Fiction > Harvard Classics > Aeschylus > The Libation-Bearers
Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.).  The Libation-Bearers.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Lines 400–799
    Strive and wrestle as we may,
        Still stands doom invincible,

    Nay, if so he will, the god
      Still our tears to joy can turn.        404
    He can bid a triumph-ode
      Drown the dirge beside this urn;
    He to kingly halls can greet
The child restored, the homeward-guided feet.        408

Ah my father! hadst thou lain
    Under Ilion’s wall,
By some Lycian spearman slain,
  Thou hadst left in this thine hall        412
Honour; thou hadst wrought for us
Fame and life most glorious.
  Over-seas if thou hadst died,
Heavily had stood thy tomb,        416
  Heaped on high; but, quenched in pride,
Grief were light unto thy home.

Loved and honoured hadst thou lain
  By the dead that nobly fell,        420
In the underworld again,
  Where are throned the kings of hell,
  Full of sway adorable
Thou hadst stood at their right hand—        424
Thou that wert, in mortal land,
  By Fate’s ordinance and law,
King of kings who bear the crown
  And the staff, to which in awe        428
Mortal men bow down.

  Nay, O father, I were fain
Other fate had fallen on thee.
  Ill it were if thou hadst lain        432
  One among the common slain,
  Fallen by Scamander’s side—
Those who slew thee there should be!
Then, untouched by slavery,        436
    We had heard as from afar
  Deaths of those who should have died
    ’Mid the chance of war.

O child, forbear! things all too high thou sayest.
      Easy, but vain, thy cry!
A boon above all gold is that thou prayest,
      An unreached destiny,
As of the blessèd land that far aloof        444
      Beyond the north wind lies;
Yet doth your double prayer ring loud reproof;
      A double scourge of sighs
Awakes the dead; th’ avengers rise, though late;        448
      Blood stains the guilty pride
Of the accursed who rule on earth, and Fate
      Stands on the children’s side.

That hath sped thro’ mine ear, like a shaft from a bow!
Zeus, Zeus! it is thou who dost send from below
A doom on the desperate doer—ere long
On a mother a father shall visit his wrong.

    Be it mine to upraise thro’ the reek of the pyre
    The chant of delight, while the funeral fire
      Devoureth the corpse of a man that is slain
        And a woman laid low!
For who bids me conceal it! outrending control,        460
Blows ever the stern blast of hate thro’ my soul,
    And before me a vision of wrath and of bane
        Flits and waves to and fro.

Zeus, thou alone to us art parent now.
      Smite with a rending blow
  Upon their heads, and bid the land be well:
Set right where wrong hath stood; and thou give ear,
      O Earth, unto my prayer—        468
  Yea, hear, O mother Earth, and monarchy of hell!

Nay, the law is sternly set—
  Blood drops shed upon the ground
Plead for other bloodshed yet;        472
  Loud the call of death doth sound,
Calling guilt of olden time,
A Fury, crowning crime with crime.

Where, where are ye, avenging powers,
    Puissant Furies of the slain?
  Behold the relics of the race
  Of Atreus, thrust from pride of place!
O Zeus, what home henceforth is ours,        480
    What refuge to attain?

Lo, at your wail my heart throbs, wildly stirred;
          Now am I lorn with sadness,
Darkened in all my soul, to hear your sorrow’s word.        484
  Anon to hope, the seat of strength, I rise,—
  She, thrusting grief away, lifts up mine eyes
        To the new dawn of gladness.

Skills it to tell of aught save wrong on wrong,
  Wrought by our mother’s deed?
Though now she fawn for pardon, sternly strong
  Standeth our wrath, and will nor hear nor heed;
Her children’s soul is wolfish, born from hers,        492
  And softens not by prayers.

    I dealt upon my breast the blow
    That Asian mourning women know;
    Wails from my breast the fun’ral cry,        496
    The Cissian weeping melody;
Stretched rendingly forth, to tatter and tear,
My clenched hands wander, here and there,
  From head to breast; distraught with blows        500
        Throb dizzily my brows.

Aweless in hate, O mother, sternly brave!
    As in a foeman’s grave
Thou laid’st in earth a king, but to the bier        504
      No citizen drew near,—
Thy husband, thine, yet for his obsequies,
      Thou bad’st no wail arise!

Alas, the shameful burial thou dost speak!
Yet I the vengeance of his shame will wreak—
    That do the gods command!
    That shall achieve mine hand!
Grant me to thrust her life away, and I        512
        Will dare to die!

List thou the deed! Hewn down and foully torn,
        He to the tomb was borne;
Yea, by her hand, the deed who wrought,        516
With like dishonour to the grave was brought,
And by her hand she strove, with strong desire,
Thy life to crush, O child, by murder of thy sire:
  Bethink thee, hearing, of the shame, the pain        520
        Wherewith that sire was slain!

Yea, such was the doom of my sire; well-a-day,
      I was thrust from his side,—
As a dog from the chamber they thrust me away,        524
And in place of my laughter rose sobbing and tears,
        As in darkness I lay.
O father, if this word can pass to thine ears,
      To thy soul let it reach and abide!        528

Let it pass, let it pierce, thro’ the sense of thine ear,
  To thy soul, where in silence it waiteth the hour!
The past is accomplished; but rouse thee to hear
What the future prepareth; wake and appear,        532
      Our champion, in wrath and in power!

O father, to thy loved ones come in aid.

With tears I call on thee.

        Listen and rise to light!
Be thou with us, be thou against the foe!
Swiftly this cry arises—even so
  Pray we, the loyal band, as we have prayed!

Let their might meet with mine, and their right with my right.

O ye gods, it is yours to decree.

Ye call unto the dead; I quake to hear.
Fate is ordained of old, and shall fulfil your prayer.

Alas, the inborn curse that haunts our home,
  Of Atè’s bloodstained scourge the tuneless sound!
Alas, deep insufferable doom,
    The stanchless wound!

It shall be stanched, the task is ours,—
  Not by a stranger’s, but by kindred hand,
Shall be chased forth the blood-fiend of our land.
  Be this our spoken spell, to call Earth’s nether powers!

Lords of a dark eternity,
To you has come the children’s cry,
Send up from hell, fulfil your aid
    To them who prayed.

O father, murdered in unkingly wise,
Fulfil my prayer, grant me thine halls to sway.

To me, too, grant this boon—dark death to deal
Unto Ægisthus, and to ’scape my doom.

So shall the rightful feasts that mortals pay
Be set for thee; else, not for thee shall rise
The scented reek of altars fed with flesh,
But thou shalt lie dishonoured: hear thou me!

I too, from my full heritage restored,
Will pour the lustral streams, what time I pass
Forth as a bride from these paternal halls,
And honour first, beyond all graves, thy tomb.

Earth, send my sire to fend me in the fight!

Give fair-faced fortune, O Persephone!

Bethink thee, father, in the laver slain—

Bethink thee of the net they handselled for thee!

Bonds not of brass ensnared thee, father mine.

Yea, the ill craft of an enfolding robe.

By this our bitter speech arise, O sire!

Raise thou thine head at love’s last, dearest call!

Yea, speed forth Right to aid thy kinsmen’s cause;
Grip for grip, let them grasp the foe, if thou
Willest in triumph to forget thy fall.

Hear me, O father, once again hear me.
Lo! at thy tomb, two fledglings of thy brood—        580
A man-child and a maid; hold them in ruth,
Nor wipe them out, the last of Pelops’ line.
For while they live, thou livest from the dead;
Children are memory’s voices, and preserve        584
The dead from wholly dying: as a net
Is ever by the buoyant corks upheld,
Which save the flex-mesh, in the depth submerged.
Listen, this wail of ours doth rise for thee,        588
And as thou heedest it thyself art saved.

In sooth, a blameless prayer ye spake at length—
The tomb’s requital for its dirge denied:
Now, for the rest, as thou art fixed to do,        592
Take fortune by the hand and work thy will.

The doom is set; and yet I fain would ask—
Not swerving from the course of my resolve,—
Wherefore she sent these offerings, and why        596
She softens all too late her cureless deed?
An idle boon it was, to send them here
Unto the dead who recks not of such gifts.
I cannot guess her thought, but well I ween        600
Such gifts are skilless to atone such crime.
Be blood once spilled, and idle strife he strives
Who seeks with other wealth or wine outpoured
To atone the deed. So stands the word, nor fails.        604
Yet would I know her thought; speak, if thou knowest.

I know it, son; for at her side I stood.
’Twas the night-wandering terror of a dream
That flung her shivering from her couch, and bade her—        608
Her, the accursed of God—these offerings send.

Heard ye the dream, to tell it forth aright?

Yea, from herself; her womb a serpent bare.

What then the sum and issue of the tale?

Even as a swaddled child, she lull’d the thing.

What suckling craved the creature, born full-fanged?

Yet in her dreams she proffered it the breast.

How? did the hateful thing not bite her teat?

Yea, and sucked forth a blood-gout in the milk.

Not vain this dream—it bodes a man’s revenge.

Then out of sleep she started with a cry,
And thro’ the palace for their mistress’ aid        620
Full many lamps, that erst lay blind with night,
Flared into light; then, even as mourners use,
She sends these offerings, in hope to win
A cure to cleave and sunder sin from doom.        624

Earth and my father’s grave, to you I call—
Give this her dream fulfilment, and thro’ me.
I read it in each part coincident
With what shall be; for mark, that serpent sprang        628
From the same womb as I, in swaddling bands
By the same hands was swathed, lipped the same breast,
And sucking forth the same sweet mother’s-milk
Infused a clot of blood; and in alarm        632
She cried upon her wound the cry of pain.
The rede is clear: the thing of dread she nursed,
The death of blood she dies; and I, ’tis I,
In semblance of a serpent, that must slay her.        636
Thou art my seer, and thus I read the dream.

So do; yet ere thou doest, speak to us,
Bidding some act, some, by not acting, aid.

Brief my command: I bid my sister pass
In silence to the house, and all I bid
This my design with wariness conceal,
That they who did by craft a chieftain slay
May by like craft and in like noose be ta’en,        644
Dying the death which Loxias foretold—
Apollo, king and prophet undisproved.
I with this warrior Pylades will come
In likeness of a stranger, full equipt        648
As travellers come, and at the palace gates
Will stand, as stranger, yet in friendship’s bond
Unto this house allied; and each of us
Will speak the tongue that round Parnassus sounds,        652
Feigning such speech as Phocian voices use.
And what if none of those that tend the gates
Shall welcome us with gladness, since the house
With ills divine is haunted? if this hap,        656
We at the gate will bide, till, passing by,
Some townsman make conjecture and proclaim,
How? is Ægisthus here, and knowingly
Keeps suppliants aloof, by bolt and bar?        660
Then shall I win my way; and if I cross
The threshold of the gate, the palace’ guard,
And find him throned where once my father sat—
Or if he come anon, and face to face        664
Confronting, drop his eyes from mine—I swear
He shall not utter, Who art thou and whence?
Ere my steel leap, and compassed round with death
Low he shall lie: and thus, full-fed with doom,        668
The Fury of the house shall drain once more
A deep third draught of rich unmingled blood.
But thou, O sister, look that all within
Be well prepared to give these things event.        672
And ye—I say ’twere well to bear a tongue
Full of fair silence and of fitting speech
As each beseems the time; and last, do thou,
Hermes the warder-god, keep watch and ward,        676
And guide to victory my striving sword.  [Exit with Pylades.

  Many and marvellous the things of fear
        Earth’s breast doth bear;
  And the sea’s lap with many monsters teems,        680
  And windy levin-bolts and meteor-gleams
        Breed many deadly things—
Unknown and flying forms, with fear upon their wings,
        And in their tread is death;        684
  And rushing whirlwinds, of whose blasting breath
        Man’s tongue can tell.
  But who can tell aright the fiercer thing,
  The aweless soul, within man’s breast inhabiting?        688
  Who tell, how, passion-fraught and love-distraught,
  The woman’s eager, craving thought
  Doth wed mankind to woe and ruin fell?
  Yea, how the loveless love that doth possess        692
  The woman, even as the lioness,
  Doth rend and wrest apart, with eager strife,
        The link of wedded life?
Let him be the witness, whose thought is not borne on light wings thro’ the air,        696
But abideth with knowledge, what thing was wrought by Althea’s despair;
For she marr’d the life-grace of her son, with ill counsel rekindled the flame
That was quenched as it glowed on the brand, what time from his mother he came,
With the cry of a new-born child; and the brand from the burning she won,        700
For the Fates had foretold it coeval, in life and in death, with her son.
Yea, and man’s hate tells of another, even Scylla of murderous guile,
Who slew for an enemy’s sake her father, won o’er by the wile
And the gifts of Cretan Minos, the gauds of the high-wrought gold;        704
For she clipped from her father’s head the lock that should never wax old,
As he breathed in the silence of sleep, and knew not her craft and her crime—
But Hermes, the guard of the dead, doth grasp her, in fulness of time.
And since of the crimes of the cruel I tell, let my singing record        708
The bitter wedlock and loveless, the curse on these halls outpoured
The crafty device of a woman, whereby did a chieftain fall,
A warrior stern in his wrath, the fear of his enemies all,—
A song of dishonour, untimely! and cold is the hearth that was warm,        712
And ruled by the cowardly spear, the woman’s unwomanly arm.
But the summit and crown of all crimes is that which in Lemnos befel;
A woe and a mourning it is, a shame and a spitting to tell;
And he that in aftertime doth speak of his deadliest thought,        716
Doth say, It is like to the deed that of old time in Lemnos was wrought;
And loathed of men were the doers, and perished, they and their seed,
For the gods brought hate upon them; none loveth the impious deed.
It is well of these tales to tell; for the sword in the grasp of Right        720
With a cleaving, a piercing blow to the innermost heart doth smite,
And the deed unlawfully done is not trodden down nor forgot,
When the sinner outsteppeth the law and heedeth the high God not;
But Justice hath planted the anvil, and Destiny forgeth the sword        724
That shall smite in her chosen time; by her is the child restored;
And, darkly devising, the Fiend of the house, world-cursed, will repay
The price of the blood of the slain that was shed in the bygone day.  [Enter Orestes and Pylades, in guise of travellers.
ORESTES (knocking at the palace gate)

What ho! slave, ho! I smite the palace gate
In vain, it seems; what ho, attend within,—
Once more, attend; come forth and ope the halls,
If yet Ægisthus holds them hospitable.
SLAVE (from within)

Anon, anon!
[Opens the door.
Speak, from what land art thou, and sent from whom?

Go, tell to them who rule the palace halls,
Since ’tis to them I come with tidings new—
(Delay not—Night’s dark car is speeding on,        736
And time is now for wayfarers to cast
Anchor in haven, wheresoe’er a house
Doth welcome strangers)—that there now come forth
Some one who holds authority within—        740
The queen, or, if some man, more seemly were it;
For when man standeth face to face with man,
No stammering modesty confounds their speech,
But each to each doth tell his meaning clear.  [Enter Clytemnestra.        744

Speak on, O strangers; have ye need of aught?
Here is whate’er beseems a house like this—
Warm bath and bed, tired Nature’s soft restorer,
And courteous eyes to greet you; and if aught        748
Of graver import needeth act as well,
That, as man’s charge, I to a man will tell.

A Daulian man am I, from Phocis bound,
And as with mine own travel-scrip self-laden        752
I went toward Argos, parting hitherward
With travelling foot, there did encounter me
One whom I knew not and who knew not me,
But asked my purposed way nor hid his own,        756
And, as we talked together, told his name—
Strophius of Phocis; then he said, “Good sir,
Since in all case thou art to Argos bound,
Forget not this my message, heed it well,        760
Tell to his own, Orestes is no more.
And—whatsoe’er his kinsfolk shall resolve,
Whether to bear his dust unto his home,
Or lay him here, in death as erst in life        764
Exiled for aye, a child of banishment—
Bring me their hest, upon thy backward road;
For now in brazen compass of an urn
His ashes lie, their dues of weeping paid.”        768
So much I heard, and so much tell to thee,
Not knowing if I speak unto his kin
Who rule his home; but well, I deem, it were,
Such news should earliest reach a parent’s ear.        772

Ah woe is me! thy word our ruin tells;
From roof-tree unto base are we despoiled.—
O thou whom nevermore we wrestle down,
Thou Fury of this home, how oft and oft        776
Thou dost descry what far aloof is laid,
Yea, from afar dost bend th’ unerring bow
And rendest from my wretchedness its friends;
As now Orestes—who, a brief while since,        780
Safe from the mire of death stood warily,—
Was the home’s hope to cure th’ exulting wrong;
Now thou ordainest, Let the ill abide.

To host and hostess thus with fortune blest,
Lief had I come with better news to bear
Unto your greeting and acquaintanceship;
For what goodwill lies deeper than the bond
Of guest and host? and wrong abhorred it were,        788
As well I deem, if I, who pledged my faith
To one, and greetings from the other had,
Bore not aright the tidings ’twixt the twain.

Whate’er thy news, thou shalt not welcome lack,
Meet and deserved, nor scant our grace shall be.
Hadst thou thyself not come, such tale to tell,
Another, sure, had borne it to our ears.
But lo! the hour is here when travelling guests,        796
Fresh from the daylong labour of the road,
Should win their rightful due. Take him within  [To the slave.
To the man-chamber’s hospitable rest—


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