The Classicism of Robert Lowell's Phaedra


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

That the first two translations for the stage which Robert Lowell has allowed to be performed should be "classical" works -Racine's Phaedra (1961) and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (1967)-is not surprising. Much of his effort, as "The Mills of the Kavanaughs" (1951) and Imitations (1961) indicate, is to come to terms with classical form albeit, as Horace Gregory suggests in his Introduction to Ovid's Metamorphoses (1958), it is a classical form bordering on the baroque: "If we think of things classical as being noted for restraint and in proportion, certain scenes in The Metamorphoses may be called less classical than violently baroque. The very theme of metamorphosis depended on violent and rapid transformations, distortions, if you will, of normal law and action. . . . In all these changes one can almost say that Ovid anticipated the arts of the Italian baroque."1 Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1917) has perhaps defined best for our time the temperament behind the restraint and proportion of this form. He notes that opposed to a Faustian tendency toward the infinite, the classical world saw "a deep need of visible limits and composed accordingly ... material things." This need produced a world picture in which infinite space is so actualized that "things visible appear very nearly as realities of a lower order, limited in the presence of the illimitable."2

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