Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Agamemnon line 1

. . . until times within living memory the exponents of Aeschylus were necessarily and properly engrossed by the preliminary difficulties of language and grammar ~ A.W. Verrall
The opening line of the Agamemnon has the watchman begging the gods to free him -- from πόνος:

I ask the gods for release from these ordeals [ponoi] of mine,

He opens this tragedy spying light, fire relayed from the burning city of Troy to Agamemnon's Mycenae. His reads that light, which opens into a question of ultimate cause and import, as a signal. We see him no more - his prayer has been answered, the light has freed him from his πόνος.

The word signifies work, labor, but then broadens to aggregate all kinds of difficulty:

II. stress, trouble, distress, suffering, Il.19.227; “Τρώεσσι πόνον καὶ κήδε᾽ἔθηκεν” 21.525; “ μὴν καὶ πἐστὶν . .” 2.291ἐν τούτῳ τῷ π., of a storm, Hdt.7.190 Μηδικὸς .] the trouble from the Medes, Id.4.1; “παῦροι ἐν πόνῳπιστοί” Pi.N.10.78: freq. in Trag., “πόνος πόνῳ πόνον φέρει” S.Aj.866 (lyr.); “πόνον ἔχειν” Id.OC232 (lyr.), etc.: in pl., sufferings, A.Pr.66328, etc.; πόνους πονεῖν (cf. “πονέω” B.1.2); “διά τινα πόνους ἔχειν” Ar.Ec. 975 (lyr.); also of disease, “κατέβαινεν ἐς τὰ στήθη  π.” Th.2.49; “πλευρᾶς πόνοι καὶθώρακος καὶ ἥπατος” Dsc.1.2ἰσχίων πκαὶ πλευρᾶς ib. 73.

A few lines further along, the watchman repeats his plea for release, using the same words, and makes a wish -- for good news:

But tonight may there come a happy release from these ordeals [ponoi] of mine!
May the fire with its glad tidings (εὐαγγέλου) flash through the gloom!  (Smyth, Nagy et al)

The light that frees the watchman from his care will determine the courses of the city and its king, and the lives of his successors and heirs. The signal from Troy -- a compound of intelligible light and potent flame, carries a seething contagion through the lives of all who think it is "good news" -- a message of freedom from πόνος, of hope and a turn toward peace.

The opening is the experience of this news -- that is, its portentous power turns on what this light reveals, what lies in shadow -- thus upon reading and misreading, and on what it can and will set ablaze. Behind this telegraph contrived to give earliest notice of the supreme triumph of Agamemnon will lurk love, betrayal, vengeance, hubris, murder of children, political choices, war, spoils, destruction, interpretation of signs, prophecy, bad manners, and the beginnings of a superceding order.

If Aeschylus is anything, he's a firehose of Greek insight, myth, rigor, valor, and poetic power. His text is difficult, corrupt, and long was a mystery to most readers, well after Sophocles and Euripides had been knowledgeably edited, as noted (above) as recently as 1889 by A.W. Verrall. In short, he presents ponos -- difficult interpretive work both for what he did make, and for all the garbled, missing, interpolated things he didn't. He brings news -- it will be a while before we have any idea whether it's the kind of liberating news we're happy to hear.

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