Tragedies of Euripides (Way)/Preface 1

The Tragedies of Euripides  (1894)  translated by Arthur S. Way
Preface to Vol. I

This is the Preface to Volume I of The Tragedies of Euripides, in English verse. There was also a Preface to Volume II and Preface to Volume III.


"It is," remarks the author of The Ancient Classical Drama, referring to Euripides, "to the disgrace of English scholarship that we have no verse translation of this all-important poet produced in our own day." Though some might peradventure challenge the inference, on the plea that our scholars have been more profitably employed, the fact is indisputable. The comparative neglect of Euripides by translators for more than a century past is, indeed, one of the enigmas of English scholarship. If this were accompanied by a corresponding paucity of editions of his works, or by an increasing tendency to underrate his merits, the marvel would have at least the quality of consistency. But, on the one hand, Euripides has of late years received from commentators his full share of attention, and, on the other, nothing is more certain than that the old fashion of disparaging his genius (in which Schlegel led the way, giving all the weight of his authority to a sentence which others were too uncritical or too timorous to revise), is now utterly discredited, and that we have ceased to regard the generations of Greeks and Romans who loved and reverenced him, as degenerate fools and blind, and are at last making some humble efforts to understand them and to recover their point of view. In fact, the revived interest in Euripides has taken every form but that of doing for him what has been so freely done for Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. True, many translators have nibbled at him during the present century. The Alcestis has been translated by Banks (1849), Nevins (1870), Williams (1871), Browning (1871), and H. B. L. (1884); the Medea by Lee (1867), Cartwright (1868), Mrs. Webster (1868), and Williams (1871); the Hippolytus by Fitzgerald (1867), Williams (1871), Miss Robinson (1881), and H. B. L. (1894); the Hecuba by Beesley (1875); the Ion by H. B. L. (1889), and Verrall (1890); the Hercules Furens by Browning (1875); the Iphigeneia in Aulis and the Iphigeneia in Tauris by Cartwright (1868); the Bacchæ by M. Glouton (1845), Milman (1865), and Rogers (1872). On analysing this list, we find, (1) that only three plays have been translated in verse within the last dozen years; (2) that out of the eighteen tragedies two translators only have attempted so many as three; (3) that half of the plays have remained untouched since the complete verse translations by Wodhull (1782), and Potter (1781–83). These two versions, fairly faithful and in many respects meritorious as they are, are wholly lacking in two features which the present-day reader will hardly consent to forego:—in variety in the choral metres, and in distinction of the lyric portions of the dialogue from the prevailing blank-verse. The measured tread of the iambus or trochee, reappearing in stanzas of the same structure, and in lines of the same average length, through chorus after chorus of eighteen plays, produces an impression of monotony and heaviness which is in striking contrast with the swift and ever-varying movement of the metres of the original; and the quivering passion that thrills through the stormy lyric outbursts, which, like cataract and rapid, so often break the even flow of the senarii, is sorely missed when merged in the tranquil stream of blank-verse dialogue. To this metrical monotony may be largely due the fact that the choruses, instead of being, as they doubtless were to an Athenian audience, the most attractive portions of the plays, are to the modern reader of translations often the least attractive, the heaviest reading, and the most certain to share the general fate of "moral reflections." It does seem strange that the singers who during the present century have enriched English poetry with wealth of metrical variety lavish beyond all precedent, should have lived in vain for the translator of the Greek drama, especially since those magnificent notes of chorus-music were struck by the author of Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus, after which the good old Pindaric-ode pattern, with its guilelessly capricious alternations of longs and shorts, seems curiously out of date.

In spite of the examples of Shelley and Swinburne, the employment of rhyme in choral lyrics appears in some quarters to be still regarded as an open question, certain translators going so far as to pronounce the unrhymed structure intrinsically superior. It is perhaps unsafe to dogmatize: solvitur ambulando. The form of verse in which a translator finds that he can—not, perform his task most quickly, but—do his best work, the mould into which, for him, the great thoughts of the ancient master most felicitously run, so that his task becomes a labour of love, that is for him the best, and he will not wisely let preconceived theories bar his choice, or the authority of imposing names turn him out of his own path. I incline to think that the translator who, not from his experience in the management of it, but in compliance with a theory, rejects rhyme in lyrical passages, is in danger of making the task of worthily presenting his author more rather than less arduous. He is apt to think that he thereby secures closer correspondence with the original; yet I am not sure that this is not more apparent than real: rhymed and unrhymed choruses by the same hand (as in Plumptre's and Campbell's Sophocles) differ little, if at all, in fidelity (properly understood) to the original. On the other hand, he who, for the sake of faithfulness, discards rhyme, may find himself drifting into a new danger, that of making a fetish of this faithfulness, the result of which will be to deprive his work of that air of spontaneity and freedom without which it is not a reproduction, but a caricature. Anything of the nature of bondage to the letter, anything that thrusts on the reader the reflection, "This is a translation; for our writers don't set forth their own thoughts in this style," is so far a departure from a true presentment of an author whose countrymen never found in his diction anything cramped or foreign. And, per contra, whatever contributes to produce in the reader the illusion that he has before him an original work, is so far a step in the direction of justice to his author. Now rhyme possesses a great initial advantage, in that rhymeless lyrical measures excite in the English reader a sense of the unusual and the disappointing, as though the writer were niggard of the wealth of his own language, were content to forego half of the magic of sound—that echo-music which charmed the ears of the people when scholars looked askance at it, and which scholars have long since forgotten to call barbarous. But the Greek no more suspected a great dramatist of neglecting any means whereby he might satisfy his hearers' demand, not only for noble thought, but for musical expression, than of begrudging them aught of his treasures of experience and imagination. In both directions he felt that the poet had taxed to the uttermost all the resources of melody, as of thought, at his command; and, without a similar impression, the modern reader will hardly enjoy a similar satisfaction. Moreover, there is in the structural basis of the group of languages to which English belongs something comparatively harsh and unmusical, rendering them far inferior in rhythmical possibilities to Greek; hence, no conceivable perfection of metrical execution could give that satisfaction to the ear which was given by the Greek measures: the instinct, therefore, of northern poets led them long ago to provide a compensating satisfaction in the accessory of rhyme, like the rustic host who trusts that his wine may recommend his coarser fare to palates accustomed to delicate viands. Hence it becomes a serious question for the conscientious translator, whether, by discarding one element of the charm of English lyrical poetry, he has not imposed upon himself the obligation of filling the void with the inadequate materials left to him, of achieving a consummate excellence of workmanship, the difficulty of which is indicated by the rarity in English literature even of attempts in this direction.

There are three classes of readers whom a translator may have in view—the general reader, for whom the perfect translation is that which does not suggest an original, and whom it is therefore hard to satisfy;—the scholar, to whom the original is a joy, and (when improved by his own emendations) a pride, and whom it is impossible to satisfy;—hear his lasciate ogni speranza, "no one has ever translated a Greek chorus, and no one ever will!"[1]—and the young student, to whom the original is part of the riddle of the painful earth, and who is thankful for small mercies.

I must confess to having had the last of these most present to my mind in the preparation of this version, perhaps because experience has taught me to sympathize with him, with his difficulties in elucidation, with his despairing contemplation of the outcome of his travail, with his bewildered scepticism as to the merits of the ancients who seem to yield to him so little gold in return for so much quarrying, with his gratitude for whatever brightens his toil and helps him to understand how the men of old found beauty where he finds baldness, and grace where he finds stiffness. I am not sure that my predecessors have consciously laboured to smooth his path: even the prose versions from which he snatches a dubious and furtive joy embarrass his reference to the original by neglecting the obvious device of numbering the lines, of which omission, indeed, most verse translators are also unaccountably guilty. It is in his interest that I have preserved, in the version here presented, a line-for-line correspondence with the original in the blank-verse dialogue, and, for the most part, in the choruses also,[2] which latter will in many cases, I think, be found by the scholar who compares them minutely with the original to be more nearly literal "construes" than perhaps they look.

I have regarded it as a fortunate coincidence that the edition of the plays most extensively used by young students is also that which has on general grounds most commended itself to my judgment. Paley's insight into the spirit of Euripides, his sobriety and "level-headedness" as a commentator, his recognition of the limits of his sphere as an interpreter, have impressed me more and more as I have proceeded with my task. Above all, with his conservatism in regard to the text I am thoroughly in accord; indeed, I am inclined occasionally to go even further than he, in retaining MS. readings where he inclines to admit emendations. In certain instances, of course, a strong presumptive case may be made out against the MS. text on prosodical or philological grounds; and here I am thankful for the guidance of those who are far better equipped specialists than I can ever hope to be. But the most numerous and most serious alterations proposed, nay, adopted with light-hearted confidence, by some recent editors, are not of this nature. They are the offspring of subjective criticism; and a commentator is never on more perilous ground than when he makes his own comprehension or appreciation of a passage the criterion of its genuineness. In examining these destructive-constructive assaults on the text, it has more than once seemed to me that the impatience of a too-clever scholar has rejected a deep thought instinct with poetic feeling, in favour of an obvious and commonplace sentiment. The heavy-shotted dogmatism of such emendators, the contempt which they pour upon the old reading, might well make the conservative translator feel as if the confession of his faith were an admission of imbecility. Yet no sympathetic reader will tamely suffer his private judgment to be taken by storm, and the more I study Euripides, and try to realize, with respect to each reading thus arraigned and condemned, the mental attitude of the poet and his audience, the less am I satisfied that modern scholarship is doing itself credit by this eagerness to reject MS. readings on purely aesthetic grounds. The point of view of the critic is too often one which (to put it mildly) was not demonstrably that of the Athenian audience, while as for that of the poet—only from a Shakespeare could we feel justified in accepting ex cathedrâ judgments on questions of poetic taste or dramatic instinct in Euripides.

While following in the main Paley as an interpreter, I have to acknowledge very considerable obligations to the editions of the other scholars who have done so much to assist students to appreciate Euripides. When I have ventured to differ from one or other of them, it has been because I believed myself to be supported by very high, or at least respectable, authority.

Notes are no part of a translator's duty: a translation is in itself a commentary, and a translator who claims to have found a clear and relevant meaning for a reading challenged on the score of unintelligibility has thereby furnished, in Conington's phrase, "a piece of embodied criticism," which has at any rate the merit of brevity. I have therefore limited my notes almost exclusively to the defence of readings which have been condemned on aesthetic grounds by scholars whose censures are of too much weight in the student-world to be passed by in silence, to the briefest possible explanation of some of the less obvious allusions, and to the quotation of a few parallel passages which, not being noted by others, seemed to me peculiarly apposite, or which justified unfamiliar usages of words, or which appeared to me to lend the countenance of authority beyond all challenge to expressions to which editors have taken exception as being unnatural, undignified, or inappropriate.

I have, like other translators, occasionally worked in, without special acknowledgment, a phrase from the Bible, from Shakspeare, Milton, or some other immortal, which has now entered into the warp and woof of cultured speech, and which affects the reader with a pleasant thrill of recognition, helping him to realize how the Muses have sometimes touched to the same fine issues great souls dwelling far apart.

In a few instances I have found, on subsequent comparison, that my literal rendering of the whole or a portion of a line has precisely coincided with that of some previous translator. In such cases the identity, being purely accidental, is interesting rather than irritating, and I have made no alteration: indeed, the wonder rather is that versions which in the blank-verse dialogue are so frequently word-for-word renderings, should so seldom slip into these verbal coincidences.

In the lyrical parts of the plays I have marked the distinction of Strophe and Antistrophe, and observed the metrical correspondences therein involved, not as from a pedantic subservience to a detail which some might imagine to have little interest for the English reader, nor yet as a tour de force of metrical and rhyming ingenuity, but for a reason which, though perfectly familiar to the scholar, may require a little explanation for the non-classical reader. We should have a very inadequate conception of a Greek play if we thought of it simply as a series of stately dialogues maintained between two or three actors, with chorus-chants intervening. It was, in point of fact, much more of the nature of a grand spectacular opera. The theatre, large enough to contain an audience variously estimated at from 15,000 to 30,000, became for the occasion a temple of Dionysus (Bacchus), having his altar at its centre. The drama was the heart of an annual solemn religious festival, and the stage (200 to 300 feet long) was, when the action of the piece justified their introduction, the scene of the grouping and movement of splendid pageants and processions, in which armies of supernumeraries formed a magnificent setting for the tragic interest of dialogue and ode. The Chorus, occupying the orchestra, or dancing-area, in front of the stage, grouped themselves, or executed their evolutions, round the altar. While chanting Strophe 1, they danced, "with woven paces and with waving hands," from the altar towards the right, returning, with precisely similar music and movements, in Antistrophe 1,the rhythmical structure of which must accordingly correspond. In Strophe 2 they danced to the left, with (generally) a change of music and movement, returning as before in Antistrophe 2; and so on through the series of pairs of stanzas. The occasional odd stanza (Epode, if at the end, Mesode, if in the middle) was executed round the altar. Now, it must be remembered that all these movements of gliding limb and swaying form were not only rhythmical accompaniments to the words and music, but were in themselves significant, nay, eloquent, among a race who (like some peoples of southern Europe in our own day) carried pantomimic gesture to such perfection that a conversation might be carried on, or a public address delivered, without the utterance of a single articulate word. Hence, the preservation of the distinction of Strophe and Antistrophe helps the reader to realize the scene—the utter absence of monotony, the continual variations as melody melted into melody, the ever-changing grace of posture and harmony of movement, interpreting each thought, and accordant to the ringing voices, which held the audience spell-bound, with ears entranced and faces that, "forgetting themselves to marble," gazed and yearned to where "the white vests of the chorus seemed to wave up a live air." The sweetest voices, the most exquisite dancing, in all Hellas, the most perfect delivery of the noblest poetry, tableaux vivants of gorgeous pageantry—we can understand how an audience would sit out play after play unwearied, and can conceive that there may have been some foundation for the complaint of an economical senate, that the "staging" of the plays (perhaps a dozen) at a single dramatic festival was as costly as a campaign.

As to the reproduction in English of the actual metres of the original (attempted by some, and thought desirable by others), the prosodical structure of the two languages is so fundamentally different (to say nothing of the fact that no living man knows certainly how Euripides' contemporaries pronounced the simplest Greek sentence), that the attempt could not, even as an essay in technique, be successful, nor, if it could, would the utterly unfamiliar measures have any charm for English ears.

The "Arguments" prefixed to the plays are designed rather to serve as introductions than as epitomes of contents. To give the non-classical reader just so much information as might enable him to commence intelligently the perusal of the play, seemed better than the somewhat ungracious practice of anticipating the poet in his story, and taking the edge off the interest beforehand. In the same client's interest it may here be mentioned that the chorus, represented by its leader, frequently takes part with the actors in the dialogue, and that a secondary function of the choral odes was to carry the audience over the interval supposed to elapse between the acts, and which might vary from a few minutes, as in the Alcestis (568–605), to several days, or even weeks, as in the Suppliants (598–633). The convention was understood, and the illusion was no more impaired by the continued presence of the same chorus in the orchestra, than it is in a modern theatre by our consciousness that the same actors are waiting behind the scenes; and certainly men's minds were not jarred by a sense of discord, and brought down from heaven to earth, as with us, when the descent of the curtain on a scene which has thrilled the house with high-wrought emotion is followed by a babble of gossip and by the shrill importunities of waiters.

Certain obvious lacunæ in the text (e.g., Alcestis, 468, Suppliants, 263 and 764), I have supplied, either adopting the conjecture of some editor, or by inserting a relevant connection of my own devising.

The spelling of Greek proper names is still in the transition stage, and I have therefore taken the questionable benefit of the license yet allowed. Old forms, familiar and firmly rooted, like Hecuba, I have not disturbed; new forms well established, like Odysseus, I have adopted; in well-known names, like Kassandra, in which the pronunciation is unaffected by the change of a letter, I have preferred the nearer approach to the Greek; for unfamiliar names, transliteration seemed advisable. I have retained, however, the Latin termination -us, because of the apparently invincible tendency of the English reader to place a secondary accent on -os, the resulting -oss producing a rhythmical discord; and I regard u and y respectively as closer equivalents than ou and u for the sound of ου and υ.

In the numbering of the lines, and in the arrangement of the choruses (the reader who refers to the Greek text will understand why, simply for appearance' sake, the latter are counted by tens), I have followed Paley,[3] with, I believe, but one deviation in this volume, viz., where, in the Hippolytus, l. 817 sqq., I have adopted Mahaffy and Bury's strophic arrangement.

I have taken the plays in the commonly received chronological order. This gives to the reader the interest of tracing the development of the poet's genius (so far as can be judged from eighteen plays remaining out of about eighty), and seems preferable to the plan, adopted by earlier translators, of grouping the plays according to subjects (Trojan War, House of Thebes, etc.), since the interest of a continuous story thus obtained is marred by the fact that certain plays of the same group (e.g., Hecuba, Troades, Helena) are inconsistent with each other, involving situations mutually exclusive, the poet not having followed the same legend throughout the series. Subjoined is a list of the plays in chronological order (conjectural), dates being given where regarded as fairly certain:—

480Euripides born. Year of Thermopylæ and Salamis.
455First representation of a play by Euripides.
431Medea. Peloponnesian War begins, lasting till after Euripides' death.
420Suppliants. Athens allied with Argos, and at war with Thebes.
Heracleidæ. Athens at war with Argos.
Hercules Furens.
In 413 occurred the destruction of an Athenian armament in Sicily, survivors from which are said by Plutarch to have been indebted to their acquaintance with Euripides' works for merciful treatment from their conquerors.
406Euripides dies. Sophocles, with all Athens, put on mourning for him. The Iphigeneia in Aulis, perhaps the Iphigeneia in Tauris, and the Bacchæ were represented shortly after his death. The Rhesus, if written by Euripides, which is disputed, was probably the earliest of his extant plays.
405Aristophanes' comedy of the Frogs represented, having for its object to exalt the memory of Aeschylus, by belittling that of Euripides.
404Athens taken by the Spartan general, Lysander. Plutarch records that the emotions stirred in the hearts of the victors by the recitation of a passage from the Electra turned them from their purpose of destroying the city.

The life of Euripides, his relation to contemporary thought, the discussion of various interesting problems, such as the poet's attitude towards women and towards religion, his dramatic innovations, his use of the deus ex machinâ, and so forth, I must postpone to succeeding volumes. One literary question, however, on which the right understanding of the Alcestis depends, could not well be postponed: I have therefore treated it in the appendix to this volume.

  1. Prof. Goldwin Smith (Specimens of Greek Tragedy, p. xvi.) goes even farther, almost placing the Greek Choruses upon the same footing with "Gratiano's reasons."
  2. The main exceptions are due, not to diffuseness in rendering, but to the employment of lines differing considerably in length from those in the text, e.g., Ion, 881–911.
  3. The school editions of separate plays, where these give a later opinion than his larger work.