“Poem of the week: A poem by Stephen Spender; introduced by Andrew McCulloch”*

*in Times Literary Supplement of 23.8.17.

Image: Ancient Thebes, the city known as Waset to ancient Egyptians and as Luxor today, was the capital of Egypt during parts of the Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 B.C.) and the New Kingdom (circa 1550 to 1070 B.C.).

” “Libretto-writing . . .  gives the poet his one chance nowadays of using the high style”, the poet Anne Ridler said as she embarked on her new career. Perhaps this is one reason why translating classical drama for the stage has often attracted poets – for example, Ted Hughes’s translation of Seneca’s Oedipus, directed by Peter Brook at the National Theatre in 1968; Tony Harrison’s Oresteia, directed by Peter Hall at the same venue in 1983; and, in 2004, Seamus Heaney’s Antigone (The Burial at Thebes), commissioned to mark the centenary of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where productions of W. B. Yeats’s Oedipus at Colonus and Oedipus the King were staged in the 1920s. We don’t have to agree with T. S. Eliot that “the craving for poetic drama is permanent in human nature” (Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry, 1928) to recognize that dramatic verse, drawing on the rhythmical and musical resources of poetry, is capable of stirring feelings often more difficult to reach in prose.

In classical Greek tragedy, the chorus, whose metrical variety is believed to derive from its lost  musical accompaniment, alternates with the spoken dialogue of the play’s heroic characters and provides both context and commentary for the developing psychological narrative. And it was with the psychological truth of the Oedipus Rex Trilogy (published in 1985) – Stephen Spender’s single-play version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone – that the theatre critic Michael Billington was most impressed. Spender’s great achievement, in Billington’s view, had been to unify the three plays – which were originally written thirty-five years apart – by focussing on the fact that the characters are “not simply playthings of the gods but victims of their own moral blindness”. For all its mythological trappings, the chorus’ “O thrilling voice of Zeus”, one of six from the play that Spender collected as poems in their own right, is the Theban citizens’ terrified plea to the powers above not to let the mistakes of their rulers fall on their heads: “O Delian healer hear my prayer / star of hope in my night of despair”.

A Chorus From Oedipus Rex

O thrilling voice of Zeus
           sent from Apollo’s golden shrine
           with what intent toward us?

                    I tremble I faint I fail
                    terror racks my soul

O Delian healer to whom my cries
from this my abyss of despair arise

           what fate unknown until now
           or lost in the past and renewed
drawn from the revolving years
                     will you make ours?

O speak o tell us immortal voice

           To Athena daughter of Zeus
    and her sister Artemis
           and Apollo of burning arrows
    triple guardians of Thebes
                                                  I call

If ever before in time past
you saved us from plague and defeat
           come back to us now and save

                    The plague invades
                    no knowledge saves
                    birth pangs of women
                    bear dead their children
                    life on life sped
                    to the land of the dead
                    birds wing on wing
                    struck down from their flying
                    to the parched earth
                    by the marksman death

O Delian healer hear my prayer
star of hope in my night of despair

Grant that this god who without clash of sword on shield
fills with cries of our dying Thebes he makes his battlefield

            turn back in flight from us
                                               be made to yield
         driven by great gales favouring our side

to the far Thracian waters wave on wave
where none found haven ever but his grave

            O Zeus come with thy lightning to us
                                                                    save

            And come back Bacchus
hair gold-bound and cheeks flame-red
         whom the Bacchantae worship and the maenids led
         by his bright torch held high

revelling again among us Bacchus and make death
  the god whom gods and men most hate lie dead                                        

STEPHEN SPENDER (1984)”

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