from the
Oresteian
trilogy of plays by
Aeschylus

This page:
introduction to The Oresteian Trilogy
Agamemnon
The Coephori
The Eumenides

Translator and
author of the Introduction

Philip Vellacott

Categories:

classical Greek writers

poetry

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Introduction to The Oresteian Trilogy

by translator Philip Vellacott

Copyright © Philip Vellacott, 1956, 1959

The Translation

The highest ideal of a translation from Greek is achieved when the reader flings it impatiently into the fire, and begins patiently to learn the language for himself.

Topic:

Translation

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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Agamemnon

translated by Philip Vellacott

Copyright © Philip Vellacott, 1956, 1959

Chorus:

Zeus, whose will has marked for man

The sole way where wisdom lies;

Ordered one eternal plan:

Man must suffer to be wise.

Head-winds heavy with past ill

Stray his course and cloud his heart:

Sorrow takes the blind soul’s part —

Man grows wise against his will.

For powers who rule from thrones above

By ruthlessness commend their love.

Topic:

Gods

Chorus:

[...]

They sent forth men to battle,

But no such men return;

And home, to claim their welcome,

Come ashes in an urn.

For War’s a banker, flesh his gold.

There by the furnace of Troy’s field,

Where thrust meets thrust, he sits to hold

His scale, and watch the spear-point sway;

And back to waiting homes he sends

Slag from the ore, a little dust

To drain hot tears from hearts of friends;

Good measure, safely stored and sealed

In a convenient jar — the just

Price for the man they sent away.

Topic:

War

Herald:

Well, it’s no time for moaning; all that’s over now.

And those who died out there — it’s over for them too;

No need to jump to orders; they can take their rest.

Why call the roll of those who were expendable,

And make the living wince from old wounds probed again?

Nor much hurrahing either, if we’re sensible.

For us who’ve come safe home the good weighs heaviest,

And what we’ve suffered counts for less.

Chorus:

Well, I was wrong, I own it. Old and ready to learn

Is always young.

Topic:

Age

Chorus:

Telling a fair tale falsely cannot hide the truth;

When truth and good news part, the rift shows plain enough.

Topic:

Truth

Chorus:

When Earth and Time were young,

A simple ancient saw

Phrased on the common tongue

Declared that man’s good fortune, once mature,

Does not die childless, but begets its heir;

That from life’s goodness grows, by Nature’s law,

Calamity past cure

And ultimate despair.

I think alone; my mind

Rejects this general belief.

Sin, not prosperity, engenders grief;

For impious acts breed their own kind,

And evil’s nature is to multiply.

The house whose ways are just in word and deed

Still as the years go by

Sees lasting wealth and noble sons succeed.

Chorus:

But Justice with her shining eyes

Lights the smoke-begrimed and mean

Dwelling; honours those who prize

Honour; searches far to find

All whose hearts and hands are clean;

Passes with averted gaze

Golden palaces which hide

Evil armed in insolence;

Power and riches close combined,

Falsely stamped with all men’s praise,

Win from her no reverence.

Topic:

Justice

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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The Coephori
(The Libation-Bearers)

translated by Philip Vellacott

Copyright © Philip Vellacott, 1956, 1959

Chorus:

Pray simply, ‘Let one come to shed blood for blood shed.’

Electra:

Would not a prayer like that seem impious to the gods?

Chorus:

Why? Evil for evil is no impiety.

Topic:

Capital punishment

Electra:

Children preserve alive a dead man’s name and fame.

They are like corks that hold the fisherman’s net, and keep

His knotted lines from sinking to the ocean bed.

Topic:

Children

Chorus:

[...]

A wise messenger makes a crooked message straight.

Topic:

Propaganda

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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The Eumenides

translated by Philip Vellacott

Copyright © Philip Vellacott, 1956, 1959

Chorus:

For fear, enforcing goodness,

Must somewhere reign enthroned,

And watch men’s ways, and teach them,

Through self-inflicted sorrow,

That sin is not condoned.

What man, no longer nursing

Fear at his heart — what city,

Once fear is cast away,

Will bow the knee to Justice

As in an earlier day?

Apollo:

[...] Chains may be loosed, with little harm,

And many ways to mend it. But when blood of man

Sinks in the thirsty dust, the life once lost can live

No more. For death alone my father has ordained

No healing spell; all other things his effortless

And sovereign power casts down or raises up at will.

Topic:

Capital punishment

Athene:

[...]

If you befoul a shining spring with an impure

And muddy dribble, you will come in vain to drink.

[ So, do not taint pure laws with new expediency. ] *

Guard well and reverence that form of government

Which will eschew alike licence and slavery;

And from your polity do not wholly banish fear,

For what man living, freed from fear, will still be just?

* Note (Hal’s):
This clarifying line is added by the translator.

— end note

Topic:

Government

text checked (see note) Jan 2005

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