What did Tennyson add to English poetry? Or Wordsworth? Or Swinburne? It’s not a trivial question in the way a ranking of poets would be. It asks instead for a sense of what is different or new; it gets at the elusive notion of “style”; it is also extraordinarily difficult to answer.
One way to approach the question is by asking what they added to the resources of English poetry. When we think of the resources of poetry, we usually think of poetry’s capacity to meet the needs of a present that is no longer ours (Tennyson spoke to his age, etc), and sometimes think prospectively of how a poet seems to create new possibilities for those who come after (Pound is great in this respect, perhaps). But I find both approaches difficult to take, not least because the former suggests that a poet needs to be either popular or conform to our present version of a particular era of the past, and the latter risks falling into the thought that invention and novelty in poetry are themselves valuable provided they inspire imitators—but if the imitators are themselves to be accounted valuable, it needs to be on different terms altogether. A third approach is possible, though: it is retrospective. Behind the various traditions of English poetry that runs from Wyatt to the present is a sense that there is a body of poetry distinct from and prior to English poetry, which English poetry can, should it wish, recover: the poetry of Antiquity.
Antiquity is no more stable than any other part of history; it shifts with the transformation of the present from which it is seen and understood. Nonetheless, it offer a third coordinate, neither present English nor past English poetry, which can help us take hold on what a poet has added or how a poet has changed English poetry. On this account, an addition to English poetry occurs when Antiquity can make its presence felt in a new way; this is not to say that Antiquity is essential for us now (though it’s hard not to find it’s sustained contact with a sense of the ethical, the moral, in human action and thought to be invaluable), but to suggest that is a crucial gauge for seeing how English poetry has developed. There is no comparably consistent presence from another European source that stands at the head of, and throughout the English tradition; Dante is too fitfully present, and Petrarch’s initial infusion soon takes on a life of its own, and France and Germany offer nothing equivalent to either of them.
Among the Elizabethans, Marlowe and Jonson and even, arguably, Shakespeare and Donne in the Satires and Elegies; then Herrick and Milton; then Dryden and Pope and Johnson; and Gray and perhaps Cowper; then Shelley and Keats; then Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Hopkins; this does not pretend to be a complete account of the leaps of English verse, and Wordsworth’s place is more complicated (he does not engage directly with the Classics as these others do, but his poetry serves as a model for Arnold’s sense of Sophoclean clarity, and its presence allowed others besides Arnold to come into new contact with the Classics). Then came the Modernists, with Pound and HD leading the charge but ultimately Eliot, through his influence on Tate, and then Lowell, Fitzgerald, and those mid-century Moderns, probably yielding the most famous 20th century English recoveries of the Classics. A survey of how various poets have allowed for different renovations of the Classics in English, both the same Classical authors and different Classical periods (the Hellenistic period catching Tennyson’s eye; the Archaic Pound’s), is a survey of the development of English poetry, marking quite clearly where novelty can be found. Antiquity, a common past, is an invaluable third vantage for making sense of the pastness of English poets.
Which is why Gilbert Murray is owed a continued life. Murray does not, in his own right, innovate as a poet (but then neither does Robert Fitzgerald); but he does bring to his translations of Euripides’ the resources that had been developed by the Victorians, and by Tennyson and Swinburne in particular. Murray is probably best remembered as the object of T.S. Eliot’s scorn. He represented much, as a person, that Eliot disliked: his translations of the Ancient Greek tragedies, of which there were eight, were performed by Shaw’s theater, his politics were liberal and, after the First World War, he was a public figure aligned with liberal diplomatic efforts (for an excellent account of the social-political situation of Murray in relation to Eliot, see Robert Ackerman, “Euripides and Professor Murray,” The Classical Journal May 1986). He also represented much that, as a poet, Eliot was reacting against, and his harsh attack on Murray’s Euripides manages to get hold of some important truths about Murray’s translations, even as it seems to willfully ignore their value. Here is Eliot:
“And it is inconceivable that anyone with a genuine feeling for the sound of Greek verse should deliberately elect the William Morris couplet, the Swinburne lyric, as an equivalent.”
“that he should stretch the Greek brevity to fit the loose frame of William Morris, and blur the Greek lyric to the fluid haze of Swinburne; these are not faults of infinitesimal insignificance”
“And it must be said that Professor Gilbert Murray is not the man for this. Greek poetry will never have the slightest vitalizing effect upon English poetry if it can only appear masquerading as a vulgar debasement of the eminently personal idiom of Swinburne”
The point is not that Eliot is simply wrong—but that the way he is wrong is illustrative of what Swinburne and Tennyson (whom Eliot does not name, but who is more obviously active in the translations than is Morris) added to English poetry, and which Murray realized had life that could be added. And it could be added that, as far as the record of translation goes, the resources of Swinburne and Tennyson seem to have yielded more variously moving, subtly cadenced, and resonantly worded translations of Euripides than the Pound-HD-Eliot line.
As for Eliot’s being wrong about his criticism, it’s not for me, being a non-Greek reader or auditor, to say. But in so far as much of his criticism depends upon his sense of Swinburne, I will quote the Classicist and translation expert Donald Carne-Ross on Swinburne’s sensitivity for Greek and genius for responding to it in English poetry: “He heard Greek poetry, found what he heard most beautiful, and, without troubling to come up with a formal defense, set about creating a comparable beauty in English.” Though, by some accounts, Swinburne professed to dislike Euripides, a fragment from his lost Meleager forms the kernel, and epigram, for Atalanta in Calydon. Eliot’s assertion that it is “inconceivable that anyone with a genuine feeling for the sound of Greek should deliberately elect…the Swinburne lyric as an equivalent” would seem deeply misguided; similarly, his assertion that Swinburne’s poetry is written in an “eminently personal idiom.” Eliot lets the cat out of Old Possum’s bag when he writes that wants for Greek poetry to have a “vitalizing effect” on English poetry: he is ignoring that it has already vitalized the poetry of Tennyson and Swinburne because he has decided that they are incapable of vitalizing what needs to be written; for Eliot, Murray is writing within the closed circuit of Classical reception that the Victorians had established, rather than breaking the current and asking for it to flow into English at a new point.
From the perspective of 2022, we can be grateful that Murray showed how Tennyson and Swinburne’s innovations and techniques could be made to flow back into the Greek. They could be used, in the sense that Dryden thought that it was the task of a poet to establish techniques that others could use. We can also look back at other translations of English and doubt whether any other translator has tapped into anything like Swinburne and Tennyson; those resources might have been old when Murray was writing, but at least they were resources of and for poetry. Eliot was asking for something of the highest order when he suggested that Greek poetry should renovate English again. Maybe it did in Pound and HD but it’s not clear anyone could do anything for Euripides with their techniques. And twentieth-century translators of Euripides have neither had the genius to let Euripides lead them to discover a new possibility for English, or even found an existing possibility of English poetry commensurate for the task of translation. We get something like Lowell-lite with most of their efforts, at the best.
It’s quite easy to compare passages from Murray with Lattimore, Fitzgerald/Fitts, and William Arrowsmith, and it’s illuminating to do so because they are all fine translators from the Classics, and have, at least in the case of Fitzgerald and Arrowsmith, produced wonderful works by other authors that feel like the real thing. But their resources, however much they work on other poets, don’t seem to bring Euripides to life as poetry. Here are five passages, all from Alcestis, which I selected because, for whatever reason (I don’t always remember why), I highlighted them when reading the Murray translation; as such, they might be said to show him to advantage, but Eliot quotes him to show him at a disadvantage and if the other translators are not at their best during these passages, it is not to say they are especially bad, but merely to set off what in Murray is quite distinctly good:
And who hath said that Love shall bring
More joy to man than fear and strife?
I knew his perils from of old,
I know them now, when I behold
The bitter faring of my King,
Whose love is taken, and his life
Left evermore an empty thing. (Gilbert Murray)
Do not say that marriage has more happiness than pain.
I have seen too many marriages. And now I see
the torment of this house: this bravest of women
dying, and a king in agony. As long as he lives,
his life will taste of death
all he will have is hell. (Arrowsmith)
Never say that marriage is more of joy than pain.
I have seen many marriages. I have seen
The fortune of my king.
Lost is the loveliest, lost the dear wife:
What can all his days bring,
What pleasure is there in his life that is no life? (Fitzgerald and Fitts)
I will never again say that marriage brings
more pleasure than pain. I judge by what
I have known in the past, and by seeing now
what happens to our king, who is losing a wife
brave beyond all others, and must live a life
that will be no life for the rest of time. (Lattimore)
The last line of the Murray translation, “left evermore an empty thing,” echoes the cadence of the In Memoriam line but also takes a risk that yields a reward: the clanging hollowness of “thing,” made flatter in the rhyme with “King,” and measuring the difference between them, registers the emptiness of life it describes. “Strife” reaches out across to the rhyme with “life”, since it is not just, in this play or elsewhere, Love that brings strife, but life itself. “I know his perils from of old | I know them now, when I behold” is also, if not a direct allusion to In Memoriam (I suspect it is), then at least an allusion to the cadence of that poem: determined in its exhaustion, marching though near defeated, the “I” both assertive and vulnerable.
He hath opened wide his dwelling
To the stranger, though his ruth
For the dead was fresh and welling,
For the loved one of his youth.
‘Tis the brave heart’s cry:
“I will fail not, though I die!”
Doth it win, with no man’s telling
Some high vision of the truth?
We may marvel. Yet I trust,
When man seeketh to be just
And to pity them that wander, God will raise him from the dust. (Murray)
And now, again, this gracious man
has opened wide the doors and welcomed in this house
another guest. Another—even though the wife he loved
was newly dead, and the agony of grief
lay freshly on him…Noble man, his courtesy
and grace exceed all human scale. But who can say?
Greatness of soul is all that human wisdom knows;
all philosophy is in it. I stand in awe
Ademetos. And somehow I have faith, a growing hope
that for this noble, heaven-minded man
all, by grace of god, may still be well. (Arrowsmith)
Now he has thrown his doors wide for the stranger,
Weeping, his eyes wet, weeping the new dead;
Surely such kindness now is half insane!
Yet in all things a good man reckons best,
And bravery is set upon the mind
That man may act what truth he has divined. (Fitzgerald and Fitts)
Now he has spread wide his doors
and taken the guest in, when his eyes were wet
and he wept still for a beloved wife who died
in the house so lately. The noble strain
comes out, in respect for others.
All that wisdom means is there in the noble. I stand
in awe, and good hope has come again to my heart
that for his godly man the end will be good. (Lattimore)
“Some high vision of the truth” again recalls Tennyson, but also the pre-Raphaelite Yeats. But here I will note that whereas Eliot complained of the diffusiveness in Murray’s translation, his lines are by far the most compressed and sinewy. Several other translations speak of “awe”; Murray writes lines that feel it.
How falsely do these old men pray for death,
Cursing their weight of years, their weary breath!
When Death comes close, there is not one that dares
To die; age is forgot and all its cares (Murray)
Gods, how I hate them,
all these aging hypocrites, tottering around,
telling you how much they want to die,
stuffed with self-pity, whining about old age
and its indignities, their long, slow, crawling passage
to the grave.
But let them get the slightest glimpse of Death
and suddenly they stick like leeches to the light
and tell you life is not so bad. (Arrowsmith)
God, these old men! How they pray for death!
How heavy is their life in the slow drag of days!
And yet, when Death comes near them,
You will not find one who will rise and walk with him,
Not one whose years are still a burden to him! (Fitzgerald and Fitts)
It is meaningless, the way old men pray for death
and complain of age and the long time they have to live.
Let death only come close, not one of them still wants
to die. Their age is not a burden any more. (Lattimore)
Thy road of life is thine
None other’s, to rejoice at or repine.
All that was owed to thee by us is paid.
My throne is thine. My broad lands shall be made
Thine, as I had them from my father…Say,
How have I wronged thee? What have I kept away?
“Not died for thee?”…I ask not thee to die.
Thou lovest this light: shall not I love it, I?…
‘Tis age on age there, in the dark; and here
My sunlight time is short, but dear; but dear. (Murray)
You listen, boy. Remember this
you love your life. Well, so does every man alive.
And if you call us names for that,
worse things will be said of you. They won’t be pretty,
and they’ll all be true. (Arrowsmith)
Dear boy, listen:
For happiness or unhappiness, every man is born for himself.
I gave you all you deserved, slaves, subjects, money,
And you’ll soon have my lands, as I had them from my father
Then how have I cheated you? How have I hurt you?
Die for you–?
Don’t you die for me, and I’ll not die for you.
You love the daylight: do you think your father does not?
And you, so low, then dare
blame your own people for not wanting to do this.
Silence. I tell you, as you cherish your own life,
all other people cherish theirs. And if you call
us names, you will be called names, and the names are true. (Lattimore)
Here Murray is expansive, but the expansion permits the varied cadences, the stops and starts, the abrupt agon of “thou” and “I,” which is the crucial agon of the scene itself. Fitzgerald and Fitts are also expansive, but they are expansive like a father in a poor imitation of a realist Arthur Miller play; that sprawling colloquial self-importance of the mid-century American male creeps into a lot of these other translations; the trouble with relying too much on the conventions of speech as they exist at any one moment is that they also represent conventions of feeling that stand at odds. Murray’s lines can be spoken with feeling but they do not insist on the natural feeling of a particular moment in history when the play was translated. His last “but dear; but dear” would provide ample scope for an actor, but it also guides the actor to a mixture of anger, regret, sadness, and disappointment.
Ye shapes that front me, wall and gate,
How shall I enter in and dwell
Among ye, with all fortune’s spell
Dischanted? Aye, the change is great.
That day I strode with bridal song
Through lifted brands of Pelian pine;
A hand beloved lay in mine;
And loud behind a revelling throng
Exalted me and her, the dead.
They called us young, high-hearted; told
How princes were our sires of old,
And how we loved and we must wed…
For those high songs, lo, men that moan
And raiment black where once was white;
Who guide me homeward in the night,
On that waste bed to lie alone. (Murray)
This house, how can I call it home? How can I go in, remembering how happy I once was here, and how, of all that happiness, nothing now is left? Then and now: a gulf so great it seems two wholly unconnected worlds. I remember then. It was dsuk on our wedding day. All around us the pine torches were blazing, and she I were coming home to bed, escorted by a noisy crowd of happy friends and guests, singing and dancing. I remember how they congratulated me, how they wished Alcestis happiness and long life (oh, my dead Alcestis!). In our marriage, they told us, high nobilities on either side had merged and met. And now? Now the only song is the cry of mourning. And the friends who bring me home wear black instead of white. And the bed is there, the bed is there…I sleep alone. (Arrowsmith)
How can I go into this house and live here now?
It is all changed.
I can see, as if from a great distance,
The evening I came in under the torches,
Holding her by the hand, and the music around us,
The singing and the great crowd following
To wish her, who is now dead, happiness.
And happiness to me: they said our marriage
Joined the magnificence of two lines of kings.
But now instead of songs there is only weeping;
Where there were white robes, these grey mourners
Beckon me in to sleep in an empty bed. (Fitzgerald and Fitts)
Hateful is this
return, hateful the sight of this house
widowed, empty. Where shall I go?
Where shall I stay? What shall I say?
How can I die?
My mother bore me to a heavy fate.
I envy the dead. I long for those
who are gone, to live in their houses, with them.
There is no pleasure in the sunshine
nor the feel of the hard earth under my feet.
Such was the hostage Death has taken
from me, and given to Hades. (Lattimore)
Here of course is the obvious Tennyson. I find it wonderful how unabashedly Murray lifts the In Memoriam stanza, especially since there is here, and even more strongly elsewhere, imagery of an abandoned dead house that recalls “Dark house, by which once more I stand.” “Waste bed” is an apt touch, too, since the waste of his life, the waste of her life, are alike found in that empty (the primary local meaning of “waste” here) bed.
The examples I’ve chosen show the presence of Tennyson, and that is part a matter of where my ears perk up, but also a matter of Swinburne’s being a diffuse presence over the whole verse, especially in the lyricism of the Choruses. Though I cannot compare to other translators, it is in The Trojan Women that I think Murray’s Victorian inheritance serves him best; it is a tragedy in which almost nothing happens except lamentation, and that drawn out lamentation, interrupted and further propelled by one terrible death, and by some accusations, takes places as the women wait to be enslaved. It is a tragedy of passive suffering, of inaction, of patience and passivity and being unable to move, let alone move on; it is perfect for the tools of Tennyson and Swinburne.
Here are three passages from it:
A desolate Mother we leave, O children, a City of scorn:
Even as the sound of a song
Left by the way, but long
Remembered, a tune of tears
Falling where no man hears,
In the old house, as rain,
For things loved of yore:
But the dead hath lost his pain
And weeps no more.
“Here I am, an old man in a dry month | Being read to by a boy, waiting for the rain”…not exactly or not quite, but not so far from Eliot’s lines either, though “for things loved of yore” is much more Yeats than Eliot. But this could not have been written, as so many of their lines could not have been written, without Tennyson and Swinburne at their backs (“a tune of tears| Falling where no man hears” is very Swinburne).
In Salamis, filled with the foaming
Of billows and murmur of bees,
Old Telamon stayed from his roaming,
Long ago, on a throne of the seas;
Looking out on the hills olive-laden,
Enchanted, where first from the earth
The grey-gleaming fruit of the Maiden
Athena had birth;
A soft grey crown for a city
Belovèd, a City of Light:
Yet he rested not there, nor had pity,
But went forth in his might,
Where Heracles wandered, the lonely
Bow-bearer, and lent him his hands
For the wrecking of one land only,
Of Ilion, Ilion only,
Most hated of lands!
Of the bravest of Hellas he made him
A ship-folk, in wrath for the Steeds,
And sailed the wide waters, and stayed him
At last amid Simoïs’ reeds;
And the oars beat slow in the river,
And the long ropes held in the strand,
And he felt for his bow and his quiver,
The wrath of his hand.
And the old king died; and the towers
That Phoebus had builded did fall,
And his wrath, as a flame that devours,
Ran red over all;
And the fields and the woodlands lay blasted,
Long ago. Yea, twice hath the Sire
Uplifted his hand and downcast it
On the wall of the Dardan, downcast it
As a sword and as fire.
In vain, all in vain,
O thou ‘mid the wine-jars golden
That movest in delicate joy,
Ganymêdês, child of Troy,
The lips of the Highest drain
The cup in thine hand upholden:
And thy mother, thy mother that bore thee,
Is wasted with fire and torn;
And the voice of her shores is heard,
Wild, as the voice of a bird,
For lovers and children before thee
Crying, and mothers outworn.
And the pools of thy bathing are perished,
And the wind-strewn ways of thy feet:[Pg 53]
Yet thy face as aforetime is cherished
Of Zeus, and the breath of it sweet;
Yea, the beauty of Calm is upon it
In houses at rest and afar.
But thy land, He hath wrecked and o’erthrown it
In the wailing of war.
O Love, ancient Love,
Of old to the Dardan given;
Love of the Lords of the Sky;
How didst thou lift us high
In Ilion, yea, and above
All cities, as wed with heaven!
For Zeus—O leave it unspoken:
But alas for the love of the Morn;
Morn of the milk-white wing,
The gentle, the earth-loving,
That shineth on battlements broken
In Troy, and a people forlorn!
And, lo, in her bowers Tithônus,
Our brother, yet sleeps as of old:
O, she too hath loved us and known us,
And the Steeds of her star, flashing gold,
Stooped hither and bore him above us;
Then blessed we the Gods in our joy.
But all that made them to love us
Hath perished from Troy.
This Chorus takes Tennyson’s and Swinburne’s technique for suspending animation, and time, and sets it in a dramatic context where it can be fully justified and explained; not knowing the original, this makes me wish very much that I did. It seems to move from more heavily indebted to Tennyson to more heavily indebted to Swinburne, and to move, as it does so, into more of a haze, not of imagery, but of emotional numbness and pained memory. Something similar happens in my next example, though it is tempered by a plainness of syntax and address that recalls Christina Rossetti to my ears:
And hast thou turned from the Altar of frankincense,
And given to the Greek thy temple of Ilion?
The flame of the cakes of corn, is it gone from hence,
The myrrh on the air and the wreathèd towers gone?
And Ida, dark Ida, where the wild ivy grows,
The glens that run as rivers from the summer-broken snows,
And the Rock, is it forgotten, where the first sunbeam glows,
The lit house most holy of the Dawn?
The sacrifice is gone and the sound of joy,
The dancing under the stars and the night-long prayer:
The Golden Images and the Moons of Troy,
The Twelve Moons and the mighty names they bear:
My heart, my heart crieth, O Lord Zeus on high,
Were they all to thee as nothing, thou thronèd in the sky,
Thronèd in the fire-cloud, where a City, near to die,
Passeth in the wind and the flare?
Dear one, O husband mine,
Thou in the dim dominions
Driftest with waterless lips,
Unburied; and me the ships
Shall bear o’er the bitter brine,
Storm-birds upon angry pinions,
Where the towers of the Giants shine
O’er Argos cloudily,
And the riders ride by the sea.
And children still in the Gate
Crowd and cry,
A multitude desolate,
Voices that float and wait
As the tears run dry:[Pg 65]
‘Mother, alone on the shore
They drive me, far from thee:
Lo, the dip of the oar,
The black hull on the sea!
Is it the Isle Immortal,
Salamis, waits for me?
Is it the Rock that broods
Over the sundered floods
Of Corinth, the ancient portal
Of Pelops’ sovranty?’
Out in the waste of foam,
Where rideth dark Menelaus,
Come to us there, O white
And jagged, with wild sea-light
And crashing of oar-blades, come,
O thunder of God, and slay us:
While our tears are wet for home,
While out in the storm go we,
Slaves of our enemy!
And, God, may Helen be there,
With mirror of gold,
Decking her face so fair,
Girl-like; and hear, and stare,
And turn death-cold:
Never, ah, never more
The hearth of her home to see,
Nor sand of the Spartan shore,
Nor tombs where her fathers be,[Pg 66]
Nor Athena’s bronzen Dwelling,
Nor the towers of Pitanê;
For her face was a dark desire
Upon Greece, and shame like fire,
And her dead are welling, welling,
From red Simoïs to the sea!
By the end of these passages, though, Rossetti has ceded to Swinburne; and so we can see here and elsewhere Murray making use of these Victorian resources not indiscriminately, with recognition of how they can be combined and sequenced for various effects.
Finally, Murray takes from the Victorians something that is much less an invention of Tennyson and Swinburne, or any of the great poets, and instead probably a consequence of the novel, and the need for poets, often the sort that T.S. Eliot would refer to as “minor” poets, to sustain a narrative with briskness, variety, and clarity. Eliot was not being dismissive either; he praises Edwin Arnold repeatedly for his (worth-reading!) Light of Asia, a biography of Buddha in verse. The Victorians had, more than the Romantics, despite Crabbe, and more than the Modernists, who abandoned the attempt, an investment in narrative poetry. Murray had learned from this and put it to good use in the lengthy passages in Hippolytus or Medea where he a messenger reports on an extended scene of action. From Medea:
When thy two children, hand in hand entwined,
Came with their father, and passed on to find
The new-made bridal rooms, Oh, we were glad,
We thralls, who ever loved thee well, and had
Grief in thy grief. And straight there passed a word
From ear to ear, that thou and thy false lord
Had poured peace offering upon wrath foregone.
A right glad welcome gave we them, and one
Kissed the small hand, and one the shining hair:
Myself, for very joy, I followed where
The women’s rooms are. There our mistress . . . she
Whom now we name so . . . thinking not to see
Thy little pair, with glad and eager brow
Sate waiting Jason. Then she saw, and slow
Shrouded her eyes, and backward turned again,
Sick that thy children should come near her. Then
[Pg 65]Thy husband quick went forward, to entreat
The young maid’s fitful wrath. “Thou will not meet
Love’s coming with unkindness? Nay, refrain
Thy suddenness, and turn thy face again,
Holding as friends all that to me are dear,
Thine husband. And accept these robes they bear
As gifts: and beg thy father to unmake
His doom of exile on them—for my sake.”
When once she saw the raiment, she could still
Her joy no more, but gave him all his will.
And almost ere the father and the two
Children were gone from out the room, she drew
The flowerèd garments forth, and sate her down
To her arraying: bound the golden crown
Through her long curls, and in a mirror fair
Arranged their separate clusters, smiling there
At the dead self that faced her. Then aside
She pushed her seat, and paced those chambers wide
Alone, her white foot poising delicately—
So passing joyful in those gifts was she!—
And many a time would pause, straight-limbed, and wheel
Her head to watch the long fold to her heel
Sweeping. And then came something strange. Her cheek
Seemed pale, and back with crooked steps and weak
Groping of arms she walked, and scarcely found
Her old seat, that she fell not to the ground.
Among the handmaids was a woman old
And grey, who deemed, I think, that Pan had hold
[Pg 66]Upon her, or some spirit, and raised a keen
Awakening shout; till through her lips was seen
A white foam crawling, and her eyeballs back
Twisted, and all her face dead pale for lack
Of life: and while that old dame called, the cry
Turned strangely to its opposite, to die
Sobbing. Oh, swiftly then one woman flew
To seek her father’s rooms, one for the new
Bridegroom, to tell the tale. And all the place
Was loud with hurrying feet.
So long a space
As a swift walker on a measured way
Would pace a furlong’s course in, there she lay
Speechless, with veilèd lids. Then wide her eyes
She oped, and wildly, as she strove to rise,
Shrieked: for two diverse waves upon her rolled
Of stabbing death. The carcanet of gold
That gripped her brow was molten in a dire
And wondrous river of devouring fire.
And those fine robes, the gift thy children gave—
God’s mercy!—everywhere did lap and lave
The delicate flesh; till up she sprang, and fled,
A fiery pillar, shaking locks and head
This way and that, seeking to cast the crown
Somewhere away. But like a thing nailed down
The burning gold held fast the anadem,
And through her locks, the more she scattered them,
Came fire the fiercer, till to earth she fell
A thing—save to her sire—scarce nameable,
And strove no more. That cheek of royal mien,
Where was it—or the place where eyes had been?
[Pg 67]Only from crown and temples came faint blood
Shot through with fire. The very flesh, it stood
Out from the bones, as from a wounded pine
The gum starts, where those gnawing poisons fine
Bit in the dark—a ghastly sight! And touch
The dead we durst not. We had seen too much.
But that poor father, knowing not, had sped,
Swift to his daughter’s room, and there the dead
Lay at his feet. He knelt, and groaning low,
Folded her in his arms, and kissed her: “Oh,
Unhappy child, what thing unnatural hath
So hideously undone thee? Or what wrath
Of gods, to make this old grey sepulchre
Childless of thee? Would God but lay me there
To die with thee, my daughter!” So he cried.
But after, when he stayed from tears, and tried
To uplift his old bent frame, lo, in the folds
Of those fine robes it held, as ivy holds
Strangling among your laurel boughs. Oh, then
A ghastly struggle came! Again, again,
Up on his knee he writhed; but that dead breast
Clung still to his: till, wild, like one possessed,
He dragged himself half free; and, lo, the live
Flesh parted; and he laid him down to strive
No more with death, but perish; for the deep
Had risen above his soul. And there they sleep,
At last, the old proud father and the bride,
Even as his tears had craved it, side by side.
Maybe this is the William Morris couplet that Eliot despised; but the Morris couplet, like the Morris wallpaper, might prove to have more lasting value than some of what came in its stead. Leaps and revolutions in English poetry might be measured by new versions of the Classics, but the “cleaning up work” (to borrow a term from Thomas Kuhn) that is performed by lesser poets can take the form of translations that show how much can be done within the terms of those leaps and revolutions—Murray’s is not a definitive Euripides, I’m sure, but what could be. It is the best Victorian Euripides we have, and maybe there is no better any-other Euripides available. In which case, he is worth reading still.