After Death, Nothing Is… ~ Seneca
From the Trojan Chorus at the latter part of Act II
of Troas, translated by Jasper Heywood 1559
After Death nothing is, and nothing Death;
The utmost Limits of a Gasp of Breath.
Let the ambitious Zealot lay aside
His Hope of Heav’n; (whose Faith is but his Pride)
Let slavish Souls lay by their Fear,
Nor be concern’d which way, or where,
After this Life they shall be hurl’d:
Dead, we become the Lumber of the World;
And to that Mass of Matter shall be swept,
Where things destroy’d with things unborn are kept;
Devouring Time swallows us whole,
Impartial Death confounds Body and Soul.
For Hell, and the foul Fiend that rules
The everlasting fiery jails,
Devis’d by Rogues, dreaded by Fools,
With his grim griesly Dog that keeps the Door,
Are senseless Stories, idle Tales,
Dreams, whimsies, and no more.
I first heard this poem in High School. I immediately loved it. The imagery and the sound of it were great. The ideas were striking and disturbing and liberating. I knew nothing about it, really, and didn’t need to—it was exciting and worth memorizing to me.
John Heywood was a Catholic priest, a playwright and musician, and a counselor well-liked by Henry VIII. He was nearly executed for his part in the plot against Archbishop Cranmer, but apparently charmed his way to freedom, helped by Henry’s Catholic leanings despite his protestant decrees. He continued to serve as a royal servant to both the Catholic and Protestant regimes of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
John Heywood had two children. His daughter, Elizabeth, was the mother of the famous poet John Donne. His son Jasper Heywood was also a poet, dramatist, writer, and translator.
Jasper Heywood translated from the Latin several plays of Seneca, including the play Troas, or Troy. The poem we are considering was taken from this play Troas, which he translated in 1559. Jasper’s translations of Seneca had profound influence on Ben Johnson, Shakespeare, and other Elizabethan writers.
The poem was published later with other poems in an anthology of John Wilmot Earl of Rochester in 1691, and is often erroneously attributed to him.
Seneca also called Seneca the Younger, was born about the time of Jesus’ birth in 3 BCE in Cordoba, Spain, and he moved to Rome as a child where he lived until 65 CE. He was a politician, a senator, and a counselor who had to deal with three very tempestuous Roman Emperors—Caligula, Claudius and Nero. During Nero’s reign he faced execution bravely, becoming a model of Roman stoicism.
He was a famous Stoic philosopher, a follower of the ancient Greek stoics, and a prolific writer, poet and dramatist. Many of his writings were so close to some of the moral teachings of Jesus—though it is fairly certain he was not familiar with Christianity or its precepts—that early church fathers considered him to be a pagan forerunner of Christ.
Roman religion was transactional, for the most part. The Gods did their jobs if their followers made the proper sacrifices and completed the required rituals. It was mostly about getting help in this life, and maintaining order in society. Romans celebrated their own gods and goddesses, their ancestors gods, and merged their local traditions with those of the ancient Greeks whom they admired. They accepted all the gods of the lands they captured and welcomed them into their own pantheon. The Jews and Christians were problematic because of their strict monotheism, which to the Roman mind was atheistic because they refused to recognize other gods than their own, which was bad for public order and created division where there should be cohesion.
There were also many mystery religions, cults of Isis, Orpheus, Mithras, and Bacchanal, which were tolerated, but of which the Romans were suspicious for their secretiveness and strange rites. These often were concerned with salvation and the afterlife and Christianity was often associated with these “strange” beliefs.
Seneca’s play Troas was focused on the aftermath of the Trojan War. It takes place outside the smoldering ruins of the city, while the air was still thick with smoke and the smell of death. The Trojan women are captured and waiting there, soon to be taken back to Greece by their captors as wives or slaves. The most prominent of these women is Hecuba, the Queen of Troy.
In Act I, Hecuba surrounded by her friends and family and a Chorus of Trojan Women, laments the deaths of her husband Priam the King of Troy, and her son the noble warrior Hector.
In Act II, Talthybius, a Greek herald appears. He announces that he has just seen the ghost of Achilles, the great Greek warrior who had killed Hector. Near the end of the war, Achilles had been murdered in ambush by Paris, the Trojan prince who had stolen Helen from the Greeks and thus started the ten year war. Achilles had fallen in love with Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, and secretly arranged to be married with her by her father Priam. This marriage could have ended the war. During the secret ceremony, Paris hid behind a bush and shot him in the heel with a poisoned arrow.
Now the ghost of Achilles had appeared to Talthybius and demanded that before the Greek ships could leave, Polyxena must be brought to his gravesite in wedding dress, and slain by Pyrrhus the son of Achilles as a sacrifice. Calchas, a seer who specialized in reading the entrails of fallen enemy warriors, demands that Hector’s young son, Astyanax, Hecuba’s grandson, be tossed from the towers of Troy and killed. These things are shocking to the Trojans, who feel they are bloody and unnecessary extensions of the war adding needless suffering after their complete defeat and surrender.
The Chorus of Trojan women, at the end of Act II denounce the Greek’s plan. They argue that there are no such things as ghosts, and that therefore Achilles could not have returned from the dead to demand anything. This poem from Jasper’s translation of the play is taken from a portion of the Trojan Chorus’s response.
It is best to imagine that it is being spoken aloud by a group of women in unison.
In the poem, both Time and Death are depictions of the old gods. Time is the Titan Cronus who swallowed his own children whole, and Death is Thanatos against whom none could stand.
The “foul fiend” that guards Hell is Hades, known by the Romans as Pluto. The grim, grisly dog that guards the door is Cerberus, the three-headed monster.
Hopefully, this background will help you to appreciate the awesomeness of this poem.
~ Whit “Pop” Haydn