The Art of Parody

Written on November 18, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Housman Julián and I were talking yesterday about translations in the 19th century and this wonderful piece of parodic poetry came to my mind. I am sure Rolf will also enjoy it very much. Rolf, you remember those posts about translating poetry? This shows how a too literal translation may turn tragedy into the most comic parody.

One word of introduction: its author, A. E. Housman, was a great classicist and poet, quite an icon of his time. The plot of this invented “fragment of Greek tragedy” is the story of the hero Alcmaeon, whose tragic fate was to kill his evil mother Eriphyle (quite a complex myth: you can read about him here). The fragment is a wonderful parody of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Enjoy!

CHORUS: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots

Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom

Whence by what way how purposed art thou come

To this well-nightingaled vicinity?

My object in inquiring is to know.

But if you happen to be deaf and dumb

And do not understand a word I say,

Then wave your hand, to signify as much.

ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither a Boetian road.

CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?

ALCMAEON: Plying with speed my partnership of legs.

CHORUS: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?

ALCMAEON: Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.

CHORUS: To learn your name would not displease me much.

ALCMAEON: Not all that men desire do they obtain.

CHORUS: Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.

ALCMAEON: A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that–

CHORUS: What? for I know not yet what you will say.

ALCMAEON: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.

CHORUS: Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.

ALCMAEON: This house was Eriphyle’s, no one else’s.

CHORUS: Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.

ALCMAEON: May I then enter, passing through the door?

CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.

And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,

And do not, on the other hand, be bad;

For that is much the safest plan.

ALCMAEON: I go into the house with heels and speed.



In speculation

I would not willingly acquire a name

For ill-digested thought;

But after pondering much

To this conclusion I at last have come:


This truth I have written deep

In my reflective midriff

On tablets not of wax,

Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,

For many reasons: LIFE, I say, IS NOT


Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls

This fact did I discover,

Nor did the Delphine tripod bark it out,

Nor yet Dodona.

Its native ingunuity sufficed

My self-taught diaphragm.


Why should I mention

The Inachean daughter, loved of Zeus?

Her whom of old the gods,

More provident than kind,

Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,

A gift not asked for,

And sent her forth to learn

The unfamiliar science

Of how to chew the cud.

She therefore, all about the Argive fields,

Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,

Nor did they disagree with her.

But yet, howe’er nutritious, such repasts

I do not hanker after:

Never may Cypris for her seat select

My dappled liver!

Why should I mention Io? Why indeed?

I have no notion why.


But now does my boding heart,

Unhired, unaccompanied, sing

A strain not meet for the dance.

Yes even the palace appears

To my yoke of circular eyes

(The right, nor omit I the left)

Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,

Garnished with woolly deaths

And many sphipwrecks of cows.

I therefore in a Cissian strain lament:

And to the rapid

Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest

Resounds in concert

The battering of my unlucky head.

ERIPHYLE (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;

And that in deed and not in word alone.

CHORUS: I thought I heard a sound within the house

Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.

ERIPHYLE: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,

Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.

CHORUS: I would not be reputed rash, but yet

I doubt if all be gay within the house.

ERIPHYLE: O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.

He stabs me to the heart against my wish.

CHORUS: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;

But thine arithmetic is quite correct.


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