dignify it by the prefatory insertion of his dear and noble name.

R. B.

London, October 1, 1877.



Choros of Old Men.
Talthubios, Herald.

Warder. The gods I ask deliverance from these labors,
Watch of a year’s length whereby, slumbering through it
On the Atreidai’s roofs on elbow, — dog-like —
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 æther
— Stars, when they wither, and the uprisings of them.
And now on ward I wait the torch’s token,
The glow of fire, shall bring from Troia message
And word of capture: so prevails audacious
The man’s-way-planning hoping heart of woman.
But when I, driven from night-rest, dew-drenched, hold to
This couch of mine — not looked upon by visions,
Since fear instead of sleep still stands beside me,
So as that fast I fix in sleep no eyelids —
And when to sing or chirp a tune I fancy,
For slumber such song-remedy infusing,
I wail then, for this House’s fortune groaning,
Not, as of old, after the best ways governed.
Now, lucky be deliverance from these labors,
At good news — the appearing dusky fire!
O hail, thou lamp of night, a day-long lightness
Revealing, and of dances the ordainment!
Halloo, halloo!
To Agamemnon’s wife I show, by shouting,
That, from bed starting up at once, i’ the household
Joyous acclaim, good-omened to this torch-blaze,
She send aloft if haply Ilion’s city
Be taken, as the beacon boasts announcing.
Ay, and, for me, myself will dance a prelude,
For, that my masters’ dice drop right, I’ll reckon:
Since thrice-six has it thrown to me, this signal.
Well, may it hap that, as he comes, the love hand
O’ the household’s lord I may sustain with this hand!
As for the rest, I’m mute: on tongue a big ox
Has trodden. Yet this House, if voice it take should,
Most plain would speak. So, willing I myself speak
To those who know: to who know not — I’m blankness.

Choros. The tenth year this, since Priamos’ great match,
King Menelaos, Agamemnon King,
— The strenuous yoke-pair of the Atreidai’s honor
Two-throned, two-sceptred, whereof Zeus was donor —
Did from this land the aid, the armament dispatch,
The thousand-sailored force of Argives clamoring
“Ares” from out the indignant breast, as fling
Passion forth vultures which, because of grief
Away, — as are their young ones, — with the thief,
Lofty above their brood-nests wheel in ring,
Row round and round with oar of either wing,
Lament the bedded chicks, lost labor that was love:
Which hearing, one above
— Whether Apollon, Pan or Zeus — that wail,
Sharp-piercing bird-shriek of the guests who fare
Housemates with gods in air —
Such-an-one sends, against who these assail,
What, late-sent, shall not fail
Of punishing — Erinus. Here as there,
The Guardian of the Guest Zeus, the excelling one,
Sends against Alexandros either son
Of Atreus: for that wife, the many-husbanded,
Appointing many a tug that tries the limb,
While the knee plays the prop in dust, while, shred
To morsels, lies the spear-shaft; in those grim
Marriage-prolusions when their Fury wed
Danaoi and Troes, both alike. All’s said:
Things are where things are, and, as fate has willed,
So shall they be fulfilled.
Not gently-grieving, not just doling out
The drops of expiation — no, nor tears distilled —
Shall he we know of bring the hard about
To soft — that intense ire
At those mock rites unsanctified by fire.
But we pay naught here: through our flesh, age-weighed,
Left out from who gave aid
In that day, — we remain,
Staying on staves a strength
The equal of a child’s at length.
For when young marrow in the breast doth reign,
That’s the old man’s match, — Ares out of place
In either: but in oldest age’s case,
Foliage a-fading, why, he wends his way
On three feet, and, no stronger than a child,
Wanders about gone wild,
A dream in day.
But thou, Tundareus’ daughter, Klutaimnestra queen,
What need? What new? What having heard or seen,
By what announcement’s tidings, everywhere
Settest thou, round about, the sacrifice aflare?
For, of all gods the city-swaying,
Those supernal, those infernal,
Those of the fields’, those of the mart’s obeying, —
The altars blaze with gifts;
And here and there, heaven-high the torch uplifts
Flame — medicated with persuasions mild,
With foul admixture unbeguiled —
Of holy unguent, from the clotted chrism
Brought from the palace, safe in its abysm.
Of these things, speaking what may be indeed
Both possible and lawful to concede,
Healer do thou become! — of this solicitude
Which, now, stands plainly forth of evil mood,
And, then … but from oblations, hope, to-day
Gracious appearing, wards away
From soul the insatiate care,
The sorrow at my breast, devouring there!

Empowered am I to sing
The omens, what their force which, journeying,
Rejoiced the potentates:
(For still, from God, inflates
My breast, song-suasion: age,
Born to the business, still such war can wage)
— How the fierce bird against the Teukris land
Dispatched, with spear and executing hand,
The Achaian’s two-throned empery — o’er Hellas’ youth
Two rulers with one mind:
The birds’ king to these kings of ships, on high,
— The black sort, and the sort that’s white behind, —
Appearing by the palace, on the spear-throw side,
In right sky-regions, visible far and wide, —
Devouring a hare-creature, great with young,
Balked of more racings they, as she from whom they sprung!
Ah, Linos, say — ah, Linos, song of wail!
But may the good prevail!

The prudent army-prophet seeing two
The Atreidai, two their tempers, knew
Those feasting on the hare
The armament-conductors were;
And thus he spoke, explaining signs in view.
“In time, this outset takes the town of Priamos:
But all before its towers, — the people’s wealth that was,
Of flocks and herds, — as sure, shall booty-sharing thence
Drain to the dregs away, by battle violence.
Only, have care lest grudge of any god disturb
With cloud the unsullied shine of that great force, the curb
Of Troia, struck with damp
Beforehand in the camp!
For envyingly is
The virgin Artemis
Toward — her father’s flying hounds — this House —
The sacrificers of the piteous
And cowering beast,
Brood and all, ere the birth: she hates the eagles’ feast.
Ah, Linos, say — ah, Linos, song of wail!
But may the good prevail!

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