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‘Klytemnestra’ is the title of a pair of sonnets by Emily Jane Pfeiffer, first published in The Contemporary Review (June 1878), page 544. In this question I’m asking about the first sonnet, quoted in full below:

Daughter of gods and men, great ruling will,
    Seething in oily rage within the sphere
    Which gods and men assign the woman here,
Till, stricken where the wound approved thee still
Mother and mortal, all the tide of ill
    Rushed through the gap, and nothing more seemed dear
    But power to wreak high ruin, nothing clear
But the long dream you waited to fulfil.
Mother and spouse,—queen of the king of men,—
    What fury brought Ægysthus to thy side?—
That bearded semblant, man to outward ken,
    But else mere mawworm, made to fret man’s pride;
Woman, thy foot was on thy tyrant then—
    Mother, thou wert avenged for love defied!

This is tagged so I’m looking for open-ended interpretation of any aspects of this poem, but I have some suggestions for where you might start:

Why is Klytemnestra’s rage “oily”? What is the “wound” that she is stricken with? In what way does it “approve” her “still mother and mortal”? What is the “tide of ill”? How is Ægysthus a “semblant” or a “mawworm”? What’s the meaning of “fret man’s pride”? Is there anything interesting to say about the rhythm? Does the poem contain allusions or responses to Æschylus, and if so, what are they? What is the poem’s take on the character?

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  • To whoever voted to close this question for "includ[ing] multiple questions": this is an interpretation question. The interpretation should try to answer the subquestions at the bottom.
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 5, 2022 at 22:31
  • The questions are there as suggestions to start with—feel free to ignore them if you find other points to write about. Feb 5, 2022 at 22:53
  • I noticed that you are using the phase ‘open ended interpretation’ in several questions. Can you clarify what makes an interpretation ‘open ended’?
    – Spagirl
    Feb 6, 2022 at 21:48
  • @Spagirl By "open-ended" I mean "of a response: discursive; wide-ranging" (OED sense 2b), and in particular, not restricted to answering my questions. If you have a suggestion for a better way to phrase this, I can change it! Feb 6, 2022 at 23:50
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    I don't think I'm going to tackle this, but what I would take from 'oily rage' is that, like oil, her rage will burn at any pressure, but there's a specific point where the pressure is enough to cause a violent explosion.
    – Spagirl
    Feb 7, 2022 at 16:05

2 Answers 2

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I do not know why Klytemnestra's rage is described as "oily". @Spagirl has a wonderful comment regarding this, upon which I cannot improve:

what I would take from 'oily rage' is that, like oil, her rage will burn at any pressure, but there's a specific point where the pressure is enough to cause a violent explosion.

Klytemnestra is the daughter of Leda and Tyndareus. She and her brother Castor were born at the same time as their half-siblings Helen and Pollux (Polydeuces), who were the children of Leda and Zeus, who had raped Leda by assuming the form of a swan. She is therefore the "daughter of gods and men".

The wound is the death of her daughter Iphigenia. Klytemnestra is wife to Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Helen in turn weds Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, king of Sparta. When Paris abducts Helen and sets in motion the Trojan War, Agamemnon's fleet is becalmed in Aulis en route to Troy. He is told that he can get fair winds only if he sacrifices something dear to him. He sends word to Klytemnestra that Iphigenia is to wed Achilles. The unsuspecting Klytemnestra sends Iphigenia to Aulis for this supposed wedding, but Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia to Artemis. After this, Klytemnestra regards Agamemnon with furious hatred, and takes Ægysthus for a lover. When Agamemnon returns from Troy at the end of the war, Klytemnestra and Ægysthus murder him. She thereby avenges the death of Iphigenia.

Approves is used here in the sense given by the OED as:

To show or prove practically (a thing or person) to be (so and so).

As children of Zeus, Helen and Pollux are immortal. As children of the mortal Tyndareus, however, Castor and Klytemnestra are mere mortals. Had Klytemnestra been immortal, her children would have been immortal as well, and so Agamemnon would not have been able to kill Iphigenia. The death of Iphigenia therefore proves Klytemnestra is mortal. Likewise, her rage and grief at Iphigenia's death shows the strength of her maternal feelings, so this wound "approves Klytemnestra mother and mortal".

"The tide of ill" is nicely put, as tide means both flood and occasion. Agamemnon's murder of Iphigenia led in turn to Klytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon; that in turn led to Orestes's murder of Klytemnestra, and his subsequent torment at the hands of the Furies/Erinyes/Eumenides. All these ills were consequent upon the wound inflicted on Klytemnestra. Note that a Fury is also said to have brought Ægysthus to Klytemnestra's side.

But the tide of ill has its origins well before Agamemnon's filicide. It goes back a couple of generations, to Agamemnon's grandfather Tantalus. Tantalus killed and cooked his son Pelops, then served the meat to the gods to see whether they were truly omniscient. The gods cursed Tantalus to eternet torment and restored Pelops to life, but Pelops himself went on to be cursed by his servant Myrtilus. Myrtilus helped Pelops win a chariot-race for the hand of Hippodamia. Not wishing to share the credit and/or Hippodamia, Pelops murdered Myrtilus. The dying servant cursed Pelops and all his descendants.

Among Pelops's sons were Atreus and Thyestes. The brothers fought over the kingship of Mycenae, becoming bitter enemies. To aggravate matters, Thyestes seduced Atreus's wife. Atreus thereupon killed Thyestes's sons and fed them to the unwitting Thyestes. Determined to have another son who could kill Atreus, Thyestes raped his own daughter, Pelopia. She in turn abandoned the child born of this incestuous rape. The child ended up in the care of Atreus, who raised him as his own. This child was Ægysthus. Atreus's biological sons were Agamemnon and Menelaus, who were thus Ægysthus's foster-brothers.

Atreus sent Ægysthus to kill his mortal enemy Thyestes, but Thyestes recognized him and revealed to him his true identity. Thyestes persuaded Ægysthus to kill Atreus instead, so that they could become the rulers of Mycenae. Ægysthus did so. Thyestes and Ægysthus did rule Mycenae, but eventually Agamemnon drove Ægysthus from power. Agamemnon's murder of Iphigenia and his own death at the hands of Klytemnestra and Ægysthus is the central episode of an entire sordid saga of power struggles, adultery, regicide, and filicide, a saga usually referred to as "the curse on the house of Atreus". This larger tide of ills of which Klytemnestra's story is only a part is set in motion by essentially the same wound: Tantalus's killing of Pelops, like Agamemnon's killing of Iphigenia, is a father's murder of his child as an offering to the gods.

Ægysthus too is swept up in this tide. Poor Ægysthus! In a different telling, he himself could be a tragic figure: born under horrific circumstances, abandoned by his mother, used as a pawn in the enmity between his foster and biological fathers, and seduced by a femme fatale who needs his help to murder her husband. However, no classical source presents him sympathetically, as far as I'm aware. Æeschylus (The Oresteia), Homer (The Odyssey), and Seneca (Elektra) all portray him as weak-willed, simultaneously manipulating Klytemnestra and dominated by her. Pfeiffer has no sympathy for him either, referring to him as "that bearded semblant".

OED has these meanings, among others, for semblant:

a. A person's outward aspect or appearance.
b. esp. as betokening the thoughts, feelings, mood, disposition, etc.
c. The demeanour or ‘countenance’ which a person exhibits towards others.
d. With contextual implication that the appearance is deceitful or misleading.
e. The face, countenance.

Likewise, mawworm is glossed as:

A hypocritical pretender to sanctity.

So in the first place, Ægysthus has a bearded face, quite literally. But he is also untrustworthy. In the Odyssey, Homer writes that Ægysthus slew Agamemnon ὑπο δόλῳ, by deception (III.235). Nestor then explains to Telemachus how Ægysthus seduced Klytemnestra such that in spite of her better judgment (φρεσὶ ... ἀγαθῇσι) she succumbs to his many blandishments (III.266).

As for "fret man's pride", I believe the implication here is that considering how someone as mighty as Agamemnon can be cuckolded and murdered by someone as low as Ægysthus will have a salutary effect on our vanity. When even Agamemnon can be thus humiliated, we should keep ourselves humbled. Alternatively, the phrase could mean that Ægysthus shows us how despicable human beings can be, thereby pricking our vanity.

The poem does not seem particularly adept metrically to me. A couple of the lines are perfectly regular iambic pentameter:

Which gods and men assign the woman here

That bearded semblant, man to outward ken

But the bulk of the lines are so far outside regularity that they're hard to scan. The interest of the poem lies in its theme and structure. Both thematically and structurally, the repetitions of "mother" are very effective: "Mother and mortal", "Mother and spouse", "Mother". By the end of the poem, Klytemnestra sheds her identity as mortal and spouse and becomes just an avenging mother. Her murder of Agamemnon is not just a personal vendetta, however. Klytemnestra is protesting at the narrowness of "the sphere / Which gods and men assign the woman here". Her strike against Agamemnon is also a blow against the tyrants who confine women to such constrained roles: "Woman, thy foot was on thy tyrant then". If the only power Klytemnestra can wield in such a society is "the power to wreak high ruin", then she will seize it.

There is an implicit linkage and contrast here between Klytemnestra and another famously enraged Greek antiheroine, Medea. Trapped and helpless, Medea kills her children when her husband abandons her. Klytemnestra kills her husband when he kills their child. I have no ancient Greek, so I cannot comment on any verbal echoes of Æschylus; but the thematic parallels to Euripedes are clear. Euripedes wrote two plays about Iphigenia: Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, as well as the eponymous Medea. His Medea commits an act of shocking violence, the only way by which she can protest misogynist social strictures that otherwise leave her helpless. Pfeiffer portrays Klytemnestra similarly: it's easy to condemn her, but Pfeiffer makes us sympathize with her rage.

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  • This is a very fine interpretation, thank you! The only bit I disagree with is "the bulk of the lines are so far outside regularity that they're hard to scan"; I'll post my thoughts on the rhythm in another answer. Apr 19, 2023 at 11:50
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I’m just going to comment on the rhythm, since the other answer suggests that there is some difficulty here. English sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, but iambic verse in English almost always employs a range of rhythmic variations. These permit the poet to employ a wider variety of expressions and to highlight significant words and phrases by making their rhythm stand out against the iambic background. (Some English poetry is written in “perfect” iambic rhythm, but this requires distortion of the language, such as Chaucer’s use of the “-e” ending, or the frequent use of anastrophe to get words into a more convenient order, or the use of expletives to fill gaps.)

Each poet applies their own ideas about the range of permitted variation, but during the early modern period a common practice grew up, of which the best description I know of comes from John Crowe Ransom:

Strictly speaking, each of the five feet should be iambic. But that proved hard to manage in any spirited and spontaneous kind of language. Custom quickly came to license the following exceptions, and if we must date the event it was during that period when modern English was finding its poetic language, a period concluded triumphantly in the verse of Sidney and Spenser.

  1. Two unstressed syllables could replace the one which iambic permits, if “elision” was possible whether actually in speech, or only theoretically.

  2. An extra unstressed syllable after the tenth made a “feminine ending,” and did not count.

  3. In any foot except the last the iambic could be reversed, i.e., replaced by a trochaic foot.

These are substantially the exceptions as codified by [Robert] Bridges in The Prosody of Milton, the best handbook we have on iambic pentameters. What Bridges codified was Milton’s code, as it had been for several generations the code of Milton’s predecessors, and would be for his successors over a century and a half; since then it has been well known to poet-prosodists, and adhered to systematically when they pleased. But it is not quite complete, in my judgment. I wish Bridges had added:

  1. Any two successive iambic feet might be replaced by a double or ionic foot.

John Crowe Ransom (1956). ‘The Strange Music of English Verse’. The Kenyon Review 18:3, p. 471.

With Ransom’s description in mind, I find that ‘Klytemnestra’ has eight instances of Ransom’s exception 3 (the substitution of a trochee for an iamb, mainly in the first foot of the line); one instance of Ransom’s exception 4 (the double iamb, in line 8, “But the long dream”); and is otherwise regular. Here’s how I scan the whole poem:

Daughter | of gods | and men, | great rul- | ing will,
    Seething | in oil- | y rage | within | the sphere
    Which gods | and men | assign | the wom- | an here,
Till, strick- | en where | the wound | approved | thee still
Mother | and mort- | al, all | the tide | of ill
    Rushed through | the gap, | and noth- | ing more | seemed dear
    But power | to wreak | high ru- | in, noth- | ing clear
But the | long dream | you wait- | ed to | fulfil.
Mother | and spouse,— | queen of | the king | of men,—
    What fur- | y brought | Ægysth- | us to | thy side?—
That beard- | ed semb- | lant, man | to out- | ward ken,
    But else | mere maw- | worm, made | to fret | man’s pride;
Woman, | thy foot | was on | thy tyr- | ant then
    Mother, | thou wert | avenged | for love | defied!

One of the effects of a rhythmic substitution is to highlight the substituted foot or feet. If we look at the eight trochees, it’s noticeable that six of them are gendered descriptions of Klytemnestra’s relationships to divinity, family and polity: “daughter”, “mother” (three times), “queen”, “woman”. This emphasizes the constraints of the gendered roles in which Klytemnestra finds herself, the cause of her “seething” (another rhythmic substitution), and the motivation for her “long dream” of revenge (ditto).

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  • My scansion would defer from yours on many lines, based on my sense of ordinary speech patterns. great in line 1 would receive stress; there's a strong cæsura in line 5; I can't justify scanning power as monosyllabic and ruin as disyllabic; Ægysthus strikes me as trisyllabic; line 12 has spondees in mere maw-worm made. So to my ear, the poem still sounds rather inept metrically, as I can't read the lines in the same way you do.
    – verbose
    Jan 5 at 9:59
  • Some of these differences are matters of taste, for example, "great rul-" could equally well be a spondee as an iamb, as could "mere maw-". The scansion works either way. However, I don't follow your argument in, "I can't justify scanning power as monosyllabic and ruin as disyllabic". Jan 5 at 11:39
  • Single-syllable "power" is very common in English verse. Shakespeare ("Use power with power, and slay me not by art"), Milton ("His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d"), Tennyson ("Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord"), etc. Two-syllable "ruin" is also very common. Shakespeare ("And utter ruin of the house of York"), Milton ("Majestick though in ruin: sage he stood"), Tennyson ("On heaps of ruin, hornless unicorns"), etc. Jan 5 at 11:41
  • Re: “power” and “ruin”, sure, there are examples of those individual words scanned as you have them, but I guess I’m saying scanning them with different syllable counts in the same line seems (to me) like a contrivance rather than natural.
    – verbose
    Jan 5 at 17:35
  • Sure, I understand that's what you're saying, but that's the part of the argument that I don't follow. If "power" and "ruin" are acceptable in different lines, then what makes them unacceptable in the same line? Jan 5 at 17:55

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