Friday, September 5, 2014

Medea - Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers offers us a distilled version of the Euripides play, Medea. In his version the language gets trimmed to its most essential parts making the rhetoric more straightforward and profound. Again, like Cawdor, Medea deals with the question of agency in a world governed by predestination. While Fera has ingested the curse of Aphrodite, unbeknownst to her, it has slowly trickled into the recesses of her soul and consumed her. She then becomes a sort of automaton, exacting justice in her wake; but while Fera seems to lack even an approximation of free will, Medea is full of agency. At any moment she can leave and walk away from the pain and heartache she is about to inflict, but like Fera she is consumed, only this time instead of love, our heroine is  consumed by hate.

While Jason was running around completing feats of heroism, such as retrieving the Golden Fleece, he comes across Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis and granddaughter of the sun god Helios. She decides to help Jason with his tasks, but only if he promises to marry her and take her with him. He agrees and in the first act she reminds him of what she has done for him:

Medea:" might remember whether I cheated my father for you and tamed the fire-breathing Brazen-hoofed bulls; and whether I saved your life in the field of the teeth; and you might remember whether I poisoned the great serpent and got you the Golden Fleece; and fled with you, and killed my brother when he pursued us, making myself abominable in my own home; and then in yours I got your enemy Pelias hacked to death by his own daughters' hands- whatever these fine Corinthian friends of yours say against my rapid and tricky wisdom; you it has served, you it has served well: here are five times, if I counted right..."

But time has passed. And Jason now has the gall to refer to his marriage with Medea as nothing more than a "barbarian mating and not a Greek marriage..."

Jeffers presents Medea as a fierce daughter of a king, not someone to be tampered with; unlike the heroine of Euripides she is not a hapless wife, wringing her hands in sorrow, occupied with grief, she instead contemplates the best, most destructive revenge she can render on Jason. 

While both Jeffers and Euripides give the nurse shuddering premonitions in her entry monologue of the terror that is about to be unleashed, Jeffers paints a more detailed picture of Medea's crazed hatred.

Nurse: "She is like a stone on the shore or a wave of the sea, and I think she hates even her children. She is learning what it is to be a foreigner, cast out, alone and despised. She will never learn to be humble, she will never learn to drink insult like harmless water. O I'm in terror of her: whether she'll thread a knife through her own heart, or whether she'll hunt the bridegroom and his new bride, or what more dreadful evil stalks in the forest of her dark mind..."
As the nurse's monologue comes to an end, in Euripides version she says: "Would I were as thou art! the mischief is but now beginning; it has not reached its climax yet," while Jeffers' nurse nervously, hands wringing says "This evil is not declining, it is just at dawn. I dread the lion-eyed glare of its noon..."

Medea's first line is also telling of the woman each poet is creating. In Euripides version Medea is chanting within another room and we hear her voice cry "Ah, me! A wretched suffering woman I! O would that I could die!" Jeffers Medea is much more sinister:

Medea: "Hear me, God, let me die. What I need: all dead, all dead, all dead, under the great cold stones. For a year and a thousand years and another thousand: cold as the stones, cold, but noble again, proud, straight and silent, crimson-cloaked in the blood of our wounds."

This is obviously not someone to cross, unhappily for Jason he has become inured to her strength, vitality and cunning. What was once so necessary for his very survival is now standing in the way of his happiness as he prepares to wed Glauce, the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. While Jason attempts to offer a pragmatic reason for his infidelity to Medea (ie. once married into the family of the king he will be better able to provide for Medea's sons...) it is clear that he has used Medea and cares little for her happiness or wellbeing. And now Creon has decided to banish Medea and her sons and Jason sits idly by waiting for this cursed women to leave his house.

Medea begs Creon for one day, one part of a day even to pack what little things she can carry and try to make provisions for her sons. Weepingly, cunningly, she begs Creon not to send them to their deaths, but to simply allow them a few hours. Creon, aware that there is something sinister lurking in this wolf from Asia, but unable to deny a weeping woman agrees to allow them to stay until morning. As Creon leaves, wondering if he's been made a fool Medea turns to her women:

Medea: "...this man...this barking dog...this gulled fool...gods of my father's country, You saw me low on my knees before the great dog of Corinth; humble, holding my heart in my hands for a dog to bite- break this dog's teeth! Women: it is a bitter thing to be a woman. A woman is weak for warfare, she must use cunning. Men boast their battles: I tell you this, and we know it: It is easier to stand in battle three times, in the front line, in the stabbing fury, than to bear one child."

While Euripides also uses the  "child bearing" line, it is said in a more deferential tone almost as if Medea is sorry to even bring it up, she begins her stanza with how difficult it is for a woman, hapless creatures that they are, after buying a husband at great expense to then keep him. Or what if he be a tyrant? Marriage is a chancy gamble, with all but the fewest exceptions, ending in sorrow. While a woman can not divorce her husband, at the slightest provocation the husbands may grow either bored or incensed and issue a writ of divorce at a moments notice.

Medea: "But when a man is vexed with what he finds indoors, he goeth forth and rids his soul of its disgust, betaking him to some friends or comrade of like age, whilst we must needs regard his single self..."

A woman's position is precarious at best. Euripides ends Medea's soliloquy thus:

Medea: "For though a woman be timorous enough in all else, and as regards courage, a coward at the mere sight of steel, yet in the moment she finds her honor wronged, no heart is filled with deadlier thoughts than hers."

Jeffers Medea is far from timorous and hardly a coward. While this is an anguishing moment to live through, to be the serpent that exacts vengeance on all that have wronged her, is a role she has always been destined to play.

And it is destiny that Jason uses as his alibi:

Jason: "As to those acts of service you so loudly boast- whom do I thank for them? I thank divine Venus, the goddess who makes girls fall in love. You did them because you had to do them; Venus compelled you; I enjoyed her favor. A man dares things, you know, he makes his adventure in the cold of death; and if the gods care for him they appoint an instrument to save him; if not, he dies. You were that instrument."

As one would expect, this does not go over well. Medea, apoplectic, frothing at the mouth with rage tells Jason he better leave before his vulgarity of invoking the gods becomes contagious. But it already has. Medea has given up everything for Jason, she has sweated, called down curses, murdered family members, given birth to two sons and all the good she has done him over the years is now being accredited to Venus? Well, two can play at this game. She immediately calls on Hecate, the patron saint of all that is evil.

Medea: " No: I have subtler means, and more deadly cruel; I have my dark art that fools call witchcraft. Not for nothing I have worshipped the wild gray goddess that walks in the dark, the wise one, the terrible one, the sweet huntress, flowers of night, Hecate, in my house at my hearth.

Medea's plan is to feign reconciliation. A ruse that someone only very stupid or very hopeful could believe. She calls for Jason again and expresses her wish to reconcile with the young bride and offer as peace offerings a crown and a inherited from her grandfather, the sun king.  While Euripides' Jason is quickly appeased, attributing her mercurial emotions to what is only the natural response of the female sex ("to vent their spleen") when their husband "traffics in other marriages besides his own," this Jason is so full of himself that he is incapable of recognizing the somnambulating beast hiding in the breast of his ex-wife. Jeffers's Jason seems a little more practical, while intensely suspicious at first, he reluctantly comes to believe Medea is in earnest.   As she offers him her gifts she asks: "Her sun is rising, mine going down - I hope to a red sunset. - The little gold wreath is pretty isn't it?" Jason replies, "It looks like fire..."
Obviously these gifts do not bode well. But Glauce, being a one dimensional foil for the plot to progress, dutifully postures as the vain and impetuous young bride; upon being given the gifts she immediately puts them on and goes to the mirror to have a better look, only to discover that both the cloak and the crown are like melting lava, and as she screams in pain, she is slowly burned alive. Her father, Creon, in an attempt to put out the flames smothers her with his body only to then find himself unable to extricate himself, he too, now thrashing in pain as the searing hot cloak envelops him.

In Euripides version the cloak and the crown are poisoned. I think having Medea's nemesis devoured by fire seems more poetic and horrifying. If only she had let the fire assuage her hatred, the vengeance being sufficient to make her grief bearable, but alas, we all know how the story ends, and Jeffers must dutifully follow the plotline.

Having destroyed Glauce, "that robe of bright-flowing gold, that bride-veil, that fish-net to catch a young slender salmon- not mute, she'll sing: her delicate body writhes in the meshes, the golden wreath binds her bright head with light: she'll dance, she'll sing loudly: would I were there to hear it, that proud one howling. - Look, the sun's out again, the clouds are gone, all's gay and clear..."

She moves on to the next objects of affection that Jason holds dear to his heart: their two sons. Euripides was the first poet to have Medea commit filicide, much to the horror of the Athenians, who awarded him only third place at the Dionysia festival in 431 BC. Traditionally the Corinthians would have killed the boys after Medea makes her escape. As such, she wrestles with her unpreventable actions, she hems and haws and begs herself not to commit such a horrific deed, she cries after her children, pleading with them to let her kiss their hands and feet and finally, nervously, filled with dread utters: "At last I understand the awful deed I am to do; but passion that cause of direst woes to mortal man, hath triumphed o'er my sober thoughts."

Euripides quickly has the chorus explain that to lose a child is a grief surpassing all others; for Medea to truly injure Jason to the quick of his soul, she must enact this one last horrific deed.

Jeffers version is better; Medea is evil incarnate. Her one purpose is to destroy Jason and there is none of that "weaker-sex", complicated maternal business to limit the capacity she has for destruction.

Medea: "Be silent! Look at him: he loved them-ah? Therefore his dear children are not going to that city but a darker city, where no games are played, no music heard.- Do you think I am a cow lowing after the calf? Or a bitch with pups, licking the hand that struck her? Watch and see. Watch this man, women: he is going to weep. I think he is going to weep blood, and quite soon, and much more than I have wept. Watch and keep silence."


As her women cohorts beg her to rescind her decision, she blithely tells them "I do according to nature what I have to do..." the die has been cast and she hastens to fulfill her destiny, even a grim one such as it is. The women beg and plead, one woman says "I dreamed that someone gave good for evil, and the world was amazed." Medea spits back, "Only a coward or a madman gives good for evil,- Did you hear a thin music like a girl screaming? Or perhaps I imagined it..."

As she makes her way to follow her sons into the house, she pauses to ponder whether the boys have their father's eyes, and from within we hear a child's voice cry "Mother Ai-!" 

Again, Jeffers makes no pretense of apology for his language, it is gritty and visceral.

Elder Child's Voice: "You've hurt him! The blood. The blood. Oh, Mother!" (then clear, but as if hypnotized) "She is hunting me...She is hunting me...She is hunting...Aah!"

And now for Euripides:

First Son: "Ah me; what can I do? Whither fly to escape my mother's blows?"
Second Son: "I know not sweet brother mine; we are lost."
First Son: "Yea, by heaven I adjure you; help, your aid is needed."
Second Son: "Even now the toils of the sword are closing round us."

In Euripides version, the play ends as Jason, running up to the house, is told by the Leader of the Chorus that his sons are dead by their mothers own hand. Jason cries out, having been finally brought low by unthinkable anguish:

Jason: "O God! what sayest thou? Woman, thou hast sealed my doom."           

As he runs hither and thither to find out more details, Medea, now transformed into a veritable she-demon taunts and goads him, this is what he has brought upon his own head, with little help or intervention on his behalf by the gods. They blame each other for what has happened; Medea was not going to stand by while her marriage bed was defiled and her husband laughed at her; Jason is appalled at how far Medea is capable of going in the name of vengeance. They continue to spar, until at last Jason begs just to be able to touch his sons, their tender skin, but gleefully, Medea refuses even this last request and as she leaves with their sons' bodies, Jason, defeated, departs to bury his young bride and the chorus sings:

Chorus: "Zeus on Olympus, dispenses many things. Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we don't expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story."

The character development of Medea seems a little hurried, it takes until the murder of her children before her vengeance is palpable, she has spent 90% of the play in anguish/ sorrow and the last 10% in hatred/anger/vengeance, unlike the Medea of Jeffers who is comprised primarily with hatred and vengeance and only partially with anguish and sorrow. This is a Medea who offers no apology for what she has become and Jeffers gives her the last lines of the play; as Jason begs to touch his sons' dear flesh and dear hair she ruefully spits out:

Medea: "No. They are mine. They are going with me: the chariot is in the gate. You had love and betrayed it; now of all men you are utterly the most miserable. As I of women. But I, a woman, a foreigner, alone against you and the might of Corinth- have met you throat for throat, evil for evil. Now go forth under the cold eyes of the weakness-despising starts: - [it is] not me they scorn."

The Complete Poems of Sappho

Sappho: (born 630 BC) Daughter of Simon or Eumenos or Eerigyios or Ecrytos or Semos or Camon or Etarchos or Skamandronymos. Her mother wa...