John Henry Wright.

Masterpieces of Greek literature; Homer: Tyrtaeus: Archilochus: Callistratus: Alcaeus: Sappho: Anacreon: Pindar: Aeschylus: Sophocles: Euripides Aristophanes: Herodotus: Thucydides: Xenophon: Plato: Theocritus: Lucian, with biographical sketches and notes; online

. (page 13 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn Henry WrightMasterpieces of Greek literature; Homer: Tyrtaeus: Archilochus: Callistratus: Alcaeus: Sappho: Anacreon: Pindar: Aeschylus: Sophocles: Euripides Aristophanes: Herodotus: Thucydides: Xenophon: Plato: Theocritus: Lucian, with biographical sketches and notes; → online text (page 13 of 29)
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to his country. Heracles overcame the king-, and took the horses to
Mycenae. See the Alcestis, page 221, line 736.

1 While Atlas went to get the apples of the Hesperides for Hera-
cles that hero undertook the giant's task of holding the heavens on
his shoulders.

2 Eurystheus required Heracles to bring home the girdle of Hippo-
lyta, queen of the Amazons.


And the ten tliousand headed hound

Of many a murder, the Lernaian snake

He burned out, head by head, and cast around

His darts a poison thence,^ — darts soon to slake

Their rage in that three-bodied herdsman's gore 460

Of Erutheia.^ Many a running more

He made for triumph and felicity.

And, last of toils, to Haides, never dry

Of tears, he sailed : and there he, luckless, ends

His life completely, nor returns again. 465

The house and home are desolate of friends,

And where the children's life-path leads them, plain

I see, — no step retraceable, no god

Availing, and no law to help the lost !

The oar of Charon marks their period,^ 470

Waits to end all. Thy hands, these roofs accost ! —

To thee, though absent, look their uttermost !

But if in youth and strength I flourished still,
Still shook the spear in fight, did power match will
In these Kadmeian co-mates of my age, 475

They would, — and I, — when warfare was to wage,
Stand by these children ; but I am bereft
Of youth now, lone of that good genius left !

But hist, desist ! for here come these, —

Draped as the dead go, under and over, — 48o

1 The Lernaean Hydra had nine heads, one of which was immortal.
Whenever one was cut off two others appeared in its place. Heracles
burned off the heads one by one, and buried the ninth, which was im-
mortal, under a rock. He dipped his arrow-points in the poisonous
gore of the monster.

2 Geryon, a three-bodied monster, whose oxen Heracles captured
for Eurystheus.

^ Charon was the ferryman of the souls of the dead over the river
Styx in the lower world. See the Alcestis, page 211, line 375, and page
219, line 637.


Children long since — now hard to discover ■ —

Of the once so potent Herakles I

And the loved wife dragging, in one tether

About her feet, the boys together ;

And the hero's aged sire comes last I 485

Unhappy that I am ! Of tears which rise, —

How am I all unable to hold fast,

Longer, the aged fountains of these eyes !


Heracles returned from the lower world just in time to save
his family from death by himself slaying Lycus. While he is
offering sacrifice to cleanse him from this murder, the frenzy
comes upon him. Since it was against the Greek spirit to put
such a scene as the following before the eyes of the audience,
it is narrated to the Chorus by a messenger.

The victims were before the hearth of Zeus,

A household-expiation : since the king

O' the country, Herakles had killed and cast

From out the dwelling ; and a beauteous choir 985

Of boys stood by, his sire, too, and his wife.

And now the basket had been carried round

The altar in a circle, and we used

The consecrated speech. Alkmene's son, —

Just as he was about, in his right hand, 990

To bear the torch, that he might dip into

The cleansing-water, — came to a stand-still ;

And, as their father yet delayed, his boys

Had their eyes on him. But he was himself

No longer : lost in rollings of the eyes ; 995

Out-thrusting eyes — their very roots — like blood !

Froth he dropped down his bushy-bearded cheek,

And said, — together with a madman's laugh —


" Father ! why sacrifice, before I slay

Eurustlieus ? why have twice the lustral fire, looo

And double pains, when 't is permitted me

To end, with one good hand-sweep, matters here ?

Xhen, — when I hither bring Eurustheus' head, —

Then for these just slain, wash hands once for all I

Now, — cast drink - offerings forth, throw baskets

down ! 1005

Who gives me bow and arrows, who my club ?
I go to that Mukenai ! One must match
Crowbars and mattocks, so that — those sunk stones
The Kuklops squared with picks and plumb - line

red ^ —
I, with my bent steel, may o'ertumble town ! " mo

"Which said, he goes and — with no car to have —
Affirms he has one ! mounts the chariot-board,
And strikes, as having really goad in hand !
And two ways laughed the servants — laugh with

And one said, as each met the other's stare, ioi5

" Playing us boys' tricks ? or is master mad ? "
But up he climbs, and down along the roof.
And, dropping into the men's place, maintains
He 's come to Nisos city ,2 when he 's come
Only inside his own house ! then reclines 1020

On floor, for couch, and, as arrived indeed,
Makes himself supper ; goes through some brief stay,
Then says he 's traversing the forest-flats
Of Isthmos ; ^ thereupon lays body bare
Of bucklings, and begins a contest with 1025

1 The miglity Cyclopean walls at Mycenae are still to be seen.

2 Megara, on the route to Mycenae.

8 Corinth, the seat of the Isthmian Games, in which Heracles fan-
cies himself to engage.


— No one ! and is proclaimed the conqueror —
He by himself — having called out to hear

— Nobody ! Then, if you will take his word,
Blaring against Eurustheus horribly,

He 's at Mukenai. Bat his father laid i030

Hold of the strong hand and addressed him thus :
*' O son, what ails thee ? Of what sort is this
Extravagance ? Has not some murder-craze,
Bred of those corpses thou didst just despatch,
Danced thee drunk?" But he, — taking him to
crouch, 1035

Eurustheus' sire, that apprehensive touched
His hand, a suppliant, — pushes him aside,
Gets ready quiver, and bends bow against
His children — thinking them Eurustheus' boys
He means to slay. They, horrified with fear, io4o

Rushed here and there, — this child, into the robes
O' the wretched mother, — this, beneath the shade
O' the column, — and this other, like a bird.
Cowered at the altar-foot. The mother shrieks
" Parent — what dost thou ? — kill thy children ? " So
Shriek the old sire and crowd of servitors. io46

But he, outwinding him, as round about
The column ran the boy, — a horrid whirl
O' the lathe his foot described ! — stands opposite,
Strikes through the liver ! ^ and supine the boy loso
Bedews the stone shafts, breathing out his life.
But " Victory ! " he shouted, boasted thus :
" Well, this one nestling of Eurustheus — dead — -
Ealls by me, pays back the paternal hate ! "
Then bends bow on another who was crouched 1055
At base of altar — overlooked, he thought —

^ For the liver, used much like the English heart, see Prometheus,
page 132, line 1215.


And now prevents ^ him, falls at father's knee,

Throwing u]3 hand to beard and cheek above.

" O dearest ! " cries he, " father, kill me not !

Yours, I am — your boy : not Eurustheus' boy loeo

You kill now ! " But he, rolling the wild eye

Of Gorgon, — as the boy stood all too close

For deadly bowshot, — mimicry of smith

Who batters red-hot iron, — hand o'er head

Heaving his club, on the boy's yellow hair loes

Hurls it and breaks the bone. This second caught, —

He goes, would slay the third, one sacrifice

He and the couple ; but, beforehand here,

The miserable mother catches up.

Carries him inside house and bars the gate. 1070

Then he, as he were at those Kuklops' work,^

Digs at, heaves doors up, wrenches doorposts out,

Lays wife and child low with the selfsame shaft.

And this done, at the old man's death he drives ;

But there came, as it seemed to us who saw, 1075

A statue — Pallas with the crested head.

Swinging her spear — and threw a stone which smote

Herakles' breast and stayed his slaughter-rage,

And sent him safe to sleep. He falls to ground —

Striking against the column with his back — 108O

Column which, with the falling of the roof,

Broken in two, lay by the altar-base.

And we, foot-free now from our several flights,

Along with the old man, we fastened bonds

Of rope-noose to the column, so that he, loss

Ceasing from sleep, might not go adding deeds

To deeds done. And he sleeps a sleep, poor wretch,

No gift of any god ! since he has slain

Children and wife. For me, I do not know

What mortal has more misery to bear. 1090

^ In original sense, anticipates. ^ Cf. p. 193, line 1009.



Admetus, a king of Thessalj, was doomed to die, but the god
Apollo, who had once, as a punishment for an offence to Zeu$,
served him for a year, and so become attached to the family,
begged the Fates to release him from this necessity. They
agreed to spare Admetus if some one else would die in his stead.
This his wife Alcestis, alone, was willing to do. But after her
death, Heracles, the strongest of the heroes, passing through
Thessaly on his way to Thrace to perform his eighth labor,
learned of the calamity, and going to her tomb wrestled with
Death and compelled the release of Alcestis and restored her to
Admetus. The play opens on the day appointed for Alcestis'
death. The situation is stated by Apollo in the prologue.

The Alcestis is the earliest of the extant plays of Euripides,
being presented in 438 b. c. It is not a tragedy in the strict
sense of the term, but took the place of the so-called Satyr-
d rama , at the close of the presentation of three tragedies (a

The translation of the Alcestis here given is Robert Brown«
ing's, included in the poem Balaustion's Adventure, written in
1871. The italicized lines are by Browning, not by Euripides,
but serve well as an interpretation of the rest, which for the
most part is a literal translation from the Greek. ^

There slept a silent palace in the sun,

With plains adjacent and Thessalian peace —

Pherai, where King Admetos ruled the land.

Out from the portico there gleamed a God^

Apollon : for the how was in his hand. 5

The quiver at his shouMer, all his shape

One dreadful heauty. And he hailed the house

As if he knew it well and loved it much :

" O Admeteian domes, where I endured,

Even the God I am, to drudge awhile, 10

Do righteous penance for a reckless deed,

1 For Mr. Browning's transliteration of Greek names see p. 193.



Accepting the slaves' table thankfully ! "
Then told ^ how Zeus had been the cause of all,
Raising the wrath in him which took revenge
And slew those forgers of the thunderbolt is

Wherewith Zeus blazed the life from out the breast
Of Phoibos' son Asklepios (I surmise,
Because he brought the dead to life again)
And so, for punishment, must needs go slave,
God as he was, with a mere mortal lord : 20

- — Told how he came to King Admetos' land.
And played the ministrant, was herdsman there,
Warding all harm away from him and his
Till now ; " For, holy as I am," said he^
" The lord I chanced upon was holy too : 25

Whence I deceived the Moirai,^ drew from death
My master, this same son of Plieres, — ay,
The Goddesses conceded him escape
From Hades, when the fated day should fall.
Could he exchange lives, find some friendly one 30
Ready, for his sake, to content the grave.
But trying all in turn, the friendly list.
Why, he found no one, none who loved so much,
Nor father, nor the aged mother's self
That bore him, no, not any save his wife, 85

Willing to die instead of him and watch
Never a sunrise nor a sunset more :
And she is even now within the house.
Upborne by pitying hands, the feeble frame
Gasping its last of life out ; since to-day 40

Destiny* is accomplished, and she dies.
And I, lest here pollution light on me.
Leave, as ye witness, all my wonted joy
In this dear dwelling. Ay, — for here comes Death
1 The Fates, ^ Verses 13-23 are a paraphrase.


Close on us o£ a sudden ! who, pale priest 45

Of the mute people, means to bear his prey-
To the house of Hades. The symmetric step !
How he treads true to time and place and thing.
Dogging day, hour and minute, for death's-due ! "

And we observed another Deity ^ 50

Half in, half out the portal, — watch and ward, —
Eyeing his fellow : formidably fixed.
Yet faltering too at who affronted him, 53

• «,• • • • • a 9

So, each antagonist
Silently faced his fellow and forbore. 71

Till Death shrilled, hard and quick, in spite and fear :

" Ha ha, and what may'st thou do at the domes,^

Why hauntest here, thou Phoibos ? Here again

At the old injustice, limiting our rights, 75

Balking of honor due us Gods o' the grave ?

Was 't not enough for thee to have delayed

Death from Admetos, — with thy crafty art

Cheating the very Fates, — but thou must arm

The bow-hand and take station, press 'twixt me so

And Pelias' daughter,^ who then saved her spouse, —

Did just that, now thou comest to undo, —

Taking his place to die, Alkestis here ? "

But the God sighed, " Have courage ! All my arms.
This time, are simple justice and fair words." 85

Then each plied each with rapid interchange :

" What need of bow, were justice arms enough ? "
" Ever it is my wont to bear the bow."

1 I. e., at this house. Cf. lines 9, 421. 2 Alcestis.


" Ay, and with bow, not justice, help this house ! "

" I help it, since a friend's woe weighs me too." 90

" And now, — wilt force from me this second corpse ? "

" By force I took no corpse at first from thee."

" How then is he above ground, not beneath ? "

" He gave his wife instead of him, thy prey."

" And prey, this time at least, I bear below ! " 95

" Go take her! — for I doubt persuading thee . . ."

" To kill the doomed one ? What my function else ? "

" No ! Rather, to despatch the true mature."

"Truly I take thy meaning, see thy drift ! "

" Is there a way then she may reach old age ? " 100

" No way ! I glad me in my honors too ! "

" But, young or old, thou tak'st one life, no more ! '*

" Younger they die, greater my praise redounds ! "

" If she die old, — the sumptuous funeral ! "

" Thou layest down a law the rich would like." 10s

" How so ? Did wit lurk there and 'scape thy sense ? "

" Who could buy substitutes would die old men."

" It seems thou wilt not grant me, then, this grace ? "

" This grace I will not grant : thou know'st my ways."

" Ways harsh to men, hateful to Gods, at least ! " no

" All things thou canst not have : my rights for me ! "

Andy then Apollon jyvopliesied^ — / thinks
More to himself than to impatient Deaths
Who did not hear or would not heed the while^ —
For he went on to say " Yet even so, us


Cruel above the measure, thou shalt clutch

No life here ! Such a man do I perceive

Advancing to the house of Plieres now,

Sent by Eurustheus ^ to bring out of Thrace,

The winter world, a chariot with its steeds ! 120

He indeed, when Admetos proves the host,

And he the guest, at the house here, — he it is

Shall bring to bear such force, and from thy hands

Rescue this woman. Grace no whit to me

Will that prove, since thou dost thy deed the same, 125

And earnest too my hate, and all for nought ! "

But how should Death or stay or understand ?

Doubtless^ he only felt the hour was come^

And the sword free ; for he hut flung some taunt —

" Having talked much, thou wilt not gain the more ! lao

This woman, then, descends to Hades' hall

Now that I rush on her, begin the rites

O' the sword ; for sacred, to us Gods below.

That head whose hair this sword shall sanctify ! " 2

And, in the fire-flash of the apj^alling sword, 135

The uprush and the outburst, the onslaught

Of Deaths portentous passage through the door,

Apollon stood a pitying moment-space :

I caught one last gold gaze upon the night

Nearing the world now : and the God was gone, im

And mortals left to deal with misery,

As in came stealing sloio, now this, now that

Old sojourner throughout the country-side^^

Sei'vants groiun friends to those unhappy here:

1 King- of Tiryns, who imposed on Heracles the twelve " labors."
Cf. p. 192 f. The next line refers to the eighth labor. Cf. line 7o6,

2 A lock of hair was cnt from the victim before sacrifice.
^ This marks the entrance of the chorus.


And, cloudlihe in their increase, all these griefs 145
Broke and hegan the over-hrimming wail.
Out of a common impulse, word hy word,

" What now may mean the silence at the door ?

Why is Admetos' mansion stricken dumb?

Not one friend near, to say if we should mourn iso

Our mistress dead, or if Alkestis lives

And sees the light still, Pelias' child — to me,

To all, conspicuously the best of wives

That ever was toward husband in this world !

Hears any one or wail beneath the roof, 155

Or hands that strike each other, or the groan

Announcing all is done and nought to dread ?

Still not a servant stationed at the gates !

O Paian,^ that thou wouldst dispart the wave

O' the woe, be present ! Yet, had woe o'erwhelmed

The housemates, they were hardly silent thus : lei

It cannot be, the dead is forth and gone.

Whence comes thy gleam of hope ? ^ I dare not hope :

What is the circumstance that heartens thee ?

How could Admetos have dismissed a wife i65

So worthy, unescorted to the grave ?

Before the gates I see no hallowed vase

Of fountain-water, such as suits death's door ;

Nor any dipt locks strew the vestibule,^

Though surely these drop when we grieve the dead, 170

Nor hand sounds smitten against youthful hand,

The women's way. And yet — the appointed time —

How speak the word ? — this day is even the day

Ordained her for departing from its light.

O touch calamitous to heart and soul ! 175

1 God of healing', often identified with Apollo.

2 These questions are addressed by one of the chorus to another.
^ The hair was cut as a sign of mourning for near friends.


Needs must one, when the good are tortured so,
Sorrow, — one reckoned faithful from the first."

TJien their souls rose together^ and one sigh
Went up in cadence from the common mouth : '
How " Yainly — anywhither in the world isq

Directing or land-labor or sea-search —
To Lukia or the sand-waste, Ammon's seat^ —
Might you set free their hapless lady's soul
From the abrupt Fate's footstep instant now.
Not a sheep-sacrificer at the hearths i8§

Of Gods had they to go to : one there was
Who, if his eyes saw light still, — Phoibos' son ,2 —
Had wrought so she might leave the shadowy place
And Hades' portal ; for he propped up Death's
Subdued ones till the Zeus-flung thunder-flame 190

Struck him ; and now what hope of life were hailed
With open arms ? For, all the king could do
Is done already, — not one God whereof
The altar fails to reek with sacrifice :
And for assuagement of these evils — nought ! " 195

But here they hrolce off ^ for a matron moved

Forth from the house : and^ as her tears flowed fast,

They gathered 7'ound. " What fortune shall we hear ?

For mourning thus, if aught affect thy lord,

We pardon thee : but lives the lady yet 200

Or has she perished ? — that we fain would know ! "

" Call her dead, call her living, each style serves,"

1 In Egypt, where was a temple to Zeus Ammon.

2 Aselepius (Aesculapius), the god of healing, who once restored
a dead man to life, and for his presumption was smitten by Zeus'
thunderbolt. See page 202, line 18.


The matron said : " though grave-ward bowed, she

breathed ;
Nor knew her husband what the misery meant
Before he felt it : hope of life was none : 205

The appointed day pressed hard ; the funeral pomp
He had prepared too."

When the friends hrohe out :
" Let her in dying know herself at least
Sole wife, of all the wives 'neath the sun wide,
For glory and for goodness ! " — " Ah, how else 210
Than best? who controverts the claim? " quoth she:
" What kind of creature should the woman prove
That has surpassed Alkestis ? — surelier shown
Preference for her husband to herself
Than by determining to die for him ? 215

But so much all our city knows indeed :
Hear what she did indoors and wonder then !
For, when she felt the crowning day was come,
She washed with river-waters her white skin,
And, taking from the cedar closets forth 220

Vesture and ornament, bedecked herself
Nobly, and stood before the hearth, and prayed :
' Mistress,^ because I now depart the world,
Falling before thee the last time, I ask —
Be mother to my orphans ! wed the one 225

To a kind wife, and make the other's mate
Some princely person : nor, as I who bore
My children perish, suffer that they too
Die all untimely, but live, happy pair,
Their full glad life out in the fatherland ! ' 230

And every altar through Admetos' house
She visited and crowned and prayed before,
Stripping the myrtle-foliage from the boughs,

^ Perhaps addressed to Persephone, goddess of the dead.


Without a tear, without a groan, — no change

At all to that skin's nature, fair to see, 235

Caused by the imminent evil. But this done —

Reaching her chamber, falling on her bed.

There, truly, burst she into tears and spoke :

' O bride-bed, where I loosened from my life

Virginity for that same husband's sake 240

Because of whom I die now — fare thee well !

Since nowise do I hate thee : me alone

Hast thou destroyed ; for, shrinking to betray

Thee and my spouse, I die : but thee, O bed,

Some other woman shall possess as wife — 245

Truer, no ! but of better fortune, say ! '

— So falls on, kisses it till all the couch

Is moistened with the eyes' sad overflow.

But, when of many tears she had her fill,

She flings from off the couch, goes headlong forth, 250

Yet — forth the chamber — still keeps turning back

And casts her on the couch asrain once more.

Her children, clinging to their mother's robe.

Wept meanwhile : but she took them in her arms,

And, as a dying woman might, embraced 255

Now one and now the other : 'neath the roof,

All of the household servants wept as well.

Moved to compassion for their mistress ; she

Extended her right hand to all and each.

And there was no one of such low degree 26O

She spoke not to nor had an answer from.

Such are the evils in Admetos' house.

Dying, — why, he had died ; but, living, gains

Such grief as this he never will forget ! "

And ivhen they questioned of Admetos, " Well — 265
Holding his dear wife in his hands, he weeps ;


Entreats her not to give him up, and seeks

The impossible, in fine : for there she wastes

And withers by disease, abandoned now,

A mere dead weight upon her husband's arm. 270

Yet, none the less, although she breathe so faint,

Her will is to behold the beams o' the sun :

Since never more again, but this last once,

Shall she see sun, its circlet or its ray.

But I will go, announce your presence, — friends 275

Indeed ; since 't is not all so love th^ir lords

As seek them in misfortune, kind the same :

But you are the old friends I recognize."

And at the icord she turned again to go
The while they waited^ taking up the plaint 280

To Zeus again : " What passage from this strait ?
What loosing of the heavy fortune fast
About the palace ? Will such help appear,
Or must we clip the locks and cast around .
Each form already the black peplos' fold ? 285

Clearly the black robe, clearly ! All the same,
Pray to the Gods ! — like Gods' no power so great !
O thou king Paian, find some way to save !
Reveal it, yea, reveal it ! Since of old
Thou found'st a cure, why, now again become 290

[Releaser from the bonds of Death, we beg, .
And give the sanguinary Hades pause ! "
So the song dwindled into a mere moan^
How dear the %oife^ and what her hushand^s woe ;
When suddenly —

" Behold, behold ! " hreaks forth :
" Here is she coming from the house indeed ! 296

Her husband comes, too ! Cry aloud, lament,
Pheraian land, this best of women, bound —
So is she withered by disease away —


For realms below and their infernal king ! 300

Never will we affirm there 's more of joy

Than grief in marriage ; making estimate

Both from old sorrows anciently observed,

And this misfortune of the king we see —

Admetos who, of bravest spouse bereaved, 305

Will live life's remnant out, no life at all ! "

So wailed they, tvhile a sad procession wound
Blow from the innermost o^ the palace , stopped
At the extreme verge of the platformfront :
There opened, and disclosed Alkestis' self 310

The consecrated lady, home to look
Her last — and let the living look their last —
She at the sun, we at Alkestis. 313

Online LibraryJohn Henry WrightMasterpieces of Greek literature; Homer: Tyrtaeus: Archilochus: Callistratus: Alcaeus: Sappho: Anacreon: Pindar: Aeschylus: Sophocles: Euripides Aristophanes: Herodotus: Thucydides: Xenophon: Plato: Theocritus: Lucian, with biographical sketches and notes; → online text (page 13 of 29)