Specimens of Greek Tragedy
Part 5 out of 5
Deianira, the wife of Hercules, fears that she has lost her husband's
love, and that it has been transferred to the beautiful captive Iole,
whom he has brought back with him on his return in triumph from the
storming of Oechalia. She bethinks her of a love-charm which she has
long had among her treasures. It is the blood of Nessus, the Centaur,
who, having offered her violence, and received his death-wound from
Hercules in her defence, had perfidiously persuaded her that his blood
would win back her husband's love. The blood, being infected with the
poison of the Lernsean Hydra, in which the arrows of Hercules were
dipped, proves the deadly instrument of the Centaur's posthumous
vengeance. Deianira sends a robe sprinkled with it as a gift to
Hercules, who, having put on the robe to offer his triumphal
sacrifice, expires in fiery torments.
The play is called from the Trachinian women who form the Chorus.
* * * * *
Deianira imparts the secret of her device to the Chorus, and puts the
fatal robe into the hands of Lichas, the Herald who has brought Iole
to the house, that he may carry it to Hercules.
Good friends, while yonder stranger, ere he part,
Is talking to the captive maids within,
I come forth secretly to speak to you.
What I devise I would to you confide,
And for my trouble I crave your sympathy.
That maid, a maid no more I guess, but wed,
I have received on board my barque, a bale
Of mockery and of outrage for my heart;
And now we twain beneath one quilt must lie,
And share the same embrace. Thus Heracles,
That excellent and faithful spouse of mine,
Repays the long-tried guardian of his home.
To play the angry wife I know not how,
So oft has he been sick of this disease.
But with this wench to dwell in partnership
As second wife, what woman could endure?
My youthful beauty now is on the wane,
While hers is growing, and the lover's eye
Turns from the withering to the blooming flower.
Heracles will, I fear, be mine in name,
In deed, the husband of a younger wife.
But, as I said, no wife not void of sense
Will show her wrath. The talisman, my friends,
That is to work the cure ye now shall hear.
I hold safe treasured in a brazen urn
The keepsake which a Centaur gave of old.
From shaggy Nessus when I was a maid
I had it, 'twas his dying legacy.
He over deep Evenus stream was wont
In his own arms to carry passengers,
Not using oars nor sails to ferry them.
And when, from my paternal home sent forth,
A bride I journeyed with my Heracles,
Bearing me on his back, in the midstream
He laid rash hands on me. I shrieked aloud.
The son of Zeus turned him and quick let fly
A shaft that, hurtling through the Centaur's chest,
Transfixed him. Feeling that his end was come,
The monster said to me, "Old Oeneus' child,
As thou art my last fare, hearken to me:
Thou shall have cause to thank thy ferryman.
If thou wilt bear away this clotted blood
That marks the spot whereon the arrow steeped
In the Lernaean Hydra's venom fell;
In it thou'lt ever find a spell to bind
The heart of Heracles, and to prevent
His loving any woman in thy stead."
Of this love-charm, my friends, bethinking me,
As, kept with care, it in my closet lay,
I steeped a robe in it, adding whate'er
The Centaur bade, and now my work is done.
Black arts I know not nor desire to know,
And all who practise such abominate;
But if so be, we can with this love-charm
Win from yon maid the heart of Heracles,
The means are found, unless my plan to thee
Seems ill-advised; if so, I give it o'er.
Nay, if in any plan we could confide,
Thine, in our judgment, is not ill-advised.
So far I can confide as judgment serves,
For no trial of the charm has yet been made.
Then make one; knowledge that thou seemst to have
Thou hast not, till experience set its seal.
All doubts will soon be cleared; here Lichas comes
Forth from the house, and soon he will be here.
Only, my friends, keep ye my counsel well;
Sin in the dark and thou shalt not be sham'd.
Daughter of Oeneus, what are thy commands?
Too long already have we been delayed.
To speed thy going I was taking thought,
While thou wert talking to the stranger maid.
Bear this well-woven garment to my lord,
An offering from his Deianira's hand.
Enjoin him straightly that before himself
No man be suffered to put on this robe,
And that it be exposed to no sun's ray,
No sacred altar's fire, no blazing hearth,
Until himself before the gods shall stand
Dight in it on the day of sacrifice.
I registered a vow that when I saw
Or heard of his home-coming, in this robe
I would attire him, that before the gods
Freshly in fresh array he might appear.
For token bear with thee this signet ring,
Which, when he sees it, he will recognise.
Set forth; first keep the law of messengers,
Which bids them not beyond their mission go.
Then what is now my husband's single debt,
If thou canst, double by my gratitude.
Fear not, if I am Hermes' liegeman true,
That I shall fail thy bidding to perform,
To place this casket in thy husband's hands,
And therewith thy assurances repeat.
Proceed then on thy road; thou canst report
To my good lord that all is well at home.
I know and shall report that all is well.
Thyself didst witness in how gentle wise
We did receive and welcome yonder maid.
The sight astonished and delighted me.
Then all thou hast to say is said. I fear
That thou wilt tell of my fond love for him
Ere thou canst tell of his fond love for me.
* * * * *
_THE CENTAUR'S REVENGE._
Deianira recounts to the Chorus an alarming and portentous incident.
Then Hyllus, the son of Hercules, comes and announces the catastrophe.
Maidens, I greatly fear that I have gone,
In what I did, beyond the line of right.
Daughter of Oeneus, say whence comes thy fear?
I know not; but I tremble lest my act,
Done with fair hope, should end with foul mischance.
Thou dost not mean thy gift to Heracles?
Tis so, and I would counsel every one
Not to go fast, unless their way is sure.
Tell, if thou may'st, what causes thy alarm.
A thing has happened, maidens, which when told
Will fill your minds with awe and wonderment.
The tuft of wool, fresh shorn and bright, wherewith
I spread the ointment on that robe of state,
By no one of my household train destroyed,
But self-consumed, has vanished out of sight.
And on the pavement melted quite away.
That thou may'st know the whole, let me proceed.
Of all the Centaur in his agony,
Pierced by the deadly arrow, bade me do,
I naught forgot, but treasured every word,
As if inscribed on brass indelibly;
What he prescribed and I performed was this,
That I should keep this unguent closely shut
Beyond the reach of sun-heat or of fire,
Until the time had come for using it.
And so I did; but now, the occasion ripe,
I in my secret chamber laid it on,
With wool shorn from a sheep of our own flock;
And letting not the sunlight touch my gift,
Folded it in a casket, as ye know.
Entering the house again, I saw a sight
Passing the wit of man to understand:
The tuft of wool with which I had laid on
The unguent, I by chance had thrown aside
Into the sunshine, where, as it grew warm,
It crumbled all away, and on the ground
Lay scattered, as when wood is being sawn
We see the dust fall from the biting saw.
So did it look; and after, from the earth
Where it had lain, a clotted foam broke forth,
As when in mellow Autumn the rich juice
Of Bacchic vine is spilled upon the ground.
My mind distraught knows not which way to turn,
But something dreadful have I surely done.
How should the Centaur, in his agony,
Have sought to serve her that had caused his death?
He could not. To avenge him on the hand
That sped the shaft he cozened me, and I
See his fell purpose when it is too late.
I, if my boding soul deceive me not,
Alone shall be my hero's murderess.
That by which Nessus died was Chiron's bane,
Immortal though he was, all animals
Struck by it die; and shall not the dark blood,
That, poisoned by it, flowed from Nessus' wound,
Be fatal to my lord? Surely it will.
But if my lord miscarry, my resolve
Is fixed to keep him company in death.
A life of infamy she cannot bear
That would be true to her nobility.
Shudder we must where is much cause for fear,
Yet let us hope till the event decides.
Hope, where the act is guilty, there is none,
Or none that can bring comfort to the breast.
But against those that sin unwittingly,
Anger is mild, and will be mild to thee.
Ay, so say those that of the guilt are clear,
And have no heavy burden on their hearts.
What more thou art in act to say withhold,
Unless thou wouldst unbosom to thy son.
He went to seek his sire and now is here.
Mother! I would that of three wishes one
Could be fulfilled: I would that thou wert not,
Or that another were thy son than I,
Or that my mother had a better mind.
What in thy mother thus thy horror moves?
Know that thy husband, rather should I say
My father, dies this day murdered by thee.
Alas! my son, what word has passed thy lips?
A word too sure of its accomplishment.
The event once born can never be annulled.
What dost thou say, my son? whence didst thou learn
That I had done a deed so horrible?
Learn it I did not from another's lips:
These eyes beheld my father's piteous fate.
Where didst thou into his loved presence come?
Hear and I'll tell thee all. As having stormed
The famous town of Eurytus, he marched,
With spoils and trophies of his victory.
At the Cenaean headland he arrived,
Euboea's point, and there set out for Zeus
Altars ancestral and a precinct green.
Here met I him whom I had longed to see.
As he stood ready for the sacrifice
Comes his own herald Lichas from his home,
And brings thy gift, that robe imbrued with death,
Which he, fulfilling thy behest, put on,
And therein clad, was offering sacrifice,
Twelve steers unblemished, while of beasts in all
He to the altars led a hecatomb.
At first, unhappy one, with jocund heart
He prayed, rejoicing in his brave attire;
But when from the good oak logs and the flesh
Of victims slain, the bloody flame leaped forth.
A sweat broke out on him, and to his sides
The garment clave, enfolding every joint
As by a workman fitted, while his bones
Were racked with shooting pains, and as it seemed
A deadly serpent's venom fed on him.
Then did he loud on hapless Lichas call,
Him who was nowise party to thy crime,
And bade him say what wretch had set him on
To bring the robe. The herald knowing naught,
Said as thou badst him, that it was thy gift.
Whereupon Heracles, his heartstrings grasped
By agonising pains that pierced him through,
Seized Lichas by the ankle, hurled him down
From the cliff's edge upon a wave-washed rock
That jutted from the sea, shattered his skull,
So that his brains streamed mingled with his blood.
At the two sights, of frenzy and of death,
A universal cry of horror rose,
Nor was there one who dared approach my sire;
He in convulsions now sprang up, now fell
With yells which made the neighbouring cliffs, the crags
Of Locris and Euboea's headland ring.
Oft did he cast himself upon the ground,
Long did he utter lamentations loud,
Cursing his marriage, swearing that his tie
To Oeneus had brought ruin on his life.
When he gave o'er, with eye upturned with pain,
Glancing from out the smoke, me, in the crowd,
Weeping he saw, and called me to his side.
"My son," he murmured, "shrink not from thy sire,
Not though it be thy doom to die with him.
Bear me away and lay me, if thou may'st,
Where none may look upon my agony.
If that would pain thee from this hated coast
Ship me at least, and let me not die here."
Obedient to his wish, with much ado
We laid him in the hold and hither brought
Convulsed and bellowing. Ye will see him soon,
Lingering upon life's verge or newly dead.
Mother, of these dark crimes thou stand'st convict,
For which may heaven's high justice deal with thee
And the Erinnyes, if that prayer is meet
For a son's lips; and thou hast made it meet
By murdering, of all dwellers upon earth,
The noblest man, whose peer thou ne'er shalt see.
(_To_ DEIANIRA _who leaves the scene_.)
Canst thou depart in silence and not see
That silence pleads on the accuser's side?
Let her go where she will. Fair be the wind
That bears out of my sight that hated barque.
A mother's name is but a hollow sound
When all her doings are unmotherly.
May joy go with her, and such happiness
Be hers, as she has made my sire to feel.
Philoctetes is the possessor of the bow and arrows of Hercules,
without which Troy, which has now been besieged for ten years, cannot
be taken. Suffering from an ulcer caused by the bite of the Hydra, and
becoming intolerable by his yells of anguish to the Hellenic camp, he
has been put ashore by Ulysses on the lonely island of Lemnos, and
there left for the ten years, whence he has conceived a deadly hatred
of Ulysses and the Hellenic host. His bow and arrows being
indispensable, the crafty Ulysses undertakes the task of inveigling
him, and goes to Lemnos for that purpose, taking with him Neoptolemus,
the young and generous son of Achilles, as a decoy. Neoptolemus, at
the instance of Ulysses, filches from Philoctetes the bow and arrows,
but being overcome by his nobler nature restores them. Here is now a
crisis worthy of the intervention of a god. Hercules descends upon the
scene, bids Philoctetes go to Troy with his bow, and promises to send
Aesculapius to heal him of his sickness.
* * * * *
Ulysses explains the plan of action to Neoptolemus, and labours to
bend him to his purpose.
This is the shore of Lemnos' lonely isle,
By man untrodden, where, O worthy son
Of great Achilles, by our Hellas deemed
Her mightiest chief, Neoptolemus, erewhile
The Melian son of Poeas I cast forth,
The Princes having so commanded me,
Since in his foot he had a wasting sore,
And would not let us sacrifice or pour
Libations undisturbed, but filled the camp
With lamentations wild and blasphemous,
Yelling in agony. Yet why dilate,
On what has happened? We will stint our words;
He may espy my presence, and my plan
Of capturing him be ruined utterly.
Now must thy part be done; look round and see
Where is a rocky cave with double mouth,
So formed that in the winter twice the sun
Falls on the sitter, and in summer time
The breeze wafts slumber through two apertures.
A little way below, on the left hand,
Thou'lt find a spring, if it is running still.
Approach, and signal to me silently
Whether he is near by or is gone forth,
That I may then impart the rest to thee,
And we may jointly execute my plan.
My work, Ulysses, has been quickly done.
Methinks I see the cave of which you speak.
Is it above us, tell me, or below?
Above us here, and sound of step is none.
See that he is not sleeping in his lair.
I look, and none in the retreat appears.
And is there naught to show that man dwells there?
A bed of leaves, as though one couched thereon.
Is all else bare? Is there no garniture?
There is a wooden cup, the handiwork
Of some rough workman, and these kindling-sticks.
Thy inventory shows that he is here.
Faugh! here are rags left in the sun to dry,
Full of the running of some putrid sore.
'Tis plain enough that here his dwelling is.
Himself, too, must be near; for how could one,
Lame with an ancient ulcer, travel far?
He has gone forth either for provender,
Or to bring home some herb which soothes his pain.
Send thy attendant to explore the coast,
Lest unawares I should fall in with him:
All Hellas were not such a prize as I.
The attendant is despatched; watch will be kept.
Go on and tell me what thou dost desire.
Son of Achilles, what thou cam'st to do.
Thou must do bravely, not with hand alone,
But with thy heart, and if I ask aught new
Blench not; it is to aid me thou art here.
What wouldst thou have me do?
Beguile the mind
Of Philoctetes by thy wily words.
When he asks who thou art, and whence, reply
Achilles' son; no lie is needed here.
But say thou'rt sailing homeward, having left
The Achaean host in mortal enmity,
Since, when their prayers had drawn thee from thy home,
They having no hope else of taking Troy,
They did refuse the arms Achilles bore
To the right heir, when he demanded them,
And gave them to Ulysses, heaping all
The foul reproaches that thou wilt on me,
For they'll not hurt me. If thou dost this not,
Thou wilt bring woe on the whole Argive host,
For if we fail yon archer's bow to win,
Thou ne'er shalt conquer the Dardanian land.
That thou canst safely and with confidence
Approach him, while I cannot, this will prove:
Thou didst not sail constrained by any oath,
Nor by compulsion, nor in the first fleet;
But I can nothing of all this deny.
Me if, still master of his arms, he sees,
I am undone, and shall undo thee too.
Thy task, then, is out of his hands to steal
By subtlety, the unconquerable bow.
Well do I know thy nature is not formed
For falsehood, nor for treacherous device,
But still success is sweet; stretch but a point,
To-morrow we'll return to righteousness.
For a small part of one brief day consent
To play the knave, then to the end of life
Be virtue's paragon and cynosure.
Son of Laertes, what my ears abhor
To hear, my hand abhors to execute.
So was it, as they tell me, with my sire.
To take the man by force and not by guile
I am prepared: he is alone and lame,
While we are many: he would strive in vain.
Commissioned as I am to second thee,
I must be loyal, but would rather lose
With honour, than dishonourably win.
Son of a glorious sire, myself in youth
Was ready with my hand, and slow of tongue.
Experience has taught me that the tongue
Is a man's leading member, not his hand.
What is it thou dost bid me do but lie?
I bid thee Philoctetes circumvent.
Will not persuasion work as well as guile?
He will not yield, and force him thou canst not.
Has he such might as to defy us all?
He has the unerring arrows winged with death.
Is it not safe e'en to encounter him?
Only if thou canst snare him as I say.
Seems it not shameful to thee thus to lie?
No, if the lie alone can do our work.
How look him in the face and say such things?
With gain in view our scruples must give way.
Suppose him brought to Troy, what gain to me?
Troy can be taken only by his bow.
I, then, am not to be her conqueror.
Not by thyself, nor without thee the bow.
If so it be, the bow must be secured.
Secure it and a double meed is thine.
Prove this to me, and I will do thy will.
Thou wilt be hailed at once as wise and brave.
Well, I will do it; all my qualms are gone.
Canst thou remember what erewhile I taught?
That can I, since my word has once been passed.
Then bide thou here, and wait for his approach:
I will withdraw, lest I should meet his eye.
Our sentinels shall to the ship return,
And if ye seem to me to tarry long,
I will despatch the same man back again,
Having disguised him as a shipmaster,
That unsuspect he may my bidding do.
My son, in riddles he will speak to thee,
And see that thou dost read his riddle right.
I'll to the ship and leave the rest to thee.
May Hermes, god of cunning, help his own,
And may Athene, Queen of victory
And cities, save her votary once more.
* * * * *
_THE HERO BETRAYED._
Neoptolemus, having filched the bow of Philoctetes, Philoctetes prays
him to restore it.
O pest, O bane, O of all villainy
Vile masterpiece, what hast thou done to me?
How am I duped? Wretch, hast thou no regard
For the unfortunate, the suppliant?
Thou tak'st my life when thou dost take my bow.
Give it me back, good youth, I do entreat.
O by thy gods, rob me not of my life.
Alas! he answers not, but as resolved
Upon denial, turns away his face.
O havens, headlands, lairs of mountain beasts,
That my companions here have been, O cliffs
Steep-faced, since other audience have I none,
In your familiar presence I complain
Of the wrong done me by Achilles' son.
Home he did swear to take me, not to Troy.
Against his plighted faith the sacred bow
Of Heracles, the son of Zeus, he steals,
And means to show it to the Argive host.
He fancies that he over strength prevails,
Not seeing that I am a corpse, a shade,
A ghost. Were I myself, he had not gained
The day, nor would now save by treachery.
I am entrapped. Ah me! what can I do?
Yet be thyself and give me back my bow.
Say that thou wilt. He speaks not; I am lost.
O rock, with twofold doorway, I return
To thee disarmed, bereft of sustenance.
Deserted, I shall wither in that cell,
No longer slaying bird or sylvan beast
With yonder bow. Myself shall with my flesh
Now feed the creatures upon which I fed,
And be by my own quarry hunted down.
Thus shall I sadly render blood for blood,
And all through one that seemed to know no wrong.
Curse thee I will not till all hope is fled
Of thy repentance; then accursed die.
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