Performance Poetry (5th century BCE)

For me, poetry is made from sound and only truly exists when it is performed (even if the performance comes from the silent voice in our own heads). This isn’t to downplay the importance of syntactic meaning, visual form or any number of other elements; but at its heart poetry is a form of spoken music (something I’ve argued before and will no doubt do so again).

I came across an interesting variation on this after meeting up with my former headmaster a few weeks ago. David Raeburn knows more about Greek tragedy as living, performed drama than anyone else I know. A few years ago he arranged and directed a recording of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in the original ancient Greek to accompany his commentary on the play (co-authored with Oliver Thomas and published by OUP). The CD recording is still available from Blackwell’s (either in person or by mail order), and I’d urge anyone remotely interested in either Greek tragedy or poetic drama to get hold of a copy.

The recording itself is excellent: Lucy Jackson’s Clytemnestra is particularly spellbinding, as are Raeburn’s own appearances as the Watchman and Chorus leader; but the standard of performance and delivery is very high throughout. If you can read the original then you’ll find new layers of enjoyment in the music the actors conjure from the written text; but I suspect the CD is even more valuable to those who can’t read the play in Greek, transmitting something of the rhythm, sound-play and overall experience of the original. Here is arguably the first surviving masterpiece of Western drama brought alive in all its variety, verbal music, tension and (yes) poetry.

I only recently dusted the cobwebs from my Greek (initially to translate the Nekyia episode from the Odyssey as part of a forthcoming collaboration with the painter Nick Maitland), but today I found myself taking a battered old copy of the Agamemnon on a work trip to London. I got several funny looks on the train home before I realized I was mouthing the words I was reading. I resisted the urge to explain that the silent voice in my head was enjoying some brief respite from its day-job (or απαλλαγη πονων, as Aeschylus didn’t quite put it). I couldn’t begin to catch the rhythm and fluency of David Raeburn and his cast but perhaps heard a faint echo of that same spoken music. However imperfectly I was rendering it, and however briefly, the book seemed not so much a play as a libretto.

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: A Commentary for Students, David Raeburn and Oliver Thomas, OUP, 2011

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus recorded in Ancient Greek, David Raeburn, 2011, available via Blackwell’s bookshop (

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