"Why Translate Seneca?"
Dana Gioia and Mateusz Stróżyński
In April 2023, the American poet Dana Gioia published The Madness of Hercules, a verse translation of the Latin tragedy Hercules Furens, written by Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 BC–AD 65). That month also saw the publication of the first Polish translation of Hercules Furens in four centuries, by Mateusz Stróżyński, Director of the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. This coincidence provides us with an excuse to look at Seneca and his dramatic work in some depth.
Seneca remains controversial, as both a writer and a public figure, despite the fact that he has been dead for almost 2,000 years. He was born in the Spanish provinces of the Roman Empire, in the city now known as Córdoba; but he was brought up in Rome, where his family became distinguished in the imperial administration. Perhaps a little too distinguished, in the eyes of the Emperor Claudius (10 BC–AD 54): Seneca was exiled in 41, and spent eight years on the island of Corsica, where he endured his solitude with the aid of Stoic philosophy.
In AD 49, Seneca was recalled to Rome to act as tutor to Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (37–68), who became known as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus when he was adopted by the emperor, and was himself elevated to the imperial throne when his mother murdered Claudius, in 54. Seneca became one of Emperor Nero’s closest advisers. But despite all the wealth, power and influence he gained, his position remained precarious; he was forced to commit suicide in 65.
Seneca has long been renowned as a master of Latin prose: his lucid, supple, charmingly amiable style has been acknowledged as a model for essayists since the Renaissance. In terms of philosophy, Seneca’s epistles and treatises have proved arguably more influential than even the writings of Epictetus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius in disseminating Stoic ideas. Seneca’s Naturales quaestiones may be an obsolete work as far as its physics and meteorology are concerned, but it remains unsurpassed as an example of accessible, elegant scientific literature.
As for his verse tragedies, they are bleak, and bloody.
Dana Gioia writes, in his introduction to The Madness of Hercules:
If Seneca’s plays survived the sack of Rome, the burning of libraries, the leaky roofs of monasteries, the appetites of beetle larvae, and the erosions of rot and mildew, they have not had a conspicuously easier time among modern critics. His tragedies have been dismissed both for too closely resembling Greek models and for too freely departing from them. As the classicist Frederick Ahl has observed, “no field of literary study rivals that of Latin poetry in so systematically belittling the quality of its works and authors.” No Roman genre has suffered more consistent disparagement than tragedy.
The critical challenge in assessing Seneca is quite simple—to see his plays as works of art in their own right and to understand how they fit into the tradition of European tragedy. To begin this task, however, one must be willing to see the changes he made in dramatic style and structure as conscious innovations, not as unintentional failings. For all his learned borrowing from Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, Seneca’s aesthetic has little in common with Periclean tragedy. His dramaturgy marks not only a deliberate departure from the Greek tradition but a radical reconception of the genre from narrative to lyric terms.
From Aristotle to the Enlightenment influential theories of tragedy have emphasized the connection between the genre’s emotional force and its narrative concentration and coherence. Sophocles was the first playwright to understand the power tragic theater gains by carefully arranging the story line. The tragic mode, he realized, unlike epic, comedy, or romance, cannot easily assimilate episodic material. Sophocles’s innovation was not lost on Aristotle, who called plotting “the first principle… the soul of tragedy.”
Two and a half millennia before Edgar Allan Poe explained that the short story must integrate every element of the work to create a single pattern of effect, the Athenians had applied this aesthetic to tragedy. Italian Renaissance commentators, reading the Poetics through the lens of Seneca, extrapolated Aristotle’s practical observations on Sophoclean compression into a general theory of the dramatic unities of time, place, and action. Though it is now mandatory to belittle the Italian aestheticians and their Enlightenment disciples, those cognoscenti understood something essential about the imaginative integrity of tragic drama, even if they expressed it too schematically.
Classical tragedy achieves its harrowing impact through extreme compression and integration—of plotting, language, imagery, and theme. The Greek tragedians carefully foreshadowed and foreshortened the dramatic action to create a single narrative line that moves in measured steps to a fateful and usually dire conclusion while also ironically underpinning key events along the way. Such plotting works most naturally when a play unfolds in a single setting during a short period of time and focuses on the actions of a single character.
In Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, for instance, the title character rarely leaves the stage except during the choral dances; even when he is absent, the onstage action still focuses mostly on him. No one can dispute the dramatic effectiveness of the Sophoclean method—with its celebrated classical unities of time, place, and action. Playwrights from Euripides to Agatha Christie have employed them to create theatrical intensity and suspense. There is, however, no reason to believe that unified and linear narrative is the only method suitable for tragedy.
All this seems like common sense; and yet such views have not been popular among Classicists, certainly in the English-speaking world, for two centuries or more.
“My God What A Thing”
The poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) began trying to rehabilitate Seneca’s tragedies in the 1920s. An interesting anecdote is recounted in the 1998 volume Seneca in English (edited by Don Share and part of Penguin’s ‘Poets in Translation’ series). William Empson (1906–84), the revolutionary literary critic, was asked to identify the Latin quotation that begins Eliot’s poem ‘Marina’ (1930). He in turn consulted the poet Ronald Bottrall (1906–89), who replied:
“If it’s poetry it’s very unclassical poetry. It might be Seneca, for instance. In fact, it actually is from Hercules Furens,” and he raised his eyes from the paper. “My God what a thing.”
When Empson told Eliot about this he responded, “I didn’t know Bottrall was a scholar. Seneca isn’t in the school syllabus, so all the classical men were caught out.” Almost a century later, most academics still do not seem to have quite caught up with the poets, at least where Seneca’s tragedies are concerned Why Translate Seneca? The following conversation between Dana Gioia and Mateusz Stróżyński was conducted via e-mail, in response to a series of questions, as a follow-up to an earlier discussion that was hosted on 30 May 2023 by the Faculty of Polish and Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University. What drew you to Hercules Furens? Does this tragedy help illuminate or reflect any contemporary situation or circumstance? DANA GIOIA: I’ve always been interested by verse tragedy, even before I knew I was going to be a poet. I didn’t study Greek tragedy in high school, but I read Sophocles and Euripides on my own (in the Robert Fitzgerald and Richmond Lattimore translations). The first elective course I took at Stanford was a two-term freshman seminar on tragedy taught by a courtly older man who chaired the Spanish Department. (He preferred Racine to Shakespeare and often lamented the haphazard methods of Golden Age Spanish theater.) We read every major tragedian in the Western tradition, except Seneca. That struck me as odd. There was a similar silence at Harvard grad school. Finally, when I left academia, I explored Seneca. I knew Classical Latin poetry but nothing about Roman tragic theater. I read Thyestes in translation, and I was dazzled by its violent splendor. I read the other plays, one by one. I chose Hercules Furens to translate because of its fabulous account of the Underworld. The play was the missing link between Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno. My interest wasn’t scholarly. Those poems were foundational to my own sense of being a poet. I particularly admired Virgil and Dante’s ability to create powerful, multi-leveled narratives that never lost their lyrical impulse. Musicality is the necessary magic of narrative poetry. It is also a quality missing from most contemporary poetry. From Seneca I learned how to present drama that alternates between regular action and sudden but sustained moments of extreme emotion. You can call these high points verbal arias or poetic oratory. In theater, they are called “show-stoppers”. Seneca’s lyric tragedies helped me write poetic texts for opera. MATEUSZ STRÓŻYŃSKI: I became interested in Hercules Furens during my research on Euripides’ Heracles and Medea, which I began around 2010. I tried to look at the meaning of infanticide in those two plays, from a psychoanalytic perspective, trying to bring together my interest in Classical drama and psychoanalysis as well as my experience as a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist. What struck me was that Seneca’s Hercules was much more similar to Euripides’ Medea than to his Heracles. Both seem to give an incredible insight into what has been conceptualized in psychoanalysis as pathological narcissism, especially by authors such as Herbert Rosenfeld, Heinz Kohut, and Otto Kernberg. Seneca’s Hercules (like Medea) describes a destruction of the inner capacity to love and depend on others, through a desire to control both the self and the others. I think the horrifying sterility of the Underworld in Seneca reflects the inner emptiness and deadness of a narcissistic personality, which inevitably manifests itself in aggression and destruction. But as we can see in Seneca, this narcissistic dynamic is often masked by a narrative of saving the world from monsters in order to bring peace and harmony. Hercules, at first, is presented by others and himself as a saviour and monster-killer who is going to establish a mythical Golden Age. But the ultimate result is that his wife and his children are destroyed in a most horrifying way. I think this narcissistic dynamic, which has taken control over Western society in the last few decades, has been depicted powerfully also by J.R.R. Tolkien (the Ring in Lord of the Rings destroys the soul of its bearer in exchange for invisibility and power) and J.K. Rowling (in the Harry Potter novels, the Horcruxes of Voldemort give him ‘immortality’ at the price of splitting his soul). Seneca’s play is unfortunately prophetic in the way it describes how we, as a society, sacrifice what is most fragile and precious in our pursuit of utopian control over our own bodies and minds, and those of people around us.