Fiction > Harvard Classics > Sophocles > Oedipus the King
Sophocles (c.496 B.C.–406 B.C.).  Oedipus the King.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Lines 500–999

For from Parnassus’ heights, enwreathed with snow,
Gleaming, but now there shone
The oracle that bade us, one and all,
      Track the unnamed, unknown one.
For, lo! he wanders through the forest wild,        504
      In caves and over rocks,
      As strays the mountain bull,
In dreary loneliness with dreary tread,
      Seeking in vain to shun        508
The words prophetic of the central shrine;
Yet they around him hover, full of life.

Dread things, yea, dread, the augur skilled has stirred
That leave the question open, aye or no!        512
And which to say I know not,
But hover still in hopes, and fail to scan
Things present or to come.
For neither now nor in the former years        516
Learnt I what cause of strife
Set the Labdacid race
At variance with the house of Polybus.
Nor can I test the tale,        520
And take my stand against the well-earned fame
      Of Œdipus, my lord,
As champion of the house of Labdacus,
      For deaths that none may trace!        524

For Zeus and King Apollo, they are wise,
      And know the hearts of men:
But that a prophet passeth me in skill,
      This is no judgment true;        528
And one man may another’s wisdom pass,
      By wisdom higher still.
I, for my part, before the word is clear,
Will ne’er assent to those that speak in blame.        532
’Tis clear, the Maiden-monster with her wings
Came on him, and he proved by sharpest test
That he was wise, by all the land beloved,
And, from my heart at least,        536
The charge of baseness comes not.

CREON.  I come, my friends, as having learnt but now
Our ruler, Œdipus, accuses me
With dreadful words I cannot bear to hear.        540
For if, in these calamities of ours,
He thinks he suffers wrongly at my hands,
In word or deed, aught tending to his hurt,
I set no value on a life prolonged,        544
If this reproach hangs on me; for its harm
Affects not slightly, but is direst shame,
If through the land my name as villain rings,
By thee and by thy friends a villain called.        548
CHORUS  But this reproach, it may be, came from wrath
All hasty, rather than from judgment calm.
CREON.  And who informed him that the seer, seduced
By my false counsel, spoke his lying words?        552
CHORUS  The words were said, but on what grounds I know not.
CREON.  And was it with calm eyes and judgment clear,
The charge was brought against my name and fame?
CHORUS  I cannot say. To what our rulers do        556
I close my eyes. But here he comes himself.

ŒDIP.  Ho, there! is’t thou? And does thy boldness soar
So shameless as to come beneath my roof,
When thou, ’tis clear, hast done the deed of blood,        560
And now wilt rob me of my sovereignty?
Is it, by all the Gods, that thou hast seen
Or cowardice or folly in my soul,
That thou hast laid thy plans? Or thoughtest thou        564
That I should neither see thy sinuous wiles,
Nor, knowing, ward them off? This scheme of thine,
Is it not wild, backed nor by force nor friends,
To seek the power which calls for force or wealth?        568
CREON.  Do as thou pleasest. But for words of scorn
Hear like words back, and as thou hearest, judge.
ŒDIP.  Cunning of speech art thou! But I am slow
To learn of thee, whom I have found my foe.        572
CREON.  Hear this, then, first, that thus I have to speak….
ŒDIP.  But this, then, say not, that thou art not vile.
CREON.  If that thou thinkest self-willed pride avails,
Apart from judgment, know thou art not wise.        576
ŒDIP.  If that thou thinkest, injuring thy friend,
To do it unchastised, thou art not wise.
CREON.  In this, I grant, thou speakest right; but tell,
What form of suffering hast thou to endure?        580
ŒDIP.  Didst thou, or didst thou not, thy counsel give
Some one to send to fetch this reverend seer?
CREON.  And even now by that advice I hold!
ŒDIP.  How long a time has passed since Laius        584
chanced…  [Pauses.
CREON.  Chanced to do what? I understand not yet.
ŒDIP.  Since he was smitten with the deadly blow?
CREON.  The years would measure out a long, long tale.        588
ŒDIP.  And was this seer then practising his art?
CREON.  Full wise as now, and equal in repute.
ŒDIP.  Did he at that time say a word of me?
CREON.  No word, while I, at any rate, was by.        592
ŒDIP.  And yet ye held your quest upon the dead?
CREON.  Of course we held it, but we nothing heard.
ŒDIP.  How was it he, the wise one, spoke not then?
CREON.  I know not, and, not knowing, hold my peace.        596
ŒDIP.  One thing thou know’st, and, meaning well, wouldst speak!
CREON.  And what is that? for if I know, I’ll speak.
ŒDIP.  Why, unless thou wert in the secret, then
He spake not of me as the murderer.        600
CREON.  If he says this, thou know’st it. I of thee
Desire to learn, as thou hast learnt of me.
ŒDIP.  Learn then; no guilt of blood shall rest on me.
CREON.  Well, then,—my sister? dost thou own her wife?        604
ŒDIP.  I will not meet this question with denial.
CREON.  And sharest thou an equal rule with her?
ŒDIP.  Her every wish by me is brought to act.
CREON.  And am not I co-equal with you twain?        608
ŒDIP.  Yes; and just here thou show’st thyself false friend.
CREON.  Not so, if thou wouldst reason with thyself,
As I must reason. First reflect on this:
Supposest thou that one would rather choose        612
To reign with fears than sleeping calmest sleep,
His power being equal? I, for one, prize less
The name of king than deeds of kingly power;
And so would all who learn in wisdom’s school.        616
Now without fear I have what I desire,
At thy hand given. Did I rule, myself,
I might do much unwillingly. Why, then,
Should sovereignty exert a softer charm        620
Than power and might unchequered by a care?
I am not yet so cheated by myself
As to desire aught else but honest gain.
Now all goes well, now every one salutes,        624
Now they who seek thy favour court my smiles,
For on this hinge does all their fortune turn.
Why, then, should I leave this to hunt for that?
My mind, retaining reason, ne’er could act        628
The villain’s part. I was not born to love
Such thoughts myself, nor bear with those that do.
And as a proof of this, go thou thyself,
And ask at Pytho whether I brought back,        632
In very deed, the oracles I heard.
And if thou find me plotting with the seer,
In common concert, not by one decree,
But two, thine own and mine, proclaim my death.        636
But charge me not with crime on shadowy proof;
For neither is it just, in random thought,
The bad to count as good, nor good as bad;
For to thrust out a friend of noble heart,        640
Is like the parting with the life we love.
And this in time thou’lt know, for time alone
Makes manifest the righteous. Of the vile
Thou mayst detect the vileness in a day.        644
CHORUS  To one who fears to fall, he speaketh well;
O king, swift counsels are not always safe.
ŒDIP.  But when a man is swift in wily schemes,
Swift must I be to baffle plot with plot;        648
And if I stand and wait, he wins the day,
And all my life is found one great mistake.
CREON.  What seek’st thou, then? to drive me from the land?
ŒDIP.  Not so. I seek not banishment, but death.        652
CREON.  When thou show’st first what grudge I bear to thee?
ŒDIP.  And say’st thou this defying, yielding not?
CREON.  I see thy judgment fails.
ŒDIP.  I hold mine own.        656
CREON.  Mine has an equal claim.
ŒDIP.  Thou villain born!
CREON.  And if thy mind is darkened…?
ŒDIP.  Still obey!        660
CREON.  Not to a tyrant ruler.
ŒDIP.  O my country!
CREON.  I, too, can claim that country. ’Tis not thine!
CHORUS  Cease, O my princes! In good time I see        664
Jocasta coming hither from the house;
And it were well with her to hush this strife.

JOC.  Why, O ye wretched ones, this strife of tongues
Raise ye in your unwisdom, nor are shamed,        668
Our country suffering, private griefs to stir?
Come thou within. And thou, O Creon, go,
Nor bring a trifling sore to mischief great!
CREON.  My sister! Œdipus, thy husband, claims        672
The right to wrong me, giving choice of ills,
Or to be exiled from my home, or die.
ŒDIP.  ’Tis even so, for I have found him, wife,
Against my life his evil wiles devising.        676
CREON.  May I ne’er prosper, but accursed die,
If I have done the things he says I did!
JOC.  Oh, by the Gods, believe him, Œdipus!
Respect his oath, which calls the Gods to hear;        680
And reverence me, and these who stand by thee.
CHORUS  Hearken, my king! be calmer, I implore!
ŒDIP.  What! wilt thou that I yield?
CHORUS  Respect is due        684
To one not weak before, who now is strong
In this his oath.
ŒDIP.  And know’st thou what thou ask’st?
CHORUS  I know right well.        688
ŒDIP.  Say on, then, what thou wilt.
CHORUS  Hurl not to shame, on grounds of mere mistrust,
The friend on whom his own curse still must hang.
ŒDIP.  Know, then, that, seeking this, thou seek’st, in truth,        692
To work my death, or else my banishment.
CHORUS  Nay, by the sun, chief God of all the Gods!
May I, too, die, of God and man accursed,
If I wish aught like this! But on my soul,        696
Our wasting land dwells heavily; ills on ills
Still coming, and your strife embittering all.
ŒDIP.  Let him depart, then, even though I die,
Or from my country wander forth in shame:        700
Thy face, not his, I view with pitying eye;
For him, where’er he be, is naught but hate.
CREON.  Thou’rt loath to yield, ’twould seem, and wilt be vexed
When this thy wrath is over: moods like thine        704
Are fitly to themselves most hard to bear.
ŒDIP.  Wilt thou not go, and leave me?
CREON.  I will go,
By thee misjudged, but known as just by these.  [Exit.        708
CHORUS  Why, lady, art thou slow to lead him in?
JOC.  I fain would learn how this sad chance arose.
CHORUS  Blind hasty speech there was, and wrong will sting.
JOC.  From both of them?        712
CHORUS  Yea, both.
JOC.  And what said each?
CHORUS  Enough for me, our land laid low in grief,
It seems, to leave the quarrel where it stopped.        716
ŒDIP.  Seest thou, with all thy purposes of good,
Thy shifting and thy soothing, what thou dost?
CHORUS  My chief, not once alone I spoke,
And wild and erring should I be,        720
Were I to turn from thee aside,
Who, when my country rocked in storm,
Righted her course, and, if thou couldst,
Wouldst send her speeding now.        724
JOC.  Tell me, my king, what cause of fell debate
Has bred this discord, and provoked thy soul.
ŒDIP.  Thee will I tell, for thee I honour more
Than these. The cause was Creon and his plots.        728
JOC.  Say, then, if clearly thou canst tell the strife.
ŒDIP.  He says that I am Laius’ murderer.
JOC.  Of his own knowledge, or by some one taught?
ŒDIP.  Yon scoundrel seer suborning. For himself,        732
He takes good care to free his lips from blame.
JOC.  Leave now thyself, and all thy thoughts of this,
And list to me, and learn how little skill
In arts prophetic mortal man may claim;        736
And of this truth I’ll give thee proof full clear.
There came to Laius once an oracle
(I say not that it came from Phœbus’ self,
But from his servants) that his fate was fixed        740
By his son’s hand to fall—his own and mine:
And him, so rumour runs, a robber band
Of aliens slew, where meet the three great roads.
Nor did three days succeed the infant’s birth,        744
Before, by other hands, he cast him forth,
Maiming his ankles, on a lonely hill.
Here, then, Apollo failed to make the boy
His father’s murderer; nor did Laius die        748
By his son’s hand. So fared the oracles;
Therefore regard them not. Whate’er the God
Desires to search he will himself declare.
ŒDIP.  [trembling] O what a fearful boding! thoughts disturbed        752
Thrill through my soul, my queen, at this thy tale.
JOC.  What means this shuddering, this averted glance?
ŒDIP.  I thought I heard thee say that Laius died,
Slain in a skirmish where the three roads meet?        756
JOC.  So was it said, and still the rumours hold.
ŒDIP.  Where was the spot in which this matter passed?
JOC.  They call the country Phocis, and the roads
From Delphi and from Daulia there converge.        760
ŒDIP.  And time? what interval has passed since then?
JOC.  But just before thou camest to possess
And rule this land the tidings were proclaimed.
ŒDIP.  Great Zeus! what fate hast thou decreed for me?        764
JOC.  What thought is this, my Œdipus, of thine?
ŒDIP.  Ask me not yet, but tell of Laius’ frame,
His build, his features, and his years of life.
JOC.  Tall was he, and the white hairs snowed his head,        768
And in his face not much unlike to thee.
ŒDIP.  Woe, woe is me! so seems it I have plunged
All blindly into curses terrible.
JOC.  What sayest thou? I shudder as I see thee.        772
ŒDIP.  Desponding fear comes o’er me, lest the seer
Has seen indeed. But one thing more I’ll ask.
JOC.  I fear to speak, yet what thou ask’st I’ll tell.
ŒDIP.  Went he in humble guise, or with a troop        776
Of spearmen, as becomes a man that rules?
JOC.  Five were they altogether, and of them
One was a herald, and one chariot had he.
ŒDIP.  Woe! woe! ’tis all too clear. And who was he        780
That told these tidings to thee, O my queen?
JOC.  A servant who alone escaped with life.
ŒDIP.  And does he chance to dwell among us now?
JOC.  Not so; for from the time when he returned,        784
And found thee bearing sway, and Laius dead,
He, at my hand, a suppliant, implored
This boon, to send him to the distant fields
To feed his flocks, where never glance of his        788
Might Thebes behold. And so I sent him forth;
For though a slave he might have claimed yet more.
ŒDIP.  And could we fetch him quickly back again?
JOC.  That may well be. But why dost thou wish this?        792
ŒDIP.  I fear, O queen, that words best left unsaid
Have passed these lips, and therefore wish to see him.
JOC.  Well, he shall come. But some small claim have I,
O king, to learn what touches thee with woe.        796
ŒDIP.  Thou shalt not fail to learn it, now that I
Have such forebodings reached. To whom should I
More than to thee tell all the passing chance?
I had a father, Polybus of Corinth,        800
And Merope of Doris was my mother,
And I was held in honour by the rest
Who dwelt there, till this accident befel,
Worthy of wonder, of the heat unworthy        804
It roused within me. Thus it chanced: A man
At supper, in his cups, with wine o’ertaken,
Reviles me as a spurious changeling boy;
And I, sore vexed, hardly for that day        808
Restrained myself. And when the morrow came
I went and charged my father and my mother
With what I thus had heard. They heaped reproach
On him who stirred the matter, and I soothed        812
My soul with what they told me; yet it teased,
Still vexing more and more; and so I went,
Unknown to them, to Pytho, and the God
Sent me forth shamed, unanswered in my quest;        816
And more he added, dread and dire and dark,
How that the doom of incest lay on me,
Most foul, unnatural; and that I should be
Father of children men would loathe to look on,        820
And murderer of the father that begot me.
And, hearing this, I cast my wistful looks
To where the stars hang over Corinth’s towers,
And fled where nevermore mine eyes might see        824
The shame of those dire oracles fulfilled;
And as I went I reached the spot where he,
The king, thou tell’st me, met the fatal blow.
And now, O lady, I will tell thee all.        828
Wending my steps that way where three roads meet,
There met me first a herald, and a man
Like him thou told’st of, riding on his car,
Drawn by young colts. With rough and hasty words        832
They drove me from the road,—the driver first,
And that old man himself; and then in rage
I struck the driver, who had turned me back.
And when the old man saw it, watching me        836
As by the chariot side I stood, he struck
My forehead with a double-pointed goad.
But we were more than quits, for in a trice
With this right hand I struck him with my staff,        840
And he rolled backward from his chariot’s seat.
And then I slew them all. And if it chance
That Laius and this stranger are akin,
What man more wretched than this man who speaks,        844
What man more harassed by the vexing Gods?
He whom none now, or alien, or of Thebes,
May welcome to their house, or speak to him,
But thrust him forth an exile. And ’twas I,        848
None other, who against myself proclaimed
These curses. And the bed of him that died
I with my hands, by which he fell, defile.
Am I not vile by nature, all unclean?        852
If I must flee, yet still in flight my doom
Is nevermore to see the friends I love,
Nor tread my country’s soil; or else to bear
The guilt of incest, and my father slay,        856
Yea, Polybus, who reared me from the womb.
Would not a man say right who said that here
Some cruel God was pressing hard on me?
Not that, not that, at least, thou Presence, pure        860
And awful, of the Gods. May I ne’er look
On such a day as that, but far away
Depart unseen from all the haunts of men
Before such great pollution comes on me.        864
CHORUS  Us, too, O king, these things perplex, yet still,
Till thou hast asked the man who then was by,’
Have hope.
ŒDIP.  And this indeed is all my hope,        868
Waiting until that shepherd-slave appear.
JOC.  And when he comes, what meanest thou to ask?
ŒDIP.  I’ll tell thee. Should he now repeat the tale
Thou told’st to me, it frees me from this guilt.        872
JOC.  What special word was that thou heard’st from me?
ŒDIP.  Thou said’st he told that robbers slew his lord,
And should he give their number as the same
Now as before, it was not I who slew him,        876
For one man could not be the same as many.
But if he speak of one man, all alone,
Then, all too plain, the deed cleaves fast to me.
JOC.  But know, the thing was said, and clearly said,        880
And now he cannot from his word draw back.
Not I alone, but the whole city, heard it;
And should he now retract his former tale,
Not then, my husband, will he rightly show        884
The death of Laius, who, as Loxias told,
By my son’s hand should die; and yet, poor boy,
He killed him not, but perished long ago.
So I for one, both now and evermore,        888
Will count all oracles as things of naught.
ŒDIP.  Thou reasonest well. Yet send a messenger
To fetch that peasant. Be not slack in this.
JOC.  I will make haste to send. But go thou in;        892
I would do nothing that displeaseth thee.  [Exeunt.

CHORUS  O that my fate were fixed
To live in holy purity of speech,
Pure in all deeds whose laws stand firm and high,        896
    In heaven’s clear æther born,
    Of whom Olympus only is the sire,
    Whom man’s frail flesh begat not,
    Nor ever shall forgetfulness o’erwhelm;        900
    In them our God is great and grows not old.

But pride begets the mood of tyrant power;
Pride filled with many thoughts, yet filled in vain,
    Untimely, ill-advised,        904
    Scaling the topmost height,
    Falls down the steep abyss,
    Down to the pit, where step that profiteth
    It seeks in vain to take.        908
I cannot ask the Gods to stop midway
The conflict sore that works our country’s good;
I cannot cease to call on God for aid.

But if there be who walketh haughtily,
    In action or in speech,
Whom righteousness herself has ceased to awe,
Who counts the temples of the Gods profane,
    An evil fate be his,        916
Fit meed for all his boastfulness of heart;
Unless in time to come he gain his gains
All justly, and draws back from godless deeds,
Nor lays rash hand upon the holy things,        920
    By man inviolable.
If such deeds prosper who will henceforth pray
To guard his soul from passion’s fiery darts?
If such as these are held in high repute,        924
What profit is there of my choral strain?

No longer will I go in pilgrim guise,
To yon all holy place, Earth’s central shrine,
Nor unto Abae’s temple,        928
Nor to far-famed Olympia,
Unless these pointings of a hand divine
In sight of all men stand out clear and true.
But, O thou sovereign ruler! if that name,        932
O Zeus, belongs to thee, who reign’st o’er all,
Let not this trespass hide itself from thee,
    Or thine undying sway;
    For now they set at naught        936
    The oracles, half dead,
    That Laius heard of old,
And king Apollo’s wonted worship flags,
    And all to wreck is gone        940
    The homage due to God.
Enter JOCASTA, followed by an Attendant

JOC.  Princes of this our land, across my soul
There comes the thought to go from shrine to shrine
Of all the Gods, these garlands in my hand,        944
And waving incense; for our Œdipus
Vexes his soul too wildly with his woes,
And speaks not as a man should speak who scans
The present by the experience of the past,        948
But hangs on every breath that tells of fear.
And since I find that my advice avails not,
To thee, Lyceian King, Apollo, first
I come,—for thou art nearest,—suppliant        952
With these devotions, trusting thou wilt work
Some way of healing for us, free from guilt;
For now we shudder, all of us, seeing him,
The good ship’s pilot, panic-struck and lost.        956

MESS.  May I inquire of you, O strangers, where
To find the house of Œdipus the king,
And, above all, where he is, if ye know?
CHORUS  This is the house, and he, good sir, within,        960
And this his wife, and mother of his children.
MESS.  Good fortune be with her and all her kin,
Being, as she is, his true and honoured wife.
JOC.  Like fortune be with thee, my friend. Thy speech,        964
So kind, deserves no less. But tell me why
Thou comest, what thou hast to ask or tell.
MESS.  Good news to thee, and to thy husband, lady.
JOC.  What is it, then? and who has sent thee here?        968
MESS.  I come from Corinth, and the news I’ll tell
May give thee joy. Why not? Yet thou mayst grieve.
JOC.  What is the news that has this twofold power?
MESS.  The citizens that on these Isthmus dwell        972
Will make him sovereign. So the rumour ran.
JOC.  What then? Is aged Polybus no more?
MESS.  E’en so. Death holds him in the stately tomb.
JOC.  What say’st thou? Polybus, thy king, is dead?        976
MESS.  If I speak false, I have no wish to live!
JOC.  Go, maiden, at thy topmost speed, and tell
Thy master this. Now, oracles of Gods,
Where are ye now? Long since my Œdipus        980
Fled, fearing lest his hand should slay the man;
And now he dies by fate, and not by him.

ŒDIP.  Mine own Jocasta, why, O dearest one,
Why hast thou sent to fetch me from the house?        984
JOC.  List this man’s tale, and when thou hearest, see
The woeful plight of those dread oracles.
ŒDIP.  Who, then, is this, and what has he to tell?
JOC.  He comes from Corinth, and he brings thee word        988
That Polybus, thy father, lives no more.
ŒDIP.  What say’st thou, friend? Tell me thy tale thyself.
MESS.  If I must needs report the story clear,
Know well that he has gone the way of death.        992
ŒDIP.  Was it by plot, or chance of natural death?
MESS.  An old man’s frame a little stroke lays low!
ŒDIP.  He suffered, then, it seems, from some disease?
MESS.  E’en so, and many a weary month he passed.        996
ŒDIP.  Ha! ha! Why now, my queen, should we regard
The Pythian hearth oracular, or birds
In mid-air crying? By their auguries,


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