Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aeschylus' "Agamemnon"

I read the first part of the trilogy, in Philip Vellacott's translation, last week for a book group. If Euripides is the psychologist, and Sophocles the priest-philosopher, then Aeschylus is the historian of the big three Greek tragedians. Agamemnon is vitally concerned with the rise and fall of noble houses, and the engine of history, vengeance. Agamemnon, with Zeus's harness on his back, ploughs over Troy for Paris' violation of the hospitality code. But to become the God's instrument, he sacrificed his own daughter to gain fair winds, an unkind act that aroused Clytemnestra's vengeance against him. The Queens kills her husband, and stores up wrath against herself.

Clytemnestra is a fascinating figure. Her speech on the passing of the fire signal is stunningly beautiful, a tour-de-force, really. Moving is her imagining the Greeks' victory and the Trojans' defeat, a passage that resonates today.

Today the Greeks hold Troy! Her walls echo with cries
That will not blend. Pour oil and vinegar in one vessel,
You'll see them part and swirl, and never mix, so, there,
I think, down narrow streets a discord grates the ear--
Screams of the captured, shouts of those who've captured them,
The unhappy and the happy. Women of Troy prostrate
Over dead husbands, brothers; aged grandfathers
Mourning dead sons and grandsons, and remembering
Their very cries are slaves' crites now. . . . And then the victors:
After a night of fightng, roaming, plundering,
Hungry to breakfast, while their hosts lie quiet in dust;
No rules to keep, no order of place; each with the luck
That fell to him, quartered in captured homes of Troy,
Tonight, at last, rolled in dry blankets, safe from frost--
No going on guard--blissfully they'll sleep from dusk to dawn.

How to describe the quality of that line "Hungry to breakfast, while their hosts lie quiet in dust"? What modern war poet would or could combine the savagery irony of "hosts," the understated empathy of "lie quiet in dust," and the matter-of-factness of "Hungry to breakfast" all in one line? And then, in vanquishing exhaustion, the Greek soldiers sleep, a sleep only they will wake up from when the sun rises.

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