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NaPoTraMo 7: The Chaos

April 7, 2010

So far, the poems have mainly been narrative, in one fashion or another. Moving away from that, then, today’s is a fragment of dramatic poetry – choral poetry, to be precise: a section of the Chorus from Seneca’s Thyestes.

Thyestes tells the story of the titular king, invited to court by his brother Atreus on the pretext of a forgive-and-forget reunion (many years before, Thyestes seduced/raped – versions vary – Atreus’ wife and ran away). Atreus, however, has not forgotten and has no intention of forgiving, and, when Thyestes and his sons arrive, murders the boys and serves them as their unwitting father’s dinner.

Thyestes, like many of the Renaissance tragedies that followed the Senecan vein, is almost pure hyperbole from end to end, graphically gruesome and violently over-the-top. The following snippet is taken from the Chorus part immediately following a Messenger’s revelation of what Atreus is done, and vividly conveys the wildly exaggerated horror of the situation.

This one ended up in ballad metre, which seems quite appropriate given how often in English literary history the ballad form has been turned to the service of melodrama and the literary equivalent of over-acting.

But whatever this may be,
o that night were here!
trembling, trembling are our hearts,
mightily pierced with fear;
lest all things in fatal ruin
fall and shattered lie,
and gods and men by formless chaos
overwhelmed, and die;
the earth and its encircling seas
and all the painted stars
that wander in the sky above
nature wipes out once more!
no more shall the eternal flame
the lord of stars let rise,
to guide the years proceeding,
and mark the seasons’ times;
no more shall Luna ward us from
the terrors of the night,
reflecting back against the dark
Phoebus’ shining light;
now she outstrips her brother’s reins,
circling in smaller space.
In one abyss shall tumble all
the thronged immortal race!

Translates ll. 828-843 of L. Annaeus Seneca’s Thyestes; original Latin text available here.

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