Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Madness of Herakles

"Then in his mind he saw a chariot,
mounted it, rode off,
lashing with an imaginary whip.
The servants were caught between laughter and panic -
glancing at one another -
"Is the master playing or has he gone mad?"
Up and down the rooms he ranged
and though he had come to the city of Nisos,
though he was in fact in the midst of his own house.
He lay on the floor and imagined he was feasting.
This went on awhile, then he claimed he was
approaching the Isthmos.
There he stripped himself naked
and engaged in a wrestling match with no one,
proclaiming himself victor over no one,
bowing to an audience of no one.
The roaring out curses at Eurystheus
he declared he'd come to Mykenai.
His father touched his hand and said,
"O child what's happening to you? What is this strangeness?"
Has the blood of your killings made you mad?"
But taking him for the father of Eurystheus
Herakles thrust him off
and got out his bow to use against the children -
thought they were Eurystheus' children -
darting in terror this way and that,
one to his mother's robes, one to the shade of a pillar,
on hunched under the altar like a little bird.
The mother screamed, "You are their father!
Do you kill your own sons?"
Then the old man screamed. The servants screamed.
But he circled the pillar to get at this son
and with a dreadful pivoting move
shot him right through the liver.
The child fell back
and stained the stones red.
Herakles let out a war cry:
"That's the first one dead of Eurystheus' litter -
to repay me for his father's abuse!"

- Euripides (translated by Anne Carson)

It's Euripides day here in Falstaff-land, as I read my way through not one but two new (well, relatively new) books of the man's work by two poets whose work I like - Medea by Robin Robertson and Grief Lessons (including Herakles, Hekuba, Hippolytos and Alkestis) by Anne Carson - the latter particularly valuable for the short essays that accompany the plays in which Carson, in her inimitable style, muses on Tragedy, war, Euripides and theater.

I particularly love this scene from Herakles - it's so vivid, so haunting, so perfectly balanced between laughter and horror, such a perfect microcosm of classical tragedy but also such a strikingly modern act of the imagination.


And speaking of translations, easily the most stunning translation I've read this year is A.E. Stallings' version of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. To render a classic text in fluent translation is an achievement in itself, to do it all in heptameter is astonishing, but to put it in rhyming couplets and still make it sound natural is just plain unbelievable.


And finally, speaking of discoveries, I stumbled upon this thing called bigthink today - a sort of YouTube for ideas. I have my doubts about the whole thing (I don't get why you would want to take a group of people whose key expertise is expressing ideas and arguments in writing, and put up videos of them), but while it's up there you can go see Billy Collins talking about inspiration and how the great teachers of poetry are not in the classrooms but in the library.

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