“In Our Own Despair”: Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

Classical Association of Canada, Annual Meeting, May 12, 2002

Christopher S. Morrissey, Department of Humanities, Simon Fraser University

 

HAMILTON’S 1930 AESCHYLUS (Agamemnon 179-183):

 And even in our sleep [d' ény' Ïpnou] pain that cannot forget [mnhsipÆmvn pÒnow], falls drop by drop [stãzei] upon the heart [prÚ kard€aw], and in our own despite [s°lma semnÚn ≤m°nvn], against our will [ka‹ par' êkontaw], comes wisdom to us [∑lye svfrone›n] by the awful grace of God [daimÒnvn d° pou xãriw b€aiow].”[1]

Edith Hamilton’s translation of these lines from Aeschylus (Agamemnon, 179-183) is most famous in a mistranslation that has been widely propagated. The mistranslation can be attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, who misquoted Edith Hamilton’s prose version from The Greek Way, misquoting “despair” for “despite” in a famous speech upon the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968). Whether he misquoted deliberately, fortuitously, or infelicitously will be discussed in this paper. We will also compare the origin of Richard Nixon’s subsequent appropriation of these lines during the darkest night of his own tragic drama.

 

AESCHYLUS IN RFK’s SPEECH:

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”[2]

Use an audio-enabled personal computer with a Web browser having RealPlayer plug-ins. Download and play the RealAudio file at http://www.morec.com/rfk.rm, so that the audio may be heard (Aeschylus quote: the 20 seconds from 3:09 to 3:29). RealPlayer Basic (free) available at http://www.real.com/.

Note Kennedy’s hesitation at 3:21, with the repetition of the first syllable of “despair”. We may interpret it either as the hesitation upon the occasion of a deliberate, or an accidental but fortuitous, misquotation.

 

HAMILTON’S 1937 AESCHYLUS (Agamemnon 179-183):

Drop, drop– in our sleep, upon the heart

sorrow falls, memory’s pain,                  

and to us, though against our very will,

even in our own despite,                      

comes wisdom,                                    

by the awful grace of God.[3]



[1] Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1930), 156. The emphases in boldface and in italics are mine, showing Robert Kennedy’s divergences from Hamilton’s text, and I match Hamilton’s English rendering with the Greek phrases from John Dewar Denniston and Denys Page (edd.), Aeschylus Agamemnon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 9.

 

[2] From remarks by Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the death of the Reverend Martin Luther King, at a rally in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968, as quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978), 875, 1020 n.84. The emphases in boldface and in italics are mine, showing Kennedy’s divergences from Edith Hamilton’s Greek Way text. For Kennedy’s encounter with Hamilton’s text, cf. Schlesinger, 616-620, 988 nn.56-60.

 

[3] Edith Hamilton, Three Greek Plays: Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, The Trojan Women (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1937), 170.