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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, third prize

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Henry Stead

Medea, choral extract 591–633

Blind            is fire            fed on anger
it has no care for rules or brakes
no fear at all          of death
it’s drawn to it
          like steel
                    to bone

No hunger of forest fire
No concrete storm at sea
No silence as the bomb tears
No violence of twisting blade
could ever match
          a woman          scorned
          a woman          burning
                                                  with hate

The known road has          no          hidden toll
                    it’s safe to tread          the trodden path
Neptune          rages          at the binder of the sea
                    yearns to destroy the man
                              who spun a web
                    around his world
We pray you gods          forgive the Argo
Forgive Jason          let him live
We pray you          gods          soothe

Phaethon stole his father’s chariot
          chariot of the arching sun
He disobeyed          his father’s words
          scorched          the earth
          burned himself          alive
The known road has          no          hidden toll
                    it’s safe to tread          the trodden path
Tread it safe
          do not break          natural laws
All the Argonauts are          dead
the men who pulled those famous oars
                    stripped thickwooded Pelion bare
          who sailed between the clashing cliffs
                    suffered cruel tests on the open sea
                     beached their ship on foreign land
          They came back stained with death
A high price                    for          innovation

The deep demanded punishment
                                        for their crime

Tiphys          original helm
                    first tamer of the deep

Orpheus          with voice of honey
                    whose lyre
hushed the winds and waves
taught the birds          to listen
dead          sown in a field in Thrace
his severed head flowed down
                    to the underworld
no way back          this time

Translated from the Latin by Henry Stead


caecus est ignis stimulatus ira
nec regi curat patiturue frenos
aut timet mortem: cupit ire in ipsos
       obuius enses.
       Parcite, o diui, ueniam precamur
uiuat ut tutus mare qui subegit.
sed furit uinci dominus profundi
       regna secunda.
ausus aeternos agitare currus
immemor metae iuuenis paternae
quos polo sparsit furiosus ignes
       ipse recepit.
constitit nulli uia nota magno:
uade qua tutum populo priori,
rumpe nec sacro uiolente sancta
       foedera mundi.
       Quisquis audacis tetigit carinae
nobiles remos nemorisque sacri
Pelion densa spoliauit umbra,
quisquis intrauit scopulos uagantes
et tot emensus pelagi labores
barbara funem religauit ora
raptor externi rediturus auri,
exitu diro temerata ponti
       iura piauit.
Exigit poenas mare prouocatum:
Tiphys, in primis domitor profundi,
liquit indocto regimen magistro;
litore externo, procul a paternis
occidens regnis tumuloque uili
tectus ignotas iacet inter umbras.
Aulis amissi memor inde regis
portibus lentis retinet carinas
       stare querentes.
Ille uocali genitus Camena,
cuius ad chordas modulante plectro
restitit torrens, siluere uenti,
cui suo cantu uolucris relicto
adfuit tota comitante silua,
Thracios sparsus iacuit per agros,
at caput tristi fluitauit Hebro:
contigit notam Styga Tartarumque,
       non rediturus.


Translation commentary

The story of Medea has grown with me since I first saw a production of Euripides’ play as a teenager. I chose Seneca’s rather than Euripides’ Medea because it is criminally undervalued. Seneca maintains a relentless, hopeless and impending horror from start to finish; a feat I admire greatly. My ability to read Latin allows me to experience certain types of poetry that many readers and audiences now seldom get the chance. I feel that the longer poem is something worth fighting for, and I am fascinated by the possibilities of opening up bigger and more complex poems for contemporary audiences by live performance and audiovisual technologies. There were a number of problems I faced in this translation, but the most important was how to make it accessible to non-specialist audiences. Seneca’s verse play is dense with allusion to Medea’s mythical past and classical myth in general. These allusions can only work if their sources are familiar to the audience (especially in a ‘real-time’ performance context) and so I decided to simplify, ‘re-detonate’ and, where I had to, cut those that might create too much drag in the minds of my audience. I also wanted to reflect the effect of Seneca’s metre without being hamstrung by foreign metres my words could not fill. So I used a free verse form for my dialogue and captured Seneca’s formal and metrical shifts for the choral odes by adopting more regular, lyrical and stylised forms, which can in performance be accompanied by music. Only in Medea’s spell scene did I use Seneca’s own otherworldly, almost tribal beat, which I felt was too good to lose. My word positioning, partly influenced by Hughes’ Oedipus, was at first designed to help the cast deliver their lines, but later became another way by which I could catch certain traits of Seneca’s style.

Henry Stead