The Oedipus Cycle

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For words of high disdain
Did Bacchus to a rocky dungeon bring,
To cool the madness of a fevered brain.
          His frenzy passed,
          He learnt at last
'Twas madness gibes against a god to fling.
For once he fain had quenched the Maenad's fire;
And of the tuneful Nine provoked the ire.

(Str. 2)
By the Iron Rocks that guard the double main,

          On Bosporus' lone strand,
Where stretcheth Salmydessus' plain
          In the wild Thracian land,
There on his borders Ares witnessed
          The vengeance by a jealous step-dame ta'en
The gore that trickled from a spindle red,
          The sightless orbits of her step-sons twain.

(Ant. 2)
Wasting away they mourned their piteous doom,

The blasted issue of their mother's womb.
But she her lineage could trace
          To great Erecththeus' race;
Daughter of Boreas in her sire's vast caves
          Reared, where the tempest raves,
Swift as his horses o'er the hills she sped;
A child of gods; yet she, my child, like thee,
               By Destiny
That knows not death nor age—she too was vanquished.


Princes of Thebes, two wayfarers as one,
Having betwixt us eyes for one, we are here.
The blind man cannot move without a guide.

Why tidings, old Teiresias?

                              I will tell thee;
And when thou hearest thou must heed the seer.

Thus far I ne'er have disobeyed thy rede.

So hast thou steered the ship of State aright.

I know it, and I gladly own my debt.

Bethink thee that thou treadest once again
The razor edge of peril.

                         What is this?

Thy words inspire a dread presentiment.


The divination of my arts shall tell.
Sitting upon my throne of augury,
As is my wont, where every fowl of heaven
Find harborage, upon mine ears was borne
A jargon strange of twitterings, hoots, and screams;
So knew I that each bird at the other tare
With bloody talons, for the whirr of wings
Could signify naught else.  Perturbed in soul,
I straight essayed the sacrifice by fire
On blazing altars, but the God of Fire
Came not in flame, and from the thigh bones dripped
And sputtered in the ashes a foul ooze;
Gall-bladders cracked and spurted up:  the fat
Melted and fell and left the thigh bones bare.
Such are the signs, taught by this lad, I read—
As I guide others, so the boy guides me—
The frustrate signs of oracles grown dumb.
O King, thy willful temper ails the State,
For all our shrines and altars are profaned
By what has filled the maw of dogs and crows,
The flesh of Oedipus' unburied son.
Therefore the angry gods abominate
Our litanies and our burnt offerings;
Therefore no birds trill out a happy note,
Gorged with the carnival of human gore.
O ponder this, my son.  To err is common
To all men, but the man who having erred
Hugs not his errors, but repents and seeks
The cure, is not a wastrel nor unwise.
No fool, the saw goes, like the obstinate fool.
Let death disarm thy vengeance.  O forbear
To vex the dead.  What glory wilt thou win
By slaying twice the slain?  I mean thee well;
Counsel's most welcome if I promise gain.

Old man, ye all let fly at me your shafts

Like anchors at a target; yea, ye set
Your soothsayer on me.  Peddlers are ye all
And I the merchandise ye buy and sell.
Go to, and make your profit where ye will,
Silver of Sardis change for gold of Ind;
Ye will not purchase this man's burial,
Not though the winged ministers of Zeus
Should bear him in their talons to his throne;
Not e'en in awe of prodigy so dire
Would I permit his burial, for I know
No human soilure can assail the gods;
This too I know, Teiresias, dire's the fall
Of craft and cunning when it tries to gloss
Foul treachery with fair words for filthy gain.


Alas! doth any know and lay to heart—

Is this the prelude to some hackneyed saw?

How far good counsel is the best of goods?

True, as unwisdom is the worst of ills.

Thou art infected with that ill thyself.

I will not bandy insults with thee, seer.

And yet thou say'st my prophesies are frauds.

Prophets are all a money-getting tribe.

And kings are all a lucre-loving race.

Dost know at whom thou glancest, me thy lord?

Lord of the State and savior, thanks to me.

Skilled prophet art thou, but to wrong inclined.

Take heed, thou wilt provoke me to reveal
The mystery deep hidden in my breast.

Say on, but see it be not said for gain.

Such thou, methinks, till now hast judged my words.

Be sure thou wilt not traffic on my wits.

Know then for sure, the coursers of the sun
Not many times shall run their race, before
Thou shalt have given the fruit of thine own loins
In quittance of thy murder, life for life;
For that thou hast entombed a living soul,
And sent below a denizen of earth,
And wronged the nether gods by leaving here
A corpse unlaved, unwept, unsepulchered.
Herein thou hast no part, nor e'en the gods
In heaven; and thou usurp'st a power not thine.
For this the avenging spirits of Heaven and Hell
Who dog the steps of sin are on thy trail:
What these have suffered thou shalt suffer too.
And now, consider whether bought by gold
I prophesy.  For, yet a little while,
And sound of lamentation shall be heard,
Of men and women through thy desolate halls;
And all thy neighbor States are leagues to avenge
Their mangled warriors who have found a grave
I' the maw of wolf or hound, or winged bird
That flying homewards taints their city's air.
These are the shafts, that like a bowman I
Provoked to anger, loosen at thy breast,
Unerring, and their smart thou shalt not shun.
Boy, lead me home, that he may vent his spleen
On younger men, and learn to curb his tongue
With gentler manners than his present mood.

My liege, that man hath gone, foretelling woe.

And, O believe me, since these grizzled locks
Were like the raven, never have I known
The prophet's warning to the State to fail.

I know it too, and it perplexes me.

To yield is grievous, but the obstinate soul
That fights with Fate, is smitten grievously.

Son of Menoeceus, list to good advice.

What should I do.  Advise me.  I will heed.

Go, free the maiden from her rocky cell;

And for the unburied outlaw build a tomb.

Is that your counsel?  You would have me yield?

Yea, king, this instant.  Vengeance of the gods
Is swift to overtake the impenitent.

Ah! what a wrench it is to sacrifice

My heart's resolve; but Fate is ill to fight.

Go, trust not others.  Do it quick thyself.

I go hot-foot.  Bestir ye one and all,
My henchmen!  Get ye axes!  Speed away
To yonder eminence!  I too will go,
For all my resolution this way sways.
'Twas I that bound, I too will set her free.
Almost I am persuaded it is best
To keep through life the law ordained of old.
[Exit CREON]

(Str. 1)

Thou by many names adored,
          Child of Zeus the God of thunder,
          Of a Theban bride the wonder,
Fair Italia's guardian lord;

In the deep-embosomed glades

          Of the Eleusinian Queen
Haunt of revelers, men and maids,
          Dionysus, thou art seen.

Where Ismenus rolls his waters,

          Where the Dragon's teeth were sown,
Where the Bacchanals thy daughters
          Round thee roam,
          There thy home;
Thebes, O Bacchus, is thine own.

(Ant. 1)
Thee on the two-crested rock

          Lurid-flaming torches see;
Where Corisian maidens flock,
          Thee the springs of Castaly.

By Nysa's bastion ivy-clad,

By shores with clustered vineyards glad,
There to thee the hymn rings out,
And through our streets we Thebans shout,
          All hall to thee
          Evoe, Evoe!

(Str. 2)
Oh, as thou lov'st this city best of all,

To thee, and to thy Mother levin-stricken,
In our dire need we call;
Thou see'st with what a plague our townsfolk sicken.
          Thy ready help we crave,
Whether adown Parnassian heights descending,
Or o'er the roaring straits thy swift was wending,
          Save us, O save!

(Ant. 2)
Brightest of all the orbs that breathe forth light,

     Authentic son of Zeus, immortal king,
Leader of all the voices of the night,
     Come, and thy train of Thyiads with thee bring,
          Thy maddened rout
Who dance before thee all night long, and shout,
          Thy handmaids we,
          Evoe, Evoe!


Attend all ye who dwell beside the halls
Of Cadmus and Amphion.  No man's life
As of one tenor would I praise or blame,
For Fortune with a constant ebb and rise
Casts down and raises high and low alike,
And none can read a mortal's horoscope.
Take Creon; he, methought, if any man,
Was enviable.  He had saved this land
Of Cadmus from our enemies and attained
A monarch's powers and ruled the state supreme,
While a right noble issue crowned his bliss.
Now all is gone and wasted, for a life
Without life's joys I count a living death.
You'll tell me he has ample store of wealth,
The pomp and circumstance of kings; but if
These give no pleasure, all the rest I count
The shadow of a shade, nor would I weigh
His wealth and power 'gainst a dram of joy.

What fresh woes bring'st thou to the royal house?

Both dead, and they who live deserve to die.

Who is the slayer, who the victim? speak.

Haemon; his blood shed by no stranger hand.

What mean ye? by his father's or his own?

His own; in anger for his father's crime.

O prophet, what thou spakest comes to pass.

So stands the case; now 'tis for you to act.

Lo! from the palace gates I see approaching

Creon's unhappy wife, Eurydice.
Comes she by chance or learning her son's fate?

Ye men of Thebes, I overheard your talk.

As I passed out to offer up my prayer
To Pallas, and was drawing back the bar
To open wide the door, upon my ears
There broke a wail that told of household woe
Stricken with terror in my handmaids' arms
I fell and fainted.  But repeat your tale
To one not unacquaint with misery.


Dear mistress, I was there and will relate
The perfect truth, omitting not one word.
Why should we gloze and flatter, to be proved
Liars hereafter?  Truth is ever best.
Well, in attendance on my liege, your lord,
I crossed the plain to its utmost margin, where
The corse of Polyneices, gnawn and mauled,
Was lying yet.  We offered first a prayer
To Pluto and the goddess of cross-ways,
With contrite hearts, to deprecate their ire.
Then laved with lustral waves the mangled corse,
Laid it on fresh-lopped branches, lit a pyre,
And to his memory piled a mighty mound
Of mother earth.  Then to the caverned rock,
The bridal chamber of the maid and Death,
We sped, about to enter.  But a guard
Heard from that godless shrine a far shrill wail,
And ran back to our lord to tell the news.
But as he nearer drew a hollow sound
Of lamentation to the King was borne.
He groaned and uttered then this bitter plaint:
"Am I a prophet? miserable me!
Is this the saddest path I ever trod?
'Tis my son's voice that calls me.  On press on,
My henchmen, haste with double speed to the tomb
Where rocks down-torn have made a gap, look in
And tell me if in truth I recognize
The voice of Haemon or am heaven-deceived."
So at the bidding of our distraught lord
We looked, and in the craven's vaulted gloom
I saw the maiden lying strangled there,
A noose of linen twined about her neck;
And hard beside her, clasping her cold form,
Her lover lay bewailing his dead bride
Death-wedded, and his father's cruelty.
When the King saw him, with a terrible groan
He moved towards him, crying, "O my son
What hast thou done?  What ailed thee?  What mischance
Has reft thee of thy reason?  O come forth,
Come forth, my son; thy father supplicates."
But the son glared at him with tiger eyes,
Spat in his face, and then, without a word,
Drew his two-hilted sword and smote, but missed
His father flying backwards.  Then the boy,
Wroth with himself, poor wretch, incontinent
Fell on his sword and drove it through his side
Home, but yet breathing clasped in his lax arms
The maid, her pallid cheek incarnadined
With his expiring gasps.  So there they lay
Two corpses, one in death.  His marriage rites
Are consummated in the halls of Death:
A witness that of ills whate'er befall
Mortals' unwisdom is the worst of all.

What makest thou of this?  The Queen has gone

Without a word importing good or ill.


I marvel too, but entertain good hope.
'Tis that she shrinks in public to lament
Her son's sad ending, and in privacy
Would with her maidens mourn a private loss.
Trust me, she is discreet and will not err.

I know not, but strained silence, so I deem,

Is no less ominous than excessive grief.


Well, let us to the house and solve our doubts,
Whether the tumult of her heart conceals
Some fell design.  It may be thou art right:
Unnatural silence signifies no good.

          Lo! the King himself appears.

          Evidence he with him bears
          'Gainst himself (ah me! I quake
          'Gainst a king such charge to make)
          But all must own,
          The guilt is his and his alone.

(Str. 1)

          Woe for sin of minds perverse,
          Deadly fraught with mortal curse.
          Behold us slain and slayers, all akin.
          Woe for my counsel dire, conceived in sin.
               Alas, my son,
               Life scarce begun,
               Thou wast undone.
          The fault was mine, mine only, O my son!

Too late thou seemest to perceive the truth.

(Str. 2)
By sorrow schooled.  Heavy the hand of God,
Thorny and rough the paths my feet have trod,
Humbled my pride, my pleasure turned to pain;
Poor mortals, how we labor all in vain!


Sorrows are thine, my lord, and more to come,
One lying at thy feet, another yet
More grievous waits thee, when thou comest home.

What woe is lacking to my tale of woes?

Thy wife, the mother of thy dead son here,
Lies stricken by a fresh inflicted blow.

(Ant. 1)

     How bottomless the pit!
          Does claim me too, O Death?
          What is this word he saith,
     This woeful messenger?  Say, is it fit
     To slay anew a man already slain?
          Is Death at work again,
     Stroke upon stroke, first son, then mother slain?

Look for thyself.  She lies for all to view.

(Ant. 2)
Alas! another added woe I see.
What more remains to crown my agony?
A minute past I clasped a lifeless son,
And now another victim Death hath won.
Unhappy mother, most unhappy son!


Beside the altar on a keen-edged sword
She fell and closed her eyes in night, but erst
She mourned for Megareus who nobly died
Long since, then for her son; with her last breath
She cursed thee, the slayer of her child.

(Str. 3)

          I shudder with affright
O for a two-edged sword to slay outright
          A wretch like me,
          Made one with misery.


'Tis true that thou wert charged by the dead Queen
As author of both deaths, hers and her son's.

In what wise was her self-destruction wrought?

Hearing the loud lament above her son
With her own hand she stabbed herself to the heart.

(Str. 4)

I am the guilty cause.  I did the deed,
Thy murderer.  Yea, I guilty plead.
My henchmen, lead me hence, away, away,
A cipher, less than nothing; no delay!

Well said, if in disaster aught is well

His past endure demand the speediest cure.

(Ant. 3)

          Come, Fate, a friend at need,
          Come with all speed!
          Come, my best friend,
          And speed my end!
          Away, away!
Let me not look upon another day!

This for the morrow; to us are present needs

That they whom it concerns must take in hand.

I join your prayer that echoes my desire.

O pray not, prayers are idle; from the doom
Of fate for mortals refuge is there none.

(Ant. 4)

Away with me, a worthless wretch who slew
Unwitting thee, my son, thy mother too.
Whither to turn I know now; every way
          Leads but astray,
And on my head I feel the heavy weight
          Of crushing Fate.

     Of happiness the chiefest part

          Is a wise heart:
     And to defraud the gods in aught
          With peril's fraught.
     Swelling words of high-flown might
     Mightily the gods do smite.
     Chastisement for errors past
     Wisdom brings to age at last.
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