Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.). Agamemnon.
Vol. 8, pp. 52-64 of The Harvard Classics
Cassandra knew through a prophetic vision that a sword would pierce her heart. Agamemnon, her captor, took her to his home where an avenging wife, Clytemnestra, awaited. The tragedies of the doom that requited the sins of the House of Atreus are among the most powerful ever written.
Woe for my city, woe for Ilion’s fall!
Father, how oft with sanguine stain
Streamed on thine altar-stone the blood of cattle, slain
That heaven might guard our wall!
But all was shed in vain.
Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell,
And I—ah burning heart!—shall soon lie low as well.
Of sorrow is thy song, of sorrow still!
Alas, what power of ill
Sits heavy on thy heart and bids thee tell
In tears of perfect moan thy deadly tale?
Some woe—I know not what—must close thy piteous wail.
List! for no more the presage of my soul,
Bride-like, shall peer from its secluding veil;
But as the morning wind blows clear the east,
More bright shall blow the wind of prophecy,
And as against the low bright line of dawn
Heaves high and higher yet the rolling wave,
So in the clearing skies of prescience
Dawns on my soul a further, deadlier woe,
And I will speak, but in dark speech no more.
Bear witness, ye, and follow at my side—
I scent the trail of blood, shed long ago.
Within this house a choir abidingly
Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill;
Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy,
Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls,
Departing never, Furies of the home.
They sit within, they chant the primal curse,
Each spitting hatred on that crime of old,
The brother’s couch, the love incestuous
That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
Say, is my speech or wild and erring now,
Or doth its arrow cleave the mark indeed?
They called me once, The prophetess of lies,
The wandering hag, the pest of every door—
Attest ye now, She knows in very sooth
The house’s curse, the storied infamy.
Yet how should oath—how loyally soe’er
I swear it—aught avail thee? In good sooth,
My wonder meets thy claim: I stand amazed
That thou, a maiden born beyond the seas,
Dost as a native know and tell aright
Tales of a city of an alien tongue.
That is my power—a boon Apollo gave.
God though he were, yearning for mortal maid?
Ay! what seemed shame of old is shame no more.
Such finer sense suits not with slavery.
He strove to win me, panting for my love.
Came ye by compact unto bridal joys?
Nay—for I plighted troth, then foiled the god.
Wert thou already dowered with prescience?
Yea—prophetess to Troy of all her doom.
How left thee then Apollo’s wrath unscathed?
I, false to him, seemed prophet false to all.
Not so—to us at least thy words seem sooth.
Woe for me, woe! Again the agony—
Dread pain that sees the future all too well
With ghastly preludes whirls and racks my soul.
Behold ye—yonder on the palace roof
The spectre-children sitting—look, such things
As dreams are made on, phantoms as of babes,
Horrible shadows, that a kinsman’s hand
Hath marked with murder, and their arms as full—
A rueful burden—see, they hold them up,
The entrails upon which their father fed!
For this, for this, I say there plots revenge
A coward lion, couching in the lair—
Guarding the gate against my master’s foot—
My master-mine—I bear the slave’s yoke now,
And he, the lord of ships, who trod down Troy,
Knows not the fawning treachery of tongue
Of this thing false and dog-like—how her speech
Glazes and sleeks her purpose, till she win
By ill fate’s favour the desired chance,
Moving like Ate to a secret end.
O aweless soul! the woman slays her lord—
Woman? what loathsome monster of the earth
Were fit comparison? The double snake—
Or Scylla, where she dwells, the seaman’s bane,
Girt round about with rocks? some hag of hell,
Raving a truceless curse upon her kin?
Hark—even now she cries exultingly
The vengeful cry that tells of battle turned—
How fain, forsooth, to greet her chief restored!
Nay, then, believe me not: what skills belief
Or disbelief? Fate works its will—and thou
Wilt see and say in ruth, Her tale was true.
Ah—’tis Thyestes’ feast on kindred flesh—
I guess her meaning and with horror thrill,
Hearing no shadow’d hint of th’ o’er—true tale,
But its full hatefulness: yet, for the rest,
Far from the track I roam, and know no more.
’Tis Agamemnon’s doom thou shalt behold.
Peace, hapless woman, to thy boding words!
Far from my speech stands he who sains and saves.
Ay—were such doom at hand—which God forbid!
Thou prayest idly—these move swift to slay.
What man prepares a deed of such despite?
Fool! thus to read amiss mine oracles.
Deviser and device are dark to me.
Dark! all too well I speak the Grecian tongue.
Ay—but in thine, as in Apollo’s strains,
Familiar is the tongue, but dark the thought.
Ah ah the fire! it waxes, nears me now—
Woe, woe for me, Apollo of the dawn!
Lo, how the woman-thing, the lioness
Couched with the wolf—her noble mate afar—
Will slay me, slave forlorn! Yea, like some witch,
She drugs the cup of wrath, that slays her lord
With double death—his recompense for me!
Ay, ’tis for me, the prey he bore from Troy,
That she hath sworn his death, and edged the steel!
Ye wands, ye wreaths that cling around my neck,
Ye showed me prophetess yet scorned of all—
I stamp you into death, or e’er I die—
Down, to destruction!
Thus I stand revenged—
Go, crown some other with a prophet’s woe.
Look! it is he, it is Apollo’s self
Rending from me the prophet-robe he gave.
God! while I wore it yet, thou saw’st me mocked
There at my home by each malicious mouth—
To all and each, an undivided scorn.
The name alike and fate of witch and cheat—
Woe, poverty, and famine—all I bore;
And at this last the god hath brought me here
Into death’s toils, and what his love had made,
His hate unmakes me now: and I shall stand
Not now before the altar of my home,
But me a slaughter-house and block of blood
Shall see hewn down, a reeking sacrifice.
Yet shall the gods have heed of me who die,
For by their will shall one requite my doom.
He, to avenge his father’s blood outpoured,
Shall smite and slay with matricidal hand.
Ay, he shall come—tho’ far away he roam,
A banished wanderer in a stranger’s land—
To crown his kindred’s edifice of ille
Called home to vengeance by his father’s fall:
Thus have the high gods sworn, and shall fulfil.
And now why mourn I, tarrying on earth,
Since first mine Ilion has found its fate
And I beheld, and those who won the wall
Pass to such issue as the gods ordain?
I too will pass and like them dare to die! [Turns and looks upon the palace door.
Portal of Hades, thus I bid thee hail!
Grant me one boon—a swift and mortal stroke,
That all unwrong by pain, with ebbing blood
Shed forth in quiet death, I close mine eyes.
Maid of mysterious woes, mysterious lore,
Long was thy prophecy: but if aright
Thou readest all thy fate, how, thus unscared,
Dost thou approach the altar of thy doom,
As fronts the knife some victim, heaven-controlled?
Friends, there is no avoidance in delay.
Yet who delays the longest, his the gain.
The day is come—flight were small gain to me!
O brave endurance of a soul resolved!
That were ill praise, for those of happier doom.
All fame is happy, even famous death.
Ah sire, ah brethren, famous once were ye! [She moves to enter the house, then starts back.
What fear is this that scares thee from the house?
What is this cry? some dark despair of soul?
Pah! the house fumes with stench and spilth of blood.
How? ’tis the smell of household offerings.
’Tis rank as charnel-scent from open graves.
Thou canst not mean this scented Syrian nard?
Nay, let me pass within to cry aloud
The monarch’s fate and mine—enough of life.
Bear to me witness, since I fall in death,
That not as birds that shun the bush and scream
I moan in idle terror. This attest
When for my death’s revenge another dies,
A woman for a woman, and a man
Falls, for a man ill-wedded to his curse.
Grant me this boon—the last before I die.
Brave to the last! I mourn thy doom foreseen.
Once more one utterance, but not of wail,
Though for my death—and then I speak no more.
Sun! thou whose beam I shall not see again,
To thee I cry, Let those whom vengeance calls
To slay their kindred’s slayers, quit withal
The death of me, the slave, the fenceless prey.
Ah state of mortal man! in time of weal,
A line, a shadow! and if ill fate fall,
One wet sponge-sweep wipes all our trace away—
And this I deem less piteous, of the twain. [Exit into the palace.
Too true it is! our mortal state
With bliss is never satiate,
And none, before the palace high
And stately of prosperity,
Cries to us with a voice of fear,
Away! ’tis ill to enter here!
Lo! this our lord hath trodden down,
By grace of heaven, old Priam’s town,
And praised as god he stands once more
On Argos’ shore!
Yet now—if blood shed long ago
Cries out that other blood shall flow—
His life-blood, his, to pay again
The stern requital of the slain—
Peace to that braggart’s vaunting vain,
Who, having heard the chieftain’s tale,
Yet boasts of bliss untouched by bale! [A loud cry from within.
VOICE OF AGAMEMNON
O I am sped—a deep, a mortal blow.
Listen, listen! who is screaming as in mortal agony?
VOICE OF AGAMEMNON
O! O! again, another, another blow!
The bloody act is over—I have heard the monarch’s cry—
Let us swiftly take some counsel, lest we too be doomed to die.
ONE OF THE CHORUS
’Tis best, I judge, aloud for aid to call,
“Ho! loyal Argives! to the palace, all!”
Better, I deem, ourselves to bear the aid,
And drag the deed to light, while drips the blade.
Such will is mine, and what thou say’st I say:
Swiftly to act! the time brooks no delay.
Ay, for ’tis plain, this prelude of their song
Foretells its close in tyranny and wrong.
Behold, we tarry—but thy name, Delay,
They spurn, and press with sleepless hand to slay.
I know not what ’twere well to counsel now—
Who wills to act, ’tis his to counsel how.
Thy doubt is mine: for when a man is slain,
I have no words to bring his life again.
What? e’en for life’s sake, bow us to obey
These house-defilers and their tyrant sway?
Unmanly doom! ’twere better far to die—
Death is a gentler lord than tyranny.
Think well—must cry or sign of woe or pain
Fix our conclusion that the chief is slain?
Such talk befits us when the deed we see—
Conjecture dwells afar from certainty.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS
I read one will from many a diverse word,
To know aright, how stands it with our lord! [The scene opens, disclosing Clytemnestra, who comes forward. The body of Agamemnon lies, muffled in a long robe, within a silver-sided laver; the corpse of Cassandra is laid beside him.
Ho, ye who heard me speak so long and oft
The glozing word that led me to my will—
Hear how I shrink not to unsay it all!
How else should one who willeth to requite
Evil for evil to an enemy
Disguised as friend, weave the mesh straitly round him,
Not to be overleaped, a net of doom?
This is the sum and issue of old strife,
Of me deep-pondered and at length fulfilled.
All is avowed, and as I smote I stand
With foot set firm upon a finished thing!
I turn not to denial: thus I wrought
So that he could nor flee nor ward his doom.
Even as the trammel hems the scaly shoal,
I trapped him with inextricable toils,
The ill abundance of a baffling robe;
Then smote him, once, again—and at each wound
He cried aloud, then as in death relaxed
Each limb and sank to earth; and as he lay,
Once more I smote him, with the last third blow,
Sacred to Hades, saviour of the dead.
And thus he fell, and as he passed away,
Spirit with body chafed; each dying breath
Flung from his breast swift bubbling jets of gore,
And the dark sprinklings of the rain of blood
Fell upon me; and I was fain to feel
That dew—not sweeter is the rain of heaven
To cornland, when the green sheath teems with grain.
Elders of Argos—since the thing stands so,
I bid you to rejoice, if such your will:
Rejoice or not, I vaunt and praise the deed,
And well I ween, if seemly it could be,
’Twere not ill done to pour libations here,
Justly—ay, more than justly—on his corpse
Who filled his home with curses as with wine,
And thus returned to drain the cup he filled.
I marvel at thy tongue’s audacity,
To vaunt thus loudly o’er a husband slain.
Ye hold me as a woman, weak of will,
And strive to sway me: but my heart is stout,
Nor fears to speak its uttermost to you,
Albeit ye know its message. Praise or blame,
Even as ye list,—I reck not of your words.
Lo! at my feet lies Agamemnon slain,
My husband once—and him this hand of mine,
A right contriver, fashioned for his death.
Behold the deed!
Woman, what deadly birth,
What venomed essence of the earth
Or dark distilment of the wave,
To thee such passion gave,
Nerving thine hand
To set upon thy brow this burning crown,
The curses of thy land?
Our king by thee cut off, hewn down!
Go forth—they cry—accursèd and forlorn,
To hate and scorn!
O ye just men, who speak my sentence now,
The city’s hate, the ban of all my realm!
Ye had no voice of old to launch such doom
On him, my husband, when he held as light
My daughter’s life as that of sheep or goat,
One victim from the thronging fleecy fold!
Yea, slew in sacrifice his child and mine,
The well-loved issue of my travail-pangs,
To lull and lay the gales that blew from Thrace.
That deed of his, I say, that stain and shame,
Had rightly been atoned by banishment;
But ye, who then were dumb, are stern to judge
This deed of mine that doth affront your ears.
Storm out your threats, yet knowing this for sooth,
That I am ready, if your hand prevail
As mine now doth, to bow beneath your sway:
If God say nay, it shall be yours to learn
By chastisement a late humility.