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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.
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.
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!
[Enter SECOND MESSENGER]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Come, Fate, a friend at need,
Come with all speed!
Come, my best friend,
And speed my end!
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.
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.
Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.