Characteristics of Racine's Phaedra Verse

Classicism is an aesthetic attitude deriving from the arts of ancient Greece and Rome, specifically an emphasis on simplicity, proportion, and restrained emotion. Put very simply, Classicism, Realism and Romanticism all deal with the outside world, but Realism shows the world as it is, Romanticism as the heart tells us it should be, and Classicism as it would be in some ideal and public incarnation. Contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or free-wheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism).

Classicism stressed simplicity, surface clarity and painstaking craftsmanship. Proportion was important, and nothing should be taken to excess. Expression was public rather than individual, and was restrained by convention and propriety, indeed the language was often elevated: not necessarily refined but excluding the humdrum, misshapen and obscene. There was also a respect for traditional forms and genres, a building on achievements of celebrated authors, and reference to experience more than theory.
Racine absorbed the attitude of classical authors to their world, in which the gods were both convenient abstractions and living realities. Their reality in story and myth was created in the ritual of their dramatic presentations, and such performances had to be continually repeated. Religion itself became meaningful in such acts — ritual, prayer, theatrical performances, mystical encounters — and was not something that could be extracted from content and tested by logic or empirical experiment.

Just as myths are expressed in a language typically closed and self-supporting, not easily transferred from one culture to another, so poetry depends on the precise makeup of the symbols employed. Admit the loose cynicism of everyday life into the fabric of classical verse and its elevation falters. We who expect poetry today to have no boundaries, but encompass our most mundane thoughts with idiomatic clarity, may find classical verse impossibly elevated, remote and stylized. Racine’s art is not one of imagination, but of phrasing, of having the right words in the right places. Wisdom begins with calling things by their proper names, and naming is important in classical tragedy because individual words are underwritten by an ideal, unchanging and public understanding. Poetry, said Aristotle, is superior to history because it uses words in their fuller potential, and creates representations more complete and more meaningful than nature can give us in the raw.

Jean Racine’s plays observed Aristotle's supposed unities of place, time and action, aiming for power and homogeneity, but where Corneille expressed heroic sentiments in noble oratory, Racine's restrained, polished but always appropriate language depicted man's ferocious passions, savagery and imprudence. Classicism, with its balance and wholeness, was retained, with a correct and restricted vocabulary, but given an unforgettable force.

Racine’s characters were impelled by fierce passions, thwarted only by circumstances and the pressing desires of others. As kings, heroes and court personages they suffered irreparably from their actions, though in a larger setting, remote to us in time and space. Racine depicts human life intensified, but also given grandeur and significant by myth and distance. {1} {2} {3}
Two important concepts were vraisemblance and bienséance. Vraisemblance required plays to be believable: the historical facts could be tampered with, but motive, narrative and characters had to be convincing. Racine, for example, adds Aricia, for whom there is no historical precedent. Bienséance required plays to follow the decorum of good society and avoid words of too violent, obscene or mundane a character. Hippolytus, for example, brought up a savage in the woods, speaks like a Louis XIV courtier. {4}

Racine was not the first French dramatist to portray Phaedre and her guilty love for Hippolytus. There already existed plays by Garnier, La Pinelière, Bidar and Pradon, {5} but Racine overcame the seeming injustice in the story by having all characters err in some degree, and be aware of doing so. Phaedra’s passion is monstrous, as she herself realizes. Theseus gives way to rage, and knows he recklessly calls up Neptune’s curse. Hippolytus wittingly disobeys his father, and is encouraged by Aricia to propose marriage. Oenone’s solicitude for Phaedra exceeds the moral bounds. By concentrating the action on the day of Theseus’s return, the play reverberates with the characters’ excessive desires and their punishment.

Also effective is the background Racine evokes, which adds the miraculous necessary for the death of Hippolytus. Aricia has a claim on Athens, the city Minerva built. Hippolytus is the son of Antiope, queen of the Amazons. The opening scene not only foreshadows the political motivation behind events, but sets them in an ancient world of the Mediterranean still alive with myths and the fabulous monsters that Hippolytus wishes to emulate his father in subduing: another of Racine’s resonating ironies.

Details of Racine's Phaedra Verse

Speeches to a confident are a stable of French tragedy, but Racine makes Theramenes and Oenone distinct personalities, getting them to play critical parts in the story. The loves of Phaedra and Hippolytus run in parallel, both emerging from obscurity into the sunlight in a way emphasized by the play of light and dark in the verse, but also underlining Phaedra’s predicament, a queen suspended between the judging darkness of her father Minos and the health-giving radiance of the sun, all members of her bloodline.

Like most European writers of the time, Racine was a close student of rhetoric, the art of controlling an audience. Whole textbooks were written on the subject, and its rules governed the way Racine and others crafted their poetry, from initial creation (inventio), arrangement ( dispositio) to the words adopted to write or speak in a correct, moving and pleasing manner (elocutio). Racine was familiar with a technical terminology now only of interest to scholars, and the organising power of those devices is present on every page he wrote. {4}

French tragedy made much use of periphrases, for emphasis (a trois fois chassé la nuite obscure) or embellishment (la plaine liquide ). Epithets came out of stock, ennobling in intent, but at times banal and immaterial (timide, cruel, fatal, etc.) The exclamations used to heighten speech sound unnatural or unconvincing today (Ah! Dieux! Ciel! Quoi! Hélas!).

Racine’s verse was in alexandrines, which are nothing like English blank verse or the rhyming couplet, and rather different from everyday spoken French. {6} Somewhat simplified, the rules governing the French hexameter are as follows. The alexandrine always consists of exactly twelve syllables. The only licence allowed the poet concerns the 'double vowels'. There are no diphthongs in French, and i/u/ü + vowel may be treated as two separate syllables (diaeresis) or as one by pronouncing the double vowel as y + vowel (synaeresis). Each syllable of the alexandrine is a sounded vowel. The neutral e is not sounded when occurring at the line end, but lengthens the preceding vowel/syllable. A similar rule applies to the third person plural present tense ending of ent. Lines ending in e or ent are termed feminine. Other lines are masculine. Though they may end with the same sound, feminine and masculine lines do not rhyme. A feminine line can only rhyme with another feminine line, and a masculine line rhyme with a masculine one. French classical verse is written in alternating pairs of masculine and feminine lines. If an act closes with a masculine line, the following act must open with a feminine line, and vice versa.

Hiatus is avoided in French, by running wherever possible the last consonant(s) of the preceding word or syllable into the vowel, by adding a letter ( a-t-il), or by absorbing the neutral e before aient. The neutral e is not sounded in everyday speech (cette semaine is pronounced as sèt smèn) but is pronounced when occurring in the body of an alexandrine (cette semaine becomes sè te se mèn).
Unlike English, however, where words have an inherent stress pattern (bódy, embódiment), French is a syllabic language where the stress falls on the last syllable of any meaningful group of words. In the alexandrine, this comes at the end of the line and usually, to a lesser extent, after the sixth syllable, which is marked by a caesura. The arrangement can be varied a little, and other patterns deployed, but in general the alexandrine is securely end-stopped, making it very different from English blank verse where enjambment or run-on is expected.

Rhyme is a match in sounds (phonemes) between words of different meaning, preferably different function as well (verb with noun, etc.) but has more complicated rules in French. We are happy with high/sky, etc., but the French dislike what they call rime pauvre. Rime suffisante requires two sounds or phonemes to match: vowel + consonant or consonant + vowel. Rime riche requires an additional phoneme match, generally consonant + vowel + consonant, but is sometimes taken to include assonance earlier in the line. And whereas the English detest rime riche, reserving it for comic effects, the French admire this extra correspondence. There are also a few licences applying, which derive from earlier changes in pronunciation. Under rime normande, the terminal er is allowed to rhyme with é. A final s or t can rhyme with a 'fossilised e'. And a few words can be spelt in odd ways: pié for pied, remord for remords, croi for crois and encoue for encore.

Racine wrote in a very regular and composed manner: as here in the famous Act Four, Scene Six speech in which the ruined queen pours out her despair:

Je crois te voir, cher chant | un su ppli ce nou veau, 4 2 | 3 3
Toi-mê me de ton sang | de ve nir le bou rreau. 2 4 | 3 3
Par do nneUn Dieu cru el | a per du ta fa mille: 4 2 | 2 4
Re co nnais sa veng ean | ceaux fu reurs de ta fille. 3 3 | 3 3
Hé las ! du cri mea ffreux | dont la hon te me suit 2 4 | 4 2
Ja mais mon tri ste coeur | n'a re cuei lli le fruit. 2 4 | 4 2
Jus qu'a der nier sou pir, | de mal heurs pour sui vie, 3 3 | 3 3
Je rends dans les tour ment | su ne pé ni ble vie. 2 4 | 4 2

What further punishments can you devise
than butchery in which your bloodline dies?
Forgive me that I let a god in wild
1290. reprisal sow her fury through the child.
Never the once to what it sought for came
this heart, but sadness only, and to shame.
Phaedra in sighs, with which her path was rife,
in agonies gives back a painful life.

Phaedra in fact contains many celebrated lines:

Cet heureux temps n'est plus. Tout a changé de face
Depuis que sur ces bords les Dieux ont envoyé
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.

Those happy days are gone. All changes here
since gods have sent to us across the sea
the child of Minos and of Pasiphaë.

Ce n'est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée :
C'est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
No longer slumbering love was kept at bay
but Venus wholly fastened on her prey.

But it is the verse as a whole that gives the lines their magic. Far more than his contemporaries, Racine varied the alexandrine to create a range of effects. Short lines conveying shock:

O désespoir ! ô crime ! ô déplorable race !
Voyage infortuné ! Rivage malheureux,
Fallait-il approcher de tes bords dangereux ?

An offhand manner as when the nervous Hippolytus starts wooing Aricia:

Madame, avant que de partir,
J'ai cru de votre sort devoir vous avertit.
Mon père ne vit plus.

The tender correctness of Aricia’s reply:
Mais cet Empire enfin si grand, si glorieux,
N'est pas de vos présents le plus cher à mes yeux.

Theseus’s anger expressed in heavy epithets:

Monstre, qu'a trop longtemps épargné le tonnerre,
Reste impur des brigands dont j'ai purgé la terre !

Phaedra’s dream-like manner as she imagines Hippolytus killing the Minotaur:

Oui, Prince, je languis, je brûle pour Thésée.
Je l'aime, non point tel que l'ont vu les enfers,
Volage adorateur de mille objets divers,
Qui va du Dieu des morts déshonorer la couche ;
Mais fidèle, mais fier, et même un peu farouche,
Charmant, jeune, traînant tous les coeurs après soi,
Tel qu'on dépeint nos Dieux, ou tel que je vous voi.

Phaedra’s horror at her guilt:

Dans mes jaloux transports je le veux implorer.
Que fais-je ? Où ma raison va-t-elle s'égarer ?
Moi jalouse ! Et Thésée est celui que j'implore !
Mon époux est vivant, et moi je brûle encore !
The broken, pell-mell horror of Hippolytus’s death:
J'ai vu, Seigneur, j'ai vu votre malheureux fils
Traîné par les chevaux que sa main a nourris.
Il veut les rappeler, et sa voix les effraie ;
Ils courent. Tout son corps n'est bientôt qu'une plaie.
De nos cris douloureux la plaine retentit.

Then there is the flowing unity of the tirades, achieved by rhetorical devices that make the couplets part of a larger and overstepping dispositio, as here in Act Two, Scene One, Aricia speaking: {5}

exultant exclamation

415. Que mon coeur, chère Ismène, écoute avidement
Un discours qui peut-être a peu de fondement !
appeal for sympathy
O toi qui me connais, te semblait-il croyable
Que le triste jouet d'un sort impitoyable,
Un coeur toujours nourri d'amertume et de pleurs,

rhetorical question

420. Dût connaître l'amour et ses folles douleurs ?

dynastic background

Reste du sang d'un roi, noble fils de la terre,
Je suis seule échappée aux fureurs de la guerre.
J'ai perdu dans la fleur de leur jeune saison,
Six frères, quel espoir d'une illustre maison !

epic diction

Le fer moissonna tout, et la terre humectée
But à regret le sang des neveux d'Erechtée.

enmity of Theseus explained

Tu sais, depuis leur mort, quelle sévère loi
Défend à tous les Grecs de soupirer pour moi :
On craint que de la soeur les flammes téméraires
430. Ne raniment un jour la cendre de ses frères.
Mais tu sais bien aussi de quel oeil dédaigneux
Je regardais ce soin d'un vainqueur soupçonneux.

despising mere sexual love

Tu sais que de tout temps à l'amour opposée,
Je rendais souvent grâce à l'injuste Thésée
Dont l'heureuse rigueur secondait mes mépris.

seeing Hippolytus: fulcrum of speech

Mes yeux alors, mes yeux n'avaient pas vu son fils.

change to positive note

Non que par les yeux seuls, lâchement enchantée,
J'aime en lui sa beauté, sa grâce tant vantée,
Présents dont la nature a voulu l'honorer,
440. Qu'il méprise lui-même, et qu'il semble ignorer.
comparing her feelings to those of Phaedra for Theseus
J'aime, je prise en lui de plus nobles richesses,
Les vertus de son père, et non point les faiblesses.
J'aime, je l'avoûrai, cet orgueil généreux
Qui n'a jamais fléchi sous le joug amoureux.
Phèdre en vain s'honorait des soupirs de Thésée :
Pour moi, je suis plus fière, et fuis la gloire; aisée
D'arracher un hommage à mille autres offert,
Et d'entrer dans un coeur de toutes parts ouvert.

her superiority to Phaedra

Mais de faire fléchir un courage inflexible,
450. De porter la douleur dans une âme insensible,
D'enchaîner un captif de ses fers étonné,
Contre un joug qui lui plaît vainement mutiné ;
C'est là ce que je veux, c'est là ce qui m'irrite.
Hercule à désarmer coûtait moins qu'Hippolyte,
Et vaincu plus souvent, et plus tôt surmonté,
Préparait moins de gloire; aux yeux qui l'ont dompté.

return to present circumstances

Mais, chère Ismène, hélas ! quelle est mon impudence !
On ne m'opposera que trop de résistance.
Tu m'entendras peut-être, humble dans mon ennui,
460. Gémir du même orgueil que j'admire aujourd'hui.
Hippolyte aimerait ? Par quel bonheur extrême
Aurais-je pu fléchir...

Finally there is verse texture itself, with its ever-varying pace modulated by subtle assonance and consonant clusters. In Phaedra, Racine has moved beyond the grand effects of his earlier verse and writes something closely apt, resonant and pleasing. The play opens with a line first compressed with the nasal dessein and en, is then driven on and opened with pris and pars, and then partially closed with the mène of Théramène.

Le dessein en est pris, je pars, cher Théramène,

The next line is brisker and more businesslike with its alliteration on t and assonance between séjour and Trézène:

Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.

The next line sounds a key element in the play with doute mortel, and echoes the unease of Hippolytus with je suis agité.

Dans le doute mortel où je suis agité,

And so on, for hundreds of lines with a variety that will be apparent to any reader of the original.

Phaedra (Phèdre) References and Resources

1. Bernard Weinberg. The Art of Jean Racine (Univ. Chicago Press, 1963).
2. J.P. Short. Racine: Phèdre. Critical Guides to French Texts 20. (Grant and Cutler Ltd., 1983).
3. Norah K. Drown. Jean Racine: Meditations on his Poetic Art. (Manley & Son Ltd., 1982).
4. Peter France. Racine’s Rhetoric (Clarendon Press, 1965).