Ancient, History, Translated fiction

Curses on Vases: Illustrated Agamemnon

The House of Atreus is cursed. I have been making my way through Louis MacNeice’s 1939 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which is sometimes tough going, but that much is clear. As a way to get a better grip on the web of treachery and stink of ancestral blood, I decided to find images of the myth in Greek vases. Sure enough, there were no shortage of them.

According to some stories, the rot goes all the way back to Tantalus, who tried to serve up his son Pelops to the Olympian gods for dinner. The gods caught the trick in time and banished Tantalus to the Underworld to be eternally ‘tantalized’. They reconstructed Pelops (replacing his shoulder with an ivory prosthesis because Demeter had absent-mindedly swallowed his original one).

Poseidon riding a seahorse flirting with Pelops. A terracotta hydria from the 4th century BCE, Attic. At the Met Museum.

Some time later, Pelops (who was now as good as new) fell in love with Hippodamia. Her father was Oenomaus, a King who had heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son in law. He had therefore decided to challenge each of her other suitors to a chariot race and then kill him when he inevitably lost. Pelops was afraid of losing like the 18 suitors before him, so he enlisted the help of his former lover Poseidon, who gave him four winged horses. Just to make completely sure of the outcome, though, Pelops also struck up a dirty deal with Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus: If he took out the bronze linchpins connecting the axle to the chariot wheels, replacing them with  wax linchpins, the charioteer would have the right to sleep with Hippodamia on the first night of her wedding to Pelops. Myrtilus kept up his end of the bargain and the King was killed, dragged by his own horses. Pelops was not grateful to Myrtilus but threw him off a cliff. As the charioteer was falling to his death, he cursed his killer (incidentally, the site of Myrtilus’ burial place in Olympia was known as a taraxippus, literally a ‘horse disturber’, a place haunted by ghosts or dangers).

Bath-water jug by the White Sakkos Painter from Apulia (320-310 BCE) Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. The brothers fought for ascendancy and Atreus won. Atreus married Aerope but she became lovers with Thyestes. When Atreus learned of this adultery, he prepared a delicious feast for Thyestes, without telling him that the meat was Thyestes’ own children. Horrified by his consumption of human flesh, Thyestes cursed Atreus:

When he knew what all unhallowed thing
He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry
Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul,
On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake:
As darkly as I spurn this damned food,
So perish all the race of Pleisthenes!
Note: Pleisthenes is one of the sons in the stew.

As time winds on, the malediction ripens. Paris abducts Menelaus’ wife Helen and takes ‘the fair mischief’ to Troy. Paris was staying as a guest in Menelaus’ house when he kidnapped Helen, which means his act was not only adulterous but also violated rules related to hospitality sacred to Zeus. None of this is good news for Troy:

What curse on palace and on people sped
With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride,
By angered Zeus! What tears of many a widowed bride!
Oil Jar with Paris and Helen, 420 – 400 B.C., Attributed to the Painter of the Frankfort Acorn, vase-painter; and Phintias, potter, Greek, Athens. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Agamemnon and Menelaus prepare an army to go to Troy. While they are wondering if it’s still the right thing to do, they see a pair of eagles:

And one was black, one bore a white tail barred.
High o’er the palace were they seen to soar,
Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare,
Far from the fields that she should range no more,
Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.
Eagle catching a rabbit on an Etruscan vase, from Caere (ca. 550-530 BCE)
From Twitter feed of Peter Gainsford

A soothsayer gleans from this that Troy will fall but that it will anger Artemis, who hates to see young animals killed. In return she will demand “a curst unhallowed sacrifice/’Twixt wedded souls”.

Knowing that the trip will be basically successful, Agamemnon gathers forces to go help Menelaus get Helen back, but Artemis stalls the ships at Aulis. A priest advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the ships will be able to go on to Troy. He does so, and so earns the ever-lasting hatred of his wife Clytemnestra:

And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!
To stain with virgin Hood a father’s hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altar’s side!
Apulian red-figure volute-krater by the Iliupersis Painter 370BC-350BC in the British Museum

Meanwhile, in Troy, another curse is in progress. The god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Trojan princess. Afraid of him, she promises she will marry him and he gives her the gift of prophecy. She then breaks her promise and he changes the gift to a curse—no one will ever believe her prophecies. Instead, they’ll scorn her and call her a “witch and cheat”. Cassandra predicts the Fall of Troy but she is powerless to prevent it. On the night it falls, Ajax the Lesser tears her away from the sanctuary of Athena, rapes her then gives her to Agamemnon as a slave.

Ethiop Painter Terracotta Nolan neck-amphora (jar), ca. 450 B.C. Greek, Attic, Classical Terracotta; H. 11 1/8 in. (28.3 cm) diameter of mouth 4 13/16 in. (12.2 cm) diameter of foot 3 1/16 in. (7.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1956 (56.171.41)

When Cassandra arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s captive, she immediately senses the family curse. She sees ghostly children—Tyndareus’ sons—on the roof and hears the Curse as Furies who physically occupy Agamemnon’s palace and gloat about all the misery therein, stemming from the ‘incestuous’ affair between Thyestes and Aerope:

Within this house a choir abidingly
Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill;
Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy,
Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls,
Departing never, Furies of the home.
They sit within, they chant the primal curse,
Each spitting hatred on that crime of old,
The brother’s couch, the love incestuous
That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
Detail of Erinys (a Fury) from a Paestan Red Figure Krater by the Python Painter (ca. 360-320 BCE). In the British Museum.

When Clytemnestra boasts about murdering Agamemnon, the Chorus see her as a tuneless raven in an image that recalls the ‘harsh unison’ of the ‘chant of ill’ sung by the Furies of the house:

                                                Thy very form I see,
Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain,
Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!
Apollo and a crow

Clytemnestra herself agrees, suggesting that she is to some extent possessed by a daimon:

Right was that word—thou namest well
The brooding race-fiend, triply fell!
From him it is that murder’s thirst,
Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed—
Ere time the ancient scar can sain,
New blood comes welling forth again.
Aigisthos and Clytemnestra ambush Agamemnon just out of the bath. Mixing bowl from Athens ca. 470 BCE at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Klytemnestra murders Cassandra on the altar of Apollo. Ironic! Marlay Painter, kylix (425-400 BCE)

Where will it all end? The problem is that the murder is wrong in at least three different, polluting ways: a wife has murdered her husband, a nephew (Aigisthos) has murdered his uncle, and a guest (Aigisthos) has murdered his host.  This all means that new blood will have to be spilled into infinity. Or does it? Aeschylus hashes out the resolution in the next two plays: The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

An old bath
History, Modern, Poetry, Reviews, UK

MacNeice in Ireland: A Prism of Delight and Pain

Until recently, I knew three things about Louis MacNeice (1907-1963): that he was from Ireland, that he was friends with Auden and that he wrote “The Sunlight on the Garden” . Then last year our friend Gabriel gave us a copy of Autumn Journal (1940), a long poem written in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a book that sketches History as it is experienced personally, in real time, in a dance of daily impressions, emotions, opinions, memories, hopes and doubts. Although it’s written in quatrains, it easily conveys the sense of genuine internal dialogue. He questions the use of being an “impresario of the ancient Greeks” at a college; he decides it’s right to vote in a by-election; he fondly remembers a holiday in Spain; he regrets the loss of his wife. The book provides intimate access to Louis MacNeice’s mental reality.

Portrait of Louis MacNeice by his lover Nancy Sharp

Now that I’ve lived in Belfast for a few months and have read his Selected Poems (edited by Belfast poet Michael Longley), another aspect of MacNeice has crystallized for me, and that the importance of his Irishness in his poetry. It’s a topic that has irritated critics on both sides of the Irish Sea, partly because he evades categorization and is maddeningly ambivalent about his loyalties. Once when asked where he lived, he replied jokingly that he had “a foot in both graves”.  Historically, English critics have almost accepted him as an honorary Englishman, being Auden’s pal, while Irish critics view his membership as a fellow national as problematic. The fact is, though, that Louis MacNeice is an Irishman: he was born to parents originally from western Ireland and he spent the first nine years of his life in the North East, in Carrickfergus and Belfast:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
         To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
         Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
          The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
          But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.
“Carrickfergus”
“Like crucifixes the gantries stand” in “Belfast”

At nine, he left the country and spent the rest of his life in England (minus a brief teaching stint in the USA) but he never stopped writing about his childhood in Ireland. While it is tempting to read his childhood poems (“Autobiography” and “Carrickfergus”) simply as lyrics to his youth, or therapeutic examinations of formative trauma, they are also subtle but serious reflections on the turbulent history and politics of the country of his birth. Just as the overlay of internal experience on shared historical reality is a feature of Autumn Journal, his Irish poems are enriched by their historical context; they are snapshots of a figure in a particular time and place. MacNeice’s ideal poet, remember, is “a reader of the newspapers”, “informed in economics” and “actively interested in politics” (Modern Poetry [1938]).

What’s more, the uncomfortable ambivalence that characterizes all of MacNeice’s poetry, his insistence on the essential and dynamic variety, a world where things are “incorrigibly plural” may partly be the effect of growing up in a country that constantly pulls in two opposite directions:

And if the world were black or white entirely
        And all of the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
         A prism of delight and pain,

We might be surer where we wished to go
        Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
        Road that is right entirely.
(“Entirely”)

What is most immediately striking about MacNeice’s attitude to his childhood home is a sense of disconnection. It seems, in spite of the vividness of his memories, that the north never felt like home to him, even when he was in it. In “Carrick Revisited” (1945) he describes it as an accidental ‘interlude’.

Torn before birth from where my father’s dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten in a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by any choice.

Whatever then my inherited or acquired
Affinities, such remains my childhood’s frame
Like a belated rock in the red Antrim clay
That cannot at this era change its pitch or name—
And the pre-natal mountain is far away.
“Carrick Revisited”

This disconnection is built into the history of Ulster itself. Originally Irish, like MacNeice, it is has not been fully Irish nor quite English for a long time. The events that created this state (the Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, Partition, as you like) “may never now be righted by any choice” even in 2020.

The Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Louis’ father John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942) was a rector for the anglican Church of Ireland, and he would later become a bishop. John MacNeice was a man of conscience who sought interfaith cooperation and peace. In 1912, for example, he supported Home Rule and refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, a brave (though hopeless) stance, considering the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded that very year and marched the streets in their thousands against ‘Rome Rule’.  In 1936, when officiating at the funeral of Sir Edward Carson (the architect of Irish Partition), John MacNeice refused to allow the Union Jack to hang over Carson’s tomb. (Interesting side note: Carson was also the prosecutor whose cross-examination of Oscar Wilde put the latter in gaol for homosexuality).

While John MacNeice was personally on the side of interfaith cooperation, he must have been aware that the Church of Ireland owed its existence to the repression of the country’s Catholic majority. It was the church of English colonists, for centuries the only church acceptable to the Crown (in spite of its dearth of adherents). In 1704, for example, the Test Act restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland, a law that remained in place until 1829.  And from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all Irish regardless of their true faith, were compelled to pay a tithe to the Church of Ireland, a practice that only ended after the Tithe War (1830-1836) .

 “Carrickfergus”, an apparently simple poem about MacNeice’s childhood, implies this history, the jarring juxtapositions and sad complexities of a society shaped by colonial interests:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

Patrons of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church where Louis’ father preached, the Chichesters had a huge amount to do with the poverty of the Catholic population. Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) arrived in Ireland to assist Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War, a conflict that started when Irish Gaelic earls Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebelled against English rule. In 1600, Chichester was appointed head of the English garrison at Carrickfergus and he immediately resorted to scorched-earth tactics in the area not only to deprive O’Neill’s army of food but also to starve and murder local civilians. In his own description of the campaign, he boasted, “I burned along the lough within four miles of Dungannon and killed one hundred people, sparing none, of what quality, age or sex so ever, besides many burned to death; we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatsoever we find…” It sounds as if he was pleased with himself and indeed he was handsomely rewarded for his service; under James I, Chichester was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served in this role from 1605 to 1616, during which time he oversaw widespread persecution of Catholics and engineered the Plantation of Ulster, uprooting Catholics and awarding their land to wealthy Scottish and English landowners. Biographer David Lloyd (1635-1692) praised him for being “effectually assistant, first to plough and break up that barbarous nation by conquest, and then to sow it with seeds of civilty.”

Portrait of a Psycho (c) Belfast Harbour Commissioners; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When he arrived in Ireland, Chichester had been on the verge of bankruptcy; by the time he was removed from Irish affairs, he held title to 100,000 acres of land.  MacNeice’s ironic “their portion sure” conceivably refers to Chichester’s “cut” rather than to any special nook in Heaven.

Louis MacNeice’s parents are seen dimly. His father is always shown in his official capacity, an anglican churchman, and his mother Elizabeth (Lily) a soft ghost. The poem “Autobiography” describes her with painful vagueness, “My mother wore a yellow dress, / Gently, gently, gentleness.”. Sadly, Lily contracted uterine cancer when Louis was still very young. After a hysterectomy she fell into a bout of depression and left their home for a psychiatric facility in Dublin. A year later, she contracted tuberculosis and died. MacNeice writes simply, “When I was five the black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same.” (“Autobiography”).

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that “Autobiography” is a political poem, but it is still a notable coincidence that two things of historic significance happened in 1914 so that “Nothing after was quite the same”. The first was the “black dream” of World War One, a bloody debacle that caused a whole generation to lose its taste for war. The second was an amendment to the Home Rule Act that would exclude Ulster counties from impending Home Rule, effectively cutting the country in two. The amendment was powerfully argued for by Sir Edward Carson, the Irish Unionist and first signatory to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which had vowed to resist Home Rule using “all means necessary.” Before this Home Rule Act was put into law, the Great War started but Partition was now practically certain: Northern Ireland would be separated, traumatically, from its motherland.

Carson

MacNeice dramatizes the building conflict between Unionists and Catholics mainly through details caught by a child’s eye, snatches of conversation gleaned from the domestic circle. “The Gardener” from Novelettes is the portrait of a gardener “With a finch in a cage and a framed/ certificate of admission/Into the Orange order” who becomes increasingly senile and decrepit until he can no longer even attend the Twelfth of July parades:

At ten o’clock or later
You could hear him mowing the lawn,
The mower moving forward,
And backward, forward and backward
For he moved while standing still;
He was not quite up to the job.
The Orange Parade of 1920

In “Belfast” he glimpses wretched Catholic women briefly and feels a mixture of pity and shame:

In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin
A shawled factory-woman as if shipwrecked there
Lies a bunch of limbs glimpsed in the cave of gloom
By us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.
Belfast Linen mill 1918
And in Autumn Journal (Canto xvi) he recalls an atmosphere of fear heightened by rumour and ignorance:

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district
(Autumn Journal canto xvi)

This vignette evokes two incidents related to the future Irish Civil War: the gun running of Roger Casement and the bloody Belfast riots of 1920-22.

Roger Casement

In the lead up to the Easter Rising, Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement arranged for shipment of guns from the German government, for delivery in April 1916. The weapons were carried in a Norwegian vessel Aud-Norge, while Casement and his comrades travelled to Ireland in a German U-boat. The British managed to scuttle Aud before it landed but the U-boat put Casement ashore at Banna Strand, 21 April 1916 (three days before the Easter Rising). He was discovered there and arrested on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. His was a cause célèbre due to his fame as a humanitarian activist in the Congo and Peru, for which he had been knighted in 1911. The British Government used (possibly forged) diaries detailing his homosexual liaisons to dissuade supporters from advocating clemency. Despite high-profile intercessors and a United States Senate appeal against the death sentence, he was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Gun-running at that time was something of a national sport. In April 1914, in the Larne gun-running, Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender had managed to smuggle almost 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire for the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Shipments landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor with no police intervention. The Howth gun-running incident  occurred that same year, in July, when 1,500 Mauser rifles were delivered to Irish Volunteers from a private yacht in broad daylight. Scottish troops intervened ineffectually and, when baited by the crowd, attacked the protesters with rifle fire and bayonets, killing four civilians and wounding 30 more.

As for the “shooting in the York Street district”, even if MacNeice cannot have personally witnessed it since he was at school in England, it suggests the “carnival of terrorism”  that rocked the city between 1920 and 1922 and claimed the lives of at least 455 people, 58% of them Catholic–in a city where Catholics were only 25% of the population. The Irish Government estimated that 50,000 Catholics left the north permanently in response to violence and intimidation in this period . Neither the British Government nor the local Unionist leadership made any effort to reinstate these displaced people:

When my silent terror cried;
Nobody, nobody replied.
“Autobiography”

Checking the roll call of the dead, 1920

Inevitably, there are echoes and tributes in MacNeice, to Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus utters that famous statement of despair, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Canto XVI of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal follows directly from that thought:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

This canto, as well as “Valediction” (1934), is one of MacNeice’s most direct comments on his attitude to Ireland. Both poems express a reluctant connection and an agonizing frustration with its problems. In “Valediction” he burns his bridges with the Old Country in a somewhat priggishly elegiac tone:

…being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;
I have to observe milestone and curio
The beaten buried gold of an old king’s bravado,
Falsetto antiquities, I have to gesture,
Take part in, or renounce, each imposture;
Therefore I resign, goodbye, the chequered and the quiet hills
The gaudily-striped Atlantic, the linen-mills
That swallow the shawled file, the black moor where half
A turf-stake stands like a ruined cenotaph;
“Valediction”

Canto xvi of Autumn Journal is comparatively unhinged, an exhilarating philippic that lashes out against all of it:

I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

Brian Boru, legendary King of Munster

The quote from from Catullus 85 (“I hate and I love. How can I do that you might ask./I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”) exposes this is as a love poem: Catullus’ extensive cursing of Lesbia was only a sign of his wounded love, and MacNeice’s rage is belied by exhausted admissions and entreaties:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an underwater belfry.

 “Why should I want to go back/ To you, Ireland, my Ireland?” he asks, and the question answers itself but ultimately solves nothing.