Posts filed under ‘Philip Vellacott’
Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.
Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.
Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
Translation (by Peter Filkins):
War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.
It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.
I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.
What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.
Agamemnon: Help, help! I am wounded, murdered, here in the inner room!
Chorus: Hush, listen! Who cried ‘Murder’? Do you know that voice?
Agamemnon: Help, help again! Murder – a second, mortal blow!
Chorus 1. That groan tells me the deed is done. It was the king.
Come, let’s decide together on the safest plan.
2. This is what I advise – to send a herald round
Bidding the citizens assemble here in arms.
3. Too slow. I say we should burst in at once, and catch
Murder in the act, before the blood dries on the sword.
4. I share your feeling – that is what we ought to do,
Or something of that kind. Now is the time to act.
5. It’s plain what this beginning points to: the assassins
Mean to establish a tyrannical regime.
6. Yes – while we talk and talk; but action, spurning sleep,
Tramples the gentle face of caution in the dust.
7. I can suggest no plan that might prove practical.
I say, let those who took this step propose the next.
8. I am of the same opinion. If the king is dead,
I know no way to make him live by argument.
9. Then shall we patiently drag out our servile years
Governed by these disgraces of our royal house?
10. No, no! Intolerable! Who would not rather die?
A milder fate than living under tyranny!
11. Wait; not too fast. What is our evidence? Those groans?
Are we to prophecy from them that the king’s dead?
12. We must be certain; this excitement’s premature.
Guessing and certain knowledge are two different things.
Chorus: I find this view supported on all sides: that we
Make full enquiry what has happened to the king.
[translated from the Greek by Philip Vellacott]
It’s perfect, isn’t it?
Here it is, the moment “when Agamemnon cried aloud”. The rightful ruler of the Argives, returned triumphant from Troy, is treacherously assassinated by his wife and her lover. As his death cries echo, Aeschylus traces, in 28 unforgettable lines, the way the initial outrage of the citizenry, their call for rebellion, is tempered and compromised until it becomes little more than meek acquiescence. This failure of the Chorus to act will leave the land in the grip of a tyranny from which only the return of Orestes, in the second play of the trilogy, will rescue it. This is how freedom is lost.
What I love about these lines is partly the sheer theatricality of the scene (the way Aeschylus, by splitting up the Chorus, creates a sense of panic and confusion, bringing this hurried and ultimately ineffective council to life); partly the Beckett like dialogue (“Now is the time to act” says one citizen, another, in words that will shortly seem prophetic says “action, spurning sleep, / tramples the gentle face of caution in the dust” – yet they all do nothing); but mostly the incredible accuracy of Aeschylus’ portrayal, his insight into human nature, which ensures that some 2,500 years after these lines were written, they seem just as relevant, just as real.