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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book V. - 10/25 -


translation the exquisite tenderness of this passage cannot altogether fail of its effect.

"For my fate, let it pass! My children, Creon! My sons--nay, they the bitter wants of life May master--they are MEN?--my girls--my darlings-- Why, never sat I at my household board Without their blessed looks--our very bread We brake together; thou'lt be kind to them For my sake, Creon--and (oh, latest prayer!) Let me but touch them--feel them with these hands, And pour such sorrow as may speak farewell O'er ills that must be theirs! By thy pure line-- For thin is pure--do this, sweet prince. Methinks I should not miss these eyes, could I but touch them. What shall I say to move thee? Sobs! And do I, Oh do I hear my sweet ones? Hast thou sent, In mercy sent, my children to my arms? Speak--speak--I do not dream! Creon. They are thy children; I would not shut thee from the dear delight In the old time they gave thee. Oedipus. Blessings on thee For this one mercy mayst thou find above A kinder God than I have. Ye--where are ye? My children--come!--nearer and nearer yet," etc.

The pathos of this scene is continued to the end; and the very last words Oedipus utters as his children cling to him, implore that they at least may not be torn away.

It is in this concluding scene that the art of the play is consummated; the horrors of the catastrophe, which, if a last impression, would have left behind a too painful and gloomy feeling, are softened down by this beautiful resort to the tenderest and holiest sources of emotion. And the pathos is rendered doubly effective, not only from the immediate contrast of the terror that preceded it, but from the masterly skill with which all display of the softer features in the character of Oedipus is reserved to the close. In the breaking up of the strong mind and the daring spirit, when empire, honour, name, are all annihilated, the heart is seen, as it were, surviving the wrecks around it, and clinging for support to the affections.

VII. In the "Oedipus at Coloneus," the blind king is presented to us, after the lapse of years, a wanderer over the earth, unconsciously taking his refuge in the grove of the furies [348]--"the awful goddesses, daughters of Earth and Darkness." His young daughter, Antigone, one of the most lovely creations of poetry, is his companion and guide; he is afterward joined by his other daughter, Ismene, whose weak and selfish character is drawn in strong contrast to the heroism and devotion of Antigone. The ancient prophecies that foretold his woes had foretold also his release. His last shelter and resting- place were to be obtained from the dread deities, and a sign of thunder, or earthquake, or lightning was to announce his parting hour. Learning the spot to which his steps had been guided, Oedipus solemnly feels that his doom approaches: thus, at the very opening of the poem, he stands before us on the verge of a mysterious grave.

The sufferings which have bowed the parricide to a premature old age [349] have not crushed his spirit; the softness and self-humiliation which were the first results of his awful affliction are passed away. He is grown once more vehement and passionate, from the sense of wrong; remorse still visits him, but is alternated with the yet more human feeling of resentment at the unjust severity of his doom [350]. His sons, who, "by a word," might have saved him from the expulsion, penury, and wanderings he has undergone, had deserted his cause--had looked with indifferent eyes on his awful woes--had joined with Creon to expel him from the Theban land. They are the Goneril and Regan of the classic Lear, as Antigone is the Cordelia on whom he leans--a Cordelia he has never thrust from him. "When," says Oedipus, in stern bitterness of soul,

"When my soul boiled within me--when 'to die' Was all my prayer--and death was sweetness, yea, Had they but stoned me like a dog, I'd blessed them; Then no man rose against me--but when time Brought its slow comfort--when my wounds were scarred-- All my griefs mellow'd, and remorse itself Judged my self-penance mightier than my sins, Thebes thrust me from her breast, and they, my sons, My blood, mine offspring, from their father shrunk: A word of theirs had saved me--one small word-- They said it not--and lo! the wandering beggar!"

In the mean while, during the exile of Oedipus, strife had broken out between the brothers: Eteocles, here represented as the younger, drove out Polynices, and seized the throne; Polynices takes refuge at Argos, where he prepares war against the usurper: an oracle declares that success shall be with that party which Oedipus joins, and a mysterious blessing is pronounced on the land which contains his bones. Thus, the possession of this wild tool of fate--raised up in age to a dread and ghastly consequence--becomes the argument of the play, as his death must become the catastrophe. It is the deep and fierce revenge of Oedipus that makes the passion of the whole. According to a sublime conception, we see before us the physical Oedipus in the lowest state of destitution and misery--in rags, blindness, beggary, utter and abject impotence. But in the moral, Oedipus is all the majesty of a power still royal. The oracle has invested one, so fallen and so wretched in himself, with the power of a god--the power to confer victory on the cause he adopts, prosperity on the land that becomes his tomb. With all the revenge of age, all the grand malignity of hatred, he clings to this shadow and relic of a sceptre. Creon, aware of the oracle, comes to recall him to Thebes. The treacherous kinsman humbles himself before his victim--he is the suppliant of the beggar, who defies and spurns him. Creon avenges himself by seizing on Antigone and Ismene. Nothing can be more dramatically effective than the scene in which these last props of his age are torn from the desolate old man. They are ultimately restored to him by Theseus, whose amiable and lofty character is painted with all the partial glow of colouring which an Athenian poet would naturally lavish on the Athenian Alfred. We are next introduced to Polynices. He, like Creon, has sought Oedipus with the selfish motive of recovering his throne by means of an ally to whom the oracle promises victory. But there is in Polynices the appearance of a true penitence, and a mingled gentleness and majesty in his bearing which interests us in his fate despite his faults, and which were possibly intended by Sophocles to give a new interest to the plot of the "Antigone," composed and exhibited long before. Oedipus is persuaded by the benevolence of Theseus, and the sweet intercession of Antigone, to admit his son. After a chant from the chorus on the ills of old age [351], Polynices enters. He is struck with the wasted and miserable appearance of the old man, and bitterly reproaches his own desertion.

"But since," he says, with almost a Christian sentiment--

"Since o'er each deed, upon the Olympian throne, Mercy sits joint presider with great Jove, Let her, oh father, also take her stand Within thy soul--and judge me! The past sins Yet have their cure--ah, would they had recall! Why are you voiceless? Speak to me, my father? Turn not away--will you not answer me?" etc.

Oedipus retains his silence in spite of the prayers of his beloved Antigone, and Polynices proceeds to narrate the wrongs he has undergone from Eteocles, and, warming with a young warrior's ardour, paints the array that he has mustered on his behalf--promises to restore Oedipus to his palace--and, alluding to the oracle, throws himself on his father's pardon.

Then, at last, outspeaks Oedipus, and from reproach bursts into curses.

"And now you weep; you wept not at these woes Until you wept your own. But I--I weep not. These things are not for tears, but for Endurance. My son is like his sire--a parricide! Toil, exile, beggary--daily bread doled out From stranger hands--these are your gifts, my son! My nurses, guardians--they who share the want, Or earn the bread, are daughters; call them not Women, for they to me are men. Go to! Thou art not mine--I do disclaim such issue. Behold, the eyes of the avenging God Are o'er thee! but their ominous light delays To blast thee yet. March on--march on--to Thebes! Not--not for thee, the city and the throne; The earth shall first be reddened with thy blood-- Thy blood and his, thy foe--thy brother! Curses! Not for the first time summoned to my wrongs-- Curses! I call ye back, and make ye now Allies with this old man!

* * * * * *

Yea, curses shall possess thy seat and throne, If antique Justice o'er the laws of earth Reign with the thunder-god. March on to ruin! Spurned and disowned--the basest of the base-- And with thee bear this burden: o'er thine head I pour a prophet's doom; nor throne nor home Waits on the sharpness of the levelled spear: Thy very land of refuge hath no welcome; Thine eyes have looked their last on hollow Argos. Death by a brother's hand--dark fratricide, Murdering thyself a brother--shall be thine. Yea, while I curse thee, on the murky deep Of the primeval hell I call! Prepare These men their home, dread Tartarus! Goddesses, Whose shrines are round me--ye avenging Furies! And thou, oh Lord of Battle, who hast stirred Hate in the souls of brethren, hear me--hear me!-- And now, 'tis past!--enough!--depart and tell The Theban people, and thy fond allies, What blessings, from his refuge with the Furies, The blind old Oedipus awards his sons!" [352]

As is usual with Sophocles, the terrific strength of these execrations is immediately followed by a soft and pathetic scene between Antigone and her brother. Though crushed at first by the paternal curse, the spirit of Polynices so far recovers its native courage that he will not listen to the prayer of his sister to desist from the expedition to Thebes, and to turn his armies back to Argos. "What," he says,

"Lead back an army that could deem I trembled!"

Yet he feels the mournful persuasion that his death is doomed; and a


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book V. - 10/25

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