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

Lines 1500–1964

O brave endurance of a soul resolved!

That were ill praise, for those of happier doom.

All fame is happy, even famous death.

Ah sire, ah brethren, famous once were ye![She moves to enter the house, then starts back.

What fear is this that scares thee from the house?


What is this cry? some dark despair of soul?

Pah! the house fumes with stench and spilth of blood.

How? ’tis the smell of household offerings.

’Tis rank as charnel-scent from open graves.

Thou canst not mean this scented Syrian nard?

Nay, let me pass within to cry aloud

The monarch’s fate and mine—enough of life.

Ah friends!

Bear to me witness, since I fall in death,

That not as birds that shun the bush and scream

I moan in idle terror. This attest

When for my death’s revenge another dies,

A woman for a woman, and a man

Falls, for a man ill-wedded to his curse.

Grant me this boon—the last before I die.

Brave to the last! I mourn thy doom foreseen.

Once more one utterance, but not of wail,

Though for my death—and then I speak no more.

Sun! thou whose beam I shall not see again,

To thee I cry, Let those whom vengeance calls

To slay their kindred’s slayers, quit withal

The death of me, the slave, the fenceless prey.

Ah state of mortal man! in time of weal,

A line, a shadow! and if ill fate fall,

One wet sponge-sweep wipes all our trace away—

And this I deem less piteous, of the twain.[Exit into the palace.

Too true it is! our mortal state

With bliss is never satiate,

And none, before the palace high

And stately of prosperity,

Cries to us with a voice of fear,

Away! ’tis ill to enter here!

Lo! this our lord hath trodden down,

By grace of heaven, old Priam’s town,

And praised as god he stands once more

On Argos’ shore!

Yet now—if blood shed long ago

Cries out that other blood shall flow—

His life-blood, his, to pay again

The stern requital of the slain—

Peace to that braggart’s vaunting vain,

Who, having heard the chieftain’s tale,

Yet boasts of bliss untouched by bale![A loud cry from within.

O I am sped—a deep, a mortal blow.

Listen, listen! who is screaming as in mortal agony?

O! O! again, another, another blow!

The bloody act is over—I have heard the monarch’s cry—

Let us swiftly take some counsel, lest we too be doomed to die.

’Tis best, I judge, aloud for aid to call,

“Ho! loyal Argives! to the palace, all!”

Better, I deem, ourselves to bear the aid,

And drag the deed to light, while drips the blade.

Such will is mine, and what thou say’st I say:

Swiftly to act! the time brooks no delay.

Ay, for ’tis plain, this prelude of their song

Foretells its close in tyranny and wrong.

Behold, we tarry—but thy name, Delay,

They spurn, and press with sleepless hand to slay.

I know not what ’twere well to counsel now—

Who wills to act, ’tis his to counsel how.

Thy doubt is mine: for when a man is slain,

I have no words to bring his life again.

What? e’en for life’s sake, bow us to obey

These house-defilers and their tyrant sway?

Unmanly doom! ’twere better far to die—

Death is a gentler lord than tyranny.

Think well—must cry or sign of woe or pain

Fix our conclusion that the chief is slain?

Such talk befits us when the deed we see—

Conjecture dwells afar from certainty.

I read one will from many a diverse word,

To know aright, how stands it with our lord![The scene opens, disclosing Clytemnestra, who comes forward. The body of Agamemnon lies, muffled in a long robe, within a silver-sided laver; the corpse of Cassandra is laid beside him.

Ho, ye who heard me speak so long and oft

The glozing word that led me to my will—

Hear how I shrink not to unsay it all!

How else should one who willeth to requite

Evil for evil to an enemy

Disguised as friend, weave the mesh straitly round him,

Not to be overleaped, a net of doom?

This is the sum and issue of old strife,

Of me deep-pondered and at length fulfilled.

All is avowed, and as I smote I stand

With foot set firm upon a finished thing!

I turn not to denial: thus I wrought

So that he could nor flee nor ward his doom.

Even as the trammel hems the scaly shoal,

I trapped him with inextricable toils,

The ill abundance of a baffling robe;

Then smote him, once, again—and at each wound

He cried aloud, then as in death relaxed

Each limb and sank to earth; and as he lay,

Once more I smote him, with the last third blow,

Sacred to Hades, saviour of the dead.

And thus he fell, and as he passed away,

Spirit with body chafed; each dying breath

Flung from his breast swift bubbling jets of gore,

And the dark sprinklings of the rain of blood

Fell upon me; and I was fain to feel

That dew—not sweeter is the rain of heaven

To cornland, when the green sheath teems with grain.

Elders of Argos—since the thing stands so,

I bid you to rejoice, if such your will:

Rejoice or not, I vaunt and praise the deed,

And well I ween, if seemly it could be,

’Twere not ill done to pour libations here,

Justly—ay, more than justly—on his corpse

Who filled his home with curses as with wine,

And thus returned to drain the cup he filled.

I marvel at thy tongue’s audacity,

To vaunt thus loudly o’er a husband slain.

Ye hold me as a woman, weak of will,

And strive to sway me: but my heart is stout,

Nor fears to speak its uttermost to you,

Albeit ye know its message. Praise or blame,

Even as ye list,—I reck not of your words.

Lo! at my feet lies Agamemnon slain,

My husband once—and him this hand of mine,

A right contriver, fashioned for his death.

Behold the deed!

Woman, what deadly birth,

What venomed essence of the earth

Or dark distilment of the wave,

To thee such passion gave,

Nerving thine hand

To set upon thy brow this burning crown,

The curses of thy land?

Our king by thee cut off, hewn down!

Go forth—they cry—accursèd and forlorn,

To hate and scorn!

O ye just men, who speak my sentence now,

The city’s hate, the ban of all my realm!

Ye had no voice of old to launch such doom

On him, my husband, when he held as light

My daughter’s life as that of sheep or goat,

One victim from the thronging fleecy fold!

Yea, slew in sacrifice his child and mine,

The well-loved issue of my travail-pangs,

To lull and lay the gales that blew from Thrace.

That deed of his, I say, that stain and shame,

Had rightly been atoned by banishment;

But ye, who then were dumb, are stern to judge

This deed of mine that doth affront your ears.

Storm out your threats, yet knowing this for sooth,

That I am ready, if your hand prevail

As mine now doth, to bow beneath your sway:

If God say nay, it shall be yours to learn

By chastisement a late humility.

Bold is thy craft, and proud

Thy confidence, thy vaunting loud;

Thy soul, that chose a murd’ress’ fate,

Is all with blood elate—

Maddened to know

The blood not yet avenged, the damnèd spot

Crimson upon thy brow.

But Fate prepares for thee thy lot—

Smitten as thou didst smite, without a friend,

To meet thine end!

Hear then the sanction of the oath I swear—

By the great vengeance for my murdered child,

By Atè, by the Fury unto whom

This man lies sacrificed by hand of mine,

I do not look to tread the hall of Fear,

While in this hearth and home of mine there burns

The light of love—Ægisthus—as of old

Loyal, a stalwart shield of confidence—

As true to me as this slain man was false,

Wronging his wife with paramours at Troy,

Fresh from the kiss of each Chryseis there!

Behold him dead—behold his captive prize,

Seeres and harlot—comfort of his bed,

True prophetess, true paramour—I wot

The sea-bench was not closer to the flesh,

Full oft, of every rower, than was she

See, ill they did, and ill requites them now.

His death ye know: she as a dying swan

Sang her last dirge, and lies, as erst she lay,

Close to his side, and to my couch has left

A sweet new taste of joys that know no fear.

Ah woe and well-a-day! I would that Fate—

Not bearing agony too great,

Nor stretching me too long on couch of pain—

Would bid mine eyelids keep

The morningless and unawakening sleep!

For life is weary, now my lord is slain,

The gracious among kings!

Hard fate of old he bore and many grievous things,

And for a woman’s sake, on Ilian land—

Now is his life hewn down, and by a woman’s hand!

O Helen, O infatuate soul,

Who bad’st the tides of battle roll,

O’erwhelming thousands, life on life,

’Neath Ilion’s wall!

And now lies dead the lord of all.

The blossom of thy storied sin

Bears blood’s inexpiable stain,

O thou that erst, these halls within,

Wert unto all a rock of strife,

A husband’s bane!

Peace! pray not thou for death as though

Thine heart was whelmed beneath this woe,

Nor turn thy wrath aside to ban

The name of Helen, nor recall

How she, one bane of many a man,

Sent down to death the Danaan lords,

To sleep at Troy the sleep of swords,

And wrought the woe that shattered all.

Fiend of the race! that swoopest fell

Upon the double stock of Tantalus,

Lording it o’er me by a woman’s will,

Stern, manful, and imperious—

A bitter sway to me!

Thy very form I see,

Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain,

Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!

Right was the word—thou namest well

The brooding race-fiend, triply fell!

From him it is that murder’s thirst,

Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed—

Ere time the ancient scar can sain,

New blood comes welling forth again.

Grim is his wrath and heavy on our home,

That fiend of whom thy voice has cried,

Alas, an omened cry of woe unsatisfied,

An all-devouring doom!

As woe, as Zeus! from Zeus all things befall—

Zeus the high cause and finisher of all!—

Lord of our mortal state, by him are willed

All things, by him fulfilled!

Yet ah my king, my king no more!

What words to say, what tears to pour

Can tell my love for thee?

The spider-web of treachery

She wove and wound, thy life around,

And lo! I see thee lie,

And thro’ a coward, impious wound

Pant forth thy life and die!

A death of shame—ah woe on woe!

A treach’rous hand, a cleaving blow!

My guilt thou harpest, o’er and o’er!

I bid thee reckon me no more

As Agamemnon’s spouse.

The old Avenger, stern of mood

For Atreus and his feast of blood,

Hath struck the lord of Atreus’ house,

And in the semblance of his wife

The king hath slain.—

Yea, for the murdered children’s life,

A chieftain’s in requital ta’en.

Thou guiltless of this murder, thou!

Who dares such thought avow?

Yet it may be, wroth for the parent’s deed,

The fiend hath holpen thee to slay the son.

Dark Ares, god of death, is pressing on

Thro’ streams of blood by kindred shed,

Exacting the accompt for children dead,

For clotted blood, for flesh on which their sire did feed.

Yet ah my king, my king no more!

What words to say, what tears to pour

Can tell my love for thee?

The spider-web of treachery

She wove and wound, thy life around,]

And lo! I see thee lie,

And thro’ a coward, impious wound

Pant forth thy life and die!

A death of shame—ah woe on woe!

A treach’rous hand, a cleaving blow!

I deem not that the death he died

Had overmuch of shame:

For this was he who did provide

Foul wrong unto his house and name:

His daughter, blossom of my womb,

He gave unto a deadly doom,

Iphigenia, child of tears!

And as he wrought, even so he fares.

Nor be his vaunt too loud in hell;

For by the sword his sin he wrought,

And by the sword himself is brought

Among the dead to dwell.

Ah whither shall I fly?

For all in ruin sinks the kingly hall;

Nor swift device nor shift of thought have I,

To ’scape its fall.

A little while the gentler raindrops fail;

I stand distraught—a ghastly interval,

Till on the roof-tree rings the bursting hail

Of blood and doom. Even now fate whets the steel

On whetstones new and deadlier than of old,

The steel that smites, in Justice’ hold,

Another death to deal.

O Earth! that I had lain at rest

And lapped for ever in thy breast,

Ere I had seen my chieftain fall

Within the laver’s silver wall,

Low-lying on dishonoured bier!

And who shall give him sepulchre,

And who the wail of sorrow pour?

Woman, ’tis thine no more!

A graceless gift unto his shade

Such tribute, by his murd’ress paid!

Strive not thus wrongly to atone

The impious deed thy hand hath done.

Ah who above the godlike chief?

Shall weep the tears of loyal grief?

Who speak above his lowly grave

The last sad praises of the brave?

Peace! for such task is none of thine.

By me he fell, by me he died,

And now his burial rites be mine!

Yet from these halls no mourners’ train

Shall celebrate his obsequies;

Only by Acheron’s rolling tide

His child shall spring unto his side,

And in a daughter’s loving wise

Shall clasp and kiss him once again!

Lo! sin by sin and sorrow dogg’d by sorrow—

And who the end can know?

The slayer of today shall die tomorrow—

The wage of wrong is woe.

While Time shall be, while Zeus in heaven is lord,

His law is fixed and stern;

On him that wrought shall vengeance be outpoured—

The tides of doom return.

The children of the curse abide within

These halls of high estate—

And none can wrench from off the home of sin

The clinging grasp of fate.

Now walks thy word aright, to tell

This ancient truth of oracle;

But I with vows of sooth will pray

To him, the power that holdeth sway

O’er all the race of Pleisthenes—

Tho’ dark the deed and deep the guilt,

With this last blood my hands have spilt,

I pray thee let thine anger cease!

I pray thee pass from us away

To some new race in other lands,

There, if thou wilt, to wrong and slay

The lives of men by kindred hands.

For me’tis all sufficient meed,

Tho’ little wealth or power were won,

So I can say, ’Tis past and done.

The bloody lust and murderous,

The inborn frenzy of our house,

Is ended, by my deed![Enter Ægisthus.

Dawn of the day of rightful vengeance, hail!

I dare at length aver that gods above

Have care of men and heed of earthly wrongs.

I, I who stand and thus exult to see

This man lie wound in robes the Furies wove,

Slain in requital of his father’s craft.

Take ye the truth, that Atreus, this man’s sire,

The lord and monarch of this land of old,

Held with my sire Thyestes deep dispute,

Brother with brother, for the prize of sway,

And drave him from his home to banishment.

Thereafter, the lorn exile homeward stole

And clung a suppliant to the heart divine,

And for himself won this immunity—

Not with his own blood to defile the land

That gave him birth. But Atreus, godless sire

Of him who here lies dead, this welcome planned—

With zeal that was not love he feigned to hold

In loyal joy a day of festal cheer,

And bade my father to his board, and set

Before him flesh that was his children once.

First, sitting at the upper board alone,

He hid the fingers and the feet, but gave

The rest—and readily Thyestes took

What to his ignorance no semblance wore

Of human flesh, and ate: behold what curse

That eating brought upon our race and name!

For when he knew what all-unhallowed thing

He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry

Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul,

On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake—

As darkly as I spurn this damnèd food,

So perish all the race of Pleisthenes!

Thus by that curse fell he whom here ye see,

And I—who else?—this murder wove and planned;

For me, an infant yet in swaddling bands,

Of the three children youngest, Atreus sent

To banishment by my sad father’s side:

But Justice brought me home once more, grown now

To manhood’s years; and stranger tho’ I was,

My right hand reached unto the chieftain’s life,

Plotting and planning all that malice bade.

And death itself were honour now to me,

Beholding him in Justice’ ambush ta’en.

Ægisthus, for this insolence of thine

That vaunts itself in evil, take my scorn.

Of thine own will, thou sayest, thou hast slain

The chieftain, by thine own unaided plot

Devised the piteous death: I rede thee well,

Think not thy head shall ’scape, when right prevails,

The people’s ban, the stones of death and doom.

This word from thee, this word from one who rows

Low at the oars beneath, what time we rule,

We of the upper tier? Thou’lt know anon,

’Tis bitter to be taught again in age,

By one so young, submission at the word.

But iron of the chain and hunger’s throes

Can minister unto an o’erswoln pride

Marvellous well, ay, even in the old.

Hast eyes, and seest not this? Peace—kick not thus

Against the pricks, unto thy proper pain!

Thou womanish man, waiting till war did cease,

Home-watcher and defiler of the couch,

And arch-deviser of the chieftain’s doom!

Bold words again! but they shall end in tears.

The very converse, thine, of Orpheus’ tongue:

He roused and led in ecstasy of joy

All things that heard his voice melodious;

But thou as with the futile cry of curs

Wilt draw men wrathfully upon thee. Peace!

Or strong subjection soon shall tame thy tongue.

Ay, thou art one to hold an Argive down—

Thou, skilled to plan the murder of the king,

But not with thine own hand to smite the blow!

That fraudful force was woman’s very part,

Not mine, whom deep suspicion from of old

Would have debarred. Now by his treasure’s aid

My purpose holds to rule the citizens.

But whoso will not bear my guiding hand,

Him for his corn-fed mettle I will drive

Not as a trace-horse, light-caparisoned,

But to the shafts with heaviest harness bound.

Famine, the grim mate of the dungeon dark,

Shall look on him and shall behold him tame.

Thou losel soul, was then thy strength too slight

To deal in murder, while a woman’s hand,

Staining and shaming Argos and its gods,

Availed to slay him? Ho, if anywhere

The light of life smite on Orestes’ eyes,

Let him, returning by some guardian fate,

Hew down with force her paramour and her!

How thy word and act shall issue, thou shalt shortly understand.

Up to action, O my comrades! for the fight is hard at hand.

Swift, your right hands to the sword hilt! bare the weapon as for strife—

Lo! I too am standing ready, hand on hilt for death or life.

’Twas thy word and we accept it: onward to the chance of war!

Nay, enough, enough, my champion! we will smite and slay no more.

Already have we reaped enough the harvest-field of guilt:

Enough of wrong and murder, let no other blood be spilt.

Peace, old men! and pass away unto the homes by Fate decreed,

Lest ill valour meet our vengeance—’twas a necessary deed.

But enough of toils and troubles—be the end, if ever, now,

Ere thy talon, O Avenger, deal another deadly blow.

’Tis a woman’s word of warning, and let who will list thereto.

But that these should loose and lavish reckless blossoms of the tongue,

And in hazard of their fortune cast upon me words of wrong,

And forget the law of subjects, and revile their ruler’s word—

Ruler? but ’tis not for Argives, thus to own a dastard lord!

I will follow to chastise thee in my coming days of sway.

Not if Fortune guide Orestes safely on his homeward way.

Ah, well I know how exiles feed on hopes of their return.

Fare and batten on pollution of the right, while ’tis thy turn.

Thou shalt pay, be well assurèd, heavy quittance for thy pride.

Crow and strut, with her to watch thee, like a cock, his mate beside!

Heed not thou too highly of them—let the cur-pack growl and yell:

I and thou will rule the palace and will order all things well.[Exeunt.