Sunday, October 7, 2012

Phèdre, Three Decades Later

Title page of the 1678 edition
When I was twelve, I spent a school year in France with my maternal grandparents. At lunch time, my grandfather, François Dessaux, was fond of reciting classical works of French literature. His favorite was a dramatic passage from Phèdre, a tragic play written by Jean Racine (1639-1699) based on the Greek story appearing in Euripides's Hippolytus. In this long passage, Theramenes describes to Theseus, the violent death of Hippolytus.

My grandfather tried, with much patience but little success, to get me to memorize the lines as well. Though I was enthusiastic, my command of French at the time was not up to the task. I remembered something about a guy on a chariot and some horses, something about Neptune, and not much else.

Recently, I was reminded of these lunchtime literary forays and looked up the text on the internet. I also found a great amateur dramatization on YouTube by Pierre Thurias which inspired me on how it should sound when read in a dramatic style.

After 36 years, I resolved to fully understand this work and to finally memorize it in honor of my grandfather who passed away a few years ago. This turned out to be less daunting than I had feared. The alexendrine poetic meter of Racine's works and the vivid action described in the passage made it easier to memorize than expected. After learning a few lines each evening, I finally finished this week.

Here is the text in modern French along with my own attempt at an English translation; I was not enamored with the translations that I found.

La mort d'Hippolyte, suivant le récit de Théramène
Phèdre, Acte V, Scene VI

A peine nous sortions des portes de Trézène,Scarcely had we left the gates of Troezen,
Il était sur son char. Ses gardes affligésHe was on his chariot. His sorrowful guards,
Imitaient son silence, autour de lui rangés ;Gathered about him, imitated his silence.
Il suivait tout pensif le chemin de Mycènes ;He followed the road to Mycenae, deep in thought,
Sa main sur ses chevaux laissait flotter les rênes ;His hand on his horses, held loosely the reins;
Ses superbes coursiers, qu'on voyait autrefoisThose superb horses, that we used to see,
Pleins d'une ardeur si noble obéir à sa voix,Full of noble passion, obeying his every word,
L'oeil morne maintenant et la tête baissée,Now, with eyes mournful and heads lowered,
Semblaient se conformer à sa triste pensée.They seemed to reflect the sadness of his thoughts.
Un effroyable cri, sorti du fond des flots,A horrible cry, risen from the depths of the water,
Des airs en ce moment a troublé le repos ;Now troubled the restful atmosphere;
Et du sein de la terre, une voix formidableAnd from the womb of the earth, a tremendous voice
Répond en gémissant à ce cri redoutable.Moaned in response to that fearsome cry
Jusqu'au fond de nos coeurs notre sang s'est glacé ;To the bottom of our hearts, our blood ran cold;
Des coursiers attentifs le crin s'est hérissé.The horses, attentive, bristled their hair.
Cependant, sur le dos de la plaine liquide,Meanwhile, on the surface of the liquid plain,
S'élève à gros bouillons une montagne humide ;There arose,  boiling, a watery mountain;
L'onde approche, se brise, et vomit à nos yeux,The wave approached, broke, and vomited in our eyes,
Parmi des flots d'écume, un monstre furieux.Amid flows of foam, a furious monster
Son front large est armé de cornes menaçantes ;His large forehead was armed with menacing horns;
Tout son corps est couvert d'écailles jaunissantes ;All his body was covered in yellowish scales;
Indomptable taureau, dragon impétueux,An untamable bull, a raging dragon,
Sa croupe se recourbe en replis tortueux.His rump bent on itself in tortuous folds.
Ses longs mugissements font trembler le rivage.His long roars caused the shore to tremble.
Le ciel avec horreur voit ce monstre sauvage,In horror, the sky witnessed this wild monster,
La terre s'en émeut, l'air en est infecté ;The earth was disturbed by it, the air was fouled with it;
Le flot qui l'apporta recule épouvanté.The flow that brought it retreated in fright.
Tout fuit ; et sans s'armer d'un courage inutile,All fled, and without taking useless courage,
Dans le temple voisin chacun cherche un asile.Everyone sought asylum in the nearby temple.
Hippolyte lui seul, digne fils d'un héros,Only Hippolytus, worthy son of a hero,
Arrête ses coursiers, saisit ses javelots,Stopped his horses, seized his javelins,
Pousse au monstre, et d'un dard lancé d'une main sûre,Pushed towards the monster, and with a dart thrown by a steady hand,
Il lui fait dans le flanc une large blessure.He made in its flank a large wound
De rage et de douleur le monstre bondissantIn rage and in pain, the monster, bounding, 
Vient aux pieds des chevaux tomber en mugissant,Came to the horses' feet and fell roaring,
Se roule, et leur présente une gueule enflamméeRolled, and showed them his flaming maw
Qui les couvre de feu, de sang et de fumée.Which covered them with fire, blood, and smoke.
La frayeur les emporte, et sourds à cette fois,Fear took them and, deaf this once,
Ils ne connaissent plus ni le frein ni la voix ;They knew no more, neither brake nor voice;
En efforts impuissants leur maître se consume ;In ineffectual attempts, their master was consumed;
Ils rougissent le mors d'une sanglante écume.They reddened their bridle bits in a bloody foam.
On dit qu'on a vu même, en ce désordre affreux,It is even said that there was seen amid this atrocious chaos,
Un dieu qui d'aiguillons pressait leur flanc poudreux.A god that, with a prod, goaded their dusty flanks.
A travers des rochers la peur les précipite.Across the boulders, fear drove them on
L'essieu crie et se rompt : l'intrépide HippolyteThe axle screeched and broke : the intrepid Hippolytus
Voit voler en éclats tout son char fracassé ;Saw his splintered chariot fly to pieces;
Dans les rênes lui-même, il tombe embarrassé.In the reins, he himself fell entangled.
Excusez ma douleur. Cette image cruelleForgive me my pain. This cruel sight
Sera pour moi de pleurs une source éternelle.Will be to me an eternal source of tears.
J'ai vu, Seigneur, j'ai vu votre malheureux filsI saw, my lord, I saw your wretched son
Traîné par les chevaux que sa main a nourris.Dragged by the very horses which his hand had fed.
Il veut les rappeler, et sa voix les effraie ;He wanted to call them back but his voice frightened them
Ils courent ; tout son corps n'est bientôt qu'une plaie.They ran; all of his body was soon but a single wound
De nos cris douloureux la plaine retentit.The plain rang out with our painful shouts.
Leur fougue impétueuse enfin se ralentit ;Their headlong fury soon slowed;
Ils s'arrêtent non loin de ces tombeaux antiquesThey stopped not far from those ancient tombs
Où des rois ses aïeux sont les froides reliques,Where kings, his ancestors, are the cold relics.
J'y cours en soupirant, et sa garde me suit.I ran gasping and his guard followed me.
De son généreux sang la trace nous conduit,The generous traces of his blood guided us there,
Les rochers en sont teints, les ronces dégouttantesThe rocks were stained with it, the disgusting brambles
Portent de ses cheveux les dépouilles sanglantes.Bore the bloody remains of his hair.
J'arrive, je l'appelle, et me tendant la main,I arrived and called him. He, reaching with his hand,
Il ouvre un oeil mourant qu'il referme soudain :Opened a dying eye which he closed again suddenly.
"Le ciel, dit-il, m'arrache une innocente vie."Heaven," he said, "has ripped from me an innocent life.
Prends soin après ma mort de la triste Aricie.Take care, after my death, of the sad Aricie.
Cher ami, si mon père un jour désabuséDear friend, if someday my father, disabused,
Plaint le malheur d'un fils faussement accusé,Complains of the misfortune of a falsely accused son,
Pour apaiser mon sang et mon ombre plaintive,To assuage my blood and my mournful shadow,
Dis-lui qu'avec douceur il traite sa captive,Tell him to treat with care his captive,
Qu'il lui rende ..." A ce mot, ce héros expiréThat he return to her ..." At these words, this expired hero
N'a laissé dans mes bras qu'un corps défiguré,Left in my arms but a disfigured body.
Triste objet, où des dieux triomphe la colère.Sad object, where the gods' anger triumphed.
Et que méconnaîtrait l'oeil même de son père.And whose father would not recognize him by sight.

The Death of Hippolyte in Artwork

This 17th century painting by the master Rubens, captures much of the action of the death of Hippolytus including the horses balking at the half bull, half serpent, sea monster.  However, the attributed date of this painting (1611-1613) predates Racine by several decades so clearly the painting was based on and earlier Greek or Roman version, not on Racine's adaptation.  Perhaps that explains why the painting does not depict a bloodied body as described by Racine.

"La mort d’Hippolyte" (ca. 1612) by Pierre Paul Rubens - Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum

This image by the 18th century French artist Jean François de Troy shows the god Poseidon astride his sea monster, goading the horses in their flight with his trident.

"La Mort d'Hippolyte" (1727), Etching based on a Painting by Jean François de Troy - British Museum

Here is another image from the early 19th century French painter, Joseph-Désiré Court.  Again, surprisingly unbloodied for a fellow that has just been dragged to death.

"Hyppolite renversé de son Char" (1825) by Joseph Désiré Court

Late 19th and early 20th century Dutch born, British painter, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema clearly shows the hero entangled in the reins and being dragged.

"The Death of Hippolyte" (1860) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Private Collection