English Stage Verse

At its most basic, two problems face the translator: that of creating in English the equivalent of the French hexameter, and that of making it engaging to a modern audience.

The first may be approached by seeing what contemporary English poets were writing for the stage. The most talented was John Dryden (1631-1700), whose best-known speech comes from Aureng-Zebe:

When I consider Life, 'tis all a cheat;
Yet, fool'd with hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on, and think to morrow will repay:
To morrow's falser than the former day;
Lies worse; and while it says, We shall be blest
With some new joys, cuts off what we possest.
Strange couzenage! none would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;
And, from the dregs of Life, think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.
I'm tir'd with waiting for this Chymic Gold,
Which fools us young, and beggars us when old. (Aureng-Zebe, IV. i)

english stage verse

The antitheses and end-stopped lines make for epigrammatic neatness, but hardly fervour. Indeed, the general run of Dryden’s dramatic writing is a good deal more dutiful and flat-footed. Aureng-Zebe starts (Arimant speaking):

Heav'n seems the Empire of the East to lay
On the success of this important day:
Their Arms are to the last decision bent,
And Fortune labours with the vast event:
She now has in her hand the greatest stake,
Which for contending Monarchs she can make.
What e'r can urge ambitious Youth to sight,
She pompously displays before their sight:
Laws, Empire, All permitted to the Sword,
And Fate could ne'r an ampler Scene afford. (Aureng-Zebe, I. i)

Dryden is better in blank verse: some of the more memorable lines in All for Love:


They are enough.
We’ll not divide our stars; but, side by side.
Fight emulous, and with malicious eyes
Survey each other’s acts: So every death
Thou giv’st, I’ll take on me, as a just debt,
And pay thee back a soul.


Now you shall see I love you. Not a word
Of chiding more. By my few hours of life,
I am so pleased with this brave Roman fate,
That I would not be Cæsar, to outlive you.
When we put off this flesh, and mount together,
I shall be shown to all the ethereal crowd,—
Lo, this is he who died with Antony!


Who knows, but we may pierce through all their troops,
And reach my veterans yet? ’tis worth the ’tempting,
To o’erleap this gulf of fate,
And leave our wandering destinies behind. (All for Love, V)

More alive, but nothing like the formal politeness of Racine. Dryden’s occasional quatrains were smoother, but also slower and more charming than Racine’s repressed violence: here in The Indian Emperor:


Thick breath, quick pulse, and heaving of my heart,
All signs of some unwonted change appear:
I find myself unwilling to depart,
And yet I know not why I would be here.
Stranger, you raise such torments in my breast,
That when I go, (if I must go again)
I'll tell my father you have robbed my rest,
And to him of your injuries complain.


Unknown, I swear, those wrongs were which I wrought,
But my complaints will much more just appear,
Who from another world my freedom brought,
And to your conquering eyes have lost it here. (The Indian Emperor, I. ii)

Verse for the Stage

Blank verse may therefore seem the preferred medium, being the most compact and flexible of verse forms, capable of expressing the full range of passion but also providing a pleasing approximation to everyday speech. Indeed, so easy to write is blank verse that it needs constraints, challenges and constant melodic invention if it is not to become flat and merely correct. Such variations may be decorative, serving the beauty of expression, or more dramatic. In the plays of Shakespeare’s middle period — Love’s Labour Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer’ Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice — the verse often stands apart from the narrative, halting the action while players and audience respond to the poetry:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport. (Midsummer’ Night’s Dream, II. i)

Such lines remind us of the Sonnets, here beginning to flow on in an approximation to natural speech. 11 By the tragedies, the verse is much more made by phrases serving dramatic needs, where the poetry, just as beautiful, echoes and supports the action:

The crown o' the earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither'd is the garland of the war,
The soldier's pole is fall'n: young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon. (Antony and Cleopatra, IV xv)

The cost is in the smoothness: the verse is episodic and works by the accumulation of brilliant phrases, rather than by Racine’s method, which is by the insistent weight of closely modeled logic.

Shakespeare obtained the dramatic effectiveness in his later works by thickening the metaphors, beginning sentences in midline, adding parenthetical phrases, and replacing the smooth correctness of verse by a complicated but effective series of rhythmic fragments. Characters appear inconsequentially, adding to the tension and richness of the narrative, but also stand as living personages, not cogs in the machinery of plot. Racine’s work, by contrast, is much more controlled and predetermined. Characters appear on cue to say eloquently what is necessary, but hardly a word more. No speech or character can be dispensed with, and all interlock to become an overwhelming force. Content does not overflow the boundaries of the hexameter, but Racine points his meaning by rhetoric and subtle alterations in the fabric of the lines. He changes the word order, adds interjections, uses the tu form or extreme simplicity at key points. He obtains significance by the simplest means, though a deep and mordant irony is never far away.

Blank Verse

There is no reason why a smoothly turned blank verse should not cope admirably with these features, and John Cairncross has indeed written such: {14}

269. My malady goes further back. I scarce
Was bound by marriage to Aegeus’ son;
My peace of mind, my happiness seemed sure.
Athens revealed to me my haughty foe.
As I beheld, I reddened, I turned pale.
A tempest raged in my distracted mind.
My eyes no longer saw. I could not speak.
I felt my body freezing, burning; knew
Venus was on me with her dreaded flames,
The fatal torments of a race she loathes.

Here as elsewhere, Cairncross’s scrupulous attention to the meaning has created rather static verse, but that can be remedied by giving the lines the power to flow on more:

269. My crime goes further back, when first I vowed
my laws of hymen to the son of Aegeus,
Secure in happiness and peace of mind
I met in Athens my contemptuous foe.
I saw him, coloured, at the sight grew pale,
my soul rose fluttering but was lost.
The daylight blinded and I could not speak
but knew immediately in fire and ice
that Venus was with me and with powers
to goad the blood she loathes with fierce desires.

But if we now add rhyme, their whole character changes, becoming much more shaped and incisive:

269. My crime goes further back, but was begun
Once more in wedding vows to Aegeus' son.
Fulfilled in happiness a bride should know,
I met in Athens my contemptuous foe.
Hippolytus I saw, and blushed, grew pale,
felt soul in agitation rise and fail.
My veins ran fire and ice, and that physique
rained daylight at me, and I could not speak,
but saw then Venus in her full-clothed fire
would goad the blood she loathes with fierce desire.

The truth, I think, is that Dryden, for all the fame it brought him, was not at home on the stage, and so did not exploit heroic couplets sufficiently. In satire he made them much more effective:

A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one but all mankind's epitome.
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything in starts and nothing long:
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, statesman, fiddler and buffoon. (Absalom and Achitophel)

Such vigorous, varied and intelligent verse reappears with Alexander Pope. He did not write for the stage, but again achieved a conversational ease in satire:

Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu'd, I said:
Tie up the knocker, say I'm sick, I'm dead.
The Dog-star rages! nay 'tis past a doubt,
All Bedlam, or Parnassus, is let out:
Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land; (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot)

It’s an ease achieved by incessant practice, and so worth noting that couplets are a form that can be continually improved. Alexander Pope’s lines 13-14 of The Rape of the Lock in the 1717 version:

Sol through white curtains shot a tim’rous ray,
And op’d those eyes that must eclipse the day

began in the awkward 1712 rendering:

Sol thro’ white Curtains did his Beams display
And op’d those Eyes which brighter shine than they

In summary, heroic couplets should be able to reproduce the neatness, surface politeness, repressed power and eloquence of Racine, given some skill and a good deal of work.

Free Verse

What of free verse, the reigning orthodoxy of today? We look at Ted Hughes’s rendering below, but here is a typical excerpt.

I had to confront the one I banished.
The first sight of him ripped my wounds wide open.
No longer a fever in my veins,
Venus has fastened on me like a tiger.
I know my guilt and it terrifies me.

It’s difficult to imagine a queen speaking with such banality, and it’s certainly not Racine’s style.

303. J'ai revu l'ennemi que j'avais éloigné :
Ma blessure trop vive a aussitôt saigné,
Ce n'est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée :
C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
J'ai conçu pour mon crime une juste terreur ;
J'ai pris la vie en haine, et ma flamme en horreur.

That might be better rendered in heroic couplets as:

I saw my exiled enemy and knew
the unhealed wound would start to flood anew.
No longer in my veins was love at bay
but Venus wholly fastened on her prey.
The terror of my crime will not abate:
my love is monstrous, and this life I hate.

Hughes’s language is real and immediate, but it’s also coarse and clumsy, far from the dignity and eloquence a French court expected of the classics. Individually, the lines lack shape, persuasion or poetry.

No doubt much verse written today is similar, not far from dislocated prose, but free verse at its best achieves a rhythmical and idiomatic exactness, resonant with everyday meanings of words.

Rhymed Couplets

Unfortunately, Racine does not use words with everyday associations, quite the opposite. He exemplifies the old adage that things can be said in verse that cannot be said in prose, because the verse structure itself adds refinement to the meaning. To obtain that refinement, however, the prose sense of words has to be left behind, or winnowed from its contemporary and everyday associations. The dangers are obvious — retreat into invention and bombast, the pedantry of academic correctness or the sterile language of some contemporary styles. Classicism requires surpassingly appropriate utterance in a public place — what we, given overriding emotions, and an eloquence to match, would dearly loved to have said to a cultivated audience. Words at the ideal fullness of their meaning, therefore, and calling up their primary meanings.

Some examples may make this clearer. We can agree that Wilbur’s translation: {18}

We’ll sail, and at whatever cost obtain,
Great Athens’ crown for one who’s fit to reign

is a sensible and compact translation of:

735. Partons ; et quelque prix qu'il en puisse coûter,
Mettons le sceptre aux mains dignes de le porter.

but also wonder if the constricting fit is quite appropriate. Racine’s line is rather grander, and it may be best to retain the flourish:

If not we sail, and, cost what price it may,
we’ll place in worthier hands the sceptre’s sway.

Similarly, we have to think continually of the audience, and avoid rhymes too obviously contrived.


459. But, dear Ismene, how rashly I have talked!
My hopes may all too easily be balked,

might be better put as:

459. You’ll hear me humbled by my grief, in days
to come perhaps regret these vaunting ways.

Balance, a middle way, is therefore what is needed. We want a translation that is sensitive to Racine’s shades of meaning, but also vigorous, alive and believable, what polished courtiers would say in real situations. That means, I think, we should avoid the easy rhymes of pantomime verse, expunge the archaisms beloved of costume drama, and avoid the melodramatic phrase of reverberating doom and the like.

Equally imperative is a verse that injects life into the characters. Some critics, and indeed productions, have given the limelight entirely to Phaedra, turning other members of the cast into mere contrivances. Theseus becomes a vainglorious buffoon, Hippolytus a unconvincing prig, and Aricia someone only concerned to make a good marriage. But Racine is a subtle writer, and if the shadings are less obvious in the polished flow of alexandrines, an English translation needs to throw these aspects into higher relief. Hippolytus needs to woo Aricia ardently after his timid start, for example, and Aricia to respond as warmly as conventions allow. Even Oenone, whose guile is often seen as setting events on their destructive course, is only protecting her mistress, and her practical if plebeian mind calls for its characteristic phrasing.

Finally comes writing something a modern audience can appreciate: the last obstacle a translator faces. In this I may have failed, since many today have no ear for verse, even those teaching the subject or performing it on stage. Phaedra can be read for many reasons, but the prime reason is for its poetry, which is indissolubly part of the verse, and a very formal verse at that. A glance at the French text will show how different is the verse of the play from the prose of the Preface, and those verse features need to be retained in a translation, since it is through them that Phaedra exerts its power. A translation in contemporary styles would be more accessible, but it wouldn’t be Racine and probably not poetry.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's French pages.