PHOENISSAE by Seneca the Younger
January 1, 0001
From THE TRAGEDIES OF SENECA
Translated into English Verse, to Which Have Been Appended Comparative Analyses of the Corresponding Greek and Roman Plays, and a Mythological Index
by FRANK JUSTUS MILLER
Oedipus Late king of Thebes.
Antigone Daughter of Oedipus, constant to him in his misfortunes.
Jocasta Wife and mother of Oedipus.
Polynices } Eteocles } Sons of Oedipus and rivals for the throne.
THE SCENE is laid, first in the wild country to which Oedipus,
accompanied by Antigone, has betaken himself; then in Thebes, and
lastly in the plain before Thebes.
THE TIME is three years after the great tragedy of Oedipus.
*The stroke of fate, that has been threatening Oedipus since long
before his birth, has fallen at last, and he has done the thing he
feared to do. And now, self-blinded and self-exiled from his land, he
has for three years wandered in rough and trackless places, attended by
Antigone, his daughter, who, alone of all his friends, has condoned his
fated sins and remained attached to him.*
*Meanwhile his sons, though they agreed to reign alternate years, are
soon to meet in deadly strife; for Eteocles, although his year of royal
power is at an end, refuses to give up the throne; and now Polynices,
who has in exile wed the daughter of Adrastus, king of Argos, is
marching against the gates of Thebes, with seven great armies, to
enforce his rights.*
[*By a different version from the “Oedipus,” Jocasta did not slay
herself at once as in that tale, but still is living on in grief and
shame, and strives to reconcile her sons.*]
Oedipus [to Antigone, who has followed him into exile]: O thou,
who guid’st thy blinded father’s steps,
Sole comfort of my weary heart, my child,
Begotten at such heavy cost to me,
Leave thou the unpropitious way I tread.
Why shouldst thou seek to lead my feet aright
Which fain would wander? Let me stumble on. 5
Far better shall I find my way, alone,
The path that from the miseries of life
Shall take me, and the face of heaven and earth
Free from the sight of this ill-omened head.
O hand of mine, how little hast thou done!
For, though I do not see the light of day
Which looked upon my crime, still am I seen.
Unclasp thy clinging hand from mine; permit 10
My sightless feet to wander where they will.
I go, I go where my Cithaeron lifts
His rugged crags on high; where to his dogs
Actaeon, speeding through the rocky ways,
Became a booty strange and pitiful;
Where through the dim old woods and dusky glades, 15
By Bacchic frenzy fired, the mother wild
Her sisters led, rejoicing in the crime,
When on the waving thyrsus' point she bore
The gory head of Pentheus; where the bull
Of Zethus rushed along, the mangled corpse
Of Dirce dragging (through the thorny briars 20
The mad beast’s flight was traceable in blood);
Or where the cliff of Ino lifts its head
High o’er the heaving sea, into whose depths
The mother leaped, fleeing an unknown crime,
Yet daring other crime, by terror driven
To sink her son with her beneath the waves. 25
Oh, happy they whose better fortune gave
Mothers like these! There is another place
Within these woods–my place, which calls to me,
To which I fain would haste; my eager feet
Will not delay, and thither will I go,
Unguided, all alone. Why hesitate 30
To seek the place that most belongs to me?
Give back that death, Cithaeron, give again
That spot where once I lay upon thy breast,
That, where I should in infancy have died,
In age I may expire. Now let me pay
The debt I long have owed. O mountain, fell
And bloody, cruel, savage in thy rage,
Both when thou spar’st and when thou dost destroy, 35
This body long ago was given to thee:
Obey my father’s and my mother’s will.
My soul is eager to receive at last
Its punishment. Why, daughter, why dost thou
With baleful love restrain me? Hold me not.
My father calls, and I will follow, yea,
Will follow him. Then cease to hold me back. 40
See where the royal Laius comes in rage,
The blood-stained scepter of his ravished realm
Within his grasp. See, with his angry hands
He seeks to tear again my empty eyes.
O daughter, dost thou see my father, too?
I surely see him.
[To himself:] Now, O coward soul,
Brave but to mar a helpless part of thee, 45
At length spew out that hateful life of thine.
Delay no more upon thy punishment,
And give thyself entirely unto death.
Why do I, sluggish, linger on in life?
There is no further crime that I can do.
Oh, my foreboding, wretched soul, there is!
Flee from thy father, flee, while still a maid;
My mother’s fate makes me of all afraid. 50
Antigone: No power, my father, shall unloose my hold
Of thee; no one shall force me from thy side.
The illustrious, rich house of Labdacus,
Let my two brothers seek with strife to gain:
The greatest part of all my father’s realm 55
Is mine–my father’s self. Nor shall this share
Be reft away from me by him who holds
By stolen right the scepter over Thebes,
Nor by that other brother who leads on
Against his native land th' Argolic hosts;
Though Jove himself should thunder out of heaven,
And hurl his bolt against my clinging hands, 60
I would not let thee go. Though thou forbid,
I’ll guide thee, O my father, ‘gainst thy will,
And thy reluctant feet will I direct.
Seek’st thou the level plain? There will I go.
The rugged mountain heights? I’ll not oppose,
But will precede thy way. Use me as guide
Wherever thou wouldst go; since for us both 65
Is every path selected that thou tread’st.
With me, but not without me, canst thou die.
There springs a lofty cliff, precipitous,
And looks far out upon the sea below:
Shall we seek this? There hangs a naked rock,
There yawns the riven earth with gaping jaws: 70
Wouldst thou to these? And there a mountain stream
In roaring torrent falls, and ‘neath its waves
Worn fragments of the mountain roll along:
Shall we rush headlong in? Where thou wouldst go,
I go, but always first. I’ll not oppose
Nor urge. Dost thou desire to be destroyed?
Is death thy highest wish? If thou dost die, 75
I go before thee; if thou liv’st, I follow.
But change thy mind, call up thine old-time strength,
And with a mighty will thy sorrows curb.
Resist, since in such ills defeat is death.
Oedipus: Whence springs so rare a spirit in a house 80
So impious? Whence comes this noble maid,
Unlike her race? Can it be true indeed?
Has any pious thing been born of me?
Ne’er would it be, for well I know my fates,
Except for harmful ends. Nature herself
Has changed her laws: now shall the stream, reversed, 85
Bear back its whirling waters to their source;
The torch of Phoebus shall bring in the night,
And day be heralded by Hesperus;
And, that I may but add unto my woe,
I, too, shall pious be. Not to be saved–
This is for Oedipus the only cure.
Let me avenge my father, unavenged 90
Till now. My hand, why dost thou hesitate
To exact the penalty I owe to him?
Whatever I have suffered hitherto
Was for my mother’s sake. Release my hand,
Undaunted girl; thou but delay’st my death,
And thy living father’s funeral prolong’st. 95
Let earth conceal at last this hated form.
Thou wrongest me, though with a kind intent,
And deem’st it piety to keep thy sire
From burial. But they are one in guilt,
Both he who forces death upon a man
Who fain would live, and he who holds him back
Who longs to die. And yet they are not one;
For surely is the last the worser sin. 100
To be condemned to death were better far
For me than to be saved from death. Then cease,
My child, from this attempt. I have reserved
For my own will the right to live or die.
Right gladly did I yield the sovereignty
O’er all my realm; yet o’er myself alone
I still am king. If thou in very truth 105
Art loyal to me, give me back my sword,
That sword already with my father’s blood
Defiled. Wilt give it back? Or do my sons
Retain my sword together with my throne?
‘Tis well. Wherever there is need of crime,
There let it be; I gladly give it up.
Let both my sons possess the sword. But thou,
Flames, rather, and a heap of wood prepare; 110
Then will I fling myself upon the pyre,
Cling in its hot embrace, and hide myself
Within its deadly hold. There will I loose
This stubborn soul, and give to mortal dust
Whatever lives in me. Where is the sea?
Come, lead me where some beetling crag juts out, 115
Or where Ismenus rolls his savage waves;
Or thither would I go and end my life,
Where once upon a jutting rock abode
The hybrid Sphinx and wove her crafty speech. 120
Direct me thither, set thy father there.
Let not that dreadful seat be empty long,
But place me there, a greater monster still.
There will I sit and of my fate propose
A riddle dark which no man will resolve.
Come listen, ye, who plow the Theban fields;
Whoever worships in the sacred grove 125
Of Cadmus, for the deadly serpent famed,
Where hallowed Dirce lies; whoever drinks
Eurotas’ stream; ye who in Sparta dwell,
Illustrious for its heavenly brothers twain;
And ye who reap Boeotia’s fertile fields,
The plains of Elis and Parnassus’ slopes: 130
What riddle like to this could she propose,
That curse of Thebes, who wove destructive words
In puzzling measures? What so dark as this? *He was his grandsire’s son-in-law, and yet
His father’s rival; brother of his sons, 135
And father of his brothers; at one birth
The granddame bore unto her husband sons,
And grandson’s to herself.* Who can unwind
A tangle such as this? E’en I myself,
Who bore the spoils of triumph o’er the Sphinx,
Stand mute before the riddle of my fate.
[Has a speech of Antigone dropped out at this point, or does
Oedipus hark back to a previous thought after a dramatic pause?]
But why waste further words? Why dost thou try 140
To soften my determined heart with prayers?
My will is fixed to pour this spirit forth
Which now for long has struggled sore with death,
And seek the world of shades; for blackest night
Is still not black enough for this my crime.
‘Tis sweet in deepest Tartarus to hide;
Or, if there yet is deeper pit than this, 145
There would I go. ‘Tis well to do at last
The thing which long ago should have been done.
I cannot be prevented from my death.
Wilt take away my sword? Wilt bar all paths
That lead unto the fatal precipice?
Wilt keep my neck free from the choking noose?
Remove all poisonous herbs from me? Yet what, 150
Think’st thou, will all that care of thine avail?
For death is everywhere. A kindly God
Hath this great law with wisest care ordained:
That anyone can take man’s life away,
But none can stay his death; for countless ways
Are open unto him who seeks to die.
I ask no aid of thine. Well am I used
To employ this naked hand. Then come, my hand, 155
With all thy force, with all thy passion, come.
And not one wound alone would I endure,
For I have sinned in every part of me.
Come, strike the mortal blow where’er thou wilt:
Break through my breast and tear my heart away,
So full of sin; lay bear my vitals all; 160
Rain blows upon my neck until it break,
Or let thy gouging fingers tear my veins
Until they flow with blood. Or, if thou wilt,
Direct thine anger whither thou art wont:
These healing wounds reopen; let them flow
With streams of blood and loathsome gore again;
And through this passage drag my life away,
So stubborn in defeat, so hard to storm. 165
And thou, O father, wheresoe’er thou art,
Who stand’st as judge upon my just deserts,
I ne’er have thought that such a crime as mine
Could ever be sufficiently atoned,
Nor has this living death contented me;
I have not bought my pardon with my eyes,
But fain would perish for thee, limit by limb. 170
Exact at last the penalty I owe.
Now I atone; then I but sacrificed
Unto thy manes. Be thou here to aid,
And my reluctant hand help me to plunge
Deep down and deeper in my sightless eyes.
A scant and timid offering I made,
When first I plucked my eager eyeballs out. 175
And even now my trembling spirit halts,
Yea, halts, though downward to my shrinking hands
My face inclines. Now shalt thou hear the truth,
O Oedipus: less boldly than thou plan’dst
Did’st thou pluck out thine eyes. Let now thy brain 180
Feel those avenging fingers; through this door
Complete the death which has begun in me.
Antigone: O father, great of soul, I pray thee hear
With quiet mind thy wretched daughter’s words:
I do not seek to lead thee back again
Into the presence of thy former home,
Nor to the illustrious splendor of thy realm; 185
I ask thee not with calm and peaceful soul
To bear again that fearful shock of woe
Which even yet the soothing hand of time
Has not assuaged. And yet it is not meet
That one so stout of heart should be o’ercome
And to misfortune weakly turn his back.
It is not valor, father, as thou think’st, 190
To shrink from life; but ‘gainst the mightiest ills
To stand opposed, and not to flinch or budge,
That is the truest test of manly worth.
Who tramples under foot his destiny,
Who disregards and scorns the goods of life,
And aggravates the evils of his lot, 195
Who has no further need of Providence:
Wherefore should such a man desire to die,
Or seek for death? Each is the coward’s act.
No one holds death in scorn who seeks to die.
The man whose evils can no farther go
Is safely lodged. Who of the gods, think’st thou, 200
Grant that he wills it so, can add one jot
Unto thy sum of trouble? Nor canst thou,
Save that thou deem’st thyself unfit to live.
But thou art not unfit, for in thy breast
No taint of sin has come. And all the more,
My father, art thou free from taint of sin,
Because, though heaven willed it otherwise, 205
Thou still art innocent. What is there now
Which has so maddened thee, which goads thy heart
To fresh outbursts of grief? What forces thee
To seek the abodes of hell, and fly from these?
Is’t that thou wouldst avoid the light of day?
Thou dost avoid the light. Or wouldst thou flee
This noble palace and thy native land?
Thy native land, although thou livest still,
Is dead to thee. Wouldst from thy sons escape, 210
And from thy mother? From the sight of all
Has fate removed thee; and whatever death
From any man can take, thy life has taken.
Art weary of the kingdom’s press and stir?
At thy command thy former courtier throng
Has vanished.–Whom, O father, dost thou flee? 215
Oedipus: Myself I flee, I flee this heart of mine,
Full of all crimes; I flee this hand, this sky,
These gods; I flee those dreadful sins which I,
Though innocent, have done. And can it be
That this fair world, whence bounteous harvests spring,
Is trod by such as I? This wholesome air
Do I with pestilential lips inhale, 220
With water quench my thirst, or any gift
Of kindly earth enjoy? And do I dare,
This impious, incestuous, curséd wretch,
To touch thy maiden hand? Have I still ears
To hear the name of parent or of son? 225
Oh, that with rending hands I might destroy
These narrow ways of sound by which I hear
The words of men. My child, all sense of thee,
Who art a parcel of my impious deeds,
In my unhappiness I would have fled. 230
But now my crime sticks fast within my heart,
And threatens ever to break out afresh;
For what my blinded eyes have spared to me,
Is through my ears poured in upon my soul.
Oh, why do I not plunge this darkened life
Into the eternal shadow-world of Dis?
Why do I longer hold my spirit here? 235
Why be a burden to the upper world,
And wander still among the living men?
What evil yet remains? My fatherland,
My parents, children, valor–all are lost,
And that illustrious glory of the mind;
Yea, evil chance hath stripped me of my all.
Tears yet remained, but these with my own hand 240
Have I destroyed. Then go thy ways, my child.
My soul will not give ear to any prayers,
And only seeks new punishment for crime,
And equal to my sin–if that can be.
While yet an infant was I doomed to death.
What mortal ever drew so hard a fate?
Ere I had seen the light, while still confined 245
Within the darksome prison of the womb,
I was a thing of dread. The night of death
Lays hold on many at the hour of birth,
And snatches them away from dawning life;
But death anticipated birth in me.
Some are o’ertaken by untimely fate
While still within the womb, yet without sin. 250
But I, yet hid within the hold of life,
While yet my very being was in doubt,
Was by the heavenly oracle compelled
To answer to a charge unspeakable.
My sire condemned me at Apollo’s word,
And through my tender ankles thrust a rod
Still glowing from the forge; then sent his child
Into the forest deep, a prey for beasts 255
And all the savage birds Cithaeron breeds,
Accustomed to be stained with royal blood.
Yet him, whom God condemned, who by his sire
Was cast away to die, death also fled.
And Delphi’s oracle have I fulfilled:
For I with impious hand assailed my sire, 260
And slew him.
[With bitter irony] Yet, for this impiety,
Perchance another act of piety
Will make amends: I killed my father; true,
But still I loved my mother.–Oh, ‘tis shame
To mention such a wedlock; yet I will,
And force myself to bear this punishment,
To tell abroad my more than bestial crime,
So strange, that nations stand in dumb amaze, 265
So shameful, that no age will credit it,
That e’en the shameless parricide is shocked:
Into my father’s bed I bore my hands
Smeared with my father’s blood, and there received
The wages of my crime–a greater crime.
My father’s murder was a trivial thing; 270
But, that my sum of crime might be complete,
My mother, to my marriage chamber led,
Conceived–Oh, how could nature e’er endure
A greater crime? And yet, if aught remains,
I have begotten children vile enough
To do this also. I have cast away
The scepter which I won by parricide, 275
And with it other hands are armed for war.
Full well do I my kingdom’s fortune know,
That never more shall any gain the throne
Without the sacrifice of kindred blood.
Dire evils doth my father-soul presage,
For even now are sown the baleful seeds
Of future strife; the plighted pact is spurned; 280
One will not yield the throne he hath usurped,
The other claims his right, calls on the gods
To witness of his bond, and, driven from home,
Moves Argos and the towns of Greece to arms.
No light destruction comes to weary Thebes;
For weapons, flames, and wounds press hard on her, 285
And greater woes than these, if such there be,
That all may know I have begotten sons.
Antigone: If thou no other cause for living hast,
My father, this one reason is enough,
That thou as father mayst restrain thy sons
From deadly strife. Thou only canst avert 290
Their threats of impious war, curb their mad hearts,
Give peace to citizens, to country rest,
And to their broken treaty honest faith.
To many men art thou refusing life,
If for thyself thou dost refuse to live.
Oedipus: Think’st thou that such as they have aught of love 295
For father or for right, whose hearts are filled
With lust for blood and power and impious arms,
Profane and cruel sons–in brief, my own?
Toward every form of evil deed they strive,
And have no scruples where their wrath impels.
In shame begot, they have no sense of shame. 300
They have no feeling for their wretched sire,
None for their country. Naught but lust of power
Rules in their maddened breasts. I know full well
To what dire ends they tend, what monstrous deeds
They are prepared to do; and for this cause
I seek to find destruction’s shortest path,
And haste to die, while yet within my house 305
There is no soul more steeped in guilt than I.
O child, why dost thou weep about my knees,
Why seek with prayer to soften my hard heart?
This means alone my fortune has reserved
By which I may be led, unconquered else;
For thou alone canst soothe my stubborn soul, 310
Canst teach me piety. For naught is hard
Or grievous in my sight, if I perceive
That thou dost wish it. Do thou but command:
Then will I swim the broad Aegean straits,
Will drink the flames which from Sicilia’s mount
Earth belches forth in whirling, molten streams, 315
Will beard the savage dragon in his den,
Still raging at the theft of Hercules;
At thy command, to birds of prey will give
My bleeding heart–at thy command will live.
[*The first act seems to be complete here, except for the commenting
chorus which would naturally follow.* Oedipus *has temporarily yielded
to his daughter’s will.*]
[*The following passage fittingly opens the second act or episode.
Although some editors would assign it to* Antigone, *it seems more
fittingly to belong to a messenger who has just arrived, for the double
reason that it gives fresher information from Thebes than* Antigone *would naturally possess; and that* Oedipus, *after the speech to his
daughter with which the previous scene ended, would hardly address to
her as rough a reply as he uses in his next speech.*]
Messenger: Thee, sprung from regal stock to be our guide, 320
In fear of civil strife our Thebes invokes,
And prays that thou wouldst save thy father’s house
From the flaming torch of war. No mere threats, these;
For ever nearer does destruction come.
One brother claims his share of royal power,
His turn to rule according to the bond,
And now is rousing all the tribes of Greece 325
To bloody war. Against the walls of Thebes
Seven camps have set them down. Haste to our aid,
And war and crime prohibit equally.
Oedipus: Do I seem one to stay the hand of crime,
And teach it to refrain from kindred blood?
Should I teach righteousness and filial love? 330
They take me as a model for their crimes,
And follow me. I gladly recognize
And praise them as my sons; I urge them on
To do some outrage worthy of their sire.
Then on, my worthy offspring; by your deeds
Approve your noble birth; do ye surpass 335
My glory and my praises; do some deed
Because of which your father will rejoice
That he has lived till now. And well I know
That you will do it; for to such an end
Were ye brought forth. Such noble birth as yours
Cannot be satisfied with common crime
Or slight. Then forward with your impious arms!
Attack your household gods with flaming brands; 340
With torches gather in the ripened grain
Upon your native fields; confuse all things,
And hurry all to ruin absolute;
O’erthrow the city’s walls, yea, lay them low,
E’en to the level of the plain; the gods
And temples in one common fall o’erwhelm;
Destroy our lares, now so foully stained,
And let our whole house perish utterly; 345
Let all the city be consumed with fire,
And be my impious marriage chamber first
To feel the flames.
Antigone: This raging storm of grief
Give o’er; and let the sorrows of the state
Prevail with thee to reconcile thy sons.
Oedipus: And dost thou think that thou dost see in me 350
A mild old man given o’er to peaceful thoughts?
And dost thou summon me unto thine aid,
As one who loves to ‘stablish peace? Not so:
For even now my spirit swells with rage,
My grief burns fiercely, and I long to see
Some greater deed than chance or youthful wrath
Would dare attempt. I am not satisfied
With civil war: let brother brother slay. 355
Nor yet would this suffice. I wait to see
Some evil done that shall be like my own,
That shall be worthy of my marriage bed.
Give deadly weapons to my mother’s hand–
But do not seek to drag me from these woods.
Here will I hide within the rocky caves,
Or hedge myself about with thickets dense. 360
Here will I catch at warlike rumor rife
And hear what news I may of brothers’ strife.
[*It is possible that the following fragments belong to still another
play. The presence of* Antigone *in Thebes, notwithstanding her resolve
to remain with her father, would strengthen this view*.]
Jocasta: Oh, fortunate Agave! for she bore,
Within the hand which did the deed, the spoil,
The horrid spoil of her dismembered son, 365
A raging Maenad. Yea, she did the deed;
But naught in all her sinfulness did she
Save that one crime. It is my least of sins
That I am guilty; this my greater crime,
That I have made another sinful too.
But even this seems light when I reflect
That I have given birth to sinful sons.
Till now ‘twas wanting to my sum of woe
That I should love my country’s enemy. 370
Three times has winter put away his snows,
And thrice have Ceres’ golden harvests fall’n
Beneath the sickle, since my hapless son
In exile wanders, robbed of fatherland,
And craves assistance from the Grecian kings.
He has become Adrastus’ son-in-law,
Whose sway is o’er the waters of the sea
Which Isthmus cleaves. Adrastus even now 375
Is leading on his tribes, and with him march
Seven other royal hosts. Ah, woe is me,
I know not what I ought to wish or say.
My exiled son with justice claims his share
Of empire, but he seeks it wrongfully.
How shall I pray? I count them both my sons, 380
And yet, alas, without impiety,
Can I for neither pray. If for one son
I call a blessing down, ‘tis but a curse
Upon the other’s head. Yet this I know:
Although I love them both with equal love,
My heart inclines toward the better cause, 385
The worser fortune, ever favoring him
Who suffers more; for this is fortune’s way
To win the wretched to their own again.
[Enter Messenger in haste.]
Messenger: O queen, while thou dost utter these complaints,
And spend’st the precious time in useless tears,
With weapons drawn the battle lines approach.
The trumpet’s blare incites to bloody war,
And even now the eagles are advanced. 390
The kings in seven-fold battle are arrayed,
While the sons of Thebes with equal spirit go
To meet the enemy. With hurrying tread,
Now here, now there, advance the soldiery.
Behold, dark clouds of dust obscure the day,
And from the plain dense, smokelike billows rise, 395
Which earth, beneath the tread of countless hoofs,
Sends rolling heavenward. And through the dust,
If terror-stricken eyes can see aright,
The hostile standards shine; with lifted spears
The foremost ranks advance; while banners gleam,
Bearing the names of famous generals wrought 400
In golden characters.
Then haste, O queen:
Unto the warring brothers love restore,
Give peace to all, and by a mother’s hands
Prevent the conflict of these impious bands.
Antigone: O mother, haste thee, haste on flying feet;
Hold back their weapons, from my brothers’ hands
Strike down the swords, and ‘twixt their deadly points
Thy bared breast interpose. Then, mother, haste; 405
Or stop the war, or be thou first to fall.
Jocasta: I go, I go, and ‘twixt their swords will stand,
And there unto their points expose my life.
And he who shall his brother seek to slay
Must slay his mother first. At my command
The son whose heart is moved by piety
Will lay aside his arms; the impious son 410
Must first make war on me. These fiery youths
Will I, although a woman, old, restrain.
Within my sight shall be no impious deed;
Or, if within my sight one impious deed
Can be committed–then shall two be done.
[Exit toward the scene of conflict.]
Antigone: Now gleam the advancing standards, near at hand;
And loud the hostile battle-cry resounds. 415
A moment, and the impious deed is done.
O mother, speed thee with thy prayers. But see!
You would suppose them by my weeping moved,
So slowly do the arméd lines advance.
Messenger: The lines move slowly, but the leaders haste.
Jocasta [hurrying onward]: What wingéd wind will speed me through
the air, 420
Bearing me onward with the storm’s mad whirl?
What monstrous Sphinx or dark Stymphalian bird,
Whose spreading wings blot out the light of day,
Will bear me on its space-consuming wings?
What Harpy, hovering o’er the royal board
Of that stern Thracian king, will catch me up
Along the lofty highways of the air, 425
And cast me headlong ‘twixt th’ opposing lines?
Messenger [looking after her]: Like some wild creature reft of
sense she goes.
Swift as an arrow shot by Parthian hand,
Or as a ship which boisterous winds impel,
Or as the flight of falling star from heaven, 430
Which in unswerving course athwart the sky
Darts on its fiery way: with maddened haste
The queen has sped her flight, and even now
Has ta’en her stand between th’ opposing lines.
The battle pauses yet a little while,
O’ercome at sight of those maternal tears.
And now the hosts, on mutual slaughter bent, 435
Stand with their weapons balanced in their hands:
Peace wins the day; the threat’ning points are lowered;
The swords are sheathed. But in the brothers’ hands
They still are poised. The frantic mother now,
Her white hair torn with grieving, speaks to them, 440
Beseaches their reluctant, stubborn wills,
And wets their knees with tears. Too long they bide:
Such halting bodes the mother’s prayers denied.
 Reading, ultra suum scelus hoc cucurrit.
[On the field before Thebes, between the battle lines.]
Jocasta [kneeling between her two hostile sons]:
‘Gainst me your arms and blazing torches turn;
‘Gainst me alone let every warrior rush,
Who comes from Argos thirsting for the fray,
And they who from the citadel of Thebes 445
Come down to battle. Friend and foe, alike,
Attack this womb of mine which brothers bore
Unto my husband. Rend me limb from limb,
And scatter me abroad upon the plain.
I bore you both–will you lay down your arms?
Or shall I say from whom I bore you, too?
Give me your hands while still they are unstained. 450
‘Till now ‘twas all unwittingly you sinned;
‘Twas fortune’s crime, who ever ‘gainst our peace
Delights to plot. But this impiety
Is done with fullest knowledge of your sin.
Within your power lies whichsoe’er you will: 455
If filial love, then grant your mother peace;
If crime, then must you do a greater crime.
Your mother stands between you, blocks your way;
Have done with war or with the war’s delay.
To which of you in fond anxiety
Shall I address my prayers? Whom first embrace? 460
My heart with equal love is drawn to both.
[Turning to Polynices.]
This son has wandered far away from me;
But if the compact of the brothers holds,
This other son must wander too. Alas,
And shall I never see you both again,
Except in enmity? Do thou come first
Into thy mother’s arms, who hast endured
So many toils, so many miseries, 465
And, worn with weary exile, see’st at last
Thy mother’s face. Come nearer to me here.
Now sheathe thine impious sword; and this thy spear,
Which even now is quivering with hate
And eager to be thrown, thrust in the ground.
Put by thy shield as well; it keeps me off 470
From folding thee unto my mother-breast.
Unbind thy brow, and from thy warlike head
Thy helm remove and let me see thy face.
Why dost thou turn away, and fix thine eyes
With timid gaze upon thy brother’s band?
I’ll throw my arms about thee for a shield, 475
That through my body only may the sword
Find passage to thy blood. Why hesitate?
Can it be that thou dost fear thy mother’s pledge?
Polynices: I fear; for nature’s laws no longer hold.
Since I have known a brother’s faithlessness,
I scarce can trust my mother’s plighted word. 480
Jocasta: Then lay thy hand upon the sword again,
Bind on thy helmet, take again thy shield;
And while thy brother doth his arms remove,
Remain thou armed.
Do thou lay by thy sword,
Who first didst cause the weapon to be drawn.
If peace is hateful to thee, if in war
Thou dost prefer to rage, a moment’s truce 485
Thy mother begs of thee, that on her sons,
Returned but now from exile, she may print
A kiss of love, the first–perchance the last.
While I seek peace, attend ye both, unarmed.
Dost thou fear him, and he fear thee, in turn?
But I do fear you both, and for you both.
Why dost refuse to sheathe thy naked sword?
Rejoice in this delay. You wage a war, 490
Of which the best end is to be o’ercome.
And dost thou fear thy hostile brother’s wiles?
If one must on his brother work deceit
Or suffer it himself, ‘tis better far
To be the victim of the treachery
Than to perform the crime. But fear thou not; 495
For I will shield thee from all sudden snares.
Do I prevail with thee? Or must I grudge
Thy father’s blindness? Have I hither come
To check an impious crime, or see it done
Before my very eyes?
[Eteocles yields to her.]
He sheathes his sword,
And on his peaceful, grounded spear he leans.
[She turns to Polynices.]
And now to thee, O son, thy mother turns 500
With prayers and tears. At last I see thy face
Which long have I desired and prayed to see.
Thee, as an exile from thy fatherland,
The household of a foreign king protects;
O’er many seas, by many chances driven,
Thou’rt still a wanderer. It was not mine
With stately train to lead thee to thy bride, 505
With my own hand to deck the festal halls,
And with sacred fillets wreathe thy wedding torch.
The father of thy bride no wedding gifts,
No wealth of gold, has given, no fields, no towns;
Thy only gift is war. A foeman’s son 510
Hast thou become, far from thy native land,
An alien household’s guest, driven from thine own,
Committed to another’s interests,
A sinless exile. That no element
Might fail thee of thy father’s hapless fate,
Thou too hast blundered in thy marriage choice.
O son, after so many years returned, 515
O son, thy anxious mother’s hope and fear,
For sight of whom I ever prayed the gods;
Though thy return was doomed to take from me
As much as at thy coming it could give:
“When shall I cease to fear for thee?” I said; 520
The mocking god replied: “Him shalt thou fear.”
I should not have thee near me now, indeed,
Were there no war; and there would be no war,
If thou wert not at hand. Oh, bitter price
And hard, that I must pay for sight of thee.
But still there’s pleasure in’t. These hostile hosts– 525
Let them withdraw a little space from here,
While yet stern Mars dares no impiety.
Yet this as well is great impiety,
That they have been so near. I am appalled,
And tremble when I see two brothers stand,
Each fronting each, upon the brink of crime. 530
My limbs do quake with fear. How near I came
To seeing greater infamy than that
Which thy poor father never could have seen!
Though I am freed from fear of such a crime,
Though I shall not behold such evil now,
Still am I most unhappy when I think
How nearly I beheld it. O my son,
By the womb that bore thee through ten weary months, 535
And by thy noble sister’s piety;
By thy unhappy father’s sightless eyes,
Which he, though innocent of any crime,
Tore out, his fatal error to avenge:
Turn from thy father’s walls these impious brands, 540
Send back the standards of this warring host.
Though thou shouldst yield, still is the greater part
Of thy impiety already done:
Thy fatherland has seen its fertile plains
By hordes of hostile soldiery o’errun,
The arméd legions gleaming from afar, 545
The broad Cadmean meadows trampled down
By flying hoofs, the princes, insolent,
High in their chariots dashing o’er the plain,
The blazing torches threatening our homes
With utter devastation, and, a crime
Which even Thebes till now has never seen,
A brother ‘gainst his brother waging war.
This crime was seen by all our Theban host; 550
The citizens and both thy sisters saw,
And I thy mother; to himself is due
That Oedipus, thy father, saw it not.
Oh, do thou but compare thyself with him,
By whose stern judgment fitting penalty
E’en error pays. Do not with impious sword 555
Destroy thy city and thy father’s house,
Nor overthrow the city thou wouldst rule.
What madness holds its sway within thy soul?
Wouldst thou, by seeking to obtain the land,
Destroy it? That it may become thine own,
Dost thou intend to spoil it utterly?
To thine own cause thou doest deadly wrong,
In harrying this very soil of thine 560
With hostile arms, in laying low the crops,
And spreading fear through all the country round.
No one such devastation ever works
Upon his own. What thou dost burn with fire,
And reap with sword, ‘tis plain that thou dost grant
To be another’s. Gain thou then the throne,
Whichever of you will; but gain it so
That ‘twill not be the kingdom’s overthrow. 565
Dost seek these homes with hostile sword and brand?
Wilt thou avail to batter down these walls
Which great Amphion built, these mighty walls,
Whose stones no human hand e’er set in place,
The huge weights moving by the creaking crane–
But, marshaled by the strains of song and harp,
The stones, e’en to the topmost turret’s round, 570
Moved of their own accord–wouldst shatter these?
As victor wilt thou bear away the spoils?
And shall rough soldiery lead off in chains
Thy father’s noble friends and stately dames
Torn from their grieving husbands’ very arms?
And, mingled with the wretched captive band, 575
Shall Theban maidens go as presents meet
For wives of Argos? And shall I myself,
My hands (disgraceful!) bound behind my back,
The mother, be the booty of the son,
In triumph borne? And canst thou bear to see
On every hand thy fellow-citizens
To dire destruction given? ‘Gainst these dear walls 580
Canst thou lead on the savage enemy,
And fill thy native Thebes with blood and flame?
Hast thou so wild a heart within thy breast,
So hard and savage–and not yet a king?
Then what will’t be when thou the scepter wield’st?
Oh, put aside thy spirit’s swelling rage,
And give thyself once more to piety. 585
Polynices: That I may wander still a fugitive?
That ever, banished from my native land,
Upon a stranger’s bounty I may live?
What, think’st thou, could I suffer more than this,
If I had broken faith or falsely sworn?
Shall I be punished for another’s sin,
While he enjoys the profits of his crime? 590
Thou bid’st me go; and gladly would I yield
Unto my mother’s will. But whither, then,
Shall I depart? “Let my proud brother dwell
Within my royal halls, and some poor hut
Be my abode”: let such a boon be given
Unto the exile; give him in exchange
A hovel for a throne. And shall I, then, 595
A pensioner upon my wealthy bride,
Be forced to yield to her unbending will,
And to her father’s domineering ways
Submit like any slave? ‘Tis hard, indeed,
To fall from royalty to servitude.
Jocasta: If thou art eager for a royal throne,
And if, without the scepter in thy hand,
Thou canst not live, whatever land thou wilt 600
Will offer many kingdoms to thy hand.
On this side Tmolus lifts his ridgy heights,
Well known to Bacchus, where wide-spreading plains
Stretch out upon the grain-producing earth;
And where Pactolus’ all-enriching stream
O’erflows the country with its sands of gold.
And there Maeander through the joyful fields 605
Directs his wandering waves; swift Hermus, too,
Cleaves meadows rich. And there is Gargara,
Beloved of Ceres, and the fertile plains
Which Xanthus waters, fed by Ida’s snows.
And here, where ends the long Ionian sea, 610
Across the narrows from Abydos stands
The Thracian Sestos. Farther to the east,
With safe and numerous harbors, lies the land
Of Lycia. There realms seek with thy sword;
Against these peoples let Adrastus fight,
And to thy sceptered hand deliver them. 615
Consider that thy father still is king
Within this realm of Thebes. Far better, then,
Than such returns as this will exile seem.
Thou liv’st in exile through another’s sin;
But thy return must be through thine alone.
With those brave troops of thine ‘twere better far
To seek thee out new realms unstained by crime. 620
Nay, e’en thy brother’s self will be thy aid,
And fight for thee. Go, wage such warfare, then,
That, as thou fight’st, thy mother and thy sire
May pray for thy success. For, be assured,
That kingdoms won by crime are heavier far
Than any exile. 625
Now consider well
The woes of war and war’s uncertainties:
Though thou dost bring with thee the flower of Greece,
Though far and near thy arméd soldiery
Is spread, still ever in the balance hangs
The fate of war. ‘Tis all as Mars decides.
Though two may seem to be unmatched in strength, 630
The sword will make them equal; hope and fear
Are subject to the blind caprice of fate.
Uncertain is the prize of war thou seek’st,
But sure the crime. Suppose that all the gods
Have heard thy prayers; suppose the citizens,
In panic fear, have turned their backs and fled;
The soldiers’ bloody corpses hide the plain: 635
Though in such victory thou shouldst exalt
And bear thy murdered brother’s spoils away,
Thy victory is but a broken thing.
What sort of warfare, think’st thou, that would be,
In which the victor wins by curséd crime,
And glories in it? Nay, thy brother’s self,
Whom thou, unhappy man, dost seek to slay, 640
When thou hast gained thy wish, thou wilt lament.
Oh, then, forego this most unhallowed strife,
And free at last thy fatherland from fear,
Thy parents from their grief.
Polynices: Shall I do this,
That so for all his treachery and crime
My curséd brother be not recompensed?
Jocasta: Fear not. He shall indeed be recompensed, 645
For he shall reign.
Polynices: Is that a punishment?
Jocasta: If thou believe me not, believe thy sire,
Believe thy grandsire too. This truth to thee
Will Cadmus and the house of Cadmus tell.
Without disaster has no Theban king
E’er held the scepter, nor will anyone
Who wins the kingly power by broken faith
Retain it long. And ‘mongst those faithless ones 650
Count now thy brother.
Eteocles: Be it even so:
If I must die, I count it worthy death,
To die with kings.
Thee to the exiled band
Jocasta: Reign then, but hated by thy friends.
Eteocles: Who shrinks from hatred does not wish to reign.
That great divinity who made the world 655
Made of one substance royalty and hate.
For me, I count it worthy of a king
To overcome this hate. By love of friends
Too oft is royal power circumscribed.
O’er those who hate him is the king more free
To lord it as he will. Who would be loved,
With but a weak and languid scepter reigns.
Jocasta: But hated empire never long endures. 660
Eteocles: ‘Tis for the king to speak of empire’s rules.
Do thou give laws for exiles. For the throne–
Jocasta: Wouldst burn thy native land, thy home and all?
Eteocles: A kingdom is well bought at any price.
 The text is corrupt here. The Ionian Sea, situated to the west of
Greece, can have no possible connection with the region here described,
i. e., the Hellespont.
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