BMCR 1993.03.20

Statius: Thebaid

, Thebaid. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. lv, 373 pages. ISBN 9780198147824 L 45.

This new translation of Statius’Thebaid is by A.D. Melville, a retired solicitor, and is accompanied by a general Introduction and Notes by D.W.T. Vessey of King’s College, London. While Melville is well known for his translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Oxford 1986) and Love Poems (Oxford 1990), Vessey has done more than any other English scholar in the past two decades to restore Statius to literary respectability.

As Melville points out, a “translation of the Thebaid is a formidable task, rarely attempted” (p. xlvi). Only four translations into English of the entire epic have been published, three of them this century (including Melville’s). W. Lillington Lewis published the first edition of his translation in 1767 (Oxford). Given the constraints of the heroic couplet he chooses, the translation is admirable for its fluency, vitality and accuracy. Modern neglect (at least in the English-speaking world) of the Thebaid‘s qualities is evidenced by the lack of translations to appear since that translation, for it was not until almost two centuries later that J.H. Mozley published his translation in the Loeb Classical Library (London/Cambridge, Mass., 1928). This edition has served as the standard translation for almost three-quarters of a century, even though it has been vigorously criticised for some inaccuracies. Mozley’s version was the sole modern English translation until J.B. Poynton’s version appeared in 1971 (Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press). Using the Spenserian stanza, Poynton not only has to maintain a pattern of nine verses (the first eight being iambic pentameter, the ninth an iambic hexameter), but he also has to contend with a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc for each stanza. The result is a remarkable accomplishment in terms of technical virtuosity and ingenuity, but it is more of a paraphrase than a translation. Labouring under the constraints of such a demanding stanzaic pattern, Poynton frequently omits and mistranslates the Latin text. Above all, the translation does not represent Statius.

So it was with eager anticipation that I received my copy of Melville’s translation. Would this indeed be the long-awaited translation that would help to rehabilitate Statius to his former position? Aiming to provide an accurate translation of the Thebaid, Melville employs blank verse with the occasional rhyme to ’round a paragraph or close a speech or in some other way to make a special point or effect’ (p. xlvi). There is precedent of course, in Melville’s choice of blank verse for translating epic, for Milton uses the meter to perfection in Paradise Lost (1667). This decasyllabic line is the verse-form employed by Melville in his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and he has refined his technique to produce an elegant and readable version of the Thebaid.

One of the problems experienced by translators using the blank verse-form is that their translation often has the appearance in sections of being prose adapted to fit the decasyllabic line. This is because the constraints of the shortened verse-line make it difficult to avoid breaking off in the middle of English sentences at the end of lines, which naturally results in fewer lines beginning with sentences and clauses. Melville attempts to lessen the prose effect by attempting to divide verse-lines wherever possible between grammatical phrases and by capitalising the first word in each line. The latter helps to increase the sense of the translation as verse through the emphasis on each line as a single unit in its own right.

But does this translation represent Statius? In one sense it does, for the tone and style of Melville’s translation mirror admirably the mood and power of the original. The translation gives the appearance of neither placing itself above the original nor of giving way completely before the text. Importantly, the translation reads easily. There are some quite poetic lines that are faithful to the word and sense of the original. But is this enough?

It is easy for a blank verse translation of the Thebaid to be diffuse and elegant where the dactylic hexameter is concise and vigorous: compelled to abandon the constraints of the line-by-line format, the natural tendency is to expand the text to achieve lexical fidelity. In the hands of a careless or inventive translator, this verse expansion is likely to be excessive. Recent pseudo-decasyllabic translations of the Aeneid by C.H. Sisson (Manchester/Ashington 1986) and R. Fitzgerald (New York 1983) represent the extreme of this tendency: both contain over thirty per cent more lines than the original (book four about forty per cent in each case). Melville generally avoids excessive expansion in his use of blank verse, but still requires many more lines than the original text for his version. How many more, to be precise? 2,427 more, for he uses 12,175 lines of verse to translate the Thebaid‘s 9,748 lines of text (Hill’s edition, Leiden 1983); thus his translation exceeds the number of lines in the original by twenty-five per cent. For example:

A javelin
Laid low proud Phlegyas, a javelin
Phyleus, then his scythed chariot mowed down
Clonis and Chremetaon, on who closed
With him, the other severed at the knee.
Chromis and Sages and Iphinous
And long-haired Gyas fell to thrusting spears,
Lycoreus, too, Apollo’s acolyte—
Against his will: as he drove home the strong
Ash shaft, Lycoreus’ falling crest revealed
The white priest-band. Then with a stone he slew
Alcathous who by Carystus’ lakes
Had home and wife and children who adored
Its beaches. Long he’s lived in poverty,
Searching the waters; land now played him false,
And as he died he praised the storms that blew
And kind perils of the deeps he knew.

Melville needs 16 2/5 lines to translate the 11 3/4 lines of Statius, almost forty per cent more than the original number, which seems excessive; however, there are fewer syllables in Melville’s translation (164) than in the original text (177), which seems appropriate, given that English is more monosyllabic than Latin.

In the description preceding the important speech of Pluto in 8.21-31, this inevitable tendency of verse-line expansion is even more pronounced. Melville translates:

It chanced the Lord of Erebus, enthroned
In his ill-fortuned kingdom’s citadel,
Was claiming from his peoples an account
Of their lives’ crimes, not pitying mankind,
Angry with every ghost. Around him there
The Furies stood and in due order Deaths
Of divers kinds, and savage Punishment
Held forth his clanking chains. The Fates bring in
The souls and with the thumb that spins condemn.
Task overwhelming! Minos, close at hand,
With his dread brother calms the cruel king
And counsels better justice. In support,
One river swollen with tears and one with fire,
Cocytus comes and Phlegethon, and Styx
Convicts the gods of perjury.

As with the previous passage, the number of syllables in Melville’s translation (148) is less than the number of syllables (including elisions) in the original (153). Again, given the more monosyllabic nature of English, this difference seems reasonable. But Melville uses almost 14 4/5 lines to translate 10 1/6 lines of Statius. This seemingly excessive, if unavoidable, expansion in verse-lines naturally distorts the syntactic and metrical qualities of the original text. The most glaring fault that results from the use of the blank verse-form is that its strict prosody creates a false impression of the rigidity of Statius’ versification. Specifically, it misrepresents the varied syllabic length and stress of the Statian dactylic hexameter. So it seems that the problem is not with Melville’s translation per se but his choice of verse-form. This aspect of Melville’s translation, at least, does not represent Statius.

So what is the most suitable verse-form for the translation of the Latin hexameter? Guy Lee has proposed the iambic hexameter in his introductions to his translations of the Eclogues in the Liverpool Latin Texts (Liverpool 1980) and Penguin Books (Harmondsworth 1984) series, but its fixed length creates problems similar to those apparent in the use of blank verse. Accordingly, it does not provide a suitable alternative to the decasyllabic line. The English translation of the Thebaid published that represents Statius’ hexameter more closely than any other is that of N.J. Austin and Ruth Morse, whose version of book 10 appears in the Penguin anthology Roman Poets of the Early Empire edited by A.J. Boyle and J.P. Sullivan (Harmondsworth 1991). This verse-form, developed by Boyle and used in his translation of Vergil’s Eclogues (Melbourne 1976), is splendidly suited for the translation of the hexameter. Each line of the Thebaid, as Vergil’s, has thirteen to seventeen syllables and six (or five pronounceable) stresses. Since Latin is more polysyllabic than English, it would seem that what is required for translation is a verse-form that demands slightly fewer syllables per line than the hexameter but with the same number of stresses; hence the suitability of translating each hexametric line with a corresponding English version containing eleven to fifteen syllables and (wherever possible) six stresses.

Naturally the controlling ideas of the Thebaid are critical in the process of translating, in particular when it comes to judging the relative merits of alternative readings, even of single words, which greatly influence the direction and focus of the text. An excellent example (by way of illustration) occurs in 10.835. Here is Melville’s translation of 10.831-36 (my italics):

—whether from
The depths of Hell that madness was unleashed
And the fell Stygian sisters, following
His ensign rushed to arms against great Jove,
Or valour passed its bounds or headlong love
Of glory drove or fate planned a great death,
Or first success brought evil close behind,
Or Heaven’s winning anger lured mankind.

Line 835 deserves special attention, given the disagreement among modern editors on whether fama or fata should be read. While a few (e.g., Hill [Leiden 1983], Williams [Leiden 1972]) prefer fama, most rightly opt for fata. Not only does fata have authority in the MS. tradition, but the phrase magnae data fata neci (835), which Melville translates as ‘fate planned a great death’, expresses the important idea in the Thebaid of the supernaturally contrived destruction of mankind; this idea complements the themes in the next one and one-half lines of the precariousness and transience of human welfare and of divine hostility toward mankind. (I would, however, propose the change [for a modern edition] of fata to Fata. Its epic context demands this slight but important orthographical emendation. For the form Fata reflects the objective, real-life status of these personified deities in their destructive role in the Thebaid (e.g., 2.694f. [cf. 3.40ff., esp. 40-42, 59-63, 67-69, 75-77]; 3.179f.; 4.3f., 187ff.; 10.384f., 662ff., 727ff.; cf. 1.88ff., esp. 111; 326ff., esp. 328; 8.20ff.).

While this sensitivity to the text of the Thebaid is admirable, it is not always matched by a similar acuity in the Introduction. For the general reader unacquainted with Statius, Vessey’s Introduction and Notes are useful and are pitched at the right level. But the scholar should approach them with caution. Vessey argues: “If we seek to impose a message on the text, or elicit one from it, we run the risk of hiding more than we unveil. The Thebaid is not an easy text; it is best to allow it to be what it is” (p. xlii). Such an attitude seems to me to constitute an evasion of the critical task. Indeed it is the duty of the critic (not to impose meaning but) to interpret the text, to determine its verbal meaning, to get at (nay, even extract) its significance. Admittedly the Thebaid makes heavy demands on the literary competence of even the most careful reader, but this is a challenge that a serious critic should take up rather than avoid.

Modern scholars have tended to shape their view of the Thebaid according to the Judaeo-Christian concept of retribution and guilt, which is usually based on Jupiter’s opening, programmatic speech asserting that human criminality demands divine retribution (1.214-47). Vessey states categorically that “the King of Heaven cannot ignore the depravity and corruption of mankind” and he ‘must be an agent of moral discipline’ (p. xxii). However, there is little evidence to sustain such an interpretation. Such misunderstanding of Jupiter’s basic character stems from two main factors: not only has there been a general inattention to and misunderstanding of textual details in the epic, but there is a tendency to pay more attention to the various claims of Jupiter to benevolence and tolerance than to the credibility of the evidence he provides in support of his claims. In fact, his actions and speeches portray him as anything but a benevolent, merciful and just god. The speeches of this deity are among the most important in the Thebaid. Jupiter reveals himself in his speeches as an omnipotent, misanthropic, dissimulating, cruel and uncompassionate deity. His speeches (1.214-47; 1.285-302; 3.229-52; 7.6-33) play a critical role in three of the most important scenes in the epic and emphasise his determination to bring about the destruction of Thebes and Argos.

Vessey suggests that Oedipus comes under the influence of Tisiphone only after he summons the Fury (p. xxxvii). However, Oedipus is already under the control of the Furies when he utters his curse against his sons (1.51f.; 11.617-19), and the opening of the curse shows that the Furies have exerted a pervasive influence over his actions from the moment of his birth (1.60-72). The various interventions of Tisiphone in the Thebaid reveal that she is not to be viewed merely as Oedipus’ “twin” or as an “objective figuration” of his state of mind (p. xxi); rather, Statius is intent upon stressing the actual physicality of Tisiphone, as the description of the dread goddess shows (1.103-13).

According to Vessey, Polynices “by an act of will, ignores” the foreboding vision of his grief-stricken wife Argia (11.140-48), “his rejection a matter of choice” (p. xl); however, Fate’s admonitions and approaching death provoke him to fear what he senses (11.149f.) before the intercession of Megaera. Polynices does not really want to confront his brother in a duel (cf. 11.137-48) and considers fleeing the scene or taking his own life (138f.). Megaera intervenes and infuses him with the urge to slay Eteocles and to seek death in his kinsman’s blood (150-54). Vessey declares (p. xli) that Tisiphone strikes Polynices with her lash (11.150f.), whereas 11.109-11 establishes that Megaera lashes him.

Jocasta is certainly not, as Vessey asserts, “one cause of the war” (p. xxxviii), since she attempts to avert it by persuading Polynices to negotiate his claim to the throne with Eteocles instead of attempting to gain power forcefully (7.497-527). Her speech, which stresses the importance of family ties, has a sudden and dramatic impact upon Polynices and the Argive troops (527ff.) and initially it appears that Polynices will agree to meet peacefully with his brother (527ff., esp. 534-38).

Vessey characterises Theseus as the divine agent of Compassion (p. xli). Indeed, Theseus on the surface seems far superior to any of the Seven and supremely confident in his own powers. But when the battle commences he is portrayed in terms similar to the descriptions of Tydeus and other chief warriors among the Seven whose indomitable nature and fearlessness are highlighted in the main battle narrative (7-11). The menacing shadow of his spear falls upon the ranks of the enemy and his spear-point projects light onto the field of battle (12.730-32). The destructive propensity of Theseus is highlighted in a comparison with the war-god Mars, whose brutal conduct he mirrors in battle (733-36). The combined effect of this comparison, the sinister implications of which are manifest, and an earlier one with Jupiter (649-55) serves to associate the violent actions of this human ruler with the wanton destructiveness of his divine counterparts.

Despite my disagreement with some of Vessey’s interpretations, he provides the general reader with a serviceable Introduction and Notes. As to Melville’s translation, it is without doubt the best one yet published, for he conveys better than any previous translator the tone, diction, style and imagery of the Thebaid. This handsomely produced book is a welcome addition to studies on Statius and will serve to increase the awareness among scholars and teachers of one of the finest postclassical poets. Although the perfect translation can never be realised, it is hoped that one suggesting something of the syntactic and metrical qualities of the original verse will appear soon.