From Aeschylus To Plath
From Aeschylus’s eagle-bark
by gershon hepner
to self-punishment of Plath
lights are put out by the dark
in tragedies we rue with wrath.
Agamemnon’s killed by Cly-
timnestra, Sylvia by Ted,
and as soon as they both die
we learn secrets of their bed
which would never had been told
had no tragedies occurred,
when from far we can behold
the truth seen by an eagle bird.
Happy endings come in odes
sung by Shelley’s famous lark,
but poets must, when they decode
a tragedy, like eagles bark.
Inspired by an article by Garry Wills on a production the Oresteia based on a new translation of the Oresteia by Anne Carson, (“The Voice of the eagle, ” NYR, May 14,2009) :
It is hard to capture in English what Robert Browning called the 'eagle-bark' of Aeschylus. Browning's English was just odd enough to give him a good shot at it in his oddly neglected translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon. Anne Carson, who has translated five plays of Euripides and one of Sophokles, makes her own first attempt at Aeschylus (or Aiskhylos, since she prefers Greek forms throughout) with Agamemnon. The play begins with the musings of a servant on the lookout for news from the Trojan War. His mistress, Klytaimestra, has stationed him on the palace rooftop. This slave is as shrewd as a jester in Shakespeare, and his language ranges from cosmic majesty to basic earthiness. He crouches on the roof, he says, like a lookout dog, and he is so afraid of his mistress that he quotes a proverb about an ox standing on his tongue. Yet he has a poetic feel for the night sky. Carson translates:
I've peered at the congregation of the nightly stars—bright powerful creatures blazing in air,
the ones that bring summer, the ones that bring winter,
the ones that die out, the ones that rise up....
Many scholars, from Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Eduard Fraenkel, have considered that last line spurious, on linguistic and metrical grounds. It also betrays the sense. The watchman sees the stars as a 'night council' (nykterō n homē gyrin) , a meeting of 'rulers' (dynastas) —the language is political. What Carson translates as 'die out' is phthinō sin, 'wither.' It makes no sense to say rulers wither (or to call them 'creatures') when you are stressing their power. The watchman crouches under the heavenly rulers as under his earthly mistress. Browning gets it right:
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 aether…
When Klytaimestra begs Agamemnon to tread the purpled cloth into the palace, he resists at first, but then says, peevishly, 'Oh all right.' (More laughter.) Shortly after, Agamemnon says, 'Enough of those things, ' which Carson drew more laughs with by her version, 'Well, so it goes.' When the chorus begs Kassandra to be clearer in her prophetic frenzy, she answers, 'Okay.' The eagle-bark of Aeschylus is, over and over, reduced to the eagle whine of Aeschylus.