Tag Archives: Euripides

Three versions of a choral lyric by Euripides

I’ve just read David Grene’s startlingly beautiful English rendition of Euripides’s Hippolytus — a play which didn’t make nearly as deep an impression on me when I read Paul Roche’s version. Here, side by side, are the Grene and Roche translations of one of the choral lyrics from Hippolytus, with Gilbert Murray’s version (courtesy of Gutenberg.org) thrown in for good measure.

Gilbert Murray (1902) David Grene (1942) Paul Roche (1998)



Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear, / Men’s eyes with hunger; Love distills desire upon the eyes, / Eros, Eros, clouding our eyes / With a mist of yearning
thou swift Foe that pliest / Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear; / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy. / when you sweeten the hearts / Of those against whom you plan your attack. /
Come not to me with Evil haunting near, / I pray that love may never come to me / with murderous intent, / Please never show yourself to wound me. /
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear / Wing’s music as thou fliest! / in rhythms measureless and wild. / Please never turn everything upside down. /
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire, / Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear, / Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts / Neither lightning nor the fall of a star / Wreaks more havoc
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire, / Erôs, Child of the Highest! than those of Aphrodite sent / by the hand of Eros, Zeus’s child. than Aphrodite’s / Lance when loosed from the hand of Eros, / Zeus’s boy.


In vain, in vain, by old Alpheüs’ shore / The blood of many bulls doth stain the river / And all Greece bows on Phoebus’ Pythian floor; / In vain by Alpheus’ stream, / In vain in the halls of Phoebus’ Pythian shrine / the land of Greece increases sacrifice. / Useless, useless, the pouring of blood / That Greece has shed of slaughtered kine / On the banks of Alpheus or Apollo’s shrine: /
Yet bring we to the Master of Man no store / But Love the King of Men they honor not, / Useless, if Eros isn’t adored. / Dictator of men,
The Keybearer, who standeth at the door / Close-barred, where hideth ever / The heart of the shrine. although he keeps the keys / of the temple of desire, / the keeper of the keys / To Aphrodite’s beds of love–
Yea, though he sack man’s life / Like a sacked city, and moveth evermore / although he goes destroying through the world, / He is the prime wrecker of mortals, /
Girt with calamity and strange ways of strife, / author of dread calamities / and ruin when he enters human hearts. The bringer of catastrophe / When he attacks.
Him have we worshipped never! /    
* * * * *


There roamed a Steed in Oechalia’s wild, / The Oechalian maiden There was a girl in Oechalia /
A Maid without yoke, without Master, / And Love she knew not, that far King’s child; / who had never known / the bed of love, known neither man nor marriage, / A filly unbroken by man: / Unbedded, unbridled, unfettered, /
But he came, he came, with a song in the night. / With fire, with blood; and she strove in flight, / A Torrent Spirit, a Maenad white, / Faster and vainly faster, / Sealed unto Heracles by the Cyprian’s Might. / the Goddess Cyrpis gave to Heracles. / She took her from the home of Eurytus, / maiden unhappy in her marriage song, / wild as a Naiad or a Bacchanal, / with blood and fire, Who was driven by Love, Aphrodite, / And fled like a flame or a Bacchant / Far from her home; and was given / As a bride to Alcmena’s son /
Alas, thou Bride of Disaster! a murderous hymenaeal! In a wedding most gory.


O Mouth of Dirce, O god-built wall, / That Dirce’s wells run under, / O holy walls of Thebes and Dirce’s fountain / You hallowed Theban ramparts / And mouth of Dirce’s stream, /
Ye know the Cyprian’s fleet footfall! / bear witness you, to Love’s grim journeying: / You can tell how gently / Aphrodite comes.
Ye saw the heavens around her flare, / When she lulled to her sleep that Mother fair / Of twy-born Bacchus, and decked her there / The Bride of the bladed Thunder. / once you saw Love bring Semele to bed, / lull her to sleep, clasped in the arms of Death, pregnant with Dionysus by the thunder king. But the mother of Bacchus she flared / To bed with bloody Death.
For her breath is on all that hath life, and she floats in the air, / Bee-like, death-like, a wonder. Love is like a flitting bee in the world’s garden / and for its flowers, destruction is in his breath. Over the earth she breathes: / A bee, she hovers.

These three translations are too different from one another to allow for the kind of close line-by-line comparison I used in evaluating 15 versions of Dante. Nor can I recognize enough Greek words to be able to compare each translation directly to the original and make an educated guess as to how faithful each is, as I was able to do to some extent with the Dante translations. Nevertheless, here are some general comments and impressions on the three versions.

(I tell myself that I have no business learning Greek until after I’ve at least mastered the language of the country I live in — but I can’t say I’m not tempted. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn the useful skill of evaluating translations without being able to read the original.)

Strophe I

As English poetry, Grene’s version is by far the best of the three — though drawing from that fact any conclusions about its quality as a translation is obviously risky. In general, a translation which reads superficially like poetry (like Murray’s, which rhymes and scans) is suspect. On the other hand, it may actually be a sign of fidelity when a translation is poetic in a deeper sense. I base this judgment on the assumption that the writer being translated — generally considered to be one of the greatest in the whole history of Western literature — was a far better poet than any of his translators could ever dream of being, and that therefore wherever the translations touch greatness it is likely that their pale fire was snatched from the sun.

Grene slips in a few rhymes in the first strophe (intent and sent, wild and child), but these are apparently serendipities; the rest of the poem is evidence that he followed no policy of forcing the lines to rhyme. What seems more significant to me is that he knows where to put his line breaks and how to preserve ambiguity long enough to give added force to the line which resolves it. “Love distills desire upon the eyes, / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy” — in that order, with those line breaks — is perfect. Murray tips his hand too early by starting right off with tears and hunger, and by calling Eros a “swift foe” first and making an afterthought of the joy he brings to human hearts. Roche does a passable job in this regard — certainly better than Murray — but his lines don’t pack the same punch as Grene’s.

Grene’s is the only version which talks about Eros rather than addressing him directly. Since he’s the odd man out here, he’s likely to be the one who is straying from the original Greek.

Murray’s “All Desire” instead of “Aphrodite” is unforgivable, a clear sacrifice of reason to rhyme.

Antistrophe I

It’s hard to judge which version is most accurate here. The disagreement over what exactly Eros bears the keys to is surprising: “the heart of the shrine,” “the temple of desire, ” and “Aphrodite’s beds of love” are all quite different things.

Strophe II

Grene lacks the horse metaphor of the other two and is probably in the wrong. Roche makes no mention of the Naiads which appear in the other two versions (I’m assuming that’s what Murray’s “Torrent Spirit” is meant to be), and his version also lacks the “blood and fire” pairing found in the other two.

As usual, Murray throws in a lot of rhyming crap that doesn’t belong in the poem.

Antistrophe II

Here Grene is talking about “Love” (i.e., the masculine god Eros), while the other two versions are about Aphrodite. Grene is clearly in the wrong here, as it interferes with the meaning of the poem. When he has the masculine Love bring Semele (not mentioned by name in the other two) to bed, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on — a problem which does not arise when it is Aphrodite. Also, Grene’s otherwise perfect ending is marred by its confusing image of a male bee flitting through the garden of life.

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Reading: The Bacchae, by Euripides

I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s The Bacchae on 25 Aug 2009.

Pentheus attempts to suppress the cult of the new god Dionysus, who wreaks his revenge by causing Pentheus’s mother to tear him apart in a god-possessed frenzy. The moral is one typical of the Greek myths: don’t mess with the gods. Respect them, not because they deserve it, but because they’re bigger than you. Pentheus suspects that Dionysus’s cult is an immoral influence, and Dionysus proceeds to prove him right — but he also proves that might makes right irrelevant, and that a prudent mortal knows his place. Knowing Euripides’s general attitude toward the gods, though, I doubt that the play is really about respecting an actual Dionysus. More likely, Bacchus and the Bacchae stand for intractable aspects of human nature which must be respected whether you like them or not; people can’t all be strait-laced Penthei all the time, and trying to force them to is a recipe for disaster. Or it could be read as focusing on the Dionysus cult as a potent cultural/religious force which it would also be folly to mess with, since suppressing such movements often only makes them stronger and nastier. (Reading The Bacchae today, it’s hard not to think of Islamic extremism.) In any case it seems clear that Euripides is not defending the Bacchus cult itself as a good thing but warning against fanatical opposition to it.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this play is its lack of a hero. One expects a tragedy to have a hero, albeit a flawed and doomed one, and the absence of anyone sympathetic or noble in The Bacchae makes it deeply unsatisfying. (That’s not necessarily a criticism. Who says the purpose of art is to satisfy?) Pentheus is portrayed as a small-minded prig, Cadmus and Tiresias as self-serving cowards, and Dionysus as a ruthless and self-absorbed maniac. There are no sympathetic characters, and when the audience feels little sympathy for the suffering, tragedy loses its force as tragedy. Somewhat ironically, given its ostensibly pro-Dionysus message, this is a play that makes you think rather than feel.

(A side note: I went to Ohio State University, where post-football game celebrations sometimes devolved into violent alcohol-fueled riots (setting fire to cars, that sort of thing) which were described as bacchanalian. Reading this play, it occurred to me that there might be some comedic potential in a travesty based on a Bacchae/Buckeye pun.)

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Euripides’s greatest hits

A quick glance at Amazon or LibraryThing is usually all it takes to find out what a given author’s most popular works are, but it’s not that easy for an author like Euripides, whose plays are published in collections more often than as stand-alone works. For the following statistics, I went to LibraryThing’s Euripides page, looked at all the books owned by at least ten users, and broke them down into their contents, given a more realistic picture of the popularity of each individual work. For example, only 64 users own Electra as a book, which would make it Euripides’s 8th most popular play; if we tally up all the collections and anthologies which include Electra, though, it shoots up to third place, owned by 2,133 users.

Medea, the most popular of Euripides’s plays, is owned by 3,246 LibraryThing users, and the numbers in parentheses below represent percentages of that number. I also note which plays won prizes at the City Dionysia.

  1. Medea (100, third prize)
  2. Bacchae (79, first prize)
  3. Electra (66)
  4. Alcestis (65, second prize)
  5. Trojan Women (54, second prize)
  6. Ion (49)
  7. Hippolytus (45, first prize)
  8. Iphigenia in Tauris (42)
  9. Hecuba (39)
  10. Iphigenia at Aulis (39, first prize)
  11. Heracles (35)
  12. Children of Heracles (34)
  13. Cyclops (33)
  14. Helen (31)
  15. Phoenician Women (27)
  16. Andromache (20)
  17. Orestes (16)
  18. Suppliant Women (15)
  19. Rhesus (14)

I’m pleased to note that the volume I own — Signet Classic’s Euripides: Ten Plays, translated by Paul Roche — matches this list very well, coinciding almost exactly with its top ten (the one exception being that it includes Cyclops rather than Hecuba). The modern popularity of Euripides’s works also seems to be in broad agreement with the judgment of his contemporaries; of his six prize-winning plays, four of them also make the top six on the above list, and one of them misses it by a hair. (The other, Iphigenia at Aulis, won the prize as part of a trilogy that included Bacchae, so it may not have been first-prize material in its own right.)

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Reading: Hippolytus, by Euripides

I finished reading Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s Hippolytus on 16 Aug 2009.

The basic story is as follows: Hippolytus, the bastard son of Theseus, has no interest in sex or love. He devotes himself to Artemis and the hunt and slights Aphrodite. As revenge, Aphrodite causes Hippolytus’s stepmother Phaedra to fall in love with him. Unwilling to act on or even to reveal her passion, Phaedra wastes away and contemplates suicide. Finally a nurse gets the secret out of her and tells Hippolytus, after swearing him to secrecy. Hippolytus is disgusted by the whole idea and tells Phaedra so, and she kills herself, leaving behind a note saying that Hippolytus tried to rape her. Theseus believes the letter, and Hippolytus’s attempts to defend himself against the accusation are handicapped by his unwillingness to break his oath of secrecy. Theseus calls down the curse of Poseidon on his son, who dies a terrible death shortly thereafter.

The characters, particularly Hippolytus and Phaedra, come close to being as believable and multidimensional as those of Alcestis, and the storyline is more plausible.

I recently read an essay on C. S. Lewis by Edward M. Cook, which I mean to comment on in a later post, which mentions in passing that Hippolytus was instrumental in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, in that it caused in him such a powerful renewal of “Joy” (a word Lewis used idiosyncratically to refer to an intense and pleasurable desire which has no readily identifiable object and which nothing in this world can satisfy) that Lewis retreated from his “sensible” dismissal of Joy as mere wishful thinking and began taking it seriously as evidence for the existence of another world. Come to think of it, that mention in Cook’s essay is probably what made me finally pick up that volume of Euripides that had been sitting untouched on my shelf.

I didn’t experience anything as intense as what Lewis did, but I know how personal and unpredictable such experiences can be. Others have been moved by books that left me cold and vice versa, and sometimes even the same book reread by the same person will be found to have unexpectedly gained or lost its magic. The first time I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it was quite literally a religious experience (so much so that it started me down the path to deconversion by making me question whether such religious experiences could really be taken, as I had been taught to take them in Mormonism, as revelations of the Truth from God). The second time around, Portrait was still a good book but my reading experience was nothing out of the ordinary. (This elusiveness of Joy is another of Lewis’s pet themes, and, as I say, I mean to comment on the whole “Argument from Joy,” as laid out by Lewis and defended by Cook, in another post.)

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Reading: Alcestis, by Euripides

I finished Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s Alcestis on 15 Aug 2009.

This is the story of Admetus, who has been promised immortality if he can convince someone to die in his place. He first asks his parents, thinking that they will be sacrificing less since they have few years left to live anyway, but in the end only his wife Alcestis will agree to die for him. After Alcestis’s death, Admetus is overcome with grief at his loss, and he has a serious quarrel with his father, each accusing the other of murdering Alcestis by selfishly refusing to die in her place. As he sinks deeper into depression and resentment, it becomes clear that his wife’s wonderful “gift” to him has in fact ruined his life.

The characterization, intensity, and emotional power of the play up to this point is phenomenal, making the sudden arrival of a happy-go-lucky Heracles, oblivious to what has just happened and hoping to enjoy a good time at his buddy Admetus’s place, almost physically jarring. The scrupulously hospitable Admetus hides the truth from Heracles and welcomes him into his home. Heracles proceeds to get drunk and have a great time until one of the household servants reveals the secret — that Alcestis is dead. Heracles then goes down to Hades, brings Alcestis back to the world of the living by force, presents her to Admetus, and all’s well that ends well.

Of the improbably happy endings of this and others of Euripides’s plays, the translator writes that they “must have seemed silly to Euripides too . . . it is as though Euripides were saying: ‘You want a happy ending, but can’t you see that the ending would not have been happy? Very well, I’ll give you an ending that you can’t believe in.'” I’m not sure I buy that as an explanation. After all, the ancient Greeks weren’t exactly known for their insistence on happy endings, and I’m sure there was nothing stopping Euripides from writing the play as a straight-ahead tragedy if he had felt so inclined. These tacked-on happy endings have a long history, going at least back to the Book of Job, and it’s possible that they just didn’t seem as silly to the ancients as they do to us. Perhaps they serve to underscore the tragedy by showing that even when a god shows up and magically makes everything all right, it’s still not all right. Admetus’s relationship with his father is probably irreparably damaged, and both Admetus and Alcestis will have to live out the rest of their lives knowing that Admetus was willing to let her die. And in the end Alcestis will die anyway and Admetus will live on (I think he still gets to live forever) without her. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Heracles hasn’t so much saved the day as ruined everything, trivialized it, deprived them of tragedy without relieving them of suffering.

This was my first exposure to Euripides, and it was extraordinary. I’ve got a book with nine other plays of his and am looking forward to reading them.

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