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Matthew Arnold (1822–88).  The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867.  1909.
 
Merope. A Tragedy. 1858
Merope
 
        
PERSONS OF THE DRAMA
  
LAIAS, uncle of AEPYTUS, brother of MEROPE.
AEPYTUS, son of MEROPE and CRESPHONTES.
POLYPHONTES, king of MESSENIA.
MEROPE, widow of CRESPHONTES, the murdered king of MESSENIA.
THE CHORUS, of MESSENIAN maidens.
ARCAS, an old man of MEROPE’S household.
MESSENGER.
GUARDS, ATTENDANTS, &c.
  
  The Scene is before the royal palace in STENYCLAROS, the capital of MESSENIA. In the foreground is the tomb of CRESPHONTES. The action commences at day-break.


LAIAS.    AEPYTUS

LAIAS
SON of Cresphontes, we have reach’d the goal
Of our night-journey, and thou see’st thy home.
Behold thy heritage, thy father’s realm!
This is that fruitful, fam’d Messenian land,
Wealthy in corn and flocks, which, when at last        5
The late-relenting Gods with victory brought
The Heracleidae back to Pelops’ isle,
Fell to thy father’s lot, the second prize.
Before thy feet this recent city spreads
Of Stenyclaros, which he built, and made        10
Of his fresh-conquer’d realm the royal seat,
Degrading Pylos from its ancient rule.
There stands the temple of thine ancestor,
Great Hercules; and, in that public place,
Zeus hath his altar, where thy father fell.        15
Thence to the south, behold those snowy peaks,
Taygetus, Laconia’s border-wall:
And, on this side, those confluent streams which make
Pamisus watering the Messenian plain:
Then to the north, Lycaeus and the hills        20
Of pastoral Arcadia, where, a babe
Snatch’d from the slaughter of thy father’s house,
Thy mother’s kin receiv’d thee, and rear’d up.—
Our journey is well made, the work remains
Which to perform we made it; means for that        25
Let us consult, before this palace sends
Its inmates on their daily tasks abroad.
Haste and advise, for day comes on apace.
 
AEPYTUS
O brother of my mother, guardian true,
And second father from that hour when first        30
My mother’s faithful servant laid me down,
An infant, at the hearth of Cypselus,
My grandfather, the good Arcadian king—
Thy part it were to advise, and mine to obey.
But let us keep that purpose, which, at home,        35
We judg’d the best; chance finds no better way.
Go thou into the city, and seek out
Whate’er in the Messenian city stirs
Of faithful fondness towards their former king
Or hatred to their present; in this last        40
Will lie, my grandsire said, our fairest chance.
For tyrants make man good beyond himself;
Hate to their rule, which else would die away,
Their daily-practis’d chafings keep alive.
Seek this; revive, unite it, give it hope;        45
Bid it rise boldly at the signal given.
Meanwhile within my father’s palace I,
An unknown guest, will enter, bringing word
Of my own death; but, Laias, well I hope
Through that pretended death to live and reign.
[THE CHORUS comes forth.
        50
 
Softly, stand back!—see, tow’rd the palace gates
What black procession slowly makes approach?—
Sad-chanting maidens clad in mourning robes,
With pitchers in their hands, and fresh-pull’d flowers:
Doubtless, they bear them to my father’s tomb.—
[MEROPE comes forth.
        55
 
And see, to meet them, that one, grief-plung’d Form,
Severer, paler, statelier than they all,
A golden circlet on her queenly brow.—
O Laias, Laias, let the heart speak here!
Shall I not greet her? shall I not leap forth?
[POLYPHONTES comes forth, following MEROPE.
        60
 
LAIAS
Not so: thy heart would pay its moment’s speech
By silence ever after; for, behold!
The King (I know him, even through many years)
Follows the issuing Queen, who stops, as call’d.
No lingering now! straight to the city I:        65
Do thou, till for thine entrance to this house
The happy moment comes, lurk here unseen
Behind the shelter of thy father’s tomb:
Remove yet further off, if aught comes near.
But, here while harbouring, on its margin lay,        70
Sole offering that thou hast, locks from thy head:
And fill thy leisure with an earnest prayer
To his avenging Shade, and to the Gods
Who under earth watch guilty deeds of men,
To guide our effort to a prosperous close.
[LAIAS goes out. POLYPHONTES, MEROPE, and THE CHORUS come forward. As they advance, AEPYTUS, who at first conceals himself behind the tomb, moves off the stage
        75
 
POLYPHONTES ( THE CHORUS)
Set down your pitchers, maidens! and fall back;
Suspend your melancholy rites awhile:
Shortly ye shall resume them with your Queen.—
 
(To MEROPE)
I sought thee, Merope; I find thee thus,
As I have ever found thee; bent to keep,        80
By sad observances and public grief,
A mournful feud alive, which else would die.
I blame thee not, I do thy heart no wrong:
Thy deep seclusion, thine unyielding gloom,
Thine attitude of cold, estrang’d reproach,        85
These punctual funeral honours, year by year
Repeated, are in thee, I well believe,
Courageous, faithful actions, nobly dar’d.
But, Merope, the eyes of other men
Read in these actions, innocent in thee,        90
Perpetual promptings to rebellious hope,
War-cries to faction, year by year renew’d,
Beacons of vengeance, not to be let die.
And me, believe it, wise men gravely blame,
And ignorant men despise me, that I stand        95
Passive, permitting thee what course thou wilt.
Yes, the crowd mutters that remorseful fear
And paralysing conscience stop my arm,
When it should pluck thee from thy hostile way.
All this I bear, for, what I seek, I know;        100
Peace, peace is what I seek, and public calm:
Endless extinction of unhappy hates:
Union cemented for this nation’s weal.
And even now, if to behold me here,
This day, amid these rites, this black-rob’d train,        105
Wakens, O Queen! remembrance in thy heart
Too wide at variance with the peace I seek—
I will not violate thy noble grief,
The prayer I came to urge I will defer.
 
MEROPE
This day, to-morrow, yesterday, alike
        110
I am, I shall be, have been, in my mind
Tow’rds thee; towards thy silence as thy speech.
Speak, therefore, or keep silence, which thou wilt.
 
POLYPHONTES
Hear me, then, speak; and let this mournful day,
The twentieth anniversary of strife,        115
Henceforth be honour’d as the date of peace.
Yes, twenty years ago this day beheld
The king Cresphontes, thy great husband, fall:
It needs no yearly offerings at his tomb
To keep alive that memory in my heart;        120
It lives, and, while I see the light, will live.
For we were kinsmen—more than kinsmen—friends:
Together we had sprung, together liv’d;
Together to this isle of Pelops came
To take the inheritance of Hercules;        125
Together won this fair Messenian land—
Alas, that, how to rule it, was our broil!
He had his counsel, party, friends—I mine;
He stood by what he wish’d for—I the same;
I smote him, when our wishes clash’d in arms;        130
He had smit me, had he been swift as I.
But while I smote him, Queen, I honour’d him;
Me, too, had he prevail’d, he had not scorn’d.
Enough of this!—since then, I have maintain’d
The sceptre—not remissly let it fall—        135
And I am seated on a prosperous throne:
Yet still, for I conceal it not, ferments
In the Messenian people what remains
Of thy dead husband’s faction; vigorous once,
Now crush’d but not quite lifeless by his fall.        140
And these men look to thee, and from thy grief—
Something too studiously, forgive me, shown—
Infer thee their accomplice; and they say
That thou in secret nurturest up thy son,
Him whom thou hiddest when thy husband fell,        145
To avenge that fall, and bring them back to power.
Such are their hopes—I ask not if by thee
Willingly fed or no—their most vain hopes;
For I have kept conspiracy fast-chain’d
Till now, and I have strength to chain it still.        150
But, Merope, the years advance;—I stand
Upon the threshold of old age, alone,
Always in arms, always in face of foes.
The long repressive attitude of rule
Leaves me austerer, sterner, than I would;        155
Old age is more suspicious than the free
And valiant heart of youth, or manhood’s firm,
Unclouded reason; I would not decline
Into a jealous tyrant, scourg’d with fears,
Closing, in blood and gloom, his sullen reign.        160
The cares which might in me with time, I feel,
Beget a cruel temper, help me quell;
The breach between our parties help me close;
Assist me to rule mildly: let us join
Our hands in solemn union, making friends        165
Our factions with the friendship of their chiefs.
Let us in marriage, King and Queen, unite
Claims ever hostile else; and set thy son—
No more an exile fed on empty hopes,
And to an unsubstantial title heir,        170
But prince adopted by the will of power,
And future king—before this people’s eyes.
Consider him; consider not old hates:
Consider, too, this people, who were dear
To their dead king, thy husband—yea, too dear,        175
For that destroy’d him. Give them peace; thou can’st.
O Merope, how many noble thoughts,
How many precious feelings of man’s heart,
How many loves, how many gratitudes,
Do twenty years wear out, and see expire!        180
Shall they not wear one hatred out as well?
 
MEROPE
Thou hast forgot, then, who I am who hear,
And who thou art who speakest to me? I
Am Merope, thy murder’d master’s wife …
And thou art Polyphontes, first his friend,        185
And then … his murderer. These offending tears
That murder draws … this breach that thou would’st close
Was by that murder open’d … that one child
(If still, indeed, he lives) whom thou would’st seat
Upon a throne not thine to give, is heir        190
Because thou slew’st his brothers with their father …
Who can patch union here?… What can there be
But everlasting horror ’twixt us two,
Gulfs of estranging blood?… Across that chasm
Who can extend their hands?… Maidens, take back        195
These offerings home! our rites are spoil’d today.
 
POLYPHONTES
Not so: let these Messenian maidens mark
The fear’d and blacken’d ruler of their race,
Albeit with lips unapt to self-excuse,
Blow off the spot of murder from his name.—        200
Murder!—but what is murder? When a wretch
For private gain or hatred takes a life,
We call it murder, crush him, brand his name:
But when, for some great public cause, an arm
Is, without love or hate, austerely rais’d        205
Against a Power exempt from common checks,
Dangerous to all, to be but thus annull’d—
Ranks any man with murder such an act?
With grievous deeds, perhaps; with murder—no!
Find then such cause, the charge of murder falls:        210
Be judge thyself if it abound not here.—
All know how weak the Eagle, Hercules,
Soaring from his death-pile on Oeta, left
His puny, callow Eaglets; and what trials—
Infirm protectors, dubious oracles        215
Construed awry, misplann’d invasions—us’d
Two generations of his offspring up;
Hardly the third, with grievous loss, regain’d
Their fathers’ realm, this isle, from Pelops nam’d.—
Who made that triumph, though deferr’d, secure?        220
Who, but the kinsmen of the royal brood
Of Hercules, scarce Heracleidae less
Than they? these, and the Dorian lords, whose king
Aegimius gave our outcast house a home
When Thebes, when Athens dar’d not; who in arms        225
Thrice issued with us from their pastoral vales,
And shed their blood like water in our cause?—
Such were the dispossessors: of what stamp
Were they we dispossessed?—of us I speak,
Who to Messenia with thy husband came—        230
I speak not now of Argos, where his brother,
Not now of Sparta, where his nephews reign’d:—
What we found here were tribes of fame obscure,
Much turbulence, and little constancy,
Precariously rul’d by foreign lords        235
From the Aeolian stock of Neleus sprung,
A house once great, now dwindling in its sons.
Such were the conquer’d, such the conquerors: who
Had most thy husband’s confidence? Consult
His acts; the wife he chose was—full of virtues—        240
But an Arcadian princess, more akin
To his new subjects than to us; his friends
Were the Messenian chiefs; the laws he fram’d
Were aim’d at their promotion, our decline;
And, finally, this land, then half-subdued,        245
Which from one central city’s guarded seat
As from a fastness in the rocks our scant
Handful of Dorian conquerors might have curb’d,
He parcell’d out in five confederate states,
Sowing his victors thinly through them all,        250
Mere prisoners, meant or not, among our foes.
If this was fear of them, it sham’d the king:
If jealousy of us, it sham’d the man.—
Long we refrain’d ourselves, submitted long,
Construed his acts indulgently, rever’d,        255
Though found perverse, the blood of Hercules:
Reluctantly the rest; but, against all,
One voice preach’d patience, and that voice was mine.
At last it reach’d us, that he, still mistrustful,
Deeming, as tyrants deem, our silence hate,        260
Unadulating grief conspiracy,
Had to this city, Stenyclaros, call’d
A general assemblage of the realm,
With compact in that concourse to deliver,
For death, his ancient to his new-made friends.        265
Patience was thenceforth self-destruction. I,
I his chief kinsman, I his pioneer
And champion to the throne, I honouring most
Of men the line of Hercules, preferr’d
The many of that lineage to the one:        270
What his foes dar’d not, I, his lover, dar’d:
I, at that altar, where mid shouting crowds
He sacrific’d, our ruin in his heart,
To Zeus, before he struck his blow, struck mine:
Struck once, and aw’d his mob, and sav’d this realm.        275
Murder let others call this, if they will;
I, self-defence and righteous execution.
 
MEROPE
Alas, how fair a colour can his tongue,
Who self-exculpates, lend to foulest deeds.
Thy trusting lord didst thou, his servant, slay;        280
Kinsman, thou slew’st thy kinsman; friend, thy friend:
This were enough; but let me tell thee, too,
Thou hadst no cause, as feign’d, in his misrule.
For ask at Argos, ask in Lacedaemon,
Whose people, when the Heracleidae came,        285
Were hunted out, and to Achaia fled,
Whether is better, to abide alone,
A wolfish band, in a dispeopled realm,
Or conquerors with conquer’d to unite
Into one puissant folk, as he design’d?        290
These sturdy and unworn Messenian tribes,
Who shook the fierce Neleidae on their throne,
Who to the invading Dorians stretch’d a hand,
And half bestow’d, half yielded up their soil—
He would not let his savage chiefs alight,        295
A cloud of vultures, on this vigorous race;
Ravin a little while in spoil and blood,
Then, gorg’d and helpless, be assail’d and slain.
He would have sav’d you from your furious selves,
Not in abhorr’d estrangement let you stand;        300
He would have mix’d you with your friendly foes,
Foes dazzled with your prowess, well inclin’d
To reverence your lineage, more, to obey:
So would have built you, in a few short years,
A just, therefore a safe, supremacy.        305
For well he knew, what you, his chiefs, did not—
How of all human rules the over-tense
Are apt to snap; the easy-stretch’d endure.—
O gentle wisdom, little understood!
O arts, above the vulgar tyrant’s reach!        310
O policy too subtle far for sense
Of heady, masterful, injurious men!
This good he meant you, and for this he died.
Yet not for this—else might thy crime in part
Be error deem’d—but that pretence is vain.        315
For, if ye slew him for suppos’d misrule,
Injustice to his kin and Dorian friends,
Why with the offending father did ye slay
Two unoffending babes, his innocent sons?
Why not on them have plac’d the forfeit crown,        320
Rul’d in their name, and train’d them to your will?
Had they misrul’d? had they forgot their friends?
Forsworn their blood? ungratefully had they
Preferr’d Messenian serfs to Dorian lords?
No: but to thy ambition their poor lives        325
Were bar; and this, too, was their father’s crime.
That thou might’st reign he died, not for his fault
Even fancied; and his death thou wroughtest chief.
For, if the other lords desir’d his fall
Hotlier than thou, and were by thee kept back,        330
Why dost thou only profit by his death?
Thy crown condemns thee, while thy tongue absolves.
And now to me thou tenderest friendly league,
And to my son reversion to thy throne:
Short answer is sufficient; league with thee,        335
For me I deem such impious; and for him,
Exile abroad more safe than heirship here.
 
POLYPHONTES
I ask thee not to approve thy husband’s death,
No, nor expect thee to admit the grounds,
In reason good, which justified my deed:        340
With women the heart argues, not the mind.
But, for thy children’s death, I stand assoil’d:
I sav’d them, meant them honour: but thy friends
Rose, and with fire and sword assailed my house
By night; in that blind tumult they were slain.        345
To chance impute their deaths, then, not to me.
 
MEROPE
Such chance as kill’d the father, kill’d the sons.
 
POLYPHONTES
One son at least I spar’d, for still he lives.
 
MEROPE
Tyrants think him they murder not they spare.
 
POLYPHONTES
Not much a tyrant thy free speech displays me.
        350
 
MEROPE
Thy shame secures my freedom, not thy will.
 
POLYPHONTES
Shame rarely checks the genuine tyrant’s will.
 
MEROPE
One merit, then, thou hast: exult in that.
 
POLYPHONTES
Thou standest out, I see, repellest peace.
 
MEROPE
Thy sword repell’d it long ago, not I.
        355
 
POLYPHONTES
Doubtless thou reckonest on the hope of friends.
 
MEROPE
Not help of men, although, perhaps, of Gods.
 
POLYPHONTES
What Gods? the Gods of concord, civil weal?
 
MEROPE
No: the avenging Gods, who punish crime.
 
POLYPHONTES
Beware! from thee upbraidings I receive
        360
With pity, nay, with reverence; yet, beware!
I know, I know how hard it is to think
That right, that conscience pointed to a deed,
Where interest seems to have enjoin’d it too.
Most men are led by interest; and the few        365
Who are not, expiate the general sin,
Involv’d in one suspicion with the base.
Dizzy the path and perilous the way
Which in a deed like mine a just man treads,
But it is sometimes trodden, oh! believe it.        370
Yet how canst thou believe it? therefore thou
Hast all impunity. Yet, lest thy friends,
Embolden’d by my lenience, think it fear,
And count on like impunity, and rise,
And have to thank thee for a fall, beware!        375
To rule this kingdom I intend: with sway
Clement, if may be, but to rule it: there
Expect no wavering, no retreat, no change.—
And now I leave thee to these rites, esteem’d
Pious, but impious, surely, if their scope        380
Be to foment old memories of wrath.
Pray, as thou pour’st libations on this tomb,
To be delivered from thy foster’d hate,
Unjust suspicion, and erroneous fear.
[POLYPHONTES goes into the palace. THE CHORUS and MEROPE approach the tomb with their offerings.
 
THE CHORUS
Draw, draw near to the tomb.      strophe.
        385
Lay honey-cakes on its marge,
Pour the libation of milk,
Deck it with garlands of flowers.
Tears fall thickly the while!
Behold, O King, from the dark        390
House of the grave, what we do.
 
O Arcadian hills,      antistrophe.
Send us the Youth whom ye hide,
Girt with his coat for the chase,
With the low broad hat of the tann’d        395
Hunter o’ershadowing his brow:
Grasping firm, in his hand
Advanc’d, two javelins, not now
Dangerous alone to the deer.
 
MEROPE
What shall I bear, O lost      str. 1.
        400
Husband and King, to thy grave?—
Pure libations, and fresh
Flowers? But thou, in the gloom,
Discontented, perhaps,
Demandest vengeance, not grief?        405
Sternly requirest a man,
Light to spring up to thy race?
 
THE CHORUS
Vengeance, O Queen, is his due,      str. e.
His most just prayer: yet his race—
If that might soothe him below—        410
Prosperous, mighty, came back
In the third generation, the way
Order’d by Fate, to their home.
And now, glorious, secure,
Fill the wealth-giving thrones        415
Of their heritage, Pelops’ isle.
 
MEROPE
Suffering sent them, Death      ant. 1.
March’d with them, Hatred and Strife
Met them entering their halls.
For from the day when the first        420
Heracleidae receiv’d
That Delphic hest to return,
What hath involv’d them but blind
Error on error, and blood?
 
THE CHORUS
Truly I hear of a Maid      ant. 2.
        425
Of that stock born, who bestow’d
Her blood that so she might make
Victory sure to her race,
When the fight hung in doubt: but she now,
Honour’d and sung of by all,        430
Far on Marathon plain
Gives her name to the spring
Macaria; blessed Child.
 
MEROPE
She led the way of death.      str. 3.
And the plain of Tegea,        435
And the grave of Orestes—
Where, in secret seclusion
Of his unreveal’d tomb,
Sleeps Agamemnon’s unhappy,
Matricidal, world-fam’d,        440
Seven-cubit-statur’d son—
Sent forth Echemus, the victor, the king,
By whose hand, at the Isthmus,
At the Fate-denied Straits,
Fell the eldest of the sons of Hercules,        445
Hyllus, the chief of his house.—
Brother follow’d sister
The all-wept way.
 
THE CHORUS
Yes; but his son’s seed, wiser-counsell’d,
Sail’d by the Fate-meant Gulf to their conquest;        450
Slew their enemies’ king, Tisamenus.
Wherefore accept that happier omen!
Yet shall restorers appear to the race.
 
MEROPE
Three brothers won the field,      ant. 3.
And to two did Destiny        455
Give the thrones that they conquer’d.
But the third, what delays him
From his unattain’d crown?…
Ah Pylades and Electra,
Ever faithful, untir’d,        460
Jealous, blood-exacting friends!
Ye lie watching for the foe of your kin,
In the passes of Delphi,
In the temple-built gorge.—
There the youngest of the band of conquerors        465
Perish’d, in sight of the goal.
Grandson follow’d sire
The all-wept way.
 
THE CHORUS
Thou tellest the fate of the last      str. 4.
Of the three Heracleidae.        470
Not of him, of Cresphontes thou shared’st the lot.
A king, a king was he while he liv’d,
Swaying the sceptre with predestin’d hand.
And now, minister lov’d,
Holds rule——

MEROPE
                Ah me … Ah …
        475
 
THE CHORUS
For the awful Monarchs below.
 
MEROPE
Thou touchest the worst of my ills.      str. 5.
Oh had he fallen of old
At the Isthmus, in fight with his foes,
By Achaian, Arcadian spear!        480
Then had his sepulchre risen
On the high sea-bank, in the sight
Of either Gulf, and remain’d
All-regarded afar,
Noble memorial of worth        485
Of a valiant Chief, to his own.
 
THE CHORUS
There rose up a cry in the streets      ant. 4.
From the terrified people.
From the altar of Zeus, from the crowd, came a wail.
A blow, a blow was struck, and he fell,        490
Sullying his garment with dark-streaming blood:
While stood o’er him a Form—
Some Form——

MEROPE
                Ah me … Ah …
 
THE CHORUS
Of a dreadful Presence of fear.
 
MEROPE
More piercing the second cry rang,      ant. 5.
        495
Wail’d from the palace within,
From the Children.… The Fury to them,
Fresh from their father, draws near.
Ah bloody axe! dizzy blows!
In these ears, they thunder, they ring,        500
These poor ears, still:—and these eyes
Night and day see them fall,
Fiery phantoms of death,
On the fair, curl’d heads of my sons.
 
THE CHORUS
Not to thee only hath come      str. 6.
        505
Sorrow, O Queen, of mankind.
Had not Electra to haunt
A palace defil’d by a death unaveng’d,
For years, in silence, devouring her heart?
But her nursling, her hope, came at last.        510
Thou, too, rearest in joy,
Far ’mid Arcadian hills,
Somewhere, in safety, a nursling, a light.
Yet, yet shall Zeus bring him home!
Yet shall he dawn on this land!        515
 
MEROPE
Him in secret, in tears,      str. 7.
Month after month, through the slow-dragging year,
Longing, listening, I wait, I implore.
But he comes not. What dell,
O Erymanthus! from sight        520
Of his mother, which of thy glades,
O Lycaeus! conceals
The happy hunter? He basks
In youth’s pure morning, nor thinks
On the blood-stain’d home of his birth.        525
 
THE CHORUS
Give not thy heart to despair.      ant. 6.
No lamentation can loose
Prisoners of death from the grave:
But Zeus, who accounteth thy quarrel his own,
Still rules, still watches, and numbers the hours        530
Till the sinner, the vengeance, be ripe.
Still, by Acheron stream,
Terrible Deities thron’d
Sit, and make ready the serpent, the scourge.
Still, still the Dorian boy,        535
Exil’d, remembers his home.
 
MEROPE
Him if high-ruling Zeus      ant. 7.
Bring to his mother, the rest I commit,
Willing, patient, to Zeus, to his care.
Blood I ask not. Enough        540
Sated, and more than enough,
Are mine eyes with blood. But if this,
O my comforters! strays
Amiss from Justice, the Gods
Forgive my folly, and work        545
What they will!—but to me give my son!
 
THE CHORUS
Hear us and help us, Shade of our King!      str. 8.
 
MEROPE
A return, O Father! give to thy boy!      str. 9.
 
THE CHORUS
Send an avenger, Gods of the dead!      ant. 8.
 
MEROPE
An avenger I ask not: send me my son!      ant. 9.
        550
 
THE CHORUS
O Queen, for an avenger to appear,
Thinking that so I pray’d aright, I pray’d:
If I pray’d wrongly, I revoke the prayer.
 
MEROPE
Forgive me, maidens, if I seem too slack
In calling vengeance on a murderer’s head.        555
Impious I deem the alliance which he asks;
Requite him words severe, for seeming kind;
And righteous, if he falls, I count his fall.
With this, to those unbrib’d inquisitors,
Who in man’s inmost bosom sit and judge,        560
The true avengers these, I leave his deed,
By him shown fair, but, I believe, most foul.
If these condemn him, let them pass his doom!
That doom obtain effect, from Gods or men!
So be it! yet will that more solace bring        565
To the chaf’d heart of Justice than to mine.—
To hear another tumult in these streets,
To have another murder in these halls,
To see another mighty victim bleed—
There is small comfort for a woman here.        570
A woman, O my friends, has one desire—
To see secure, to live with, those she loves.
Can Vengeance give me back the murdered? no!
Can it bring home my child? Ah, if it can,
I pray the Furies’ ever-restless band,        575
And pray the Gods, and pray the all-seeing Sun—
‘Sun, who careerest through the height of Heaven,
When o’er the Arcadian forests thou art come,
And seest my stripling hunter there afield,
Put tightness in thy gold-embossèd rein,        580
And check thy fiery steeds, and, leaning back,
Throw him a pealing word of summons down,
To come, a late avenger, to the aid
Of this poor soul who bore him, and his sire.’
If this will bring him back, be this my prayer!—        585
But Vengeance travels in a dangerous way,
Double of issue, full of pits and snares
For all who pass, pursuers and pursued—
That way is dubious for a mother’s prayer.
Rather on thee I call, Husband belov’d!—        590
May Hermes, herald of the dead, convey
My words below to thee, and make thee hear.—
Bring back our son! if may be, without blood!
Install him in thy throne, still without blood!
Grant him to reign there wise and just like thee,        595
More fortunate than thee, more fairly judg’d!
This for our son: and for myself I pray,
Soon, having once beheld him, to descend
Into the quiet gloom, where thou art now.
These words to thine indulgent ear, thy wife,        600
I send, and these libations pour the while.
[They make their offerings at the tomb. MEROPE then goes towards the palace.
 
THE CHORUS
The dead hath now his offerings duly paid.
But whither go’st thou hence, O Queen, away?
 
MEROPE
To receive Arcas, who to-day should come,
Bringing me of my boy the annual news.        605
 
THE CHORUS
No certain news if like the rest it run.
 
MEROPE
Certain in this, that ’tis uncertain still.
 
THE CHORUS
What keeps him in Arcadia from return?
 
MEROPE
His grandsire and his uncles fear the risk.
 
THE CHORUS
Of what? it lies with them to make risk none.
        610
 
MEROPE
Discovery of a visit made by stealth.
 
THE CHORUS
With arms then they should send him, not by stealth.
 
MEROPE
With arms they dare not, and by stealth they fear.
 
THE CHORUS
I doubt their caution little suits their ward.
 
MEROPE
The heart of youth I know; that most I fear.
        615
 
THE CHORUS
I augur thou wilt hear some bold resolve.
 
MEROPE
I dare not wish it; but, at least, to hear
That my son still survives, in health, in bloom;
To hear that still he loves, still longs for, me;
Yet, with a light uncareworn spirit, turns        620
Quick from distressful thought, and floats in joy—
Thus much from Areas, my old servant true,
Who sav’d him from these murderous halls a babe,
And since has fondly watch’d him night and day
Save for this annual charge, I hope to hear.        625
If this be all, I know not; but I know,
These many years I live for this alone.
[MEROPE goes in.
 
THE CHORUS
Much is there which the Sea      str. 1.
Conceals from man, who cannot plumb its depths.
Air to his unwing’d form denies a way,        630
And keeps its liquid solitudes unscal’d.
Even Earth, whereon he treads,
So feeble is his march, so slow,
Holds countless tracts untrod.
 
But, more than all unplumb’d,      ant. 1.        635
Unscal’d, untrodden, is the heart of Man.
More than all secrets hid, the way it keeps.
Nor any of our organs so obtuse,
Inaccurate, and frail,
As those with which we try to test        640
Feelings and motives there.
 
Yea, and not only have we not explor’d      str. 2.
That wide and various world, the heart of others,
But even our own heart, that narrow world
Bounded in our own breast, we hardly know,        645
Of our own actions dimly trace the causes.
Whether a natural obscureness, hiding
That region in perpetual cloud,
Or our own want of effort, be the bar.
Therefore—while acts are from their motives judg’d,      ant. 2.        650
And to one act many most unlike motives,
This pure, that guilty may have each impell’d—
Power fails us to try clearly if that cause
Assign’d us by the actor be the true one:
Power fails the man himself to fix distinctly        655
The cause which drew him to his deed,
And stamp himself, thereafter, bad or good.
 
The most are bad, wise men have said.      str. 3.
Let the best rule, they say again.
The best, then, to dominion have the right.        660
Rights unconceded and denied,
Surely, if rights, may be by force asserted—
May be, nay should, if for the general weal.
The best, then, to the throne may carve his way,
And hew opposers down,        665
Free from all guilt of lawlessness,
Or selfish lust of personal power:
Bent only to serve Virtue,
Bent to diminish wrong.
 
And truly, in this ill-rul’d world,      ant. 3.        670
Well sometimes may the good desire
To give to Virtue her dominion due.
Well may they long to interrupt
The reign of Folly, usurpation ever,
Though fenc’d by sanction of a thousand years.        675
Well thirst to drag the wrongful ruler down.
Well purpose to pen back
Into the narrow path of right,
The ignorant, headlong multitude,
Who blindly follow ever        680
Blind leaders, to their bane.
 
But who can say, without a fear,      str. 4.
That best, who ought to rule, am I;
The mob, who ought to obey, are these;
I the one righteous, they the many bad?        685
Who, without check of conscience, can aver
That he to power makes way by arms,
Sheds blood, imprisons, banishes, attaints,
Commits all deeds the guilty oftenest do,
Without a single guilty thought,        690
Arm’d for right only, and the general good?
 
Therefore, with censure unallay’d,      ant. 4.
Therefore, with unexcepting ban,
Zeus and pure-thoughted Justice brand
Imperious self-asserting Violence.        695
Sternly condemn the too bold man, who dares
Elect himself Heaven’s destin’d arm.
And, knowing well man’s inmost heart infirm,
However noble the committer be,
His grounds however specious shown,        700
Turn with averted eyes from deeds of blood.
 
Thus, though a woman, I was school’d      epode.
By those whom I revere.
Whether I learnt their lessons well,
Or, having learnt them, well apply        705
To what hath in this house befall’n,
If in the event be any proof,
The event will quickly show.
[AEPYTUS comes in.
 
AEPYTUS
Maidens, assure me if they told me true
Who told me that the royal house was here.        710
 
THE CHORUS
Rightly they told thee, and thou art arriv’d.
 
AEPYTUS
Here, then, it is, where Polyphontes dwells?
 
THE CHORUS
He doth: thou hast both house and master right.
 
AEPYTUS
Might some one straight inform him he is sought?
 
THE CHORUS
Inform him that thyself, for here he comes.
[POLYPHONTES comes forth, with ATTENDANTS and GUARDS.
        715
 
AEPYTUS
O king, all hail! I come with weighty news:
Most likely, grateful; but, in all case, sure.
 
POLYPHONTES
Speak them, that I may judge their kind myself.
 
AEPYTUS
Accept them in one word, for good or bad:
Aepytus, the Messenian prince, is dead!        720
 
POLYPHONTES
Dead!—and when died he? where? and by what hand?
And who art thou, who bringest me such news?
 
AEPYTUS
He perish’d in Arcadia, where he liv’d
With Cypselus; and two days since he died.
One of the train of Cypselus am I.        725
 
POLYPHONTES
Instruct me of the manner of his death.
 
AEPYTUS
That will I do, and to this end I came.
For, being of like age, of birth not mean,
The son of an Arcadian noble, I
Was chosen his companion from a boy;        730
And on the hunting-rambles which his heart,
Unquiet, drove him ever to pursue,
Through all the lordships of the Arcadian dales
From chief to chief, I wander’d at his side,
The captain of his squires, and his guard.        735
On such a hunting-journey, three morns since,
With beaters, hounds, and huntsmen, he and I
Set forth from Tegea, the royal town.
The prince at start seem’d sad, but his regard
Clear’d with blithe travel and the morning air.        740
We rode from Tegea, through the woods of oaks,
Past Arnê spring, where Rhea gave the babe
Poseidon to the shepherd-boys to hide
From Saturn’s search among the new-yean’d lambs,
To Mantinea, with its unbak’d walls;        745
Thence, by the Sea-God’s Sanctuary, and the tomb
Whither from wintry Maenalus were brought
The bones of Arcas, whence our race is nam’d,
On, to the marshy Orchomenian plain,
And the Stone Coffins;—then, by Caphyae Cliffs,        750
To Pheneos with its craggy citadel.
There, with the chief of that hill-town, we log’d
One night; and the next day, at dawn, far’d on
By the Three Fountains and the Adder’s Hill
To the Stymphalian Lake, our journey’s end,        755
To draw the coverts on Cyllene’s side.
There, on a grassy spur which bathes its root
Far in the liquid lake, we sate, and drew
Cates from our hunters’ pouch, Arcadian fare,
Sweet chestnuts, barely-cakes, and boar’s-flesh dried:        760
And as we ate, and rested there, we talk’d
Of places we had pass’d, sport we had had,
Of beasts of chase that haunt the Arcadian hills,
Wild hog, and bear, and mountain-deer, and roe:
Last, of our quarters with the Arcadian hills,        765
For courteous entertainment, welcome warm,
Sad, reverential homage, had our prince
From all, for his great lineage and his woes:
All which he own’d, and prais’d with grateful mind.
But still over his speech a gloom there hung,        770
As of one shadow’d by impending death;
And strangely, as we talk’d, he would apply
The story of spots mention’d to his own:
Telling us, Arnê minded him, he too
Was sav’d a babe, but to a life obscure,        775
Which he, the seed of Hercules, dragg’d on
Inglorious, and should drop at last unknown,
Even as those dead unepitaph’d, who lie
In the stone coffins at Orchomenus.
And, then, he bade remember how we pass’d        780
The Mantinean Sanctuary, forbid
To foot of mortal, where his ancestor,
Nam’d Aepytus like him, having gone in,
Was blinded by the outgushing springs of brine.
Then, turning westward to the Adder’s Hill—        785
Another ancestor, nam’d, too, like me,
Died of a snake-bite, said he, on that brow:
Still at his mountain tomb men marvel, built
Where, as life ebb’d, his bearers laid him down.
So he play’d on; then ended, with a smile—        790
This region is not happy for my race.
We cheer’d him; but, that moment, from the copse
By the lake-edge, broke the sharp cry of hounds;
The prickers shouted that the stage was gone:
We sprang upon our feet, we snatch’d our spears,        795
We bounded down the swarded slope, we plung’d
Through the dense ilex-thickets to the dogs.
Far in the woods ahead their music rang;
And many times that morn we cours’d in ring
The forests round which belt Cyllene’s side;        800
Till I, thrown out and tired, came to halt
On the same spur where we had sate at morn.
And resting there to breathe, I saw below
Rare, straggling hunters, foil’d by brake and crag,
And the prince, single, pressing on the rear        805
Of that unflagging quarry and the hounds.
Now, in the woods far down, I saw them cross
An open glade; now he was high aloft
On some tall scar fring’d with dark feathery pines,
Peering to spy a goat-track down the cliff,        810
Cheering with hand, and voice, and horn his dogs.
At last the cry drew to the water’s edge—
And through the brushwood, to the pebbly strand,
Broke, black with sweat, the antler’d mountain stag,
And took the lake: two hounds alone pursued;        815
Then came the prince—he shouted and plung’d in.—
There is a chasm rifted in the base
Of that unfooted precipice, whose rock
Walls on one side the deep Stymphalian Lake:
There the lake-waters, which in ages gone        820
Wash’d, as the marks upon the hills still show,
All the Stymphalian plain, are now suck’d down.
A headland, with one aged plane-tree crown’d,
Parts from the cave-pierc’d cliff the shelving bay
Where first the chase plung’d in: the bay is smooth,        825
But round the headland’s point a current sets,
Strong, black, tempestuous, to the cavern-mouth.
Stoutly, under the headland’s lee, they swam:
But when they came abreast the point, the race
Caught them, as wind takes feathers, whirl’d them round        830
Struggling in vain to cross it, swept them on,
Stag, dogs, and hunter, to the yawning gulph.
All this, O king, not piecemeal, as to thee
Now told, but in one flashing instant pass’d:
While from the turf whereon I lay I sprang,        835
And took three strides, quarry and dogs were gone;
A moment more—I saw the prince turn round
Once in the black and arrowy race, and cast
One arm aloft for help; then sweep beneath
The low-brow’d cavern-arch, and disappear.        840
And what I could, I did—to call by cries
Some straggling hunters to my aid, to rouse
Fishers who live on the lake-side, to launch
Boats, and approach, near as we dar’d, the chasm.
But of the prince nothing remain’d, save this,        845
His boar-spear’s broken shaft, back on the lake
Cast by the rumbling subterranean stream;
And this, at landing spied by us and sav’d,
His broad-brimm’d hunter’s hat, which, in the bay,
Where first the stag took water, floated still.        850
And I across the mountains brought with haste
To Cypselus, at Basilis, this news:
Basilis, his new city, which he now
Near Lycosura builds, Lycaon’s town,
First city founded on the earth by men.        855
He to thee sends me on, in one thing glad
While all else grieves him, that his grandchild’s death
Extinguishes distrust ’twixt him and thee.
But I from our deplor’d mischance learn this—
The man who to untimely death is doom’d,        860
Vainly you hedge him from the assault of harm;
He bears the seed of ruin in himself.
 
THE CHORUS
So dies the last shoot of our royal tree!
Who shall tell Merope this heavy news?
 
POLYPHONTES
Stranger, the news thou bringest is too great
        865
For instant comment, having many sides
Of import, and in silence best receiv’d,
Whether it turn at last to joy or woe.
But thou, the zealous bearer, hast no part
In what it has of painful, whether now,        870
First heard, or in its future issue shown.
Thou for thy labour hast deserv’d our best
Refreshment, needed by thee, as I judge,
With mountain-travel and night-watching spent.—
To the guest-chamber lead him, some one! give        875
All entertainment which a traveller needs,
And such as fits a royal house to show:
To friends, still more, and labourers in our cause.
[ATTENDANTS conduct AEPYTUS within the palace.
 
THE CHORUS
The youth is gone within; alas! he bears
A presence sad for some one through those doors.        880
 
POLYPHONTES
Admire then, maidens, how in one short hour
The schemes, pursued in vain for twenty years,
Are by a stroke, though undesir’d, complete,
Crown’d with success, not in my way, but Heaven’s!
This at a moment, too, when I had urg’d        885
A last, long-cherish’d project, in my aim
Of concord, and been baffled with disdain.
Fair terms of reconcilement, equal rule,
I offer’d to my foes, and they refus’d:
Worse terms than mine they have obtain’d from Heaven.        890
Dire is this blow for Merope; and I
Wish’d, truly wish’d, solution to our broil
Other than by this death: but it hath come!
I speak no word of boast, but this I say,
A private loss here founds a nation’s peace.
[POLYPHONTES goes out.
        895
 
THE CHORUS
Peace, who tarriest too long;      strophe.
Peace, with Delight in thy train;
Come, come back to our prayer!
Then shall the revel again
Visit our streets, and the sound        900
Of the harp be heard with the pipe,
When the flashing torches appear
In the marriage-train coming on,
With dancing maidens and boys:
While the matrons come to the doors,        905
And the old men rise from their bench,
When the youths bring home the bride.
 
Not decried by my voice      antistrophe
He who restores thee shall be,
Not unfavour’d by Heaven.        910
Surely no sinner the man,
Dread though his acts, to whose hand
Such a boon to bring hath been given.
Let her come, fair Peace! let her come!
But the demons long nourish’d here,        915
Murder, Discord, and Hate,
In the Stormy desolate waves
Of the Thracian Sea let her leave,
Or the howling outermost Main.
[MEROPE comes forth.
 
MEROPE
A whisper through the palace flies of one
        920
Arriv’d from Tegea with weighty news;
And I came, thinking to find Areas here.
Ye have not left this gate, which he must pass:
Tell me—hath one not come? or, worse mischance,
Come, but been intercepted by the king?        925
 
THE CHORUS
A messenger, sent from Arcadia here,
Arriv’d, and of the king had speech but now.
 
MEROPE
Ah me! the wrong expectant got his news.
 
THE CHORUS
The message brought was for the king design’d.
 
MEROPE
How so? was Areas not the messenger?
        930
 
THE CHORUS
A younger man, and of a different name.
 
MEROPE
And what Arcadian news had he to tell?
 
THE CHORUS
Learn that from other lips, O Queen, than mine.
 
MEROPE
He kept his tale, then, for the king alone?
 
THE CHORUS
His tale was meeter for that ear than thine.
        935
 
MEROPE
Why dost thou falter, and make half reply?
 
THE CHORUS
O thrice unhappy, how I groan thy fate!
 
MEROPE
Thou frightenest and confound’st me by thy words.
O were but Areas come, all would be well!
 
THE CHORUS
If so, all’s well: for look, the old man speeds
        940
Up from the city tow’rds this gated hill.
[ARCAS comes in.
 
MEROPE
Not with the failing breath and foot of age
My faithful follower comes. Welcome, old friend!
 
ARCAS
Faithful, not welcome, when my tale is told.
O that my over-speed and bursting grief        945
Had on the journey chok’d my labouring breath,
And lock’d my speech for ever in my breast!
Yet then another man would bring this news.—
O honour’d Queen, thy son, my charge, is gone.
 
THE CHORUS
Too suddenly thou tellest such a loss.
        950
Look up, O Queen! look up, O mistress dear!
Look up, and see thy friends who comfort thee.
 
MEROPE
Ah … Ah … Ah me!

THE CHORUS
                    And I, too, say, ah me!
 
ARCAS
Forgive, forgive the bringer of such news!
 
MEROPE
Better from thine than from an enemy’s tongue.
        955
 
THE CHORUS
And yet no enemy did this, O Queen:
But the wit-baffling will and hand of Heaven.
 
ARCAS
No enemy! and what hast thou, then, heard?
Swift as I came, hath Falsehood been before?
 
THE CHORUS
A youth arriv’d but now, the son, he said,
        960
Of an Arcadian lord, our prince’s friend,
Jaded with travel, clad in hunter’s garb.
He brought report that his own eyes had seen
The prince, in chase after a swimming stage,
Swept down a chasm broken in the cliff        965
Which hangs o’er the Stymphalian Lake, and drown’d.
 
ARCAS
Ah me! with what a foot doth Treason post,
While Loyalty, with all her speed, is slow!
Another tale, I trow, thy messenger
For the King’s private ear reserves, like this        970
In one thing only, that the prince is dead.
 
THE CHORUS
And how then runs this true and private tale?
 
ARCAS
As much to the King’s wish, more to his shame.
This young Arcadian noble, guard and mate
To Aepytus, the king seduc’d with gold,        975
And had him at the prince’s side in leash,
Ready to slip on his unconscious prey.
He on a hunting party three days since,
Among the forests on Cyllene’s side,
Perform’d good service for his bloody wage;        980
The prince, his uncle Laias, whom his ward
Had in a father’s place, he basely murder’d.
Take this for true, the other tale for feign’d.
 
THE CHORUS
And this perfidious murder who reveal’d?
 
ARCAS
The faithless murderer’s own, no other tongue.
        985
 
THE CHORUS
Did conscience goad him to denounce himself?
 
ARCAS
To Cypselus at Basilis he brought
This strange unlikely tale, the prince was drown’d.
 
THE CHORUS
But not a word appears of murder here.
 
ARCAS
Examin’d close, he own’d this story false.
        990
Then evidence came—his comrades of the hunt,
Who saw the prince and Laias last with him,
Never again in life—next, agents, fee’d
To ply ’twixt the Messenian King and him,
Spoke, and reveal’d, that traffic, and the traitor.        995
So charg’d, he stood dumb-founder’d: Cypselus,
On this suspicion, cast him into chains.
Thence he escap’d—and next I find him here.
 
THE CHORUS
His presence with the King, thou mean’st, implies——
 
ARCAS
He comes to tell his prompter he hath sped.
        1000
 
THE CHORUS
Still he repeats the drowning story here.
 
ARCAS
To thee—that needs no Oedipus to explain.
 
THE CHORUS
Interpret, then; for we, it seems, are dull.
 
ARCAS
Your King desir’d the profit of his death,
Not the black credit of his murderer.        1005
That stern word ‘murder’ had too dread a sound
For the Messenian hearts, who lov’d the prince.
 
THE CHORUS
Suspicion grave I see, but no clear proof.
 
MEROPE
Peace! peace! all’s clear.—The wicked watch and work
While the good sleep: the workers have the day.        1010
He who was sent hath sped, and now comes back,
To chuckle with his sender o’er the game
Which foolish innocence plays with subtle guilt.
Ah! now I comprehend the liberal grace
Of this far-scheming tyrant, and his boon        1015
Of heirship to his kingdom for my son:
He had his murderer ready, and the sword
Lifted, and that unwish’d-for heirship void—
A tale, meanwhile, forg’d for his subjects’ ears:
And me, henceforth sole rival with himself        1020
In their allegiance, me, in my son’s death-hour,
When all turn’d tow’rds me, me he would have shown
To my Messenians, dup’d, disarm’d, despis’d,
The willing sharer of his guilty rule,
All claim to succour forfeit, to myself        1025
Hateful, by each Messenian heart abhorr’d.—
His offers I repelled—but what of that?
If with no rage, no fire of righteous hate,
Such as ere now hath spurr’d to fearful deeds
Weak women with a thousandth part my wrongs,        1030
But calm, but unresentful, I endur’d
His offers, coldly heard them, cold repell’d?
While all this time I bear to linger on
In this blood-delug’d palace, in whose halls
Either a vengeful Furry I should stalk,        1035
Or else not live at all—but here I haunt,
A pale, unmeaning ghost, powerless to fright
Or harm, and nurse my longing for my son,
A helpless one, I know it:—but the Gods
Have temper’d me e’en thus; and, in some souls,        1040
Misery, which rouses others, breaks the spring.
And even now, my son, ah me! my son,
Fain would I fade away, as I have liv’d,
Without a cry, a struggle, or a blow,
All vengeance unattempted, and descend        1045
To the invisible plains, to roam with thee,
Fit denizen, the lampless under-world—
But with what eyes should I encounter there
My husband, wandering with his stern compeers,
Amphiaraos, or Mycenae’s king,        1050
Who led the Greeks to Ilium, Agamemnon,
Betray’d like him, but, not like him, aveng’d?
Or with what voice shall I the questions meet
Of my two elder sons, slain long ago,
Who sadly ask me, what, if not revenge,        1055
Kept me, their mother, from their side so long?
Or how reply to thee, my child, last-born,
Last-murder’d, who reproachfully wilt say—
Mother, I well believ’d thou lived’st on
In the detested palace of thy foe,        1060
With patience on thy face, death in thy heart,
Counting, till I grew up, the laggard years,
That our joint hands might then together pay
To one unhappy house the debt we owe.
My death makes my debt void, and doubles thine        1065
But down thou fleest here, and leav’st our scourge
Triumphant, and condemnest all our race
To lie in gloom for ever unappeas’d.
What shall I have to answer to such words?—
No, something must be dar’d; and, great as erst        1070
Our dastard patience, be our daring now!
Come, ye swift Furies, who to him ye haunt
Permit no peace till your behests are done;
Come Hermes, who dost watch the unjustly kill’d,
And can’st teach simple ones to plot and feign;        1075
Come, lightning Passion, that with foot of fire
Advancest to the middle of a deed
Almost before ’tis plann’d; come, glowing hate;
Come, baneful Mischief, from thy murky Hate;
Under the dripping black Tartarean cliff        1080
Which Styx’s awful waters trickle down—
Inspire this coward heart, this flagging arm!
How say ye, maidens, do ye know these prayers?
Are these words Merope’s—is this voice mine?
Old man, old man, thou had’st my boy in charge,        1085
And he is lost, and thou hast that to atone.
Fly, find me on the instant where confer
The murderer and his impious setter-on:
And ye, keep faithful silence, friends, and mark
What one weak woman can achieve alone.        1090
 
ARCAS
O mistress, by the Gods, do nothing rash!
 
MEROPE
Unfaithful servant, dost thou, too, desert me?
 
ARCAS
I go! I go!—yet, Queen, take this one word:
Attempting deeds beyond thy power to do,
Thou nothing profitest thy friends, but mak’st        1095
Our misery more, and thine own ruin sure.
[ARCAS goes out.
 
THE CHORUS
I have heard, O Queen, how a prince,      str. 1.
Agamemnon’s son, in Mycenae,
Orestes, died but in name,
Liv’d for the death of his foes.        1100
 
MEROPE
Peace!

THE CHORUS
                What is it?

MEROPE
                        Alas,
Thou destroyest me!

THE CHORUS
                How?
 
MEROPE
Whispering hope of a life
Which no strange unknown,
But the faithful servant and guard,        1105
Whose tears warrant his truth,
Bears sad witness is lost.
 
THE CHORUS
Wheresoe’er men are, there is grief.      ant. 1.
In a thousand countries, a thousand
Homes, e’en now is there wail:        1110
Mothers lamenting their sons.
 
MEROPE
Yes——

THE CHORUS
            Thou knowest it?

MEROPE
                    This
Who lives, witnesses.

THE CHORUS
                True.
 
MEROPE
But, is it only a fate
Sure, all-common, to lose        1115
In a land of friends, by a friend.
One last, murder-sav’d child?
 
THE CHORUS
Ah me!      str. 2.
 
MEROPE
Thou confessest the prize
In the rushing, thundering, mad,        1120
Cloud-envelop’d, obscure,
Unapplauded, unsung
Race of calamity, mine?
 
THE CHORUS
None can truly claim that
Mournful pre-eminence, not        1125
Thou.

MEROPE
          Fate gives it, ah me!
 
THE CHORUS
Not, above all, in the doubts,
Double and clashing, that hang——
 
MEROPE
What then?      ant. 2.
Seems it lighter, my loss,        1130
If, perhaps, unpierc’d by the sword,
My child lies in a jagg’d
Sunless prison of rocks,
On the black wave borne to and fro?
 
THE CHORUS
Worse, far worse, if his friend,
        1135
If the Arcadian within,
If——

MEROPE (with a start)
            How say’st thou? within?…
 
THE CHORUS
He in the guest-chamber now,
Faithlessly murder his friend.
 
MEROPE
Ye, too, ye, too, join to betray, then,
        1140
Your Queen!

THE CHORUS
                  What is this?

MEROPE
                        Ye knew,
O false friends! into what
Haven the murderer had dropp’d?
Ye kept silence?

THE CHORUS
                  In fear,
O lov’d mistress! in fear,        1145
Dreading thine over-wrought mood,
What I knew, I conceal’d.
 
MEROPE
Swear by Gods henceforth to obey me!
 
THE CHORUS
Unhappy one, what deed
Purposes thy despair?        1150
I promise; but I fear.
 
MEROPE
From the altar, the unveng’d tomb,
Fetch me the sacrifice-axe!——
[The CHORUS goes towards the tomb of CRESPHONTES, and their leader brings back the axe.
O Husband, O cloth’d
With the grave’s everlasting,        1155
All-covering darkness! O King,
Well mourn’d, but ill-aveng’d!
Approv’st thou thy wife now?——
The axe!—who brings it?

THE CHORUS
                  ’Tis here!
But thy gesture, thy look,        1160
Appals me, shakes me with awe.
 
MEROPE
Thrust back now the bolt of that door!
 
THE CHORUS
Alas! alas!—
Behold the fastenings withdrawn
Of the guest-chamber door!—        1165
Ah! I beseech thee—with tears——
 
MEROPE
Throw the door open!

THE CHORUS
                  ’Tis done!…
[The door of the house is thrown open: the interior of the guest-chamber is discovered, with AEPYTUS asleep on a couch.
 
MEROPE
He sleeps—sleeps calm. O ye all-seeing Gods!
Thus peacefully do ye let sinners sleep,
While troubled innocents toss, and lie awake?        1170
What sweeter sleep than this could I desire
For thee, my child, if thou wert yet alive?
How often have I dream’d of thee like this,
With thy soil’d hunting-coat, and sandals torn,
Asleep in the Arcadian glens at noon,        1175
Thy head droop’d softly, and the golden curls
Clustering o’er thy white forehead, like a girl’s;
The short proud lip showing thy race, thy cheeks
Brown’d with thine open-air, free, hunter’s life.
Ah me!…        1180
And where dost thou sleep now, my innocent boy?—
In some dark fir-tree’s shadow, amid rocks
Untrodden, on Cyllene’s desolate side;
Where travellers never pass, where only come
Wild beasts, and vultures sailing overhead.        1185
There, there thou liest now, my hapless child!
Stretch’d among briers and stones, the slow, black gore
Oozing through thy soak’d hunting-shirt, with limbs
Yet stark from the death-struggle, tight-clench’d hands,
And eyeballs staring for revenge in vain.        1190
Ah miserable!…
And thou, thou fair-skinn’d Serpent! thou art laid
In a rich chamber, on a happy bed,
In a king’s house, thy victim’s heritage;
And drink’st untroubled slumber, to sleep of        1195
The toils of thy foul service, till thou wake
Refresh’d, and claim thy master’s thanks and gold.—
Wake up in hell from thine unhallow’d sleep,
Thou smiling Fiend, and claim thy guerdon there!
Wake amid gloom, and howling, and the noise        1200
Of sinners pinion’d on the torturing wheel,
And the stanch Furies’ never-silent scourge.
And bid the chief-tormentors there provide
For a grand culprit shortly coming down.
Go thou the first, and usher in thy lord!        1205
A more just stroke than thou gav’st my son,
Take——
MEROPE advances towards the sleeping AEPYTUS, with the axe uplifted. At the same moment ARCAS returns.


ARCAS (to the chorus)
            Not with him to council did the King
Carry his messenger, but left him here.
[Sees MEROPE and AEPYTUS.
O Gods!…

MEROPE
            Foolish old man, thou spoil my blow!
 
ARCAS
What do I see?…

MEROPE
                  A murderer at death’s door.
        1210
Therefore no words!

ARCAS
                  A murderer?…

MEROPE
                          And captive
To the dear next-of-kin of him he murder’d.
Stand, and let vengeance pass!

ARCAS
                  Hold, O Queen, hold!
Thou know’st not whom thou strik’st….

MEROPE
                  I know his crime.
 
ARCAS
Unhappy one! thou strik’st——

MEROPE
                  A most just blow.
        1215
 
ARCAS
No, by the Gods, thou slay’st——

MEROPE
                  Stand off!

ARCAS
                          Thy son!
 
MEROPE
Ah!…    [She lets the axe drop, and falls insensible.
 
AEPYTUS (awaking)
  Who are these? What shrill, ear-piercing scream
Wakes me thus kindly from the perilous sleep
Wherewith fatigue and youth had bound mine eyes,        1220
Even in the deadly palace of my foe?—
Arcas! Thou here?

ARCAS (embracing him)
                O my dear master! O
My child, my charge belov’d, welcome to life!
As dead we held thee, mourn’d for thee as dead.
 
AEPYTUS
In word I died, that I in deed might live.
        1225
But who are these?

ARCAS
                Messenian maidens, friends.
 
AEPYTUS
And, Arcas!—but I tremble!

ARCAS
                      Boldly ask.
 
AEPYTUS
That black-rob’d, swooning figure?…

ARCAS
                          Merope.
 
AEPYTUS
O mother! mother!

MEROPE
                Who upbraids me? Ah!…
[seeing the axe.
 
AEPYTUS
Upbraids thee? no one.

MEROPE
                    Thou dost well: but take …
        1230
 
AEPYTUS
What wav’st thou off?

MEROPE
                    That murderous axe away!
 
AEPYTUS
Thy son is here.

MEROPE
                One said so, sure, but now.
 
AEPYTUS
Here, here thou hast him!

MEROPE
                    Slaughter’d by this hand!…
 
AEPYTUS
No, by the Gods, alive and like to live!
 
MEROPE
What, thou?—I dream——

AEPYTUS
                May’st thou dream ever so!
        1235
 
MEROPE (advancing towards him)
My child? unhurt?…

AEPYTUS
                  Only by over joy.
 
MEROPE
Art thou, then, come?…

AEPYTUS
                    Never to part again.
[They fall into one another’s arms. Then MEROPE, holding AEPYTUS by the hand, turns to THE CHORUS.
 
MEROPE
O kind Messenian maidens, O my friends,
Bear witness, see, mark well, on what a head
My first stroke of revenge had nearly fallen!        1240
 
THE CHORUS
We see, dear mistress: and we say, the Gods,
As hitherto they kept him, keep him now.
 
MEROPE
O my son!      strophe.
I have, I have thee.… the years
Fly back, my child! and thou seem’st        1245
Ne’er to have gone from these eyes,
Never been torn from this breast.
 
AEPYTUS
Mother, my heart runs over: but the time
Presses me, chides me, will not let me weep.
 
MEROPE
Fearest thou now?
        1250
 
AEPYTUS
I fear not, but I think on my design.
 
MEROPE
At the undried fount of this breast,
A babe, thou smilest again.
Thy brothers play at my feet,
Early-slain innocents! near,        1255
Thy kind-speaking father stands.
 
AEPYTUS
Remember, to revenge his death I come!
 
MEROPE
Ah … revenge!      antistrophe.
That word! it kills me! I see
Once more roll back on my house,        1260
Never to ebb, the accurs’d
All-flooding ocean of blood.
 
AEPYTUS
Mother, sometimes the justice of the Gods
Appoints the way to peace through shedding blood.
 
MEROPE
Sorrowful peace!
        1265
 
AEPYTUS
And yet the only peace to us allow’d.
 
MEROPE
From the first-wrought vengeance is born
A long succession of crimes.
Fresh blood flows, calling for blood:
Fathers, sons, grandsons, are all        1270
One death-dealing vengeful train.
 
AEPYTUS
Mother, thy fears are idle: for I come
To close an old wound, not to open new.
In all else willing to be taught, in this
Instruct me not; I have my lesson clear.—        1275
Arcas, seek out my uncle Laias, now
Concerting in the city with our friends;
Here bring him, ere the king come back from council:
That, how to accomplish what the Gods enjoin,
And the slow-ripening time at last prepares,        1280
We two with thee, my mother, may consult:
For whose help dare I count on if not thine?
 
MEROPE
Approves my brother Laias this design?
 
AEPYTUS
Yes, and alone is with me here to share.
 
MEROPE
And what of thine Arcadian mate, who bears
        1285
Suspicion from thy grandsire of thy death,
For whom, as I suppose, thou passest here?
 
AEPYTUS
Sworn to our plot he is: but, that surmise
Fix’d him the author of my death, I knew not.
 
MEROPE
Proof, not surmise, shows him in commerce close——
        1290
 
AEPYTUS
With this Messenian tyrant—that I know.
 
MEROPE
And entertainst thou, child, such dangerous friends?
 
AEPYTUS
This commerce for my best behoof he plies.
 
MEROPE
That thou may’st read thine enemy’s counsel plain?
 
AEPYTUS
Too dear his secret wiles have cost our house.
        1295
 
MEROPE
And of his unsure agent what demands he?
 
AEPYTUS
News of my business, pastime, temper, friends.
 
MEROPE
His messages, then, point not to thy murder?
 
AEPYTUS
Not yet; though such, no doubt, his final aim.
 
MEROPE
And what Arcadian helpers bring’st thou here?
        1300
 
AEPYTUS
Laias alone; no errand mine for crowds.
 
MEROPE
On what relying, to crush such a foe?
 
AEPYTUS
One sudden stroke, and the Messenians’ love.
 
MEROPE
O thou long-lost, long seen in dreams alone,
But now seen face to face, my only child!        1305
Why wilt thou fly to lose as soon as found
My new-won treasure, thy beloved life?
Or how expectest not to lose, who com’st
With such slight means to cope with such a foe?
Thine enemy thou know’st not, nor his strength.        1310
The stroke thou purposest is desperate, rash—
Yet grant that it succeeds;—thou hast behind
The stricken king a second enemy
Scarce dangerous less than him, the Dorian lords.
These are not now the savage band who erst        1315
Follow’d thy father from their northern hills,
Mere ruthless and uncounsell’d tools of war,
Good to obey, without a leader naught.
Their chief hath train’d them, made them like himself,
Sagacious, men of iron, watchful, firm,        1320
Against surprise and sudden panic proof:
Their master fall’n, these will not flinch, but band
To keep their master’s power: thou wilt find
Behind his corpse their hedge of serried spears.
But, to match these, thou hast the people’s love?        1325
On what a reed, my child, thou leanest there!
Knowest thou not how timorous, how unsure,
How useless an ally a people is
Against the one and certain arm of power?
Thy father perish’d in this people’s cause,        1330
Perish’d before their eyes, yet no man stirr’d:
For years, his widow, in their sight I stand,
A never-changing index to revenge—
What help, what vengeance, at their hands have I?—
At least, if thou wilt trust them, try them first:        1335
Against the King himself array the host
Thou countest on to back thee ’gainst his lords:
First rally the Messenians to thy cause,
Give them cohesion, purpose, and resolve,
Marshal them to an army—then advance,        1340
Then try the issue; and not, rushing on
Single and friendless, throw to certain death
That dear-belov’d, that young, that gracious head.
Be guided, O my son! spurn counsel not:
For know thou this, a violent heart hath been        1345
Fatal to all the race of Hercules.
 
THE CHORUS
With sage experience she speaks; and thou,
O Aepytus, weigh well her counsel given.
 
AEPYTUS
Ill counsel, in my judgement, gives she here,
Maidens, and reads experience much amiss;        1350
Discrediting the succour which our cause
Might from the people draw, if rightly us’d:
Advising us a course which would, indeed,
If followed, make their succour slack and null.
A people is no army, train’d to fight,        1355
A passive engine, at their general’s will;
And, if so us’d, proves, as thou say’st, unsure.
A people, like a common man, is dull,
Is lifeless, while its heart remains untouch’d;
A fool can drive it, and a fly may scare:        1360
When it admires and loves, its heart awakes;
Then irresistibly it lives, it works:
A people, then, is an ally indeed;
It is ten thousand fiery wills in one.
Now I, if I invite them to run risk        1365
Of life for my advantage, and myself,
Who chiefly profit, run no more than they—
How shall I rouse their love, their ardour so?
But, if some signal, unassisted stroke,
Dealt at my own sole risk, before their eyes,        1370
Announces me their rightful prince return’d—
The undegenerate blood of Hercules—
The daring claimant of a perilous throne—
How might not such a sight as this revive
Their loyal passion tow’rd my father’s house?        1375
Electrify their hearts? make them no more
A craven mob, but a devouring fire?
Then might I use them, then, for one who thus
Spares not himself, themselves they will not spare.
Haply, had but one daring soul stood forth        1380
To rally them and lead them to revenge,
When my great father fell, they had replied:—
Alas! our foe alone stood forward then.
And thou, my mother, hadst thou made a sign—
Hadst thou, from thy forlorn and captive state        1385
Of widowhood in these polluted halls,
Thy prison-house, rais’d one imploring cry—
Who knows but that avengers thou hadst found?
But mute thou sat’st, and each Messenian heart
In thy despondency desponded too.        1390
Enough of this!—though not a finger stir
To succour me in my extremest need;
Though all free spirits in this land be dead,
And only slaves and tyrants left alive—
Yet for me, mother, I had liefer die        1395
On native ground, than drag the tedious hours
Of a protected exile any more.
Hate, duty, interest, passion call one way:
Here stand I now, and the attempt shall be.
 
THE CHORUS
Prudence is on the other side; but deeds
        1400
Condemn’d by prudence have sometimes gone well.
 
MEROPE
Not till the ways of prudence all are tried,
And tried in vain, the turn of rashness comes.
Thou leapest to thy deed, and hast not ask’d
Thy kinsfolk and thy father’s friends for aid.        1405
 
AEPYTUS
And to what friends should I for aid apply?
 
MEROPE
The royal race of Temenus, in Argos——
 
AEPYTUS
That house, like ours, intestine murder maims.
 
MEROPE
Thy Spartan cousins, Procles and his brother——
 
AEPYTUS
Love a won cause, but not a cause to win.
        1410
 
MEROPE
My father, then, and his Arcadian chiefs——
 
AEPYTUS
Mean still to keep aloof from Dorian broil.
 
MEROPE
Wait, then, until sufficient help appears.
 
AEPYTUS
Orestes in Mycenae had no more.
 
MEROPE
He to fulfil an order rais’d his hand.
        1415
 
AEPYTUS
What order more precise had he than I?
 
MEROPE
Apollo peal’d it from his Delphian cave.
 
AEPYTUS
A mother’s murder needed hest divine.
 
MEROPE
He had a hest, at least, and thou hast none.
 
AEPYTUS
The Gods command not where the heart speaks clear.
        1420
 
MEROPE
Thou wilt destroy, I see, thyself and us.
 
AEPYTUS
O suffering! O calamity! how ten,
How twentyfold worse are ye, when your blows
Not only wound the sense, but kill the soul,
The noble thought, which is alone the man!        1425
That I, to-day returning, find myself
Orphan’d of both my parents—by his foes
My father, by your strokes my mother slain!—
For this is not my mother, who dissuades,
At the dread altar of her husband’s tomb,        1430
His son from vengeance of his murderer;
And not alone dissuades him, but compares
His just revenge to an unnatural deed,
A deed so awful, that the general tongue
Fluent of horrors, falters to relate it—        1435
Of darkness so tremendous, that its author,
Though to his act empower’d, nay, impell’d,
By the oracular sentence of the Gods,
Fled, for years after, o’er the face of earth,
A frenzied wanderer, a God-driven man,        1440
And hardly yet, some say, hath found a grave—
With such a deed as this thou matchest mine,
Which Nature sanctions, which the innocent blood
Clamours to find fulfill’d, which good men praise,
And only bad men joy to see undone?        1445
O honour’d father! hide thee in thy grave
Deep as thou canst, for hence no succour comes;
Since from thy faithful subjects what revenge
Canst thou expect, when thus thy window fails?
Alas! an adamantine strength indeed,        1450
Past expectation, hath thy murderer built:
For this is the true strength of guilty kings,
When they corrupt the souls of those they rule.
 
THE CHORUS
Zeal makes him most unjust: but, in good time,
Here, as I guess, the noble Laias comes.        1455
 
LAIAS
Break off, break off your talking, and depart
Each to his post, where the occasion calls;
Lest from the council-chamber presently
The King return, and find you prating here.
A time will come for greetings; but to-day        1460
The hour for words is gone, is come for deeds.
 
AEPYTUS
O princely Laias! to what purpose calls
The occasion, if our chief confederate fails?
My mother stands aloof, and blames our deed.
 
LAIAS
My royal sister?… but, without some cause,
        1465
I know, she honours not the dead so ill.
 
MEROPE
Brother, it seems thy sister must present,
At this first meeting after absence long,
Not welcome, exculpation to her kin:
Yet exculpation needs it, if I seek,        1470
A woman and a mother, to avert
Risk from my new-restor’d, my only son?—
Sometimes, when he was gone, I wish’d him back,
Risk what he might; now that I have him here,
Now that I feed mine eyes on that young face,        1475
Hear that fresh voice, and clasp that gold-lock’d head,
I shudder, Laias, to commit my child
To Murder’s dread arena, where I saw
His father and his ill starr’d brethren fall:
I loathe for him the slippery way of blood;        1480
I ask if bloodless means may gain his end.
In me the fever of revengeful hate,
Passion’s first furious longing to imbrue
Our own right hand in the detested blood
Of enemies, and count their dying groans—        1485
If in this feeble bosom such a fire
Did ever burn—is long by time allay’d,
And I would now have Justice strike, not me.
Besides—for from my brother and my son
I hide not even this—the reverence deep,        1490
Remorseful, tow’rd my hostile solitude,
By Polyphontes never fail’d-in once
Through twenty years; his mournful anxious zeal
To efface in me the memory of his crime—
Though it efface not that, yet makes me wish        1495
His death a public, not a personal act,
Treacherously plotted ’twixt my son and me;
To whom this day he came to proffer peace,
Treaty, and to this kingdom for my son
Heirship, with fair intent, as I believe:—        1500
For that he plots thy death, account it false;
[to AEPYTUS.
Number it with the thousand rumours vain,
Figments of plots, wherewith intriguers fill
The enforced leisure of an exile’s ear:—
Immers’d in serious state-craft is the King,        1505
Bent above all to pacify, to rule,
Rigidly, yet in settled calm, this realm;
Not prone, all say, to useless bloodshed now.—
So much is due to truth, even tow’rds our foe.
[to LAIAS.
Do I, then, give to usurpation grace,        1510
And from his natural rights my son debar?
Not so: let him—and none shall be more prompt
Than I to help—raise his Messenian friends;
Let him fetch succours from Arcadia, gain
His Argive or his Spartan cousins’ aid;        1515
Let him do this, do aught but recommence
Murder’s uncertain, secret, perilous game—
And I, when to his righteous standard down
Flies Victory wing’d, and Justice raises then
Her sword, will be the first to bid it fall.        1520
If, haply, at this moment, such attempt
Promise not fair, let him a little while
Have faith, and trust the future and the Gods.
He may—for never did the Gods allow
Fast permanence to an ill-gotten throne.—        1525
These are but woman’s words;—yet, Laias, thou
Despise them not! for, brother, thou, like me,
Wert not among the feuds of warrior-chiefs,
Each sovereign for his dear-bought hour, born;
But in the pastoral Arcadia rear’d,        1530
With Cypselus our father, where we saw
The simple patriarchal state of kings,
Where sire to son transmits the unquestion’d crown,
Unhack’d, unsmirch’d, unbloodied, and hast learnt
That spotless hands unshaken sceptres hold.        1535
Having learnt this, then, use thy knowledge now.
 
THE CHORUS
Which way to lean I know not: bloody strokes
Are never free from doubt, though sometimes due.
 
LAIAS
O Merope, the common heart of man
Agrees to deem some deeds so horrible,        1540
That neither gratitude, nor tie of race,
Womanly pity, nor maternal fear,
Nor any pleader else, shall be indulg’d
To breathe a syllable to bar revenge.
All this, no doubt, thou to thyself hast urg’d—        1545
Time presses, so that theme forbear I now:
Direct to thy dissuasions I reply.
Blood-founded thrones, thou say’st, are insecure;
Our father’s kingdom, because pure, is safe.
True; but what cause to our Arcadia gives        1550
Its privileg’d immunity from blood,
But that, since first the black and fruitful Earth
In the primeval mountain-forests bore
Pelasgus, our forefather and mankind’s,
Legitimately sire to son, with us,        1555
Bequeaths the allegiance of our shepherd-tribes,
More loyal, as our line continues more?—
How can your Heracleidan chiefs inspire
This awe which guards our earth-sprung, lineal kings?
What permanence, what stability like ours,        1560
Whether blood flows or no, can yet invest
The broken order of your Dorian thrones,
Fix’d yesterday, and ten their chang’d since then?—
Two brothers, and their orphan nephews, strove
For the three conquer’d kingdoms of this isle:        1565
The eldest, mightiest brother, Temenus, took
Argos: a juggle to Cresphontes gave
Messenia: to those helpless Boys, the lot
Worst of the three, the stony Sparta, fell.
August, indeed, was the foundation here!        1570
What followed?—His most trusted kinsman slew
Cresphontes in Messenia; Temenus
Perish’d in Argos by his jealous sons;
The Spartan Brothers with their guardian strive:—
Can houses thus ill-seated—thus embroil’d—        1575
Thus little founded in their subjects’ love,
Practise the indulgent, bloodless policy
Of dynasties long-fix’d, and honour’d long?
No! Vigour and severity must chain
Popular reverence to these recent lines;        1580
If their first-founded order be maintain’d—
Their murder’d rulers terribly aveng’d—
Ruthlessly their rebellious subjects crush’d.—
Since policy bids thus, what fouler death
Than thine illustrious husband’s to avenge        1585
Shall we select?—than Polyphontes, what
More daring and more grand offender find?
Justice, my sister, long demands this blow,
And Wisdom, now thou see’st, demands it too:
To strike it, then, dissuade thy son no more;        1590
For to live disobedient to these two,
Justice and Wisdom, is no life at all.
 
THE CHORUS
The Gods, O mistress dear! the hard-soul’d man,
Who spar’d not others, bid not us to spare.
 
MEROPE
Alas! against my brother, son, and friends,
        1595
One, and a woman, how can I prevail?—
O brother! thou hast conquer’d; yet, I fear.…
Son! with a doubting heart thy mother yields …
May it turn happier than my doubts portend!
 
LAIAS
Meantime on thee the task of silence only
        1600
Shall be impos’d; to us shall be the deed.
Now, not another word, but to our act!
Nephew! thy friends are sounded, and prove true:
Thy father’s murderer, in the public place,
Performs, this noon, a solemn sacrifice:        1605
Go with him—choose the moment—strike thy blow!
If prudence counsels thee to go unarm’d,
The sacrificer’s axe will serve thy turn.
To me and the Messenians leave the rest,
With the Gods’ aid—and, if they give but aid        1610
As our just cause deserves, I do not fear.
[AEPYTUS, LAIAS, and ARCAS go out.
 
THE CHORUS
O Son and Mother,      str. 1.
Whom the Gods o’ershadow,
In dangerous trial,
With certainty of favour!        1615
As erst they shadow’d
Your race’s founders
From irretrievable woe:
When the seed of Lycaon
Lay forlorn, lay outcast,        1620
Callisto and her Boy.
 
What deep-grass’d meadow      ant. 1.
At the meeting valleys—
Where clear-flowing Ladon,
Most beautiful of waters,        1625
Receives the river
Whose trout are vocal,
The Aroanian stream—
Without home, without mother,
Hid the babe, hid Arcas,        1630
The nursling of the dells?
 
But the sweet-smelling myrtle,      str. 2.
And the pink-flower’d oleander,
And the green agnus-castus,
To the West-Wind’s murmur,        1635
Rustled round his cradle;
And Maia rear’d him.
Then, a boy, he startled
In the snow-fill’d hollows
Of high Cyllene        1640
The white mountain-birds;
Or surpris’d, in the glens,
The basking tortoises,
Whose strip’d shell founded
In the hand of Hermes        1645
The glory of the lyre.
 
But his mother, Callisto,      ant. 2.
In her hiding-place of the thickets
Of the lentisk and ilex,
In her rough form, fearing        1650
The hunter on the outlook,
Poor changeling! trembled.
Or the children, plucking
In the thorn-chok’d gullies
Wild gooseberries, scar’d her,        1655
The shy mountain-bear.
Or the shepherds, on slopes
With pale-spik’d lavender
And crisp thyme tufted,
Came upon her, stealing        1660
At day-break through the dew.
 
Once, ’mid the gorges,      str. 2.
Spray-drizzled, lonely,
Unclimb’d by man—
O’er whose cliffs the townsmen        1665
Of crag-perch’d Nonacris
Behold in summer
The slender torrent
Of Styx come dancing,
A wind-blown thread—        1670
By the precipices of Khelmos,
The fleet, desperate hunter,
The youthful Arcas, born of Zeus,
His fleeing mother,
Transform’d Callisto,        1675
Unwitting follow’d—
And rais’d his spear.
 
Turning, with piteous      ant. 3.
Distressful longing,
Sad, eager eyes,        1680
Mutely she regarded
Her well-known enemy.
Low moans half utter’d
What speech refus’d her;
Tears cours’d, tears human,        1685
Down those disfigur’d
Once human cheeks.
With unutterable foreboding
Her son, heart-stricken, ey’d her.
The Gods had pity, made them Stars.        1690
Stars now they sparkle
In the northern Heaven;
The guard Arcturus,
The guard-watch’d Bear.
 
So, o’er thee and thy child,      epode.        1695
Some God, Merope, now,
In dangerous hour, stretches his hand.
So, like a star, dawns thy son,
Radiant with fortune and joy.
[POLYPHONTES comes in.
 
POLYPHONTES
O Merope, the trouble on thy face
        1700
Tells me enough thou know’st the news which all
Messenia speaks: the prince, thy son, is dead.
Not from my lips should consolation fall:
To offer that, I came not; but to urge,
Even after news of this sad death, our league.        1705
Yes, once again I come; I will not take
This morning’s angry answer for thy last:
To the Messenian kingdom thou and I
Are the sole claimants left; what cause of strife
Lay in thy son is buried in his grave.        1710
Most honourably I meant, I call the Gods
To witness, offering him return and power:
Yet, had he liv’d, suspicion, jealousy,
Inevitably had surg’d up, perhaps,
’Twixt thee and me; suspicion, that I nurs’d        1715
Some ill design against him; jealousy,
That he enjoy’d but part, being heir to all.
And he himself, with the impetuous heart
Of youth, ’tis like, had never quite forgone
The thought of vengeance on me, never quite        1720
Unclos’d his itching fingers from his sword.
But thou, O Merope, though deeply wrong’d,
Though injur’d past forgiveness, as men deem,
Yet hast been long at school with thoughtful Time,
And from that teacher may’st have learn’d, like me,        1725
That all may be endur’d, and all forgiv’n;
Have learn’d that we must sacrifice the thirst
Of personal vengeance to the public weal;
Have learn’d, that there are guilty deeds, which leave
The hand that does them guiltless; in a word,        1730
That kings live for their peoples, not themselves.
This having learn’d, let us a union found
(For the last time I ask, ask earnestly)
Bas’d on pure public welfare; let us be—
Not Merope and Polyphontes, foes        1735
Blood-sever’d—but Messenia’s King and Queen:
Let us forget ourselves for those we rule.
Speak: I go hence to offer sacrifice
To the Preserver Zeus; let me return
Thanks to him for our amity as well.        1740
 
MEROPE
Oh had’st thou, Polyphontes, still but kept
The silence thou hast kept for twenty years!
 
POLYPHONTES
Henceforth, if what I urge displease, I may:
But fair proposal merits fair reply.
 
MEROPE
And thou shalt have it! Yes, because thou hast
        1745
For twenty years forborne to interrupt
The solitude of her whom thou hast wrong’d—
That scanty grace shall earn thee this reply.—
First, for our union. Trust me, ’twixt us two
The brazen-footed Fury ever stalks,        1750
Waving her hundred hands, a torch in each,
Aglow with angry fire, to keep us twain.
Now, for thyself. Thou com’st with well-cloak’d joy,
To announce the ruin of my husband’s house,
To sound thy triumph in his widow’s ears,        1755
To bid her share thine unendanger’d throne:—
To this thou would’st have answer.—Take it: Fly!
Cut short thy triumph, seeming at its height;
Fling off thy crown, suppos’d at last secure;
Forsake this ample, proud Messenian realm:        1760
To some small, humble, and unnoted strand,
Some rock more lonely than that Lemnian isle
Where Philoctetes pin’d, take ship and flee:
Some solitude more inaccessible
Than the ice-bastion’d Caucasean Mount,        1765
Chosen a prison for Prometheus, climb:
There in unvoic’d oblivion hide thy name,
And bid the sun, thine only visitant,
Divulge not to the far-off world of men
What once-fam’d wretch he hath seen lurking there.        1770
There nurse a late remorse, and thank the Gods,
And thank thy bitterest foe, that, having lost
All things but life, thou lose not life as well.
 
POLYPHONTES
What mad bewilderment of grief is this?
 
MEROPE
Thou art bewilder’d: the sane head is mine.
        1775
 
POLYPHONTES
I pity thee, and wish thee calmer mind.
 
MEROPE
Pity thyself; none needs compassion more.
 
POLYPHONTES
Yet, oh! could’st thou but act as reason bids!
 
MEROPE
And in my turn I wish the same for thee.
 
POLYPHONTES
All I could do to soothe thee has been tried.
        1780
 
MEROPE
For that, in this my warning, thou art paid.
 
POLYPHONTES
Know’st thou then aught, that thus thou sound’st the alarm?
 
MEROPE
Thy crime: that were enough to make one fear.
 
POLYPHONTES
My deed is of old date, and long aton’d.
 
MEROPE
Aton’d this very day, perhaps, it is.
        1785
 
POLYPHONTES
My final victory proves the Gods appeas’d.
 
MEROPE
O victor, victor, trip not at the goal!
 
POLYPHONTES
Hatred and passionate Envy blind thine eyes.
 
MEROPE
O Heaven-abandon’d wretch, that envies thee!
 
POLYPHONTES
Thou hold’st so cheap, then, the Messenian crown?
        1790
 
MEROPE
I think on what the future hath in store.
 
POLYPHONTES
To-day I reign: the rest I leave to Fate.
 
MEROPE
For Fate thou wait’st not long; since, in this hour——
 
POLYPHONTES
What? for so far she hath not prov’d my foe—
 
MEROPE
Fate seals my lips, and drags to ruin thee.
        1795
 
POLYPHONTES
Enough! enough! I will no longer hear
The ill-boding note which frantic Envy sounds
To affright a fortune which the Gods secure.
Once more my friendship thou rejectest: well!
More for this land’s sake grieve I, than mine own.        1800
I chafe not with thee, that thy hate endures,
Nor bend myself too low, to make it yield.
What I have done is done; by my own deed,
Neither exulting nor asham’d, I stand.
Why should this heart of mine set mighty store        1805
By the construction and report of men?
Not men’s good-word hath made me what I am.
Alone I master’d power; and alone,
Since so thou wilt, I will maintain it still.
[POLYPHONTES goes out.
 
THE CHORUS
Did I then waver      str. 1.
        1810
(O woman’s judgement!)
Misled by seeming
Success of crime?
And ask, if sometimes
The Gods, perhaps, allow’d you,        1815
O lawless daring of the strong,
O self-will recklessly indulg’d?
Not time, not lightning,      ant. 1.
Not rain, not thunder,
Efface the endless        1820
Decrees of Heaven—
Make Justice alter,
Revoke, assuage her sentence,
Which dooms dread ends to dreadful deeds,
And violent deaths to violent men.        1825
 
But the signal example      str. 2.
Of invariableness of justice
Our glorious founder
Hercules gave us,
Son lov’d of Zeus his father: for he err’d,        1830
 
And the strand of Euboea,      ant. 2.
And the promontory of Cenaeum,
His painful, solemn
Punishment witness’d,
Beheld his expiation: for he died.        1835
 
O villages of Oeta      str. 3.
With hedges of the wild rose!
O pastures of the mountain,
Of short grass, beaded with dew,
Between the pine-woods and the cliffs!        1840
O cliffs, left by the eagles,
On that morn, when the smoke-cloud
From the oak-built, fiercely-burning pyre,
Up the precipices of Trachis,
Drove them screaming from their eyries!        1845
A willing, a willing sacrifice on that day
Ye witness’d, ye mountain lawns,
When the shirt-wrapt, poison-blister’d Hero
Ascended, with undaunted heart,
Living, his own funeral-pile,        1850
And stood, shouting for a fiery torch;
And the kind, chance-arriv’d Wanderer, 1
The inheritor of the bow,
Coming swiftly through the sad Trachinians,
Put the torch to the pile:        1855
That the flame tower’d on high to the Heaven
Bearing with it, to Olympus,
To the side of Hebe,
To immortal delight,
The labour-releas’d Hero.        1860
 
O heritage of Neleus,      ant. 3.
Ill-kept by his infirm heirs!
O kingdom of Messenê,
Of rich soil, chosen by craft,
Possess’d in hatred, lost in blood!        1865
O town, high Stenyclaros,
With new walls, which the victors
From the four-town’d, mountain-shadow’d Doris,
For their Hercules-issu’d princes
Built in strength against the vanquish’d!        1870
Another, another sacrifice on this day
Ye witness, ye new-built towers!
When the white-rob’d, garland-crowned Monarch
Approaches, with undoubting heart,
Living, his own sacrifice-block,        1875
And stands, shouting for a slaughterous axe;
And the stern, Destiny-brought Stranger,
The inheritor of the realm,
Coming swiftly through the jocund Dorians,
Drives the axe to its goal:        1880
That the blood rushes in streams to the dust;
Bearing with it, to Erinnys,
To the Gods of Hades,
To the dead unaveng’d,
The fiercely-requir’d Victim.        1885
 
Knowing he did it, unknowing pays for it.      [epode.
Unknowing, unknowing,
Thinking aton’d-for
Deeds unatonable,
Thinking appeas’d        1890
Gods unappeasable,
Lo, the Ill-fated One,
Standing for harbour,
Right at the harbour-mouth,
Strikes, with all sail set,        1895
Full on the sharp-pointed
Needle of ruin!
[A MESSENGER comes in.
 
MESSENGER
O honour’d Queen, O faithful followers
Of your dead master’s line, I bring you news
To make the gates of this long-mournful house        1900
Leap, and fly open of themselves for joy!
[noise and shouting heard.
Hark how the shouting crowds tramp hitherward
With glad acclaim! Ere they forestall my news,
Accept it:—Polyphontes is no more.
 
MEROPE
Is my son safe? that question bounds my care.
        1905
 
MESSENGER
He is, and by the people hail’d for king.
 
MEROPE
The rest to me is little: yet, since that
Must from some mouth be heard, relate it thou.
 
MESSENGER
Not little, if thou saw’st what love, what zeal,
At thy dead husband’s name the people show.        1910
For when this morning in the public square
I took my stand, and saw the unarm’d crowds
Of citizens in holiday attire,
Women and children intermix’d; and then,
Group’d around Zeus’s altar, all in arms,        1915
Serried and grim, the ring of Dorian lords—
I trembled for our prince and his attempt.
Silence and expectation held us all:
Till presently the King came forth, in robe
Of sacrifice, his guards clearing the way        1920
Before him—at his side, the prince, thy son,
Unarm’d and travel-soil’d, just as he was:
With him conferring the King slowly reach’d
The altar in the middle of the square,
Where, by the sacrificing minister,        1925
The flower-dress’d victim stood, a milk-white bull,
Swaying from side to side his massy head
With short impatient lowings: there he stopp’d,
And seem’d to muse awhile, then rais’d his eyes
To Heaven, and laid his hand upon the steer,        1930
And cried—O Zeus, let what blood-guiltiness
Yet stains our land be by this blood wash’d out,
And grant henceforth to the Messenians peace!
That moment, while with upturn’d eyes he pray’d,
The prince snatch’d from the sacrificer’s hand        1935
The axe, and on the forehead of the King,
Where twines the chaplet, dealt a mighty blow
Which fell’d him to the earth, and o’er him stood,
And shouted—Since by thee defilement came,
What blood so meet as thine to wash it out?        1940
What hand to strike thee meet as mine, the hand
Of Aepytus, thy murder’d master’s son?
But, gazing at him from the ground, the King …
Is it, then, thou? he murmur’d; and with that,
He bow’d his head, and deeply groan’d, and died.        1945
Till then we all seem’d stone: but then a cry
Broke from the Dorian lords: forward they rush’d
To circle the prince round: when suddenly
Laias in arms sprang to his nephew’s side,
Crying—O ye Messenians, will ye leave        1950
The son to perish as ye left the sire?
And from that moment I saw nothing clear:
For from all sides a deluge, as it seem’d,
Burst o’er the altar and the Dorian lords,
Of holiday-clad citizens transform’d        1955
To armèd warriors: I heard vengeful cries;
I heard the clash of weapons; then I saw
The Dorians lying dead, thy son hail’d king.
And, truly, one who sees, what seem’d so strong,
The power of this tyrant and his lords,        1960
Melt like a passing smoke, a nightly dream,
At one bold word, one enterprising blow—
Might ask, why we endur’d their yoke so long:
But that we know how every perilous feat
Of daring, easy as it seems when done,        1965
Is easy at no moment but the right.
 
THE CHORUS
Thou speakest well; but here, to give our eyes
Authentic proof of what thou tell’st our ears,
The conquerors, with the King’s dead body, come.
[AEPYTUS, LAIAS, and ARCAS come in with the dead body of POLYPHONTES, followed by a crowd of the MESSENIANS.]
 
LAIAS
Sister, from this day forth thou art no more
        1970
The widow of a husband unaveng’d,
The anxious mother of an exil’d son.
Thine enemy is slain, thy son is king!
Rejoice with us! and trust me, he who wish’d
Welfare to the Messenian state, and calm,        1975
Could find no way to found them sure as this.
 
AEPYTUS
Mother, all these approve me: but if thou
Approve not too, I have but half my joy.
 
MEROPE
O Aepytus, my son, behold, behold
This iron man, my enemy and thine,        1980
This politic sovereign, lying at our feet,
With blood-bespatter’d robes, and chaplet shorn!
Inscrutable as ever, see, it keeps
Its sombre aspect of majestic care,
Of solitary thought, unshar’d resolve,        1985
Even in death, that countenance austere.
So look’d he, when to Stenyclaros first,
A new-made wife, I from Arcadia came,
And found him at my husband’s side, his friend,
His kinsman, his right hand in peace and war;        1990
Unsparing in his service of his toil,
His blood; to me, for I confess it, kind:
So look’d he in that dreadful day of death:
So, when he pleaded for our league but now.
What meantest thou, O Polyphontes, what        1995
Desired’st thou, what truly spurr’d thee on?
Was policy of state, the ascendancy
Of the Heracleidan conquerors, as thou said’st,
Indeed thy lifelong passion and sole aim?
Or did’st thou but, as cautions schemers use,        2000
Cloak thine ambition with these specious words?
I know not; just, in either case, the stroke
Which laid thee low, for blood requires blood:
But yet, not knowing this, I triumph not
Over thy corpse, triumph not, neither mourn;        2005
For I find worth in thee, and badness too.
What mood of spirit, therefore, shall we call
The true one of a man—what way of life
His fix’d condition and perpetual walk?
None, since a twofold colour reigns in all.        2010
But thou, my son, study to make prevail
One colour in thy life, the hue of truth:
That Justice, that sage Order, not alone
Natural Vengeance, may maintain thine act,
And make it stand indeed the will of Heaven.        2015
Thy father’s passion was this people’s ease,
This people’s anarchy, thy foe’s pretence;
As the chiefs rule, indeed, the people are:
Unhappy people, where the chiefs themselves
Are, like the mob, vicious and ignorant!        2020
So rule, that even thine enemies may fail
To find in thee a fault whereon to found,
Of tyrannous harshness, or remissness weak:
So rule, that as thy father thou be lov’d;
So rule, that as thy foe thou be obey’d.        2025
Take these, my son, over thine enemy’s corpse
Thy mother’s prayers: and this prayer last of all,
That even in thy victory thou show,
Mortal, the moderation of a man.
 
AEPYTUS
O mother, my best diligence shall be
        2030
In all by thy experience to be rul’d
Where my own youth falls short. But, Laias, now,
First work after such victory, let us go
To render to my true Messenians thanks,
To the Gods grateful sacrifice; and then,        2035
Assume the ensigns of my father’s power.
 
THE CHORUS
Son of Cresphontes, past what perils
Com’st thou, guided safe, to thy home!
What things daring! what enduring!
And all this by the will of the Gods.        2040
 
Note 1. the kind, chance-arriv’d Wanderer: Poias, father of Philoctetes. [back]
 
 
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