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Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.). Agamemnon.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Lines 1–499

I PRAY the gods to quit me of my toils,

To close the watch I keep, this livelong year;

For as a watch-dog lying, not at rest,

Propped on one arm, upon the palace-roof

Of Atreus’ race, too long, too well I know

The starry conclave of the midnight sky,

Too well, the splendours of the firmament,

The lords of light, whose kingly aspect shows—

What time they set or climb the sky in turn—

The year’s divisions, bringing frost or fire.

And now, as ever, am I set to mark

When shall stream up the glow of signal-flame,

The bale-fire bright, and tell its Trojan tale—

Troy town is ta’en: such issue holds in hope

She in whose woman’s breast beats heart of man.

Thus upon mine unrestful couch I lie,

Bathed with the dews of night, unvisited

By dreams—ah me!—for in the place of sleep

Stands Fear as my familiar, and repels

The soft repose that would mine eyelids seal.

And if at whiles, for the lost balm of sleep,

I medicine my soul with melody

Of trill or song—anon to tears I turn,

Wailing the woe that broods upon this home,

Not now by honour guided as of old.

But now at last fair fall the welcome hour

That sets me free, whene’er the thick night glow

With beacon-fire of hope deferred no more.

All hail![A beacon-light is seen reddening the distant sky.

Fire of the night, that brings my spirit day,

Shedding on Argos light, and dance, and song.

Greetings to fortune, hail!

Let my loud summons ring within the ears

Of Agamemnon’s queen, that she anon

Start from her couch and with a shrill voice cry

A joyous welcome to the beacon-blaze,

For Ilion’s fall; such fiery message gleams

From yon high flame; and I, before the rest,

Will foot the lightsome measure of our joy;

For I can say, My master’s dice fell fair—

Behold! the triple sice, the lucky flame!

Now be my lot to clasp, in loyal love,

The hand of him restored, who rules our home:

Home—but I say no more: upon my tongue

Treads hard the ox o’ the adage.

Had it voice,

The home itself might soothliest tell its tale;

I, of set will, speak words the wise may learn,

To others, nought remember nor discern.[Exit. The chorus of old men of Mycenæ enter, each leaning on a staff. During their song Clytemnestra appears in the background, kindling the altars.

Ten livelong years have rolled away,

Since the twin lords of sceptred sway,

By Zeus endowed with pride of place,

The doughty chiefs of Atreus’ race,

Went forth of yore,

To plead with Priam, face to face,

Before the judgment-seat of War!

A thousand ships from Argive land

Put forth to bear the martial band,

That with a spirit stern and strong

Went out to right the kingdom’s wrong—

Pealed, as they went, the battle-song,

Wild as the vultures’ cry;

When o’er the eyrie, soaring high,

In wild bereavèd agony,

Around, around, in airy rings,

They wheel with oarage of their wings,

But not the eyas-brood behold,

That called them to the nest of old;

But let Apollo from the sky,

Or Pan, or Zeus, but hear the cry,

The exile cry, the wail forlorn,

Of birds from whom their home is torn—

On those who wrought the rapine fell,

Heaven sends the vengeful fiends of hell.

Even so doth Zeus, the jealous lord

And guardian of the hearth and board,

Speed Atreus’ sons, in vengeful ire,

’Gainst Paris—sends them forth on fire,

Her to buy back, in war and blood,

Whom one did wed but many woo’d!

And many, many, by his will,

The last embrace of foes shall feel,

And many a knee in dust be bowed,

And splintered spears on shields ring loud,

Of Trojan and of Greek, before

That iron bridal-feast be o’er!

But as he willed ’tis ordered all,

And woes, by heaven ordained, must fall—

Unsoothed by tears or spilth of wine

Poured forth too late, the wrath divine

Glares vengeance on the flameless shrine.

And we in gray dishonoured eld,

Feeble of frame, unfit were held

To join the warrior array

That then went forth unto the fray:

And here at home we tarry, fain

Our feeble footsteps to sustain,

Each on his staff—so strength doth wane,

And turns to childishness again.

For while the sap of youth is green,

And, yet unripened, leaps within,

The young are weakly as the old,

And each alike unmeet to hold

The vantage post of war!

And ah! when flower and fruit are o’er,

And on life’s tree the leaves are sere,

Age wendeth propped its journey drear,

As forceless as a child, as light

And fleeting as a dream of night

Lost in the garish day!

But thou, O child of Tyndareus,

Queen Clytemnestra, speak! and say

What messenger of joy today

Hath won thine ear? what welcome news,

That thus in sacrificial wise

E’en to the city’s boundaries

Thou biddest altar-fires arise?

Each god who doth our city guard,

And keeps o’er Argos watch and ward

From heaven above, from earth below—

The mighty lords who rule the skies,

The market’s lesser deities,

To each and all the altars glow,

Piled for the sacrifice!

And here and there, anear, afar,

Streams skyward many a beacon-star,

Conjur’d and charm’d and kindled well

By pure oil’s soft and guileless spell,

Hid now no more

Within the palace’ secret store.

O queen, we pray thee, whatsoe’er,

Known unto thee, were well revealed,

That thou wilt trust it to our ear,

And bid our anxious heart be healed!

That waneth now unto despair—

Now, waxing to a presage fair,

Dawns, from the altar, Hope—to scare

From our rent hearts the vulture Care.

List! for the power is mine, to chant on high

The chiefs’ emprise, the strength that omens gave!

List! on my soul breathes yet a harmony,

From realms of ageless powers, and strong to save!

How brother kings, twins lords of one command,

Led forth the youth of Hellas in their flower,

Urged on their way, with vengeful spear and brand,

By warrior-birds, that watched the parting hour.

Go forth to Troy, the eagles seemed to cry—

And the sea-kings obeyed the sky-kings’ word,

When on the right they soared across the sky,

And one was black, one bore a white tail barred.

High o’er the palace were they seen to soar,

Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare,

Far from the fields that she should range no more,

Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.

And one beheld, the soldier-prophet true,

And the two chiefs, unlike of soul and will,

In the twy-coloured eagles straight he knew,

And spake the omen forth, for good and ill.

(Ah woe and well-a-day! but be the issue fair!)

Go forth, he cried, and Priam’s town shall fall.

Yet long the time shall be; and flock and herd,

The people’s wealth, that roam before the wall,

Shall force hew down, when Fate shall give the word.

But O beware! lest wrath in heaven abide,

To dim the glowing battle-forge once more,

And mar the mighty curb of Trojan pride,

The steel of vengeance, welded as for war!

For virgin Artemis bears jealous hate

Against the royal house, the eagle-pair,

Who rend the unborn brood, insatiate—

Yea, loathes their banquet on the quivering hare.

(Ah woe and well-a-day! but be the issue fair!)

For well she loves—the goddess kind and mild—

The tender new-born cubs of lions bold,

Too weak to range—and well the sucking child

Of every beast that roams by wood and wold.

So to the Lord of Heaven she prayeth still,

“Nay, if it must be, be the omen true!

Yet do the visioned eagles presage ill;

The end be well, but crossed with evil too!”

Healer Apollo! be her wrath controll’d,

Nor weave the long delay of thwarting gales,

To war against the Danaans and withhold

From the free ocean-waves their eager sails!

She craves, alas! to see a second life

Shed forth, a curst unhallowed sacrifice—

’Twixt wedded souls, artificer of strife,

And hate that knows not fear, and fell device.

At home there tarries like a lurking snake,

Biding its time, a wrath unreconciled,

A wily watcher, passionate to slake,

In blood, resentment for a murdered child.

Such was the mighty warning, pealed of yore—

Amid good tidings, such the word of fear,

What time the fateful eagles hovered o’er

The kings, and Calchas read the omen clear.

(In strains like his, once more,

Sing woe and well-a-day! but be the issue fair!)

Zeus—if to The Unknown

That name of many names seem good—

Zeus, upon Thee I call.

Thro’ the mind’s every road

I passed, but vain are all,

Save that which names thee Zeus, the Highest One,

Were it but mine to cast away the load,

The weary load, that weighs my spirit down.

He that was Lord of old,

In full-blown pride of place and valour bold,

Hath fallen and is gone, even as an old tale told!

And he that next held sway,

By stronger grasp o’erthrown

Hath pass’d away!

And whoso now shall bid the triumph-chant arise

To Zeus, and Zeus alone,

He shall be found the truly wise.

’Tis Zeus alone who shows the perfect way

Of knowledge: He hath ruled,

Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled.

In visions of the night, like dropping rain,

Descend the many memories of pain

Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and dole

Comes wisdom o’er the unwilling soul—

A boon, I wot, of all Divinity,

That holds its sacred throne in strength, above the sky!

And then the elder chief, at whose command

The fleet of Greece was manned,

Cast on the seer no word of hate,

But veered before the sudden breath of Fate—

Ah, weary while! for, ere they put forth sail,

Did every store, each minish’d vessel, fail,

While all the Achæan host

At Aulis anchored lay,

Looking across to Chalcis and the coast

Where refluent waters welter, rock, and sway;

And rife with ill delay

From northern Strymon blew the thwarting blast—

Mother of famine fell,

That holds men wand’ring still

Far from the haven where they fain would be!—

And pitiless did waste

Each ship and cable, rotting on the sea,

And, doubling with delay each weary hour,

Withered with hope deferred th’ Achæans’ warlike flower.

But when, for bitter storm, a deadlier relief,

And heavier with ill to either chief,

Pleading the ire of Artemis, the seer avowed,

The two Atridæ smote their sceptres on the plain,

And, striving hard, could not their tears restrain!

And then the elder monarch spake aloud—

Ill lot were mine, to disobey!

And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!

To stain with virgin blood a father’s hands, and slay

My daughter, by the altar’s side!

’Twixt woe and woe I dwell—

I dare not like a recreant fly,

And leave the league of ships, and fail each true ally;

For rightfully they crave, with eager fiery mind,

The virgin’s blood, shed forth to lull the adverse wind—

God send the deed be well!

Thus on this neck he took

Fate’s hard compelling yoke;

Then, in the counter-gale of will abhorr’d, accursed,

To recklessness his shifting spirit veered—

Alas! that Frenzy, first of ills and worst,

With evil craft men’s souls to sin hath ever stirred!

And so he steeled his heart—ah, well-a-day—

Aiding a war for one false woman’s sake,

His child to slay,

And with her spilt blood make

An offering, to speed the ships upon their way!

Lusting for war, the bloody arbiters

Closed heart and ears, and would nor hear nor heed

The girl-voice plead,

Pity me, Father! nor her prayers,

Nor tender, virgin years.

So, when the chant of sacrifice was done,

Her father bade the youthful priestly train

Raise her, like some poor kid, above the altar-stone,

From where amid her robes she lay

Sunk all in swoon away—

Bade them, as with the bit that mutely tames the steed,

Her fair lips’ speech refrain,

Lest she should speak a curse on Atreus’ home and seed,

So trailing on the earth her robe of saffron dye,

With one last piteous dart from her beseeching eye

Those that should smite she smote—

Fair, silent, as a pictur’d form, but fain

To plead, Is all forgot?

How oft those halls of old,

Wherein my sire high feast did hold,

Rang to the virginal soft strain,

When I, a stainless child,

Sang from pure lips and undefiled,

Sang of my sire, and all

His honoured life, and how on him should fall

Heaven’s highest gift and gain!

And then—but I beheld not, nor can tell,

What further fate befel:

But this is sure, that Calchas’ boding strain

Can ne’er be void or vain.

This wage from Justice’ hand do sufferers earn,

The future to discern;

And yet—farewell, O secret of tomorrow!

Foreknowledge is fore-sorrow.

Clear with the clear beams of the morrow’s sun,

The future presseth on.

Now, let the house’s tale, how dark soe’er,

Find yet an issue fair!—

So prays the loyal, solitary band

That guards the Apian land.[They turn to Clytemnestra, who leaves the altars and comes forward.

O queen, I come in reverence of thy sway—

For, while the ruler’s kingly seat is void,

The loyal heart before his consort bends.

Now—be it sure and certain news of good,

Or the fair tidings of a flatt’ring hope,

That bids thee spread the light from shrine to shrine,

I, fain to hear, yet grudge not if thou hide.

As saith the adage, From the womb of Night

Spring forth, with promise fair, the young child Light.

Ay—fairer even than all hope my news—

By Grecian hands is Priam’s city ta’en!

What say’st thou? doubtful heart makes treach’rous ear.

Hear then again, and plainly—Troy is ours!

Thrills thro’ my heart such joy as wakens tears.

Ay, thro’ those tears thine eye looks loyalty.

But hast thou proof, to make assurance sure?

Go to; I have—unless the god has lied.

Hath some night-vision won thee to belief?

Out on all presage of slumb’rous soul!

But wert thou cheered by Rumour’s wingless word?

Peace—thou dost chide me as a credulous girl.

Say then how long ago the city fell?

Even in this night that now brings forth the dawn.

Yet who so swift could speed the message here?

From Ida’s top Hephæstus, lord of fire,

Sent forth his sign; and on, and ever on,

Beacon to beacon sped the courier-flame.

From Ida to the crag, that Hermes loves,

Of Lemnos; thence unto the steep sublime

Of Athos, throne of Zeus, the broad blaze flared.

Thence, raised aloft to shoot across the sea,

The moving light, rejoicing in its strength,

Sped from the pyre of pine, and urged its way,

In golden glory, like some strange new sun,

Onward, and reached Macistus’ watching heights.

There, with no dull delay nor heedless sleep,

The watcher sped the tidings on in turn,

Until the guard upon Messapius’ peak

Saw the far flame gleam on Euripus’ tide,

And from the high-piled heap of withered furze

Lit the new sign and bade the message on.

Then the strong light, far flown and yet undimmed,

Shot thro’ the sky above Asopus’ plain,

Bright as the moon, and on Cithæron’s crag

Aroused another watch of flying fire.

And there the sentinels no whit disowned,

But sent redoubled on, the hest of flame—

Swift shot the light, above Gorgopis’ bay,

To Ægiplanctus’ mount, and bade the peak

Fail not the onward ordinance of fire.

And like a long beard streaming in the wind,

Full-fed with fuel, roared and rose the blaze,

And onward flaring, gleamed above the cape,

Beneath which shimmers the Saronic bay,

And thence leapt light unto Arachne’s peak,

The mountain watch that looks upon our town.

Thence to th’ Atrides’ roof—in lineage fair,

A bright posterity of Ida’s fire.

So sped from stage to stage, fulfilled in turn,

Flame after flame, along the course ordained,

And lo! the last to speed upon its way

Sights the end first, and glows unto the goal.

And Troy is ta’en, and by this sign my lord

Tells me the tale, and ye have learned my word.

To heaven, O queen, will I upraise new song:

But, wouldst thou speak once more, I fain would hear

From first to last the marvel of the tale.

Think you—this very morn—the Greeks in Troy,

And loud therein the voice of utter wail!

Within one cup pour vinegar and oil,

And look! unblent, unreconciled, they war.

So in the twofold issue of the strife

Mingle the victor’s shout, the captives’ moan.

For all the conquered whom the sword has spared

Cling weeping—some unto a brother Slain,

Some childlike to a nursing father’s form,

And wail the loved and lost, the while their neck

Bows down already ’neath the captive’s chain.

And lo! the victors, now the fight is done,

Goaded by restless hunger, far and wide

Range all disordered thro’ the town, to snatch

Such vitual and such rest as chance may give

Within the captive halls that once were Troy—

Joyful to rid them of the frost and dew,

Wherein they couched upon the plain of old—

Joyful to sleep the gracious night all through,

Unsummoned of the watching sentinel.

Yet let them reverence well the city’s gods,

The lords of Troy, tho’ fallen, and her shrines;

So shall the spoilers not in turn be spoiled.

Yea, let no craving for forbidden gain

Bid conquerors yield before the darts of greed.

For we need yet, before the race be won,

Homewards, unharmed, to round the course once more.

For should the host wax wanton ere it come,

Then, tho’ the sudden blow of fate be spared,

Yet in the sight of gods shall rise once more

The great wrong of the slain, to claim revenge.

Now, hearing from this woman’s mouth of mine,

The tale and eke its warning, pray with me,

Luck sway the scale, with no uncertain poise,

For my fair hopes are changed to fairer joys.

A gracious word thy woman’s lips have told,

Worthy a wise man’s utterance, O my queen;

Now with clear trust in thy convincing tale

I set me to salute the gods with song,

Who bring us bliss to counterpoise our pain.[Exit Clytemnestra.

Zeus, Lord of heaven! and welcome night

Of victory, that hast our might

With all the glories crowned!

On towers of Ilion, free no more,

Hast flung the mighty mesh of war,

And closely girt them round,

Till neither warrior may ’scape,

Nor stripling lightly overleap

The trammels as they close, and close,

Till with the grip of doom our foes

In slavery’s coil are bound!

Zeus, Lord of hospitality,

In grateful awe I bend to thee—

’Tis thou hast struck the blow!

At Alexander, long ago,

We marked thee bend thy vengeful bow,

But long and warily withhold

The eager shaft, which uncontrolled

And loosed too soon or launched too high,

Had wandered bloodless through the sky.

Zeus, the high God!—whate’er be dim in doubt,

This can our thought track out—

The blow that fells the sinner is of God,

And as he wills, the rod

Of vengeance smiteth sore. One said of old,

The gods list not to hold

A reckoning with him whose feet oppress

The grace of holiness—

An impious word! for whensoe’er the sire

Breathed forth rebellious fire—

What time his household overflowed the measure

Of bliss and health and treasure—

His children’s children read the reckoning plain,

At last, in tears and pain.

On me let weal that brings no woe be sent,

And therewithal, content!

Who spurns the shrine of Right, nor wealth nor power

Shall be to him a tower,

To guard him from the gulf: there lies his lot,

Where all things are forgot.

Lust drives him on—lust, desperate and wild,

Fate’s sin-contriving child—

And cure is none; beyond concealment clear,

Kindles sin’s baleful glare.

As an ill coin beneath the wearing touch

Betrays by stain and smutch

Its metal false—such is the sinful wight.

Before, on pinions light,

Fair Pleasure flits, and lures him childlike on,

While home and kin make moan

Beneath the grinding burden of his crime;

Till, in the end of time,

Cast down of heaven, he pours forth fruitless prayer

To powers that will not hear.

And such did Paris come

Unto Atrides’ home,

And thence, with sin and shame his welcome to repay,

Ravished the wife away—

And she, unto her country and her kin

Leaving the clash of shields and spears and arming ships,

And bearing unto Troy destruction for a dower,

And overbold in sin,

Went fleetly thro’ the gates, at midnight hour.

Oft from the prophets’ lips

Moaned out the warning and the wail—Ah woe!

Woe for the home, the home! and for the chieftains, woe!

Woe for the bride-bed, warm

Yet from the lovely limbs, the impress of the form

Of her who loved her lord, a while ago!

And woe! for him who stands

Shamed, silent, unreproachful, stretching hands

That find her not, and sees, yet will not see,

That she is far away!

And his sad fancy, yearning o’er the sea,

Shall summon and recall

Her wraith, once more to queen it in his hall.

And sad with many memories,

The fair cold beauty of each sculptured face—

And all to hatefulness is turned their grace,

Seen blankly by forlorn and hungering eyes!

And when the night is deep,

Come visions, sweet and sad, and bearing pain