Once upon a time when I was an undergraduate I heard a story that the Agamemnon of Aeschylus was the most difficult Greek text of all. I confirmed this myself when I read the Oresteia—the trilogy of which the Agamemnon is the first play—in preparation for master’s comprehensives.
After I finished that play I was no longer sure whether I even knew Greek.
Of course, I am not the only one to have had the experience, and many have argued quite convincingly that it was a point of mystery-religious importance that the Aeschylean Chorus be nearly unintelligible. Greek religion was after all founded upon and defined by the poets, and Aeschylus was nothing if not a deeply religious poet.
But I digress. The point is that the Aeschylean Chorus is more ethereal than, but not wholly unlike, say, John’s Apocalypse (its Latinate title being Revelation).
The best thing I read today was recalled to my attention by a friend who had asked me whether I still thought Aeschylus were the hardest Greek author to read.
It’s A. E. Housman’s “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy,” and I hope you enjoy it. And if you ever end up studying ancient Greek, come back to it afterwards and laugh even harder.
CHORUS: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Then wave your hand, to signify as much.
ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
ALCMAEON: Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
CHORUS: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
ALCMAEON: Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
CHORUS: To learn your name would not displease me much.
ALCMAEON: Not all that men desire do they obtain.
CHORUS: Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.
ALCMAEON: A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that–
CHORUS: What? for I know not yet what you will say.
ALCMAEON: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
CHORUS: Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
ALCMAEON: This house was Eriphyle’s, no one else’s.
CHORUS: Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.
ALCMAEON: May I then enter, passing through the door?
CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is very much the safest plan.
ALCMAEON: I go into the house with heels and speed.
I would not willingly acquire a name
For ill-digested thought;
But after pondering much
To this conclusion I at last have come:
LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.
This truth I have written deep
In my reflective midriff
On tablets not of wax,
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
For many reasons: LIFE, I say, IS NOT
A STRANGER TO UNCERTAINTY.
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
This fact did I discover,
Nor did the Delphine tripod bark it out,
Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingenuity sufficed
My self-taught diaphragm.
Why should I mention
The Inachean daughter, loved of Zeus?
Her whom of old the gods,
More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
A gift not asked for,
And sent her forth to learn
The unfamiliar science
Of how to chew the cud.
She therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
Nor did they disagree with her.
But yet, howe’er nutritious, such repasts
I do not hanker after:
Never may Cypris for her seat select
My dappled liver!
Why should I mention Io? Why indeed?
I have no notion why.
But now does my boding heart,
Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
A strain not meet for the dance.
Yes even the palace appears
To my yoke of circular eyes
(The right, nor omit I the left)
Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
Garnished with woolly deaths
And many shipwrecks of cows.
I therefore in a Cissian strain lament:
And to the rapid
Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.
ERIPHYLE (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.
CHORUS: I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
ERIPHYLE: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
CHORUS: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.
ERIPHYLE: O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
CHORUS: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.
Thanks, dear reader, for giving me a reminder to read Housman.