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

Lines 500–999

Of hopings vain—

Void, void and vain, for scarce the sleeping sight

Has seen its old delight,

When thro’ the grasps of love that bid it stay

It vanishes away

On silent wings that roam adown the ways of sleep.

Such are the sights, the sorrows fell,

About our hearth—and worse, whereof I may not tell.

But, all the wide town o’er,

Each home that sent its master far away

From Hellas’ shore,

Feels the keen thrill of heart, the pang of loss, today.

For, truth to say,

The touch of bitter death is manifold!

Familiar was each face, and dear as life,

That went unto the war,

But thither, whence a warrior went of old,

Doth nought return—

Only a spear and sword, and ashes in an urn!

For Ares, lord of strife,

Who doth the swaying scales of battle hold,

War’s money-changer, giving dust for gold,

Sends back, to hearts that held them dear,

Scant ash of warriors, wept with many a tear,

Light to the hand, but heavy to the soul;

Yea, fills the light urn full

With what survived the flame—

Death’s dusty measure of a hero’s frame!

Alas! one cries, and yet alas again!

Our chief is gone, the hero of the spear,

And hath not left his peer!

Ah woe! another moans—my spouse is slain,

The death of honour, rolled in dust and blood,

Slain for a woman’s sin, a false wife’s shame!

Such muttered words of bitter mood

Rise against those who went forth to reclaim;

Yea, jealous wrath creeps on against th’ Atrides’ name.

And others, far beneath the Ilian wall,

Sleep their last sleep—the goodly chiefs and tall,

Couched in the foeman’s land, whereon they gave

Their breath, and lords of Troy, each in his Trojan grave.

Therefore for each and all the city’s breast

Is heavy with a wrath supprest,

As deep and deadly as a curse more loud

Flung by the common crowd;

And, brooding deeply, doth my soul await

Tidings of coming fate,

Buried as yet in darkness’ womb.

For not forgetful is the high gods’ doom

Against the sons of carnage: all too long

Seems the unjust to prosper and be strong,

Till the dark Furies come,

And smite with stern reversal all his home,

Down into dim obstruction—he is gone,

And help and hope, among the lost, is none!

O’er him who vaunteth an exceeding fame,

Impends a woe condign;

The vengeful bolt upon his eyes doth flame,

Sped from the hand divine.

This bliss be mine, ungrudged of God, to feel—

To tread no city to the dust,

Nor see my own life thrust

Down to a slave’s estate beneath another’s heel!

Behold, throughout the city wide

Have the swift feet of Rumour hied,

Roused by the joyful flame:

But is the news they scatter, sooth?

Or haply do they give for truth

Some cheat which heaven doth frame?

A child were he and all unwise,

Who let his heart with joy be stirred,

To see the beacon-fires arise,

And then, beneath some thwarting word,

Sicken anon with hope deferred.

The edge of woman’s insight still

Good news from true divideth ill;

Light rumours leap within the bound

That fences female credence round,

But, lightly born, as lightly dies

The tale that springs of her surmise.

Soon shall we know whereof the bale-fires tell,

The beacons, kindled with transmitted flame;

Whether, as well I deem, their tale is true,

Or whether like some dream delusive came

The welcome blaze but to befool our soul.

For lo! I see a herald from the shore

Draw hither, shadowed with the olive-wreath—

And thirsty dust, twin-brother of the clay,

Speaks plain of travel far and truthful news—

No dumb surmise, nor tongue of flame in smoke,

Fitfully kindled from the mountain pyre;

But plainlier shall his voice say, All is well,

Or—but away, forebodings adverse, now,

And on fair promise fair fulfilment come!

And whoso for the state prays otherwise,

Himself reap harvest of his ill desire!

O land of Argos, fatherland of mine!

To thee at last, beneath the tenth year’s sun,

My feet return; the bark of my emprise,

Tho’ one by one hope’s anchors broke away,

Held by the last, and now rides safely here.

Long, long my soul despaired to win, in death,

Its longed-for rest within our Argive land:

And now all hail, O earth, and hail to thee,

New-risen sun! and hail our country’s God,

High-ruling Zeus, and thou, the Pythian lord,

Whose arrows smote us once—smite thou no more!

Was not thy wrath wreaked full upon our heads,

O king Apollo, by Scamander’s side?

Turn thou, be turned, be saviour, healer, now!

And hail, all gods who rule the street and mart,

And Hermes hail! my patron and my pride,

Herald of heaven, and lord of heralds here!

And Heroes, ye who sped us on our way—

To one and all I cry, Receive again

With grace such Argives as the spear has spared.

Ah, home of royalty, beloved halls,

And solemn shrines, and gods that front the morn!

Benign as erst, with sun-flushed aspect greet

The king returning after many days.

For as from night flash out the beams of day,

So out of darkness dawns a light, a king,

On you, on Argos—Agamemnon comes.

Then hail and greet him well! such meed befits

Him whose right hand hewed down the towers of Troy

With the great axe of Zeus who righteth wrong—

And smote the plain, smote down to nothingness

Each altar, every shrine; and far and wide

Dies from the whole land’s face its offspring fair.

Such mighty yoke of fate he set on Troy—

Our lord and monarch, Atreus’ elder son,

And comes at last with blissful honour home;

Highest of all who walk on earth today—

Not Paris nor the city’s self that paid

Sin’s price with him, can boast, Whate’er befal,

The guerdon we have won outweighs it all.

But at Fate’s judgment-seat the robber stands

Condemned of rapine, and his prey is torn

Forth from his hands, and by his deed is reaped

A bloody harvest of his home and land

Gone down to death, and for his guilt and lust

His father’s race pays double in the dust.

Hail, herald of the Greeks, new-come from war.

All hail! not death itself can fight me now.

Was thine heart wrung with longing for thy land?

So that this joy doth brim mine eyes with tears.

On you too then this sweet distress did fall—

How say’st thou? make me master of thy word.

You longed for us who pined for you again.

Craved the land us who craved it, love for love?

Yea, till my brooding heart moaned out with pain.

Whence they despair, that mars the army’s joy?

Sole cure of wrong is silence, saith the saw.

Thy kings afar, couldst thou fear other men?

Death had been sweet, as thou didst say but now.

’Tis true; Fate smiles at last. Throughout our toil,

These many years, some chances issued fair,

And some, I wot, were chequered with a curse.

But who, on earth, hath won the bliss of heaven,

Thro’ time’s whole tenor an unbroken weal?

I could a tale unfold of toiling oars,

Ill rest, scant landings on a shore rock-strewn,

All pains, all sorrows, for our daily doom.

And worse and hatefuller our woes on land;

For where we couched, close by the foeman’s wall,

The river-plain was ever dank with dews,

Dropped from the sky, exuded from the earth,

A curse that clung unto our sodden garb,

And hair as horrent as a wild beast’s fell.

Why tell the woes of winter, when the birds

Lay stark and stiff, so stern was Ida’s snow?

Or summer’s scorch, what time the stirless wave

Sank to its sleep beneath the noonday sun?

Why mourn old woes? their pain has passed away;

And passed away, from those who fell, all care,

For evermore, to rise and live again.

Why sum the count of death, and render thanks

For life by moaning over fate malign?

Farewell, a long farewell to all our woes!

To us, the remnant of the host of Greece,

Comes weal beyond all counterpoise of woe;

Thus boast we rightfully to yonder sun,

Like him far-fleeted over sea and land.

The Argive host prevailed to conquer Troy,

And in the temples of the gods of Greece

Hung up these spoils, a shining sign to Time.

Let those who learn this legend bless aright

The city and its chieftains, and repay

The meed of gratitude of Zeus who willed

And wrought the deed. So stands the tale fulfilled.

Thy words o’erbear my doubt: for news of good,

The ear of age hath ever youth enow:

But those within the Clytemnestra’s self

Would fain hear all; glad thou their ears and mine.

Last night, when first the fiery courier came,

In sign that Troy is ta’en and razed to earth,

So wild a cry of joy my lips gave out,

That I was chidden—Hath the beacon watch

Made sure unto thy soul the sack to Troy?

A very woman thou, whose heart leaps light

At wandering rumours!—and with words like these

They showed me how I strayed, misled of hope.

Yet on each shrine I set the sacrifice,

And, in the strain they held for feminine,

Went heralds thro’ the city, to and fro,

With voice of loud proclaim, announcing joy;

And in each fane they lit and quenched with wine

The spicy perfumes fading in the flame.

All is fulfilled: I spare your longer tale—

The king himself anon shall tell me all.

Remains to think what honour best may greet

My lord, the majesty of Argos, home.

What day beams fairer on a woman’s eyes

Than this whereon she flings the portal wide,

To hail her lord, heaven-shielded, home from war?

This to my husband, that he tarry not,

But turn the city’s longing into joy!

Yea, let him come, and coming may he find

A wife no other than he left her, true

And faithful as a watch-dog to his home,

His foemen’s foe, in all her duties leal,

Trusty to keep for ten long years unmarred

The store whereon he set his master-seal.

Be steel deep-dyed, before ye look to see

Ill joy, ill fame, from other wight, in me!

’Tis fairly said: thus speaks a noble dame,

Nor speaks amiss, when truth informs the boast.[Exit Clytemnestra.

So has she spoken—be it yours to learn

By clear interpreters her specious word.

Turn to me, herald—tell me if anon

The second well-loved lord of Argos comes?

Hath Menelaus safely sped with you?

Alas—brief boon unto my friends it were,

To flatter them, for truth, with falsehoods fair!

Speak joy if truth be joy, but truth, at worst—

Too plainly, truth and joy are her divorced.

The hero and his bark were rapt away

Far from the Grecian fleet? ’tis truth I say.

Whether in all men’s sight from Ilion borne,

Or from the fleet by stress of weather torn?

Full on the mark thy shaft of speech doth light,

And one short word hath told long woes aright.

But say what now of him each comrade saith?

What their forebodings, of his life of death?

Ask me no more: the truth is known to none,

Save the earth-fostering, all-surveying Sun.

Say by what doom the fleet of Greece was driven?

How rose, how sank the storm, the wrath of heaven?

Nay, ill it were to mar with sorrow’s tale

The day of blissful news. The gods demand

Thanksgiving sundered from solicitude.

If one as herald came with rueful face

To say, The curse has fallen, and the host

Gone down to death; and one wide wound has reached

The city’s heart, and out of many homes

Many are cast and consecrate to death,

Beneath the double scourge, that Ares loves,

The bloody pair, the fire and sword of doom—

If such sore burden weighed upon my tongue,

’Twere fit to speak such words as gladden fiends.

But—coming as he comes who bringeth news

Of safe return from toil, and issues fair,

To men rejoicing in a weal restored—

Dare I to dash good words with ill, and say

How the gods’ anger smote the Greeks in storm?

For fire and sea, that erst held bitter feud,

Now swore conspiracy and pledged their faith,

Wasting the Argives worn with toil and war.

Night and great horror of the rising wave

Came o’er us, and the blasts that blow from Thrace

Clashed ship with ship, and some with plunging prow

Thro’s scudding drifts of spray and raving storm

Vanished, as strays by some ill shepherd driven.

And when at length the sue rose bright, we saw

Th’ Ægæan sea-field flecked with flowers of death,

Corpses of Grecian men and shattered hulls.

For us indeed, some god, as well I deem,

No human power, laid hand upon our helm,

Snatched us or prayed us from the powers of air,

And brought our bark thro’ all, unharmed in hull:

And saving Fortune sat and steered us fair,

So that no surge should gulf us deep in brine,

Nor grind our keel upon a rocky shore.

So ’scaped we death that lurks beneath the sea,

But, under day’s white light, mistrustful all

Of fortune’s smile, we sat and brooded deep,

Shepherds forlorn of thoughts that wandered wild,

O’er this new woe; for smitten was our host,

And lost as ashes scattered from the pyre.

Of whom if any draw his life-breath yet,

Be well assured, he deems of us as dead,

As we of him no other fate forebode.

But heaven save all! If Menelaus live,

He will not tarry, but will surely come:

Therefore if anywhere the high sun’s ray

Descries him upon earth, preserved by Zeus,

Who wills not yet to wipe his race away,

Hope still there is that homeward he may wend.

Enough—thou hast the truth unto the end.

Say from whose lips the presage fell?

Who read the future all too well,

And named her, in her natal hour,

Helen, the bride with war for dower?

’Twas one of the Invisible,

Guiding his tongue with prescient power.

On fleet, and host, and citadel,

War, sprung from her, and death did lour,

When from the bride-bed’s fine-spun veil

She to the Zephyr spread her sail.

Strong blew the breeze—the surge closed o’er

The cloven track of keel and oar,

But while she fled, there drove along,

Fast in her wake, a mighty throng—

Athirst for blood, athirst for war,

Forward in fell pursuit they sprung,

Then leapt on Simois’ bank ashore,

The leafy coppices among—

No rangers, they, of wood and field,

But huntsmen of the sword and shield.

Heaven’s jealousy, that works its will,

Sped thus on Troy its destined ill,

Well named, at once, the Bride and Bane;

And loud rang out the bridal strain;

But they to whom that song befel

Did turn anon to tears again;

Zeus tarries, but avenges still

The husband’s wrong, the household’s stain!

He, the hearth’s lord, brooks not to see

Its outraged hospitality.

Even now, and in far other tone,

Troy chants her dirge of mighty moan,

Woe upon Paris, woe and hate!

Who wooed his country’s doom for mate—

This is the burthen of the groan,

Wherewith she wails disconsolate

The blood so many of her own

Have poured in vain, to fend her fate;

Troy! thou hast fed and freed to roam

A lion-cub within thy home!

A suckling creature, newly ta’en

From mother’s teat, still fully fain

Of nursing care; and oft caressed,

Within the arms, upon the breast,

Even as an infant, has it lain;

Or fawns and licks, by hunger pressed,

The hand that will assuage its pain;

In life’s young dawn, a well-loved guest,

A fondling for the children’s play,

A joy unto the old and gray.

But waxing time and growth betrays

The blood-thirst of the lion-race,

And, for the house’s fostering care,

Unbidden all, it revels there,

And bloody recompense repays—

Rent flesh of kine its talons tare:

A mighty beast, that slays and slays,

And mars with blood the household fair,

A God-sent pest invincible,

A minister of fate and hell.

Even so to Ilion’s city came by stealth

A spirit as of windless seas and skies,

A gentle phantom-form of joy and wealth,

With love’s soft arrows speeding from it eyes—

Love’s rose, whose thorn doth pierce the soul in subtle wise.

Ah, well-a-day! the bitter bridal-bed,

When the fair mischief lay by Paris’ side!

What curse on palace and on people sped

With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride,

By angered Zeus! what tears of many a widowed bride!

Long, long ago to mortals this was told,

How sweet security and blissful state

Have curses for their children—so men hold—

And for the man of all—too prosperous fate

Springs from a bitter seed some woe insatiate.

Alone, alone, I deem far otherwise;

Not bliss nor wealth it is, but impious deed,

From which that after-growth of ill doth rise!

Woe springs from wrong, the plant is like the seed—

While Right, in honour’s house, doth its own likeness breed.

Some past impiety, some gray old crime,

Breeds the young curse, that wantons in our ill,

Early or late, when haps th’ appointed time—

And out of light brings power of darkness still,

A master-fiend, a foe, unseen, invincible;

A pride accursed, that broods upon the race

And home in which dark Ate holds her sway—

Sin’s child and Woe’s, that wears its parent’s face;

While Right in smoky cribs shines clear as day,

And decks with weal his life, who walks the righteous way.

From gilded halls that hands polluted raise,

Right turns away with proud averted eyes,

And of the wealth men stamp amiss with praise,

Heedless, to poorer, holier temples hies,

And to Fate’s goal guides all, in its appointed wise.

Hail to thee, chief of Atreus’ race,

Returning proud from Troy subdued!

How shall I greet thy conquering face?

How nor a fulsome praise obtrude,

Nor stint the meed of gratitude?

For mortal men who fall to ill

Take little heed of open truth,

But seek unto its semblance still:

The show of weeping and of ruth

To the forlorn will all men pay,

But, of the grief their eyes display,

Nought to the heart doth pierce its way.

And, with the joyous, they beguile

Their lips unto a feigned smile,

And force a joy, unfelt the while;

But he who as a shepherd wise

Doth know his flock, can ne’er misread

Truth in the falsehood of his eyes,

Who veils beneath a kindly guise

A lukewarm love in deed.

And thou, our leader—when of yore

Thou badest Greece go forth to war

For Helen’s sake—I dare avow

That then I held thee not as now;

That to my vision thou didst seem

Dyed in the hues of disesteem.

I held thee for a pilot ill,

And reckless, of thy proper will,

Endowing others doomed to die

With vain and forced audacity!

Now from my heart, ungrudgingly,

To those that wrought, this word be said—

Well fall the labour ye have sped—

Let time and search, O king, declare

What men within thy city’s bound

Were loyal to the kingdom’s care,

And who were faithless found.[Enter Agamemnon in a chariot, accompanied by Cassandra. He speaks without descending.

First, as is meet, a king’s All-hail be said

To Argos, and the gods that guard the land—

Gods who with me availed to speed us home,

With me availed to wring from Priam’s town

The due of justice. In the court of heaven

The gods in conclave sat and judged the cause,

Not from a pleader’s tongue, and at the close,

Unanimous into the urn of doom

This sentence gave, On Ilion and her men,

Death: and where hope drew nigh to pardon’s urn

No hand there was to cast a vote therein.

And still the smoke of fallen Ilion

Rises in sight of all men, and the flame

Of Atè’s hecatomb is living yet,

And where the towers in dusty ashes sink,

Rise the rich fumes of pomp and wealth consumed.

For this must all men pay unto the gods

The meed of mindful hearts and gratitude:

For by our hands the meshes of revenge

Closed on the prey, and for one woman’s sake

Troy trodden by the Argive monster lies—

The foal, the shielded band that leapt the wall,

What time with autumn sank the Pleiades.

Yea, o’er the fencing wall a lion sprang

Ravening, and lapped his fill of blood of kings.

Such prelude spoken to the gods in full,

To you I turn, and to the hidden thing

Whereof ye spake but now: and in that thought

I am as you, and what ye say, say I.

For few are they who have such inborn grace,

As to look up with love, and envy not,

When stands another on the height of weal.

Deep on his heart, whom jealousy hath seized,

Her poison lurking doth enhance his load;

For now beneath his proper woes he chafes,

And sighs withal to see another’s weal.

I speak not idly, but from knowledge sure—

There be who vaunt an utter loyalty,

That is but as the ghost of friendship dead,

A shadow in a glass, of faith gone by.

One only—he who went reluctant forth

Across the seas with me—Odysseus—he

Was loyal unto me with strength and will,

A trusty trace-horse bound unto my car.

Thus—be he yet beneath the light of day,

Or dead, as well I fear—I speak his praise.

Lastly, whate’er be due to men or gods,

With joint debate, in public council held,

We will decide, and warily contrive

That all which now is well may so abide:

For that which haply needs the healer’s art,

That will we medicine, discerning well

If cautery or knife befit the time.

Now, to my palace and the shrines of home,

I will pass in, and greet you first and fair,

Ye gods, who bade me forth, and home again—

And long may Victory tarry in my train![Enter Clytemnestra, followed by maidens bearing purple robes.

Old men of Argos, lieges of our realm,

Shame shall not bid me shrink lest ye should see

The love I bear my lord. Such blushing fear

Dies at the last from hearts of humankind.

From mine own soul and from no alien lips,

I know and will reveal the life I bore,

Reluctant, through the lingering livelong years,

The while my lord beleaguered Ilion’s wall.

First, that a wife sat sundered from her lord,

In widowed solitude, was utter woe—

And woe, to hear how rumour’s many tongues

All boded evil-woe, when he who came