The Grandeur of Greece--World Poetry Project
If you have not read Aeschylus, you should, especially if you are a poet or writer of prose. There is a grandeur to Aeschylus, even in translation, that is not to be missed. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are the great triad of Greek tragedy, and may sometimes be ignored today merely because they hold such an important place in the syllabi of Western universities. None of us like to be compelled to read something, and we may take that hostility into our reading, neglecting authors who deserve consideration beyond the lecture circuit.
The selections from Aeschylus included in World Poetry are drawn from Agamemnon , The Suppliants , and The Persians . Greek tragedy made use of myths, stories, and themes well known to the public at large, so there were no surprise endings and the general plot was known to the audience beforehand. It is in their mastery of language, the power of the play itself, that the quality of the poet was made known, and in their use of character, their power to paint a picture, largely through connected monologues, of motives, intentions, and psychological quandaries.
As modern readers, we approach these plays differently from the manner in which their ancient audiences would have. First, we read them, while the ancients would have witnessed their performance, and thus would have known the play through its performance, not through the static word on paper with which we are left. Second, we often, though not always, encounter the myth, legend, or story that forms the frame for the poet's performance first in the play, leading us to concentrate on the story, not on the poetry and the characters. I suggest, therefore, that every reader read a Greek tragedy at least twice; once for the story, and again for the poetry and the complexities of character that can be found there. I also suggest that those who failed to acquire a firm grounding in Greek myth make use of any one of the many solid reference books on that topic to build a foundation in the subject. Greek myth, after all, was not only important to the ancients, but had a role in poetics and literature in the West into the twentieth century. We seem to be moving away from this grounding in the classical past of late, but this departure may prove to be temporary. I hope that it is.
Louis MacNeice provides the first selection, from the chorus of old men in Aeschylus's Agamemnon . Agamemnon is returning to his home, flushed with victory and with a female prize, the unfortunate prophetess Cassandra, fresh from victory after ten long years at Troy. During his absence, his wife Clytemnestra has formed a relationship with another man and plots his murder. This is the first of the Oresteia cycle which details the trials of the cursed house of Atreus, Agamemnon's murder, the vengeance of his son, Orestes, and Orestes' pursuit by the Kindly Ones, the Furies.
Ten years before, the old men say, Menelaus and Agamemnon departed for the Trojan War:
Their hearts howling in boundless bloodlust
In eagles' fashion who in lonely
Grief for nestlings above their homes hang
Turning in cycles
Beating the air with the oars of their wings…
Note how visually specific and evocative this is. In speaking of a journey to a far place, it is the near place of home that the poet evokes, nestlings and the eagles circling their nest. The sons of Atreus, the chorus declares, are avengers for Zeus, 'guardian of guest and host", against Paris, the guest who stole his host's wife. Yet, the audience would also remember that the House of Atreus, the house of Agamemnon, is cursed for its own breaches of the guest-host relationship, for Agamemnon's father served a guest his child at a feast in a barbaric breach of that relationship. Indeed, the eagles turn in cycles, and victory at Troy does not mean peace for Agamemnon.
These men who sing are old men, who, infirm and uninhabited by the god of war, were left behind:
the man who is very old
And his leaf withering away
Goes on the three-foot way
No better than a boy, and wanders
A dream in the middle of the day.
They turn away from themselves to Queen Clyemnestra, hoping for news as she has ordered sacrifice, indicating something of importance has occurred. They hope, but also fear, for what if the news is bad and the sacrifices are not celebratory? They remember the ill omens that accompanied the sailing of Menelaus and Agamemnon and its explanation. Artemis was against the expedition: "Cry, cry upon Death; but may the good prevail." Prayers may help, engaging the help of Apollo the Healer, brother to Artemis, but still there is the house of Atreus to consider:
For anger grimly returns
Cunningly haunting the house, avenging the loss
of a child, never forgetting its due.
The Oresteia is a story of consequences. Consequences, justice, can be deferred, but it cannot be avoided, and all must pay for their crimes in the end. And they must pay whether they did the deed themselves, or merely profited from it, for where there is benefit from crime there is also responsibility. Agamemnon the son must pay for the sins of his father. Orestes must avenge his father; it is his duty to do so, and a duty cannot be willfully avoided or summarily negated. In order to avenge his father, he must kill his mother, authoress of his father's murder. This is a crime, too, one which the Furies are detailed to punish. Crime creates cycles which cannot be easily escaped, for the chain of responsibility and duty is not easily broken.
As our second selection, Janet Lembke provides a selection from The Suppliants . This story focuses on unwanted marriage. Aegyptos and Danaos are twin brothers. Aegyptos has fifty sons, Danaos fifty daughters. Aegyptos, king of Egypt, orders a marriage between his sons and his brother's daughters, which his brother resists by fleeing with his daughters to Argos, seeking protection. The Argives vote on the issue, and decide to offer the Danaides their protection. Later, in plays that do not survive, the Egyptians come to Argos, Danaos allows the marriage rather than have the Argives risk war. His acquiescence has a murderous purpose, though, for he orders his daughters to kill their new husbands, and all but one does so. Note, the willingness or unwillingness of the women in this marriage is not the real issue; the substantive issue is the rights of Danaos to determine whom his daughters marry. Also, in objection to a common interpretation of the cycle, based it is admitted on incomplete texts, I would stress that Danaos's daughters are not widows with a prior claim to the property of Aegyptos's sons. Some scholars believe that the cycle can be rightly interpreted as a defense of a provision in Athenian law that compelled widows to marry the brother or cousin of their deceased husband in order to keep the oikos in the husband's familial line. The Danaids are virgins, not widows, however, and I see a much clearer contest between the king's power (or state power) and the power of the father in this play than I see a defense of legally commanded marriage.
This is what the Danaids have to say in Lembke's selection:
Our father on earth heart's guide
and guide for our footsteps
Their devotion to paternal power and authority is complete, (or almost complete, for one daughter will not obey his order to kill). They speak of their father, and of Zeus, fitting as they come to Argos as suppliants, seeking the protection Zeus provides to guests. The duties of guest and of host, the power of Zeus as guardian of suppliants and exiles, are constant themes in ancient Greek literature, pointing to the unsettled world that was ancient Greece, with its many polis , and thus many exiles, many outcasts, and many refuges.
Sing joy sing homecoming!
These green shores nourished
our earliest mother
while her body learned the first stings of suffering
Remember her pains count and recount them,
proofs of our good faith
proofs to astonish the land's children
till they know truth
abides in our unfinished story…
I confess, I prefer MacNiece's translation of Aeschylus to Lembke's. In my ears it resounds with grandeur, with gravity, and bears a rhythm unbroken by strange phrases meant to recapture the literal Greek, as in Lembke's "highblazing gods and slowgrinding earthpowers".
The last selection from Aeschylus is a description of the Battle of Salamis, a key engagement of the Persian wars, from the play The Persians as translated by Peter Levi. The Persians is the oldest surviving play in the Western tradition of theater, first performed in 472 BCE, and one of the 7 surviving plays by Aeschylus out of a body of 39 plays. We may, in truth, possess only 6 of his 39 plays, as his authorship of Prometheus Bound is debated by scholars. The Persians is the only surviving Greek play to deal with contemporary events; the rest are set in the distant past, in the removed realm of myth and legend. Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Marathon, in which he lost his brother, Cynegeirus, a fact recorded in his epitaph, and at the Battle of Salamis described in The Persians . This is a play of importance on multiple levels: as a historical document of a participant's narrative of the Persian war, and as a literary milestone in the history of theater.
Aeschylus describes the Greek forces on their boats, disciplined, awaiting orders:
But when the white horses of the daylight
took over the whole earth, clear to be seen,
the first noise was the Greeks shouting for joy,
like singing, like triumph, and then again
echoes rebounded from the island rocks.
Salamis is a battle for Greek survival in the face of invasion by a foreign, barbarian people:
Sons of the Greeks, go forward, and set free
your fathers' country and set free your sons,
your wives, the holy places of your gods,
the monuments of your own ancestors,
now is the one battle for everything.
In this sea battle, the Persians are foiled by the very number of their ships, pressed together, unable to move to each other's help:
they smashed one another with brazen beaks,
and the whole rowing fleet shattered itself.
The report of this battle is given by a Persian in the play, and so he is describing the devastation of his own people.
The Greeks with broken oars and bits of wreck
smashed and shattered the men in the water
like tunny, like gaffed fish. One great scream
filled up all the sea's surface with lament,
until the eye of darkness took it all.
This is young Aeschylus, not the more subtle author of the Oresteia . But the power of his words is undeniable, despite his youth. War is rarely a subtle subject anyway, and I think he captures well the emotions of the invaded Greeks in their struggle against the invading Persians without becoming wholly callous. In choosing to have this battle described from the other side, Aeschylus decided it would not be only a description of the glory of battle, but also one of the horror of battle and of death.