Hippolytus and Phaedra: Across the Gulf of Time

æby Evelyn Hooven (September 2018)

Phædra, Alexandre Cabanel, 1880
(A reminder: Prince Hippolytus is the son of Theseus, king of Athens, and the warrior queen Hippolyta—and stepson of Theseus’ second wife, Phaedra. Phaedra is obsessed by desire for her stepson, who rejects her and attempts with his fiancée Aricie to flee the kingdom. In desperate anger Phaedra turns to her husband with the fabricated claim that Hippolytus has made amorous advances to her. The outraged Theseus invokes the sea god Neptune, by whose contrivance and power Hippolytus is dragged from his chariot to his death by sea. Overcome by remorse and by the rage Theseus now directs at her, Phaedra commits suicide.
There are several versions, in theatre and music, of the myth. These two poems, though, are not a revision of the mythical events, but a re-imagining of the two tragic principals’ souls.)
Wait in the temple, Aricie,
My chariot one last time—
Then goodbye to it and to these horses.
They trained me first to hold the reins
And I taught them . . . One
Final drive, then I’ll leave them here
Between the temple and the sea.
They never feared the winds before—
Never such careening—
Someone else drives these horses . . .
I have been brave, made
Spring ideals to conquer,
As my father did, the dragons,
To meet full face and only lightly armed
Those monsters that drove fear
Into the bellies of citizens asleep,
I will go forth.
I will go forth,
I will not scream for pain
Nor even because it is unjust;
I tried to save my father’s witch
For his sake and the honor of the house
And this is the gods’ message . . .
Where is the goddess Diana
Whose forest kept me cool
In fiercest youth?
In the temple stands my love,
She waits for her fate and a prince—
We might have reached the other country,
Borne a clear-eyed son to hunt in forests,
Dream of slaying dragons,
Tell honorable lies
And in the end be caught—or maybe not:
He would escape the terrors,
For him I’d weed the world.
Let me stand up, put up a fight
Or walk into the deep
Outright, alone:
I am prince of Athens,
Son of warriors and thrones,
Beloved of a royal maiden
And of a luckless grandchild of the sun,
Pure of person, promise-keeping—
Whatsoever I dreamed in the forest
I woke to shoot the doe,
And when I dreamed of breathing fiends
In caverns close to Lethe
Not one of them was base as you!
No, not in this twisted way
To be dragged, to be thrown—
How you etch, familiar reins,
My body’s first scars—
Would Aricie love her hunter now?
I am brought low,
Dark waves, swaying envelope,
Unsocketed and pulling arms,
The taste of my own blood . . .
Who is it you drag to ocean?
Who am I about to die?
Dark the ocean and the dwelling under it.
Phaedra to Hippolytus
Though magic is lost
I can hear you—
You are running
You are in huntsman’s garb
In a forest strangely dated
You are innocent
It is only the arrow
That shoots the doe
You were blameless
As I stood braced—
A stranger—or worse . . .
Would you know me now?
I’ve discarded charms you know—
The moment’s power
Of setting one man
Against the other
Only to be cursed
Next moment
By both—
I drank poison
Was forced to call it honor
I remember the taste . . .
My nurse said
I can do nothing for you
Your ways are tangled
And I’m tired—
She wept for me
And said
I’m an old woman
With need of welcome
Rewards for wisdom
But your hands are empty
Your heart never rests . . .
My husband was gone
Compelled by voyages
And you Hippolytus
Knew the forests
Of a virgin goddess
Repeated your lessons
Of bravery and daring
Within boundaries
Held by loving guardians.
It was a sea-monster
Wounded you in battle
And you go down noble
I go down vengeful
And there’s one end of it.
What did I want?
What is the name
For such wanting?
To turn my thoughts
Bent secrets
Distressed creatures
Out into the world
Upright as deeds?
Theseus will do it—
My husband
Will reach
For me.
On his return
I wrought
His self-esteem
To wounded majesty
To fury:
My own queen
My home my throne—
No son of mine—
My son’s my own
To punish—
I have the power
I have creatures
Of the sea.
Then his fury
To be wrong
The righteousness
Over again:
My second wife
That queen
Is mine to torture
For unjust murder
Of my only son—
Foreign queens
Have schemes
To kill the innocent—
My son is gone
It’s only right
That Phaedra choose poison
That death be her own . . .
Through some centuries
I hated myself—
I am horror
I am dishonor
I tore at
My shroud, my hair—
How could Phaedra rest?
One day it came to me
What I had wanted
I wanted you to face me
To know Phaedra—
You turned away
You fled on horseback
Prince waiting to be king
To lead ships
On bright waters
Towards danger
Distant and famous—
What couldn’t you face?
No plea of virtue
No goddess
Could save you
No known instrument
Or skillful wielding
Could save you
Only apprehending
Unfamiliar rhythms
Inventing recognitions
Of other hands
Other minds
Where they were
Vying, lost
Only a journey
Through forests twisted
Strands unraveling
Outside the temple
Beyond the forest
To your own
Your own hands
Yourself . . .
You died accusing
An unknown woman
Cursing her spirit . . .
For centuries
Your cries
Eternally young—
I’ve been wronged
I am pure
Harsh taskmasters—
Through centuries
Of silence
No longer fed
By rage or longing
I’ve grieved you
Your bewildered death
Son of monster-slayers.
The shame
All that you named
Mysterious controls
My crown
Access to poison
Fell from me—
Dolorous tapestries . . .
Less watchful
More merciful
I have become someone
Past caring
What you might think
I have become . . .
With your purity
Through your shield
Heedless of need
Where have you been?
It is good
It is recovery
From some
Of my own
To break the silence . . .
My vision of you
From far and deep within
Begins to dwindle—
Something of me
Is struggling to be new—
Do you remain
Young and unsalvageable
Engulfed by waters?
Do you remain
By blemish
By solitude
Or questions
Torn and humble?
Something of me
Is glad to leave you
And what I had to be
Ever to have loved you.


Evelyn Hooven graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received her M.A. from Yale University, where she also studied at The Yale School of Drama. A member of the Dramatists’ Guild, she has had presentations of her verse dramas at several theatrical venues, including The Maxwell Anderson Playwrights Series in Greenwich, CT (after a state-wide competition) and The Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, MA (result of a national competition). Her poems and translations from the French have appeared in ART TIMES, Chelsea, The Literary Review, THE SHOp: A Magazine of Poetry (in Ireland), The Tribeca Poetry Review, Vallum (in Montreal), and other journals, and her literary criticism in Oxford University’s Essays in Criticism.

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