From Robert Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure (1600-1800). I can’t say how much I’ve enjoyed his translation-commentary-retelling of Alcestis. The genius is the setup – creating a frame narrative from which a character then reports the play while both commenting on performance elements and adding interpretational arguments (often Browning’s rebuttals to period criticism of Euripides vs. Sophocles and Aeschylus).
Wherewith, the sad procession wound away,
Made slowly for the suburb sepulchre.
And lo, — while still one’s heart, in time and tune,
Paced after that symmetric step of Death
Mute-marching, to the mind’s eye, at the head
O’ the mourners — one hand pointing out their path
With the long pale terrific sword we saw,
The other leading, with grim tender grace,
Alkestis quieted and consecrate, — 1610
Lo, life again knocked laughing at the door!
The world goes on, goes ever, in and through,
And out again o’ the cloud. We faced about,
Fronted the palace where the mid-hall-door
Opened — not half, nor half of half, perhaps —
Yet wide enough to let out light and life,
And warmth, and bounty, and hope, and joy, at once.
Festivity burst wide, fruit rare and ripe
Crushed in the mouth of Bacchos, pulpy-prime,
All juice and flavour, save one single seed 1620
Duly ejected from the God’s nice lip,
Which lay o’ the red edge, blackly visible —
To wit, a certain ancient servitor:
On whom the festal jaws o’ the palace shut,
So, there he stood, a much-bewildered man.
Stupid? Nay, but sagacious in a sort:
Learned, life-long, i’ the first outside of things,
Though bat for blindness to what lies beneath
And needs a nail-scratch ere ‘t is laid you bare.
This functionary was the trusted one 1630
We saw deputed by Admetos late
To lead in Herakles and help him, soul
And body, to such snatched repose, snapped-up
Sustainment, as might do away the dust
O’ the last encounter, knit each nerve anew
For that next onset sure to come at cry
O’ the creature next assailed, — nay, should it prove
Only the creature that came forward now
To play the critic upon Herakles!
“Many the guests” — so he soliloquized 1640
In musings burdensome to breast before,
When it seemed not too prudent, tongue should wag —
“Many, and from all quarters of this world,
The guests I now have known frequent our house,
For whom I spread the banquet; but than this,
Never a worse one did I yet receive
At the hearth here! One who seeing, first of all,
The master’s sorrow, entered gate the same,
And had the hardihood to house himself.
Did things stop there! But, modest by no means, 1650
He took what entertainment lay to hand,
Knowing of our misfortune, — did we fail
In aught of the fit service, urged us serve
Just as a guest expects! And in his hands
Taking the ivied goblet, drinks and drinks
The unmixed product of black mother-earth,
Until the blaze o’ the wine went round about
And warmed him: then he crowns with myrtle sprigs
His head, and howls discordance — two-fold lay
Was thereupon for us to listen to — 1660
This fellow singing, namely, nor restrained
A jot by sympathy with sorrows here —
While we o’ the household mourned our mistress — mourned,
That is to say, in silence — never showed
The eyes, which we kept wetting, to the guest —
For there Admetos was imperative.
And so, here am I helping make at home
A guest, some fellow ripe for wickedness,
Robber or pirate, while she goes her way
Out of our house: and neither was it mine 1670
To follow in procession, nor stretch forth
Hand, wave my lady dear a last farewell,
Lamenting who to me and all of us
Domestics was a mother: myriad harms
She used to ward away from every one,
And mollify her husband’s ireful mood.
I ask then, do I justly hate or no
This guest, this interloper on our grief?”
“Hate him and justly!” Here’s the proper judge
Of what is due to the house from Herakles! 1680
This man of much experience saw the first
O’ the feeble duckings-down at destiny,
When King Admetos went his rounds, poor soul,
A-begging somebody to be so brave
As die for one afraid to die himself —
“Thou, friend? Thou, love? Father or mother, then!
None of you? What, Alkestis must Death catch?
O best of wives, one woman in the world!
But nowise droop: our prayers may still assist:
Let us try sacrifice; if those avail 1690
Nothing and Gods avert their countenance,
Why, deep and durable the grief will be!”
Whereat the house, this worthy at its head,
Re-echoed “deep and durable our grief!”
This sage, who justly hated Herakles,
Did he suggest once “Rather I than she!”
Admonish the Turannos — “Be a man!
Bear thine own burden, never think to thrust
Thy fate upon another, and thy wife!
It were a dubious gain could death be doomed 1700
That other, yet no passionatest plea
Of thine, to die instead, have force with fate;
Seeing thou lov’st Alkestis: what were life
Unlighted by the loved one? But to live —
Not merely live unsolaced by some thought,
Some word so poor — yet solace all the same —
As ‘Thou i’ the sepulchre, Alkestis, say!
Would I, or would not I, to save thy life,
Die, and die on, and die for ever more?’
No! but to read red-written up and down 1710
The world ‘This is the sunshine, this the shade,
This is some pleasure of earth, sky or sea,
Due to that other, dead that thou may’st live!’
Such were a covetable gain to thee?
Go die, fool, and be happy while ‘t is time!”
One word of counsel in this kind, methinks,
Had fallen to better purpose than Ai, ai,
Pheu, pheu, e, papai, and a pother of praise
O’ the best, best, best one! Nothing was to hate
In king Admetos, Pheres, and the rest 1720
O’ the household down to his heroic self!
This was the one thing hateful: Herakles
Had flung into the presence, frank and free,
Out from the labour into the repose,
Ere out again and over head and ears
I’ the heart of labour, all for love of men:
Making the most o’ the minute, that the soul
And body, strained to height a minute since,
Might lie relaxed in joy, this breathing-space,
For man’s sake more than ever; till the bow, 1730
Restrung o’ the sudden, at first cry for help,
Should send some unimaginable shaft
True to the aim and shatteringly through
The plate-mail of a monster, save man so.
He slew the pest o’ the marish yesterday:
To-morrow he would bit the flame-breathed stud
That fed on man’s-flesh: and this day between —
Because he held it natural to die,
And fruitless to lament a thing past cure,
So, took his fill of food, wine, song and flowers, 1740
Till the new labour claimed him soon enough, —
“Hate him and justly!”
True, Charopé mine!
The man surmised not Herakles lay hid
I’ the guest; or knowing it, was ignorant
That still his lady lived — for Herakles;
Or else judged lightness needs must indicate
This or the other caitiff quality:
And therefore — had been right if not so wrong!
For who expects the sort of him will scratch
A nail’s depth, scrape the surface just to see 1750
What peradventure underlies the same?
So, he stood petting up his puny hate,
Parent-wise, proud of the ill-favoured babe.
Not long! A great hand, careful lest it crush,
Startled him on the shoulder: up he stared,
And over him, who stood but Herakles?
There smiled the mighty presence, all one smile
And no touch more of the world-weary God,
Through the brief respite! Just a garland’s grace
About the brow, a song to satisfy 1760
Head, heart and breast, and trumpet-lips at once,
A solemn draught of true religious wine.
And, — how should I know? — half a mountain goat
Torn up and swallowed down, — the feast was fierce
But brief: all cares and pains took wing and flew,
Leaving the hero ready to begin
And help mankind, whatever woe came next.
Even though what came next should be nought more
Than the mean querulous mouth o’ the man, remarked
Pursing its grievance up till patience failed 1770
And the sage needs must rush out, as we saw,
To sulk outside and pet his hate in peace.
By no means would the Helper have it so:
He who was just about to handle brutes
In Thrace, and bit the jaws which breathed the flame, —
Well, if a good laugh and a jovial word
Could bridle age which blew bad humours forth,
That were a kind of help, too!