Oedipus, the blind and banished King of Thebes, has come in his wanderings to Colonus, a deme of Athens, led by his daughter Antigone. He sits to rest on a rock just within a sacred grove of the Furies and is bidden depart by a passing native. But Oedipus, instructed by an oracle that he had reached his final resting-place, refuses to stir, and the stranger consents to go and consult the Elders of Colonus (the Chorus of the Play). Conducted to the spot they pity at first the blind beggar and his daughter, but on learning his name they are horror-striken and order him to quit the land. He appeals to the world-famed hospitality of Athens and hints at the blessings that his coming will confer on the State. They agree to await the decision of King Theseus. From Theseus Oedipus craves protection in life and burial in Attic soil; the benefits that will accrue shall be told later. Theseus departs having promised to aid and befriend him. No sooner has he gone than Creon enters with an armed guard who seize Antigone and carry her off (Ismene, the other sister, they have already captured) and he is about to lay hands on Oedipus, when Theseus, who has heard the tumult, hurries up and, upbraiding Creon for his lawless act, threatens to detain him till he has shown where the captives are and restored them. In the next scene Theseus returns bringing with him the rescued maidens. He informs Oedipus that a stranger who has taken sanctuary at the altar of Poseidon wishes to see him. It is Polyneices who has come to crave his father’s forgiveness and blessing, knowing by an oracle that victory will fall to the side that Oedipus espouses. But Oedipus spurns the hypocrite, and invokes a dire curse on both his unnatural sons. A sudden clap of thunder is heard, and as peal follows peal, Oedipus is aware that his hour is come and bids Antigone summon Theseus. Self-guided he leads the way to the spot where death should overtake him, attended by Theseus and his daughters. Halfway he bids his daughters farewell, and what followed none but Theseus knew. He was not (so the Messenger reports) for the gods took him.
Scene: In front of the grove of the Eumenides. Enter the blind Oedipus led by his daughter, Antigone.
Child of an old blind sire, Antigone,
What region, say, whose city have we reached?
Who will provide today with scanted dole
This wanderer? ’Tis little that he craves,
And less obtains — that less enough for me;
For I am taught by suffering to endure,
And the long years that have grown old with me,
And last not least, by true nobility.
My daughter, if thou seest a resting place
On common ground or by some sacred grove,
Stay me and set me down. Let us discover
Where we have come, for strangers must inquire
Of denizens, and do as they are bid.
Long-suffering father, Oedipus, the towers
That fence the city still are faint and far;
But where we stand is surely holy ground;
A wilderness of laurel, olive, vine;
Within a choir or songster nightingales
Are warbling. On this native seat of rock
Rest; for an old man thou hast traveled far.
Guide these dark steps and seat me there secure.
If time can teach, I need not to be told.
Say, prithee, if thou knowest, where we are.
Athens I recognize, but not the spot.
That much we heard from every wayfarer.
Shall I go on and ask about the place?
Yes, daughter, if it be inhabited.
Sure there are habitations; but no need
To leave thee; yonder is a man hard by.
What, moving hitherward and on his way?
Say rather, here already. Ask him straight
The needful questions, for the man is here.
O stranger, as I learn from her whose eyes
Must serve both her and me, that thou art here
Sent by some happy chance to serve our doubts —
First quit that seat, then question me at large:
The spot thou treadest on is holy ground.
What is the site, to what god dedicate?
Inviolable, untrod; goddesses,
Dread brood of Earth and Darkness, here abide.
Tell me the awful name I should invoke?
The Gracious Ones, All-seeing, so our folk
Call them, but elsewhere other names are rife.
Then may they show their suppliant grace, for I
From this your sanctuary will ne’er depart.
What word is this?
The watchword of my fate.
Nay, ’tis not mine to bid thee hence without
Due warrant and instruction from the State.
Now in God’s name, O stranger, scorn me not
As a wayfarer; tell me what I crave.
Ask; your request shall not be scorned by me.
How call you then the place wherein we bide?
Whate’er I know thou too shalt know; the place
Is all to great Poseidon consecrate.
Hard by, the Titan, he who bears the torch,
Prometheus, has his worship; but the spot
Thou treadest, the Brass-footed Threshold named,
Is Athens’ bastion, and the neighboring lands
Claim as their chief and patron yonder knight
Colonus, and in common bear his name.
Such, stranger, is the spot, to fame unknown,
But dear to us its native worshipers.
Thou sayest there are dwellers in these parts?
Surely; they bear the name of yonder god.
Ruled by a king or by the general voice?
The lord of Athens is our over-lord.
Who is this monarch, great in word and might?
Theseus, the son of Aegeus our late king.
Might one be sent from you to summon him?
Wherefore? To tell him aught or urge his coming?
Say a slight service may avail him much.
How can he profit from a sightless man?
The blind man’s words will be instinct with sight.
Heed then; I fain would see thee out of harm;
For by the looks, marred though they be by fate,
I judge thee noble; tarry where thou art,
While I go seek the burghers — those at hand,
Not in the city. They will soon decide
Whether thou art to rest or go thy way.
Tell me, my daughter, has the stranger gone?
Yes, he has gone; now we are all alone,
And thou may’st speak, dear father, without fear.
Stern-visaged queens, since coming to this land
First in your sanctuary I bent the knee,
Frown not on me or Phoebus, who, when erst
He told me all my miseries to come,
Spake of this respite after many years,
Some haven in a far-off land, a rest
Vouchsafed at last by dread divinities.
“There,” said he, “shalt thou round thy weary life,
A blessing to the land wherein thou dwell’st,
But to the land that cast thee forth, a curse.”
And of my weird he promised signs should come,
Earthquake, or thunderclap, or lightning flash.
And now I recognize as yours the sign
That led my wanderings to this your grove;
Else had I never lighted on you first,
A wineless man on your seat of native rock.
O goddesses, fulfill Apollo’s word,
Grant me some consummation of my life,
If haply I appear not all too vile,
A thrall to sorrow worse than any slave.
Hear, gentle daughters of primeval Night,
Hear, namesake of great Pallas; Athens, first
Of cities, pity this dishonored shade,
The ghost of him who once was Oedipus.
Hush! for I see some grey-beards on their way,
Their errand to spy out our resting-place.
I will be mute, and thou shalt guide my steps
Into the covert from the public road,
Till I have learned their drift. A prudent man
Will ever shape his course by what he learns.
Ha! Where is he? Look around!
Every nook and corner scan!
He the all-presumptuous man,
Whither vanished? search the ground!
A wayfarer, I ween,
A wayfarer, no countryman of ours,
That old man must have been;
Never had native dared to tempt the Powers,
Or enter their demesne,
The Maids in awe of whom each mortal cowers,
Whose name no voice betrays nor cry,
And as we pass them with averted eye,
We move hushed lips in reverent piety.
But now some godless man,
’Tis rumored, here abides;
The precincts through I scan,
Yet wot not where he hides,
The wretch profane!
I search and search in vain.
I am that man; I know you near
Ears to the blind, they say, are eyes.
O dread to see and dread to hear!
Oh sirs, I am no outlaw under ban.
Who can he be — Zeus save us! — this old man?
No favorite of fate,
That ye should envy his estate,
O, Sirs, would any happy mortal, say,
Grope by the light of other eyes his way,
Or face the storm upon so frail a stay?
Wast thou then sightless from thy birth?
Evil, methinks, and long
Thy pilgrimage on earth.
Yet add not curse to curse and wrong to wrong.
I warn thee, trespass not
Within this hallowed spot,
Lest thou shouldst find the silent grassy glade
Where offerings are laid,
Bowls of spring water mingled with sweet mead.
Thou must not stay,
Come, come away,
Tired wanderer, dost thou heed?
(We are far off, but sure our voice can reach.)
If aught thou wouldst beseech,
Speak where ’tis right; till then refrain from speech.
Daughter, what counsel should we now pursue?
We must obey and do as here they do.
Thy hand then!
Here, O father, is my hand,
O Sirs, if I come forth at your command,
Let me not suffer for my confidence.
Against thy will no man shall drive thee hence.
Shall I go further?
What further still?
Lead maiden, thou canst guide him where we will.
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
Follow with blind steps, father, as I lead.
* * * * * *
In a strange land strange thou art;
To her will incline thy heart;
Honor whatso’er the State
Honors, all she frowns on hate.
Guide me child, where we may range
Safe within the paths of right;
Counsel freely may exchange
Nor with fate and fortune fight.
Halt! Go no further than that rocky floor.
Stay where I now am?
Yes, advance no more.
May I sit down?
Move sideways towards the ledge,
And sit thee crouching on the scarped edge.
This is my office, father, O incline —
Ah me! ah me!
Thy steps to my steps, lean thine aged frame on mine.
Woe on my fate unblest!
Wanderer, now thou art at rest,
Tell me of thy birth and home,
From what far country art thou come,
Led on thy weary way, declare!
Strangers, I have no country. O forbear —
What is it, old man, that thou wouldst conceal?
Forbear, nor urge me further to reveal —
Why this reluctance?
Dread my lineage.
What must I answer, child, ah welladay!
Say of what stock thou comest, what man’s son —
Ah me, my daughter, now we are undone!
Speak, for thou standest on the slippery verge.
I will; no plea for silence can I urge.
Will neither speak? Come, Sir, why dally thus!
Know’st one of Laius’—
Seed of Labdacus —
The hapless Oedipus.
Whate’er I utter, have no fear of me.
O wretched me!
O daughter, what will hap anon?
Forth from our borders speed ye both!
How keep you then your troth?
Heaven’s justice never smites
Him who ill with ill requites.
But if guile with guile contend,
Bane, not blessing, is the end.
Arise, begone and take thee hence straightway,
Lest on our land a heavier curse thou lay.
O sirs! ye suffered not my father blind,
Albeit gracious and to ruth inclined,
Knowing the deeds he wrought, not innocent,
But with no ill intent;
Yet heed a maiden’s moan
Who pleads for him alone;
My eyes, not reft of sight,
Plead with you as a daughter’s might
You are our providence,
O make us not go hence!
O with a gracious nod
Grant us the nigh despaired-of boon we crave?
Hear us, O hear,
But all that ye hold dear,
Wife, children, homestead, hearth and God!
Where will you find one, search ye ne’er so well.
Who ’scapes perdition if a god impel!
Surely we pity thee and him alike
Daughter of Oedipus, for your distress;
But as we reverence the decrees of Heaven
We cannot say aught other than we said.
O what avails renown or fair repute?
Are they not vanity? For, look you, now
Athens is held of States the most devout,
Athens alone gives hospitality
And shelters the vexed stranger, so men say.
Have I found so? I whom ye dislodged
First from my seat of rock and now would drive
Forth from your land, dreading my name alone;
For me you surely dread not, nor my deeds,
Deeds of a man more sinned against than sinning,
As I might well convince you, were it meet
To tell my mother’s story and my sire’s,
The cause of this your fear. Yet am I then
A villain born because in self-defense,
Striken, I struck the striker back again?
E’en had I known, no villainy ’twould prove:
But all unwitting whither I went, I went —
To ruin; my destroyers knew it well,
Wherefore, I pray you, sirs, in Heaven’s name,
Even as ye bade me quit my seat, defend me.
O pay not a lip service to the gods
And wrong them of their dues. Bethink ye well,
The eye of Heaven beholds the just of men,
And the unjust, nor ever in this world
Has one sole godless sinner found escape.
Stand then on Heaven’s side and never blot
Athens’ fair scutcheon by abetting wrong.
I came to you a suppliant, and you pledged
Your honor; O preserve me to the end,
O let not this marred visage do me wrong!
A holy and god-fearing man is here
Whose coming purports comfort for your folk.
And when your chief arrives, whoe’er he be,
Then shall ye have my story and know all.
Meanwhile I pray you do me no despite.
The plea thou urgest, needs must give us pause,
Set forth in weighty argument, but we
Must leave the issue with the ruling powers.
Where is he, strangers, he who sways the realm?
In his ancestral seat; a messenger,
The same who sent us here, is gone for him.
And think you he will have such care or thought
For the blind stranger as to come himself?
Aye, that he will, when once he learns thy name.
But who will bear him word!
The way is long,
And many travelers pass to speed the news.
Be sure he’ll hear and hasten, never fear;
So wide and far thy name is noised abroad,
That, were he ne’er so spent and loth to move,
He would bestir him when he hears of thee.
Well, may he come with blessing to his State And me! Who serves his neighbor serves himself. 2
Zeus! What is this? What can I say or think?
What now, Antigone?
I see a woman
Riding upon a colt of Aetna’s breed;
She wears for headgear a Thessalian hat
To shade her from the sun. Who can it be?
She or a stranger? Do I wake or dream?
’This she; ’tis not — I cannot tell, alack;
It is no other! Now her bright’ning glance
Greets me with recognition, yes, ’tis she,
Ha! what say ye, child?
That I behold thy daughter and my sister,
And thou wilt know her straightway by her voice.
Father and sister, names to me most sweet,
How hardly have I found you, hardly now
When found at last can see you through my tears!
Art come, my child?
O father, sad thy plight!
Child, thou art here?
Yes, ’twas a weary way.
Touch me, my child.
I give a hand to both.
O children — sisters!
O disastrous plight!
Her plight and mine?
Aye, and my own no less.
What brought thee, daughter?
Father, care for thee.
A daughter’s yearning?
Yes, and I had news
I would myself deliver, so I came
With the one thrall who yet is true to me.
Thy valiant brothers, where are they at need?
They are — enough, ’tis now their darkest hour.
Out on the twain! The thoughts and actions all
Are framed and modeled on Egyptian ways.
For there the men sit at the loom indoors
While the wives slave abroad for daily bread.
So you, my children — those whom I behooved
To bear the burden, stay at home like girls,
While in their stead my daughters moil and drudge,
Lightening their father’s misery. The one
Since first she grew from girlish feebleness
To womanhood has been the old man’s guide
And shared my weary wandering, roaming oft
Hungry and footsore through wild forest ways,
In drenching rains and under scorching suns,
Careless herself of home and ease, if so
Her sire might have her tender ministry.
And thou, my child, whilom thou wentest forth,
Eluding the Cadmeians’ vigilance,
To bring thy father all the oracles
Concerning Oedipus, and didst make thyself
My faithful lieger, when they banished me.
And now what mission summons thee from home,
What news, Ismene, hast thou for thy father?
This much I know, thou com’st not empty-handed,
Without a warning of some new alarm.
The toil and trouble, father, that I bore
To find thy lodging-place and how thou faredst,
I spare thee; surely ’twere a double pain
To suffer, first in act and then in telling;
’Tis the misfortune of thine ill-starred sons
I come to tell thee. At the first they willed
To leave the throne to Creon, minded well
Thus to remove the inveterate curse of old,
A canker that infected all thy race.
But now some god and an infatuate soul
Have stirred betwixt them a mad rivalry
To grasp at sovereignty and kingly power.
Today the hot-branded youth, the younger born,
Is keeping Polyneices from the throne,
His elder, and has thrust him from the land.
The banished brother (so all Thebes reports)
Fled to the vale of Argos, and by help
Of new alliance there and friends in arms,
Swears he will stablish Argos straight as lord
Of the Cadmeian land, or, if he fail,
Exalt the victor to the stars of heaven.
This is no empty tale, but deadly truth,
My father; and how long thy agony,
Ere the gods pity thee, I cannot tell.
Hast thou indeed then entertained a hope
The gods at last will turn and rescue me?
Yea, so I read these latest oracles.
What oracles? What hath been uttered, child?
Thy country (so it runs) shall yearn in time
To have thee for their weal alive or dead.
And who could gain by such a one as I?
On thee, ’tis said, their sovereignty depends.
So, when I cease to be, my worth begins.
The gods, who once abased, uplift thee now.
Poor help to raise an old man fallen in youth.
Howe’er that be, ’tis for this cause alone
That Creon comes to thee — and comes anon.
With what intent, my daughter? Tell me plainly.
To plant thee near the Theban land, and so
Keep thee within their grasp, yet now allow
Thy foot to pass beyond their boundaries.
What gain they, if I lay outside?
If disappointed, brings on them a curse.
It needs no god to tell what’s plain to sense.
Therefore they fain would have thee close at hand,
Not where thou wouldst be master of thyself.
Mean they to shroud my bones in Theban dust?
Nay, father, guilt of kinsman’s blood forbids.
Then never shall they be my masters, never!
Thebes, thou shalt rue this bitterly some day!
When what conjunction comes to pass, my child?
Thy angry wraith, when at thy tomb they stand. 3
And who hath told thee what thou tell’st me, child?
Envoys who visited the Delphic hearth.
Hath Phoebus spoken thus concerning me?
So say the envoys who returned to Thebes.
And can a son of mine have heard of this?
Yea, both alike, and know its import well.
They knew it, yet the ignoble greed of rule
Outweighed all longing for their sire’s return.
Grievous thy words, yet I must own them true.
Then may the gods ne’er quench their fatal feud,
And mine be the arbitrament of the fight,
For which they now are arming, spear to spear;
That neither he who holds the scepter now
May keep this throne, nor he who fled the realm
Return again. They never raised a hand,
When I their sire was thrust from hearth and home,
When I was banned and banished, what recked they?
Say you ’twas done at my desire, a grace
Which the state, yielding to my wish, allowed?
Not so; for, mark you, on that very day
When in the tempest of my soul I craved
Death, even death by stoning, none appeared
To further that wild longing, but anon,
When time had numbed my anguish and I felt
My wrath had all outrun those errors past,
Then, then it was the city went about
By force to oust me, respited for years;
And then my sons, who should as sons have helped,
Did nothing: and, one little word from them
Was all I needed, and they spoke no word,
But let me wander on for evermore,
A banished man, a beggar. These two maids
Their sisters, girls, gave all their sex could give,
Food and safe harborage and filial care;
While their two brethren sacrificed their sire
For lust of power and sceptred sovereignty.
No! me they ne’er shall win for an ally,
Nor will this Theban kingship bring them gain;
That know I from this maiden’s oracles,
And those old prophecies concerning me,
Which Phoebus now at length has brought to pass.
Come Creon then, come all the mightiest
In Thebes to seek me; for if ye my friends,
Championed by those dread Powers indigenous,
Espouse my cause; then for the State ye gain
A great deliverer, for my foemen bane.
Our pity, Oedipus, thou needs must move,
Thou and these maidens; and the stronger plea
Thou urgest, as the savior of our land,
Disposes me to counsel for thy weal.
Aid me, kind sirs; I will do all you bid.
First make atonement to the deities,
Whose grove by trespass thou didst first profane.
After what manner, stranger? Teach me, pray.
Make a libation first of water fetched
With undefiled hands from living spring.
And after I have gotten this pure draught?
Bowls thou wilt find, the carver’s handiwork;
Crown thou the rims and both the handles crown —
With olive shoots or blocks of wool, or how?
With wool from fleece of yearling freshly shorn.
What next? how must I end the ritual?
Pour thy libation, turning to the dawn.
Pouring it from the urns whereof ye spake?
Yea, in three streams; and be the last bowl drained
To the last drop.
And wherewith shall I fill it,
Ere in its place I set it? This too tell.
With water and with honey; add no wine.
And when the embowered earth hath drunk thereof?
Then lay upon it thrice nine olive sprays
With both thy hands, and offer up this prayer.
I fain would hear it; that imports the most.
That, as we call them Gracious, they would deign
To grant the suppliant their saving grace.
So pray thyself or whoso pray for thee,
In whispered accents, not with lifted voice;
Then go and look back. Do as I bid,
And I shall then be bold to stand thy friend;
Else, stranger, I should have my fears for thee.
Hear ye, my daughters, what these strangers say?
We listened, and attend thy bidding, father.
I cannot go, disabled as I am
Doubly, by lack of strength and lack of sight;
But one of you may do it in my stead;
For one, I trow, may pay the sacrifice
Of thousands, if his heart be leal and true.
So to your work with speed, but leave me not
Untended; for this frame is all too week
To move without the help of guiding hand.
Then I will go perform these rites, but where
To find the spot, this have I yet to learn.
Beyond this grove; if thou hast need of aught,
The guardian of the close will lend his aid.
I go, and thou, Antigone, meanwhile
Must guard our father. In a parent’s cause
Toil, if there be toil, is of no account.
Ill it is, stranger, to awake
Pain that long since has ceased to ache,
And yet I fain would hear —
Thy tale of cruel suffering
For which no cure was found,
The fate that held thee bound.
O bid me not (as guest I claim
This grace) expose my shame.
The tale is bruited far and near,
And echoes still from ear to ear.
The truth, I fain would hear.
I prithee yield.
Grant my request, I granted all to thee.
Know then I suffered ills most vile, but none
(So help me Heaven!) from acts in malice done.
The State around
An all unwitting bridegroom bound
An impious marriage chain;
That was my bane.
Didst thou in sooth then share
A bed incestuous with her that bare —
It stabs me like a sword,
That two-edged word,
O stranger, but these maids — my own —
Two daughters, curses twain.
Sprang from the wife and mother’s travail-pain.
What, then thy offspring are at once —
Their father’s very sister’s too.
Horrors from the boundless deep
Back on my soul in refluent surges sweep.
Thou hast endured —
And sinned —
I sinned not.
I served the State; would I had never won
That graceless grace by which I was undone.
And next, unhappy man, thou hast shed blood?
Must ye hear more?
Flood on flood
Whelms me; that word’s a second mortal blow.
Yes, a murderer, but know —
What canst thou plead?
A plea of justice.
I slew who else would me have slain;
I slew without intent,
A wretch, but innocent
In the law’s eye, I stand, without a stain.
Behold our sovereign, Theseus, Aegeus’ son,
Comes at thy summons to perform his part.
Oft had I heard of thee in times gone by —
The bloody mutilation of thine eyes —
And therefore know thee, son of Laius.
All that I lately gathered on the way
Made my conjecture doubly sure; and now
Thy garb and that marred visage prove to me
That thou art he. So pitying thine estate,
Most ill-starred Oedipus, I fain would know
What is the suit ye urge on me and Athens,
Thou and the helpless maiden at thy side.
Declare it; dire indeed must be the tale
Whereat I should recoil. I too was reared,
Like thee, in exile, and in foreign lands
Wrestled with many perils, no man more.
Wherefore no alien in adversity
Shall seek in vain my succor, nor shalt thou;
I know myself a mortal, and my share
In what the morrow brings no more than thine.
Theseus, thy words so apt, so generous
So comfortable, need no long reply
Both who I am and of what lineage sprung,
And from what land I came, thou hast declared.
So without prologue I may utter now
My brief petition, and the tale is told.
Say on, and tell me what I fain would learn.
I come to offer thee this woe-worn frame,
A gift not fair to look on; yet its worth
More precious far than any outward show.
What profit dost thou proffer to have brought?
Hereafter thou shalt learn, not yet, methinks.
When may we hope to reap the benefit?
When I am dead and thou hast buried me.
Thou cravest life’s last service; all before —
Is it forgotten or of no account?
Yea, the last boon is warrant for the rest.
The grace thou cravest then is small indeed.
Nay, weigh it well; the issue is not slight.
Thou meanest that betwixt thy sons and me?
Prince, they would fain convey me back to Thebes.
If there be no compulsion, then methinks
To rest in banishment befits not thee.
Nay, when I wished it they would not consent.
For shame! such temper misbecomes the faller.
Chide if thou wilt, but first attend my plea.
Say on, I wait full knowledge ere I judge.
O Theseus, I have suffered wrongs on wrongs.
Wouldst tell the old misfortune of thy race?
No, that has grown a byword throughout Greece.
What then can be this more than mortal grief?
My case stands thus; by my own flesh and blood
I was expelled my country, and can ne’er
Thither return again, a parricide.
Why fetch thee home if thou must needs obey.
What are they threatened by the oracle?
Destruction that awaits them in this land.
What can beget ill blood ’twixt them and me?
Dear son of Aegeus, to the gods alone
Is given immunity from eld and death;
But nothing else escapes all-ruinous time.
Earth’s might decays, the might of men decays,
Honor grows cold, dishonor flourishes,
There is no constancy ’twixt friend and friend,
Or city and city; be it soon or late,
Sweet turns to bitter, hate once more to love.
If now ’tis sunshine betwixt Thebes and thee
And not a cloud, Time in his endless course
Gives birth to endless days and nights, wherein
The merest nothing shall suffice to cut
With serried spears your bonds of amity.
Then shall my slumbering and buried corpse
In its cold grave drink their warm life-blood up,
If Zeus be Zeus and Phoebus still speak true.
No more: ’tis ill to tear aside the veil
Of mysteries; let me cease as I began:
Enough if thou wilt keep thy plighted troth,
Then shall thou ne’er complain that Oedipus
Proved an unprofitable and thankless guest,
Except the gods themselves shall play me false.
The man, my lord, has from the very first
Declared his power to offer to our land
These and like benefits.
Who could reject
The proffered amity of such a friend?
First, he can claim the hospitality
To which by mutual contract we stand pledged:
Next, coming here, a suppliant to the gods,
He pays full tribute to the State and me;
His favors therefore never will I spurn,
But grant him the full rights of citizen;
And, if it suits the stranger here to bide,
I place him in your charge, or if he please
Rather to come with me — choose, Oedipus,
Which of the two thou wilt. Thy choice is mine.
Zeus, may the blessing fall on men like these!
What dost thou then decide — to come with me?
Yea, were it lawful — but ’tis rather here —
What wouldst thou here? I shall not thwart thy wish.
Here shall I vanquish those who cast me forth.
Then were thy presence here a boon indeed.
Such shall it prove, if thou fulfill’st thy pledge.
Fear not for me; I shall not play thee false.
No need to back thy promise with an oath.
An oath would be no surer than my word.
How wilt thou act then?
What is it thou fear’st?
My foes will come —
Our friends will look to that.
But if thou leave me?
Teach me not my duty.
’Tis fear constrains me.
My soul knows no fear!
Thou knowest not what threats —
I know that none
Shall hale thee hence in my despite. Such threats
Vented in anger oft, are blusterers,
An idle breath, forgot when sense returns.
And for thy foemen, though their words were brave,
Boasting to bring thee back, they are like to find
The seas between us wide and hard to sail.
Such my firm purpose, but in any case
Take heart, since Phoebus sent thee here. My name,
Though I be distant, warrants thee from harm.
Thou hast come to a steed-famed land for rest,
O stranger worn with toil,
To a land of all lands the goodliest
Colonus’ glistening soil.
’Tis the haunt of the clear-voiced nightingale,
Who hid in her bower, among
The wine-dark ivy that wreathes the vale,
Trilleth her ceaseless song;
And she loves, where the clustering berries nod
O’er a sunless, windless glade,
The spot by no mortal footstep trod,
The pleasance kept for the Bacchic god,
Where he holds each night his revels wild
With the nymphs who fostered the lusty child.
And fed each morn by the pearly dew
The starred narcissi shine,
And a wreath with the crocus’ golden hue
For the Mother and Daughter twine.
And never the sleepless fountains cease
That feed Cephisus’ stream,
But they swell earth’s bosom with quick increase,
And their wave hath a crystal gleam.
And the Muses’ quire will never disdain
To visit this heaven-favored plain,
Nor the Cyprian queen of the golden rein.
And here there grows, unpruned, untamed,
Terror to foemen’s spear,
A tree in Asian soil unnamed,
By Pelops’ Dorian isle unclaimed,
Self-nurtured year by year;
’Tis the grey-leaved olive that feeds our boys;
Nor youth nor withering age destroys
The plant that the Olive Planter tends
And the Grey-eyed Goddess herself defends.
Yet another gift, of all gifts the most
Prized by our fatherland, we boast —
The might of the horse, the might of the sea;
Our fame, Poseidon, we owe to thee,
Son of Kronos, our king divine,
Who in these highways first didst fit
For the mouth of horses the iron bit;
Thou too hast taught us to fashion meet
For the arm of the rower the oar-blade fleet,
Swift as the Nereids’ hundred feet
As they dance along the brine.
Oh land extolled above all lands, ’tis now
For thee to make these glorious titles good.
Why this appeal, my daughter?
Creon approaches with his company.
Fear not, it shall be so; if we are old,
This country’s vigor has no touch of age.
[Enter Creon with attendants]
Burghers, my noble friends, ye take alarm
At my approach (I read it in your eyes),
Fear nothing and refrain from angry words.
I come with no ill purpose; I am old,
And know the city whither I am come,
Without a peer amongst the powers of Greece.
It was by reason of my years that I
Was chosen to persuade your guest and bring
Him back to Thebes; not the delegate
Of one man, but commissioned by the State,
Since of all Thebans I have most bewailed,
Being his kinsman, his most grievous woes.
O listen to me, luckless Oedipus,
Come home! The whole Cadmeian people claim
With right to have thee back, I most of all,
For most of all (else were I vile indeed)
I mourn for thy misfortunes, seeing thee
An aged outcast, wandering on and on,
A beggar with one handmaid for thy stay.
Ah! who had e’er imagined she could fall
To such a depth of misery as this,
To tend in penury thy stricken frame,
A virgin ripe for wedlock, but unwed,
A prey for any wanton ravisher?
Seems it not cruel this reproach I cast
On thee and on myself and all the race?
Aye, but an open shame cannot be hid.
Hide it, O hide it, Oedipus, thou canst.
O, by our fathers’ gods, consent I pray;
Come back to Thebes, come to thy father’s home,
Bid Athens, as is meet, a fond farewell;
Thebes thy old foster-mother claims thee first.
O front of brass, thy subtle tongue would twist
To thy advantage every plea of right
Why try thy arts on me, why spread again
Toils where ’twould gall me sorest to be snared?
In old days when by self-wrought woes distraught,
I yearned for exile as a glad release,
Thy will refused the favor then I craved.
But when my frenzied grief had spent its force,
And I was fain to taste the sweets of home,
Then thou wouldst thrust me from my country, then
These ties of kindred were by thee ignored;
And now again when thou behold’st this State
And all its kindly people welcome me,
Thou seek’st to part us, wrapping in soft words
Hard thoughts. And yet what pleasure canst thou find
In forcing friendship on unwilling foes?
Suppose a man refused to grant some boon
When you importuned him, and afterwards
When you had got your heart’s desire, consented,
Granting a grace from which all grace had fled,
Would not such favor seem an empty boon?
Yet such the boon thou profferest now to me,
Fair in appearance, but when tested false.
Yea, I will proved thee false, that these may hear;
Thou art come to take me, not to take me home,
But plant me on thy borders, that thy State
May so escape annoyance from this land.
That thou shalt never gain, but this instead —
My ghost to haunt thy country without end;
And for my sons, this heritage — no more —
Just room to die in. Have not I more skill
Than thou to draw the horoscope of Thebes?
Are not my teachers surer guides than thine —
Great Phoebus and the sire of Phoebus, Zeus?
Thou art a messenger suborned, thy tongue
Is sharper than a sword’s edge, yet thy speech
Will bring thee more defeats than victories.
Howbeit, I know I waste my words — begone,
And leave me here; whate’er may be my lot,
He lives not ill who lives withal content.
Which loses in this parley, I o’erthrown
By thee, or thou who overthrow’st thyself?
I shall be well contented if thy suit
Fails with these strangers, as it has with me.
Unhappy man, will years ne’er make thee wise?
Must thou live on to cast a slur on age?
Thou hast a glib tongue, but no honest man,
Methinks, can argue well on any side.
’Tis one thing to speak much, another well.
Thy words, forsooth, are few and all well aimed!
Not for a man indeed with wits like thine.
Depart! I bid thee in these burghers’ name,
And prowl no longer round me to blockade
My destined harbor.
I protest to these,
Not thee, and for thine answer to thy kin,
If e’er I take thee —
Who against their will
Could take me?
Though untaken thou shalt smart.
What power hast thou to execute this threat?
One of thy daughters is already seized,
The other I will carry off anon.
This is but prelude to thy woes.
Hast thou my child?
And soon shall have the other.
Ho, friends! ye will not surely play me false?
Chase this ungodly villain from your land.
Hence, stranger, hence avaunt! Thou doest wrong
In this, and wrong in all that thou hast done.
Creon (to his guards)
’Tis time by force to carry off the girl,
If she refuse of her free will to go.
Ah, woe is me! where shall I fly, where find
Succor from gods or men?
What would’st thou, stranger?
I meddle not with him, but her who is mine.
O princes of the land!
Sir, thou dost wrong.
I take but what is mine.
What means this, sirrah? quick unhand her, or
We’ll fight it out.
Not till thou forbear.
’Tis war with Thebes if I am touched or harmed.
Did I not warn thee?
Quick, unhand the maid!
Command your minions; I am not your slave.
Desist, I bid thee.
Creon (to the guard)
And O bid thee march!
To the rescue, one and all!
Rally, neighbors to my call!
See, the foe is at the gate!
Rally to defend the State.
Ah, woe is me, they drag me hence, O friends.
Where art thou, daughter?
Haled along by force.
Thy hands, my child!
They will not let me, father.
Away with her!
Ah, woe is me, ah woe!
So those two crutches shall no longer serve thee
For further roaming. Since it pleaseth thee
To triumph o’er thy country and thy friends
Who mandate, though a prince, I here discharge,
Enjoy thy triumph; soon or late thou’lt find
Thou art an enemy to thyself, both now
And in time past, when in despite of friends
Thou gav’st the rein to passion, still thy bane.
Hold there, sir stranger!
Hands off, have a care.
Restore the maidens, else thou goest not.
Then Thebes will take a dearer surety soon;
I will lay hands on more than these two maids.
What canst thou further?
Carry off this man.
And deeds forthwith shall make them good.
Unless perchance our sovereign intervene.
O shameless voice! Would’st lay an hand on me?
Silence, I bid thee!
Thy suppliant to utter yet one curse!
Wretch, now my eyes are gone thou hast torn away
The helpless maiden who was eyes to me;
For these to thee and all thy cursed race
May the great Sun, whose eye is everywhere,
Grant length of days and old age like to mine.
Listen, O men of Athens, mark ye this?
They mark us both and understand that I
Wronged by the deeds defend myself with words.
Nothing shall curb my will; though I be old
And single-handed, I will have this man.
O woe is me!
Thou art a bold man, stranger, if thou think’st
To execute thy purpose.
So I do.
Then shall I deem this State no more a State.
With a just quarrel weakness conquers might.
Ye hear his words?
Aye words, but not yet deeds,
Zeus may haply know, not thou.
Insolence that thou must bear.
Haste ye princes, sound the alarm!
Men of Athens, arm ye, arm!
Quickly to the rescue come
Ere the robbers get them home.
Why this outcry? What is forward? wherefore was I called away
From the altar of Poseidon, lord of your Colonus? Say!
On what errand have I hurried hither without stop or stay.
Dear friend — those accents tell me who thou art —
Yon man but now hath done me a foul wrong.
What is this wrong and who hath wrought it? Speak.
Creon who stands before thee. He it is
Hath robbed me of my all, my daughters twain.
What means this?
Thou hast heard my tale of wrongs.
Ho! hasten to the altars, one of you.
Command my liegemen leave the sacrifice
And hurry, foot and horse, with rein unchecked,
To where the paths that packmen use diverge,
Lest the two maidens slip away, and I
Become a mockery to this my guest,
As one despoiled by force. Quick, as I bid.
As for this stranger, had I let my rage,
Justly provoked, have play, he had not ’scaped
Scathless and uncorrected at my hands.
But now the laws to which himself appealed,
These and none others shall adjudicate.
Thou shalt not quit this land, till thou hast fetched
The maidens and produced them in my sight.
Thou hast offended both against myself
And thine own race and country. Having come
Unto a State that champions right and asks
For every action warranty of law,
Thou hast set aside the custom of the land,
And like some freebooter art carrying off
What plunder pleases thee, as if forsooth
Thou thoughtest this a city without men,
Or manned by slaves, and me a thing of naught.
Yet not from Thebes this villainy was learnt;
Thebes is not wont to breed unrighteous sons,
Nor would she praise thee, if she learnt that thou
Wert robbing me — aye and the gods to boot,
Haling by force their suppliants, poor maids.
Were I on Theban soil, to prosecute
The justest claim imaginable, I
Would never wrest by violence my own
Without sanction of your State or King;
I should behave as fits an outlander
Living amongst a foreign folk, but thou
Shamest a city that deserves it not,
Even thine own, and plentitude of years
Have made of thee an old man and a fool.
Therefore again I charge thee as before,
See that the maidens are restored at once,
Unless thou would’st continue here by force
And not by choice a sojourner; so much
I tell thee home and what I say, I mean.
Thy case is perilous; though by birth and race
Thou should’st be just, thou plainly doest wrong.
Not deeming this city void of men
Or counsel, son of Aegeus, as thou say’st
I did what I have done; rather I thought
Your people were not like to set such store
by kin of mine and keep them ’gainst my will.
Nor would they harbor, so I stood assured,
A godless parricide, a reprobate
Convicted of incestuous marriage ties.
For on her native hill of Ares here
(I knew your far-famed Areopagus)
Sits Justice, and permits not vagrant folk
To stay within your borders. In that faith
I hunted down my quarry; and e’en then
i had refrained but for the curses dire
Wherewith he banned my kinsfolk and myself:
Such wrong, methought, had warrant for my act.
Anger has no old age but only death;
The dead alone can feel no touch of spite.
So thou must work thy will; my cause is just
But weak without allies; yet will I try,
Old as I am, to answer deeds with deeds.
O shameless railer, think’st thou this abuse
Defames my grey hairs rather than thine own?
Murder and incest, deeds of horror, all
Thou blurtest forth against me, all I have borne,
No willing sinner; so it pleased the gods
Wrath haply with my sinful race of old,
Since thou could’st find no sin in me myself
For which in retribution I was doomed
To trespass thus against myself and mine.
Answer me now, if by some oracle
My sire was destined to a bloody end
By a son’s hand, can this reflect on me,
Me then unborn, begotten by no sire,
Conceived in no mother’s womb? And if
When born to misery, as born I was,
I met my sire, not knowing whom I met
or what I did, and slew him, how canst thou
With justice blame the all-unconscious hand?
And for my mother, wretch, art not ashamed,
Seeing she was thy sister, to extort
From me the story of her marriage, such
A marriage as I straightway will proclaim.
For I will speak; thy lewd and impious speech
Has broken all the bonds of reticence.
She was, ah woe is me! she was my mother;
I knew it not, nor she; and she my mother
Bare children to the son whom she had borne,
A birth of shame. But this at least I know
Wittingly thou aspersest her and me;
But I unwitting wed, unwilling speak.
Nay neither in this marriage or this deed
Which thou art ever casting in my teeth —
A murdered sire — shall I be held to blame.
Come, answer me one question, if thou canst:
If one should presently attempt thy life,
Would’st thou, O man of justice, first inquire
If the assassin was perchance thy sire,
Or turn upon him? As thou lov’st thy life,
On thy aggressor thou would’st turn, no stay
Debating, if the law would bear thee out.
Such was my case, and such the pass whereto
The gods reduced me; and methinks my sire,
Could he come back to life, would not dissent.
Yet thou, for just thou art not, but a man
Who sticks at nothing, if it serve his plea,
Reproachest me with this before these men.
It serves thy turn to laud great Theseus’ name,
And Athens as a wisely governed State;
Yet in thy flatteries one thing is to seek:
If any land knows how to pay the gods
Their proper rites, ’tis Athens most of all.
This is the land whence thou wast fain to steal
Their aged suppliant and hast carried off
My daughters. Therefore to yon goddesses,
I turn, adjure them and invoke their aid
To champion my cause, that thou mayest learn
What is the breed of men who guard this State.
An honest man, my liege, one sore bestead
By fortune, and so worthy our support.
Enough of words; the captors speed amain,
While we the victims stand debating here.
What would’st thou? What can I, a feeble man?
Show us the trail, and I’ll attend thee too,
That, if thou hast the maidens hereabouts,
Thou mayest thyself discover them to me;
But if thy guards outstrip us with their spoil,
We may draw rein; for others speed, from whom
They will not ’scape to thank the gods at home.
Lead on, I say, the captor’s caught, and fate
Hath ta’en the fowler in the toils he spread;
So soon are lost gains gotten by deceit.
And look not for allies; I know indeed
Such height of insolence was never reached
Without abettors or accomplices;
Thou hast some backer in thy bold essay,
But I will search this matter home and see
One man doth not prevail against the State.
Dost take my drift, or seem these words as vain
As seemed our warnings when the plot was hatched?
Nothing thou sayest can I here dispute,
But once at home I too shall act my part.
Threaten us and — begone! Thou, Oedipus,
Stay here assured that nothing save my death
Will stay my purpose to restore the maids.
Heaven bless thee, Theseus, for thy nobleness
And all thy loving care in my behalf.
[Exeunt Theseus and Creon]
O when the flying foe,
Turning at last to bay,
Soon will give blow for blow,
Might I behold the fray;
Hear the loud battle roar
Swell, on the Pythian shore,
Or by the torch-lit bay,
Where the dread Queen and Maid
Cherish the mystic rites,
Rites they to none betray,
Ere on his lips is laid
Secrecy’s golden key
By their own acolytes,
There I might chance behold
Theseus our captain bold
Meet with the robber band,
Ere they have fled the land,
Rescue by might and main
Maidens, the captives twain.
Haply on swiftest steed,
Or in the flying car,
Now they approach the glen,
West of white Oea’s scaur.
They will be vanquished:
Dread are our warriors, dread
Theseus our chieftain’s men.
Flashes each bridle bright,
Charges each gallant knight,
All that our Queen adore,
Pallas their patron, or
Him whose wide floods enring
Earth, the great Ocean-king
Whom Rhea bore.
Fight they or now prepare
To fight? a vision rare
Tells me that soon again
I shall behold the twain
Maidens so ill bestead,
By their kin buffeted.
Today, today Zeus worketh some great thing
This day shall victory bring.
O for the wings, the wings of a dove,
To be borne with the speed of the gale,
Up and still upwards to sail
And gaze on the fray from the clouds above.
All-seeing Zeus, O lord of heaven,
To our guardian host be given
Might triumphant to surprise
Flying foes and win their prize.
Hear us, Zeus, and hear us, child
Of Zeus, Athene undefiled,
Hear, Apollo, hunter, hear,
Huntress, sister of Apollo,
Who the dappled swift-foot deer
O’er the wooded glade dost follow;
Help with your two-fold power
Athens in danger’s hour!
O wayfarer, thou wilt not have to tax
The friends who watch for thee with false presage,
For lo, an escort with the maids draws near.
[Enter Antigone and Ismene with Theseus]
Where, where? what sayest thou?
O father, father,
Would that some god might grant thee eyes to see
This best of men who brings us back again.
My child! and are ye back indeed!
By Theseus and his gallant followers.
Come to your father’s arms, O let me feel
A child’s embrace I never hoped for more.
Thou askest what is doubly sweet to give.
Where are ye then?
We come together both.
My precious nurslings!
Fathers aye were fond.
Props of my age!
So sorrow sorrow props.
I have my darlings, and if death should come,
Death were not wholly bitter with you near.
Cling to me, press me close on either side,
There rest ye from your dreary wayfaring.
Now tell me of your ventures, but in brief;
Brief speech suffices for young maids like you.
Here is our savior; thou should’st hear the tale
From his own lips; so shall my part be brief.
I pray thee do not wonder if the sight
Of children, given o’er for lost, has made
My converse somewhat long and tedious.
Full well I know the joy I have of them
Is due to thee, to thee and no man else;
Thou wast their sole deliverer, none else.
The gods deal with thee after my desire,
With thee and with this land! for fear of heaven
I found above all peoples most with you,
And righteousness and lips that cannot lie.
I speak in gratitude of what I know,
For all I have I owe to thee alone.
Give me thy hand, O Prince, that I may touch it,
And if thou wilt permit me, kiss thy cheek.
What say I? Can I wish that thou should’st touch
One fallen like me to utter wretchedness,
Corrupt and tainted with a thousand ills?
Oh no, I would not let thee if thou would’st.
They only who have known calamity
Can share it. Let me greet thee where thou art,
And still befriend me as thou hast till now.
I marvel not if thou hast dallied long
In converse with thy children and preferred
Their speech to mine; I feel no jealousy,
I would be famous more by deeds than words.
Of this, old friend, thou hast had proof; my oath
I have fulfilled and brought thee back the maids
Alive and nothing harmed for all those threats.
And how the fight was won, ’twere waste of words
To boast — thy daughters here will tell thee all.
But of a matter that has lately chanced
On my way hitherward, I fain would have
Thy counsel — slight ’twould seem, yet worthy thought.
A wise man heeds all matters great or small.
What is it, son of Aegeus? Let me hear.
Of what thou askest I myself know naught.
’Tis said a man, no countryman of thine,
But of thy kin, hath taken sanctuary
Beside the altar of Poseidon, where
I was at sacrifice when called away.
What is his country? what the suitor’s prayer?
I know but one thing; he implores, I am told,
A word with thee — he will not trouble thee.
What seeks he? If a suppliant, something grave.
He only waits, they say, to speak with thee,
And then unharmed to go upon his way.
I marvel who is this petitioner.
Think if there be not any of thy kin
At Argos who might claim this boon of thee.
Dear friend, forbear, I pray.
What ails thee now?
Ask it not of me.
Ask not what? explain.
Thy words have told me who the suppliant is.
Who can he be that I should frown on him?
My son, O king, my hateful son, whose words
Of all men’s most would jar upon my ears.
Thou sure mightest listen. If his suit offend,
No need to grant it. Why so loth to hear him?
That voice, O king, grates on a father’s ears;
I have come to loathe it. Force me not to yield.
But he hath found asylum. O beware,
And fail not in due reverence to the god.
O heed me, father, though I am young in years.
Let the prince have his will and pay withal
What in his eyes is service to the god;
For our sake also let our brother come.
If what he urges tend not to thy good
He cannot surely wrest perforce thy will.
To hear him then, what harm? By open words
A scheme of villainy is soon bewrayed.
Thou art his father, therefore canst not pay
In kind a son’s most impious outrages.
O listen to him; other men like thee
Have thankless children and are choleric,
But yielding to persuasion’s gentle spell
They let their savage mood be exorcised.
Look thou to the past, forget the present, think
On all the woe thy sire and mother brought thee;
Thence wilt thou draw this lesson without fail,
Of evil passion evil is the end.
Thou hast, alas, to prick thy memory,
Stern monitors, these ever-sightless orbs.
O yield to us; just suitors should not need
To be importunate, nor he that takes
A favor lack the grace to make return.
Grievous to me, my child, the boon ye win
By pleading. Let it be then; have your way
Only if come he must, I beg thee, friend,
Let none have power to dispose of me.
No need, Sir, to appeal a second time.
It likes me not to boast, but be assured
Thy life is safe while any god saves mine.
Who craves excess of days,
Scorning the common span
Of life, I judge that man
A giddy wight who walks in folly’s ways.
For the long years heap up a grievous load,
Scant pleasures, heavier pains,
Till not one joy remains
For him who lingers on life’s weary road
And come it slow or fast,
One doom of fate
Doth all await,
For dance and marriage bell,
The dirge and funeral knell.
Death the deliverer freeth all at last.
Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain for ever pain;
And none escapes life’s coils.
Envy, sedition, strife,
Carnage and war, make up the tale of life.
Last comes the worst and most abhorred stage
Of unregarded age,
Joyless, companionless and slow,
Of woes the crowning woe.
Such ills not I alone,
He too our guest hath known,
E’en as some headland on an iron-bound shore,
Lashed by the wintry blasts and surge’s roar,
So is he buffeted on every side
By drear misfortune’s whelming tide,
By every wind of heaven o’erborne
Some from the sunset, some from orient morn,
Some from the noonday glow.
Some from Rhipean gloom of everlasting snow.
Father, methinks I see the stranger coming,
Alone he comes and weeping plenteous tears.
Who may he be?
The same that we surmised.
From the outset — Polyneices. He is here.
Ah me, my sisters, shall I first lament
My own afflictions, or my aged sire’s,
Whom here I find a castaway, with you,
In a strange land, an ancient beggar clad
In antic tatters, marring all his frame,
While o’er the sightless orbs his unkept locks
Float in the breeze; and, as it were to match,
He bears a wallet against hunger’s pinch.
All this too late I learn, wretch that I am,
Alas! I own it, and am proved most vile
In my neglect of thee: I scorn myself.
But as almighty Zeus in all he doth
Hath Mercy for co-partner of this throne,
Let Mercy, father, also sit enthroned
In thy heart likewise. For transgressions past
May be amended, cannot be made worse.
Why silent? Father, speak, nor turn away,
Hast thou no word, wilt thou dismiss me then
In mute disdain, nor tell me why thou art wrath?
O ye his daughters, sisters mine, do ye
This sullen, obstinate silence try to move.
Let him not spurn, without a single word
Of answer, me the suppliant of the god.
Tell him thyself, unhappy one, thine errand;
For large discourse may send a thrill of joy,
Or stir a chord of wrath or tenderness,
And to the tongue-tied somehow give a tongue.
Well dost thou counsel, and I will speak out.
First will I call in aid the god himself,
Poseidon, from whose altar I was raised,
With warrant from the monarch of this land,
To parley with you, and depart unscathed.
These pledges, strangers, I would see observed
By you and by my sisters and my sire.
Now, father, let me tell thee why I came.
I have been banished from my native land
Because by right of primogeniture
I claimed possession of thy sovereign throne
Wherefrom Etocles, my younger brother,
Ousted me, not by weight of precedent,
Nor by the last arbitrament of war,
But by his popular acts; and the prime cause
Of this I deem the curse that rests on thee.
So likewise hold the soothsayers, for when
I came to Argos in the Dorian land
And took the king Adrastus’ child to wife,
Under my standard I enlisted all
The foremost captains of the Apian isle,
To levy with their aid that sevenfold host
Of spearmen against Thebes, determining
To oust my foes or die in a just cause.
Why then, thou askest, am I here today?
Father, I come a suppliant to thee
Both for myself and my allies who now
With squadrons seven beneath their seven spears
Beleaguer all the plain that circles Thebes.
Foremost the peerless warrior, peerless seer,
Amphiaraiis with his lightning lance;
Next an Aetolian, Tydeus, Oeneus’ son;
Eteoclus of Argive birth the third;
The fourth Hippomedon, sent to the war
By his sire Talaos; Capaneus, the fifth,
Vaunts he will fire and raze the town; the sixth
Parthenopaeus, an Arcadian born
Named of that maid, longtime a maid and late
Espoused, Atalanta’s true-born child;
Last I thy son, or thine at least in name,
If but the bastard of an evil fate,
Lead against Thebes the fearless Argive host.
Thus by thy children and thy life, my sire,
We all adjure thee to remit thy wrath
And favor one who seeks a just revenge
Against a brother who has banned and robbed him.
For victory, if oracles speak true,
Will fall to those who have thee for ally.
So, by our fountains and familiar gods
I pray thee, yield and hear; a beggar I
And exile, thou an exile likewise; both
Involved in one misfortune find a home
As pensioners, while he, the lord of Thebes,
O agony! makes a mock of thee and me.
I’ll scatter with a breath the upstart’s might,
And bring thee home again and stablish thee,
And stablish, having cast him out, myself.
This will thy goodwill I will undertake,
Without it I can scare return alive.
For the king’s sake who sent him, Oedipus,
Dismiss him not without a meet reply.
Nay, worthy seniors, but for Theseus’ sake
Who sent him hither to have word of me.
Never again would he have heard my voice;
But now he shall obtain this parting grace,
An answer that will bring him little joy.
O villain, when thou hadst the sovereignty
That now thy brother holdeth in thy stead,
Didst thou not drive me, thine own father, out,
An exile, cityless, and make we wear
This beggar’s garb thou weepest to behold,
Now thou art come thyself to my sad plight?
Nothing is here for tears; it must be borne
By me till death, and I shall think of thee
As of my murderer; thou didst thrust me out;
’Tis thou hast made me conversant with woe,
Through thee I beg my bread in a strange land;
And had not these my daughters tended me
I had been dead for aught of aid from thee.
They tend me, they preserve me, they are men
Not women in true service to their sire;
But ye are bastards, and no sons of mine.
Therefore just Heaven hath an eye on thee;
Howbeit not yet with aspect so austere
As thou shalt soon experience, if indeed
These banded hosts are moving against Thebes.
That city thou canst never storm, but first
Shall fall, thou and thy brother, blood-imbrued.
Such curse I lately launched against you twain,
Such curse I now invoke to fight for me,
That ye may learn to honor those who bear thee
Nor flout a sightless father who begat
Degenerate sons — these maidens did not so.
Therefore my curse is stronger than thy “throne,”
Thy “suppliance,” if by right of laws eterne
Primeval Justice sits enthroned with Zeus.
Begone, abhorred, disowned, no son of mine,
Thou vilest of the vile! and take with thee
This curse I leave thee as my last bequest:—
Never to win by arms thy native land,
No, nor return to Argos in the Vale,
But by a kinsman’s hand to die and slay
Him who expelled thee. So I pray and call
On the ancestral gloom of Tartarus
To snatch thee hence, on these dread goddesses
I call, and Ares who incensed you both
To mortal enmity. Go now proclaim
What thou hast heard to the Cadmeians all,
Thy staunch confederates — this the heritage
that Oedipus divideth to his sons.
Thy errand, Polyneices, liked me not
From the beginning; now go back with speed.
Woe worth my journey and my baffled hopes!
Woe worth my comrades! What a desperate end
To that glad march from Argos! Woe is me!
I dare not whisper it to my allies
Or turn them back, but mute must meet my doom.
My sisters, ye his daughters, ye have heard
The prayers of our stern father, if his curse
Should come to pass and ye some day return
To Thebes, O then disown me not, I pray,
But grant me burial and due funeral rites.
So shall the praise your filial care now wins
Be doubled for the service wrought for me.
One boon, O Polyneices, let me crave.
What would’st thou, sweet Antigone? Say on.
Turn back thy host to Argos with all speed,
And ruin not thyself and Thebes as well.
That cannot be. How could I lead again
An army that had seen their leader quail?
But, brother, why shouldst thou be wroth again?
What profit from thy country’s ruin comes?
’Tis shame to live in exile, and shall I
The elder bear a younger brother’s flouts?
Wilt thou then bring to pass his prophecies
Who threatens mutual slaughter to you both?
Aye, so he wishes:— but I must not yield.
O woe is me! but say, will any dare,
Hearing his prophecy, to follow thee?
I shall not tell it; a good general
Reports successes and conceals mishaps.
Misguided youth, thy purpose then stands fast!
’Tis so, and stay me not. The road I choose,
Dogged by my sire and his avenging spirit,
Leads me to ruin; but for you may Zeus
Make your path bright if ye fulfill my hest
When dead; in life ye cannot serve me more.
Now let me go, farewell, a long farewell!
Ye ne’er shall see my living face again.
Bewail me not.
Who would not mourn
Thee, brother, hurrying to an open pit!
If I must die, I must.
Nay, hear me plead.
It may not be; forbear.
Then woe is me,
If I must lose thee.
Nay, that rests with fate,
Whether I live or die; but for you both
I pray to heaven ye may escape all ill;
For ye are blameless in the eyes of all.
Ills on ills! no pause or rest!
Come they from our sightless guest?
Or haply now we see fulfilled
What fate long time hath willed?
For ne’er have I proved vain
Aught that the heavenly powers ordain.
Time with never sleeping eye
Watches what is writ on high,
Overthrowing now the great,
Raising now from low estate.
Hark! How the thunder rumbles! Zeus defend us!
Children, my children! will no messenger
Go summon hither Theseus my best friend?
And wherefore, father, dost thou summon him?
This winged thunder of the god must bear me
Anon to Hades. Send and tarry not.
Hark! with louder, nearer roar
The bolt of Zeus descends once more.
My spirit quails and cowers: my hair
Bristles for fear. Again that flare!
What doth the lightning-flash portend?
Ever it points to issues grave.
Dread powers of air! Save, Zeus, O save!
Daughters, upon me the predestined end
Has come; no turning from it any more.
How knowest thou? What sign convinces thee?
I know full well. Let some one with all speed
Go summon hither the Athenian prince.
Ha! once more the deafening sound
Peals yet louder all around
If thou darkenest our land,
Lightly, lightly lay thy hand;
Grace, not anger, let me win,
If upon a man of sin
I have looked with pitying eye,
Zeus, our king, to thee I cry!
Is the prince coming? Will he when he comes
Find me yet living and my senses clear!
What solemn charge would’st thou impress on him?
For all his benefits I would perform
The promise made when I received them first.
Hither haste, my son, arise,
Altar leave and sacrifice,
If haply to Poseidon now
In the far glade thou pay’st thy vow.
For our guest to thee would bring
And thy folk and offering,
Thy due guerdon. Haste, O King!
Wherefore again this general din? at once
My people call me and the stranger calls.
Is it a thunderbolt of Zeus or sleet
Of arrowy hail? a storm so fierce as this
Would warrant all surmises of mischance.
Thou com’st much wished for, Prince, and sure some god
Hath bid good luck attend thee on thy way.
What, son of Laius, hath chanced of new?
My life hath turned the scale. I would do all
I promised thee and thine before I die.
What sign assures thee that thine end is near?
The gods themselves are heralds of my fate;
Of their appointed warnings nothing fails.
How sayest thou they signify their will?
This thunder, peal on peal, this lightning hurled
Flash upon flash, from the unconquered hand.
I must believe thee, having found thee oft
A prophet true; then speak what must be done.
O son of Aegeus, for this state will I
Unfold a treasure age cannot corrupt.
Myself anon without a guiding hand
Will take thee to the spot where I must end.
This secret ne’er reveal to mortal man,
Neither the spot nor whereabouts it lies,
So shall it ever serve thee for defense
Better than native shields and near allies.
But those dread mysteries speech may not profane
Thyself shalt gather coming there alone;
Since not to any of thy subjects, nor
To my own children, though I love them dearly,
Can I reveal what thou must guard alone,
And whisper to thy chosen heir alone,
So to be handed down from heir to heir.
Thus shalt thou hold this land inviolate
From the dread Dragon’s brood. 4 The justest State
By countless wanton neighbors may be wronged,
For the gods, though they tarry, mark for doom
The godless sinner in his mad career.
Far from thee, son of Aegeus, be such fate!
But to the spot — the god within me goads —
Let us set forth no longer hesitate.
Follow me, daughters, this way. Strange that I
Whom you have led so long should lead you now.
Oh, touch me not, but let me all alone
Find out the sepulcher that destiny
Appoints me in this land. Hither, this way,
For this way Hermes leads, the spirit guide,
And Persephassa, empress of the dead.
O light, no light to me, but mine erewhile,
Now the last time I feel thee palpable,
For I am drawing near the final gloom
Of Hades. Blessing on thee, dearest friend,
On thee and on thy land and followers!
Live prosperous and in your happy state
Still for your welfare think on me, the dead.
[Exit Theseus followed by Antigone and Ismene]
If mortal prayers are heard in hell,
Hear, Goddess dread, invisible!
Monarch of the regions drear,
Aidoneus, hear, O hear!
By a gentle, tearless doom
Speed this stranger to the gloom,
Let him enter without pain
The all-shrouding Stygian plain.
Wrongfully in life oppressed,
Be he now by Justice blessed.
Queen infernal, and thou fell
Watch-dog of the gates of hell,
Who, as legends tell, dost glare,
Gnarling in thy cavernous lair
At all comers, let him go
Scathless to the fields below.
For thy master orders thus,
The son of earth and Tartarus;
In his den the monster keep,
Giver of eternal sleep.
Friends, countrymen, my tidings are in sum
That Oedipus is gone, but the event
Was not so brief, nor can the tale be brief.
What, has he gone, the unhappy man?
That he has passed away from life to death.
How? By a god-sent, painless doom, poor soul?
Thy question hits the marvel of the tale.
How he moved hence, you saw him and must know;
Without a friend to lead the way, himself
Guiding us all. So having reached the abrupt
Earth-rooted Threshold with its brazen stairs,
He paused at one of the converging paths,
Hard by the rocky basin which records
The pact of Theseus and Peirithous.
Betwixt that rift and the Thorician rock,
The hollow pear-tree and the marble tomb,
Midway he sat and loosed his beggar’s weeds;
Then calling to his daughters bade them fetch
Of running water, both to wash withal
And make libation; so they clomb the steep;
And in brief space brought what their father bade,
Then laved and dressed him with observance due.
But when he had his will in everything,
And no desire was left unsatisfied,
It thundered from the netherworld; the maids
Shivered, and crouching at their father’s knees
Wept, beat their breast and uttered a long wail.
He, as he heard their sudden bitter cry,
Folded his arms about them both and said,
“My children, ye will lose your sire today,
For all of me has perished, and no more
Have ye to bear your long, long ministry;
A heavy load, I know, and yet one word
Wipes out all score of tribulations — love.
And love from me ye had — from no man more;
But now must live without me all your days.”
So clinging to each other sobbed and wept
Father and daughters both, but when at last
Their mourning had an end and no wail rose,
A moment there was silence; suddenly
A voice that summoned him; with sudden dread
The hair of all stood up and all were ’mazed;
For the call came, now loud, now low, and oft.
“Oedipus, Oedipus, why tarry we?
Too long, too long thy passing is delayed.”
But when he heard the summons of the god,
He prayed that Theseus might be brought, and when
The Prince came nearer: “O my friend,” he cried,
“Pledge ye my daughters, giving thy right hand —
And, daughters, give him yours — and promise me
Thou never wilt forsake them, but do all
That time and friendship prompt in their behoof.”
And he of his nobility repressed
His tears and swore to be their constant friend.
This promise given, Oedipus put forth
Blind hands and laid them on his children, saying,
“O children, prove your true nobility
And hence depart nor seek to witness sights
Unlawful or to hear unlawful words.
Nay, go with speed; let none but Theseus stay,
Our ruler, to behold what next shall hap.”
So we all heard him speak, and weeping sore
We companied the maidens on their way.
After brief space we looked again, and lo
The man was gone, evanished from our eyes;
Only the king we saw with upraised hand
Shading his eyes as from some awful sight,
That no man might endure to look upon.
A moment later, and we saw him bend
In prayer to Earth and prayer to Heaven at once.
But by what doom the stranger met his end
No man save Theseus knoweth. For there fell
No fiery bold that reft him in that hour,
Nor whirlwind from the sea, but he was taken.
It was a messenger from heaven, or else
Some gentle, painless cleaving of earth’s base;
For without wailing or disease or pain
He passed away — and end most marvelous.
And if to some my tale seems foolishness
I am content that such could count me fool.
Where are the maids and their attendant friends?
They cannot be far off; the approaching sound
Of lamentation tells they come this way.
[Enter Antigone and Ismene]
Woe, woe! on this sad day
We sisters of one blasted stock
must bow beneath the shock,
Must weep and weep the curse that lay
On him our sire, for whom
In life, a life-long world of care
’Twas ours to bear,
In death must face the gloom
That wraps his tomb.
What tongue can tell
That sight ineffable?
What mean ye, maidens?
All is but surmise.
Is he then gone?
Gone as ye most might wish.
Not in battle or sea storm,
But reft from sight,
By hands invisible borne
To viewless fields of night.
Ah me! on us too night has come,
The night of mourning. Wither roam
O’er land or sea in our distress
Eating the bread of bitterness?
I know not. O that Death
Might nip my breath,
And let me share my aged father’s fate.
I cannot live a life thus desolate.
Best of daughters, worthy pair,
What heaven brings ye needs must bear,
Fret no more ’gainst Heaven’s will;
Fate hath dealt with you not ill.
Love can turn past pain to bliss,
What seemed bitter now is sweet.
Ah me! that happy toil is sweet.
The guidance of those dear blind feet.
Dear father, wrapt for aye in nether gloom,
E’en in the tomb
Never shalt thou lack of love repine,
Her love and mine.
His fate —
Is even as he planned.
He died, so willed he, in a foreign land.
Lapped in kind earth he sleeps his long last sleep,
And o’er his grave friends weep.
How great our lost these streaming eyes can tell,
This sorrow naught can quell.
Thou hadst thy wish ’mid strangers thus to die,
But I, ah me, not by.
Alas, my sister, what new fate
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
Befalls us orphans desolate?
His end was blessed; therefore, children, stay
Your sorrow. Man is born to fate a prey.
Sister, let us back again.
My soul is fain —
To see the earthy bed.
Where our sire is laid.
Nay, thou can’st not, dost not see —
Sister, wherefore wroth with me?
Know’st not — beside —
More must I hear?
Tombless he died, none near.
Lead me thither; slay me there.
How shall I unhappy fare,
Friendless, helpless, how drag on
A life of misery alone?
Fear not, maids —
Ah, whither flee?
Refuge hath been found.
Where thou shalt be safe from harm.
I know it.
Why then this alarm?
How again to get us home
I know not.
Why then this roam?
Troubles whelm us —
As of yore.
Worse than what was worse before.
Sure ye are driven on the breakers’ surge.
Alas! we are.
Alas! ’tis so.
Ah whither turn, O Zeus? No ray
Of hope to cheer the way
Whereon the fates our desperate voyage urge.
Dry your tears; when grace is shed
On the quick and on the dead
By dark Powers beneficent,
Over-grief they would resent.
Aegeus’ child, to thee we pray.
What the boon, my children, say.
With our own eyes we fain would see
Our father’s tomb.
That may not be.
What say’st thou, King?
My children, he
Charged me straitly that no mortal
Should approach the sacred portal,
Or greet with funeral litanies
The hidden tomb wherein he lies;
Saying, “If thou keep’st my hest
Thou shalt hold thy realm at rest.”
The God of Oaths this promise heard,
And to Zeus I pledged my word.
Well, if he would have it so,
We must yield. Then let us go
Back to Thebes, if yet we may
Heal this mortal feud and stay
The self-wrought doom
That drives our brothers to their tomb.
Go in peace; nor will I spare
Ought of toil and zealous care,
But on all your needs attend,
Gladdening in his grave my friend.
Wail no more, let sorrow rest,
All is ordered for the best.
1. The Greek text for the passages marked here and later in the text have been lost.
2. To avoid the blessing, still a secret, he resorts to a commonplace; literally, “For what generous man is not (in befriending others) a friend to himself?”
3. Creon desires to bury Oedipus on the confines of Thebes so as to avoid the pollution and yet offer due rites at his tomb. Ismene tells him of the latest oracle and interprets to him its purport, that some day the Theban invaders of Athens will be routed in a battle near the grave of Oedipus.
4. The Thebans sprung from the Dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00