Friday, August 5, 2022

Ion by Euripides and H.D. - but why have you hidden this?

Ion by Euripides, one of the plays that survived by chance.  Among Euripides’s “romances” I think of it as the most Shakespearian, the purest fairy tale.  A foundling, a prophecy, a mistaken identity where first the mother tries to murder her son and then the son his mother, and finally a classic recognition scene:

KREOUSA:  there’s a blanket,

                    my own embroidery ---  (113)

That kind of fairy tale, the healing and reconciliation type.

KREOUSA:  I had thought you lost,

                     long ago,

                     with the ghosts

                      in death --- (115)

Euripides is reaching back to one of the old stories here – Ion, the foundling, is the reasons some Greeks are Ionian.  His grandfather was literally born from the earth, although since this is mythology the earth is Gaia, a goddess.  Euripides is working with one of the foundational stories of Athens.  What is he doing with it?


I note that Ion is the only surviving play set at the Delphic shrine of Apollo, curious given how important Delphic oracles are in so many other stories.  Euripides seems to be critiquing the oracles. Well, “critique,” he thinks they’re nonsense.  Even in the fairy tale context, they are simply arbitrary.  Pythia here is the Pythian priestess, at the time of performance the most important religious figure in Greece.  It is a bit like having the Pope as a character.

PYTHIA: I reveal things, long secret:

ION:       but why have you hidden this?

PYTHIA: it was the god’s wish:

Yes, yes, yes, but why was it the god’s wish?  We’re never going to get an answer to that.  Since Apollo is the father of Ion, the god who abandoned (and later rescued) his child from his brief affair with Queen Kreusa, I cannot help think about his more human motives.  Euripides is thinking about them.

The translator of the lines I have quoted is the poet H.D., a deep Classicist and an unusual Modernist.  Her translation is certainly an H.D. poem.

The broken, exclamatory or evocative vers-libre which I have chosen to translate the two-line dialogue, throughout the play, is the exact antithesis of the original.  Though concentrating and translating sometimes, ten words, with two, I have endeavoured, in no way, to depart from the meaning.  (32)

H.D.’s Ion is a book that leads, and not so gently, its readers to her interpretation of the poem.  I will include a photo of the above page.  It is not an introduction or foreword; the commentary is embedded in the paly:


I love this and think H.D.’s Ion is gorgeous, but I can imagine the reader who begs H.D. to get out of the way of Euripides.

The poetry rises clean cut to-day, as it did at the time of its writing.  And to-day, for the abstract welded with human implication, is in its way, ultra-modern.  (30)

Well, yes, it is now, but there are other ways to translate, I know.

The play’s chorus is superb, but I will mention another example of the play’s “[i]ndestructible beauty” (H.D. commenting again, p. 30).  One of Ion’s jobs as temple attendant is to keep the birds out of the gardens – but he loves birds!  A bird theme runs through the play, even, in a fairy tale, moment, turning the plot at one point.  Here is a bit of Ion’s Song of the Birds, warning them to stay away so he does not have to shoot them:

for this,

O, this, I would not kill,

your song

that tells to men,

God’s will.  (21)

The birds are the authentic oracles.  The human ones are trouble-makers.

I have included a photo of an actual Pythian tripod and cauldron, which can be seen at the Archeological Museum of Delphi.

Next week: Electra.  Didn’t we just read this?  No, that was Sophocles; this is the Electra of Euripides.  It will be different.

2 comments:

  1. I read Ion in the Penguin translation, but have order the HD translation from the US, and when it comes at the month end, i shall reread it.

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  2. I should read the Penguin! Or some other less stylistically aggressive translation.

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