Œdipus

                                                                   Œdipus   Introduction: There are several versions of the Œdipus myth – Homer put one in the Iliad, Aeschylus [Seven Against Thebes] […]

                                                                   Œdipus

 

Introduction: There are several versions of the Œdipus myth – Homer put one in the Iliad, Aeschylus [Seven Against Thebes] and Hesoid [Theogony] also mentioned it, whilst Corneille, Voltaire and Cocteau produced later versions and Stravinsky composed an opera [Œdipus Rex] on the theme – but the most notable accounts were the three tragedies written by Sophocles [Œdipus Tyrannus, Œdipus Coloneus and Antigone]. Sigmund Freud used the story for his dubious – or at least, misnamed – theory of parent-child relationships. (Dubiously misnamed, because Œdipus – as the sources make clear – was totally averse to both parricide and incest).

Drawing on the most ancient versions, but synthesising them eclectically to create a personal family saga rather than a matter or State, I have imagined my own account of this fascinating myth from the perspective of Antigone, the sister-daughter of Œdipus born to his mother-wife Jocasta. The poem is written in iambic pentameters to an irregular ‘dodeca-line’ rhyme-scheme; i.e, its rhymes occur, in principle, at varying intervals within a span of 12 lines.

The italicised comments in square brackets […] are incidental to the story.

 

[Foreword: Theseus, the legendary king of Athens travelling incognito with only two courtiers for company, meets a disfigured, blind old man accompanied by a lovely, but careworn, young woman. Intrigued, he asks their history. It is the woman, ignorant of his rank, who replies.]

                                            i.

 

      You ask the story, Sir, of this poor man

Whose eyeless sockets and sad mouth excite

Your curiosity? How were his sight

And speech destroyed? And who am I that fan

The flies from those sad wounds?

                                                                    Ah, Sir, that tale

Is dreadful to relate: and it would grieve

Your peace of mind, as it has done to him.

The fate that we have known has been so grim

And undeserved I’d rather not explain

What things were done, nor why. To me the pain

Is still too raw, though time has thrown some veil

Of distance on the circumstances. Leave

Us to our misery and do not press

To learn the origin of our distress.

 

     You’ll make it worth my while? How, may I ask,

Can anything persuade me to that task?

Perhaps some coins from out your purse? I’ll say

Some money would be useful, for we are

Without resources and must beg each day

For food and drink and lodgings. Our bizarre

Appearance does not help us there! Most folk

Just hurry past us, or shamefacedly, poke

A few small coins into my hand and run,

Or let us spend a night inside a shed

With soup, perhaps, in which to dip dry bread

If they are generous. If not we stay

Outside beneath the stars or clouds until

Dawn wakes us to another doleful day.

It’s rarely we enjoy a proper meal.

I tell you, Sir, it is not any fun

To be both indigent and ugly!

                                                  What?

You are determined to have me relate

The details of our history? For that

You’d have to pay a tidy sum! What rate

Do I require? I do not know your means,

Sir, so I cannot say. But if you want

To hear me, you must tender – in advance! –

Enough to shew your good intent. It seems

Churlish of me to ask in such a way;

But, Sir, the pain of telling’s such, I can’t

Risk getting nothing for it. If, by chance,

You feel the story is not worth the pay,

Then you need give no more when I have done.

Is that a bargain?

                                         Right, Sir. Let me see

The colour of your money, then I’ll start;

Though I must warn you that your proffered fee

Will buy you sleepless nights and fill your heart

With sorrow when you’ve heard; such sadness none

Forgets. You still insist?  Well, give me now

Your starting-price and I will match it, then,

With such a story as will pale your brow

And which you will not wish to hear again!

 

            [Theseus gives her a coin.]

 

     So much? Are you sure? Most people’s purses –

If they don’t round on us with coarse curses! –

Surrender obols. Sometimes one may give

A drachma out of pity. As I live,

A stater is a princely coin indeed

When silver; but a golden one, like this,

Is regal! Surely you mock me, Sir! Is

It enough? It is a token of bliss!

For a golden stater, Sir, I would prate

Our history twice over! It will feed

Us for a month, like kings. But justly so:

It is a royal tragedy I tell!

 

     Most of the details I recount were signed

To me, through simple gestures we designed

After the incidents which I relate,

By this old man himself; for I was not

Privy to them before, as you will learn.

We both were forced to share our thoughts and needs

As we traversed the rocky roads of Greece

That Fate decreed for us, trying to earn

Enough to purchase food and drink. We know

Of hunger, thirst and cold – blessings as well –

Taught to us during recent years.

                                                           The hot

Sun soon, perhaps, may cause your skin to burn,

So sit yourself in comfort in the shade

Of this cool tree, and listen close. Become

A voyeur of the scenes I shall describe;

As though in some theatre it were played –

The work of some renowned dramatic scribe –

And you a patron of Thespian art.

Absorb its atmosphere, and in its spell

Release your senses, open up your heart;

Allow yourself to picture, in your mind,

The details of the story I unwind.

 

                             ii.

 

     That story starts in Thebes, some years ago.

King Laius and his Queen, Jocasta, had

A son born to them. As they wished to know

His future, so that they might name him right,

They asked the Delphic Oracle to speak.

The answer, when it came, near drove them mad!

It said: (this of an infant in his crib,

As innocent as any child could be):

     “This boy will kill his father in a fight;

      Then wed his mother; by these acts he’ll break

       His city’s heart with shame.”

                                                        (It’s by such glib

Pronouncements that much harm and misery

Are brought into the world. None but an ass

Should consult Oracles! Quite blameless lives

Are ruined by their cunning prophecies.

For what? To learn the future? It is crass

Stupidity to seek life’s end before

It’s scarcely begun. Foreknowledge deprives

Things of that unexpectedness whence more

Delight is gained than pre-planned joys. It leads

Imagination into narrow paths

Defined by what that expectation breeds –

Rather than onto wider roads well-paved

By natural intelligence, which braves

The unexpected with its cleverness –

And thereby stultifies its scope. Decrees

Should outlaw Oracles: don’t you concur?

     But I digress too much; I’ve hardly said

One thing contingent to my narrative

As yet. You will lose patience. Pardon, Sir,

My wasting of your time. I must suppress

This urge to moralise!).

 

                                              Let me now give

The outcome of this prophecy. The king,

Seeking his own protection, gave the word

To kill the baby. So the little thing

Was taken to the countryside and strung

Up by the feet, to die of hunger there:

And so he would have done, except there came

A kind passer-by who, seeing what hung

Upon the branches, cut it down with care

And took it with him. Now this person’s name

I do not know; but I would guess that he

Had influential friends because, not long

After he got toCorinth, his home-place,

The child became adopted by the king –

Whose name was Polybus – and Merope

His queen, as their own son.

                                              (That sort of thing

Was often done by childless folk of strong

Repute and wealth, as you must know, Sir. Grace

And honour are bestowed thereby to aid

Many a foundling who had otherwise

Known only hardship’s problems. For this child,

Of whom I speak, it had been better, far,

If he’d been left out in the Theban wild

To quickly die. But none in Corinth knew

That on this homeless infant had been laid

A dreadful fate).

 

                                iii.

 

                            Years passed. The baby grew

Into a strong and healthy youth. No scar

Nor blemish marked him, though the name he bore

Was Œdipus, because his feet were sore

And swollen when he came toCorinthfirst.

     He was well-trained in all things; won first prize

For martial skills in many games. Yet he

Was not aggressive; he’d a gentle mind –

In life’s most gracious qualities well-versed –

Given to peaceable pursuits. He knew

No malice, Sir, and therefore came to be

Honoured by all. In fact, he was the kind

Of son that every parent wants! In due

Time he was named heir to the crown. No voice

Objected to so obvious a choice.

 

     (I trust, Sir, that my story does not wear

Your patience overmuch. But you should know

The background and the character behind

Prince Œdipus, in order to obtain

An understanding of his noble mind

And how the problems, which would overthrow

His future glory – driving him insane –

Were not through fault of him.

                                                  If I may dare,

Sir, I would take a drink from that small stream

Which murmurs in the gully over there.

My throat is dry from talking, and I must

Ensure my father gets his proper share

Of my attention. On me he must trust

For all his needs. I hope I do not seem

Too disrespectful to you, Sir…

 

[She goes to the stream and returns with a crock of water.]

 

                                                …Please take

A drink yourself. The crock is cracked, I know,

But we’ve no other, money being scarce.

Enough? I thank you, Sir. Now father, slake

Your thirst with this fresh water; it will clear

The dust from out your mouth. Enough? Good man!.

Now for a sup myself. I’ll say I can

Envisage nothing better than a slow,

Cool drink to ease a tender throat!… [She drinks]… I fear

I must resume the story now).

 

                                 iv.

 

                                                  I pass

On to the day when Œdipus had come,

By chance, nearDelphi. Being there, he thought

No harm to ask his future, though he knew

That Corinth’s crown was his to wear quite soon;

For Polybus had ordered so.

                                                (But some

Men’s curiosity cannot be taught

Restraint; they will not rest until they hold

Their future in their hands! If it were true

That total knowledge brought more benefit

Than trouble, I could understand; but cold

Experience has shewn it is no boon

To see too far ahead. What comes of it

Is disillusion and despair. It’s wise

To deal with life just as it comes and make

The best you can of it. That way surprise

May overtake you sometimes, but your brain

Is not confused to leading you astray

By trying to equate some promised gain

With present lack. For, if we look to take

Shortcuts to high achievement, we may pay

A grievous price. But I digress, again,

And weary you with weak philosophy

Based on my all-too-sad experience.

Your pardon, Sir).

 

                                AtDelphi, then, the youth

Questioned the Oracle. What was his pain

To hear the frightful curse; his doom to kill

His father, wed his mother and bring shame

Upon his city! Thinking that, in truth,

He was Corinthian with Merope

And Polybus his parents, and his claim

To Corinth’s crown his birthright, all his sense

Of honest loyalty opposed the will

Of Delphi.

                        He at once resolved to thwart

The prophecy by taking distant leave

Of Corinth and his loved-ones. They would grieve

As much as he himself, and their bright Court

Would know no further happiness on his

Account. The noble youth would not allow

The fatal forecast opportunity

To feed itself upon his family

And friends.

                             (What cruel irony it is

That, through this selfless gesture, he should bow

His age with those same crimes which he had sought

So conscientiously to bring to naught!

That’s why foreknowledge is so bad for us

To own, Sir, as I said to you before).

 

     Anyway, shortly afterwards, he came

Upon a crossroads. As he stood in doubt

Which path to follow, the peaceful chorus

Of the birds was broken by the clatter

Of approaching hooves. He turned to look. Nor

Was there time to move aside before, high

Over him, a horseman reared with a shout

Of insolence, to leave the road or die!;

Then beat him, unprovoked, about the head

And shoulders with a heavy spear, with aim

To drive him to the ditch.

                                                        Such a matter

Œdipus, a prince, would not permit. So,

Being skilled in warlike arts, he took hold

Of horse and spear and wrestled down his foe

Onto the road. By accident the spear

Went through the man, leaving his body dead

There in the way. At that same moment he,

Young Œdipus, became aware that more

Armed horsemen were approaching fast, prepared

To kill him for his deed. Nowhere to go –

For they surrounded him at once – he saw

That he must now defend himself or fall

Beneath their onset. His agility

And fighting-skill then saved him. Blow with blow

He parried and returned much better. Sheer

Need gave extra strength and speed of strike. All

Fell beneath his strokes; lastly the grey-haired

Chieftain of the band.

                                             The battle done, bold

Œdipus set his face toAthens, when

First he had laid-out the corpses along

The roadside with respectful care. He knew

That someone would come searching for them soon.

     There were a dozen bodies to arrange:

Lastly the old Chieftain’s, whose wide-eyed gaze

Stared at him with a startled look, so strange

It seemed as if the aged lord’s dying view

Included puzzled recognition. Why

It seemed so young Œdipus did not try

To guess; he didn’t know the man. Instead,

He laid his body with the other dead

With reverence due to his rank.

                                                    (You see

How scrupulous he was, Sir, in his ways;

Considerate to other men, even

When they mistreated him! He had not sought

To quarrel but, when trouble came, then he

Could match it with ability. He fought

Only to save himself, or right a wrong).

     When he had finished it was almost noon,

So Œdipus departed from the scene

Before he should be taken there as thief

Or bandit by some traveller.

 

                                              (Your keen

Absorption in my tale must wait awhile

As I refresh myself again. To talk

So much is thirsty work indeed for one

Who hardly speaks, from one day to the next,

Except to ask for food or lodging. Grief

It is to me that my poor father’s state

Prevents our converse as we daily walk

The rugged roads ofGreece; although, perhaps,

The gods were kind to silence his despair,

Else that great dolour, given its full say,

Would cause its hearers such distressful pain

They’d surely rage with horror and despatch

Us from their presence with a bruising rain

Of stony missiles and hard words. I care

For him too much to let him suffer more

Than he already does in dumb dismay.

My loss is tempered by that thought; my poor

Regrets soon salved away.

                                            Now, I’ll just run

Down to the stream to fill the crock. What, you

Sir? You will get the water? May the great

Gods bless you, Sir, who seem to be a true

And kindly gentleman, if I may say

As much! I must admit that this pretext

To so unburden my poor heart, though hard

On my unpractised voice, provides a balm

For my distress…

 

                                   [Theseus, not wanting to reveal his rank by giving orders to his courtiers, goes to the

                                   stream himself and brings back some water, which he gives to her.]

 

                               Here, father, drink! It’s good

And wholesome for you…Now then, Sir, when I

Have had a sup myself – it’s such a sweet

Refreshment – and you have tasted some, my

Story I’ll resume).

 

                                  v.

 

                                  After the alarm,

There at the crossroads, Œdipus pursued

His route toAthens, confident he’d meet

With better fortune. Two years were to pass

Before it came to him.

                                     The happy day

Was inauspicious at the start. (Often

Good luck comes when we least expect!). So when,

One morning, coming close toThebes– a guard

Preventing him from going nearer – he

Enquired the cause. It seems there was a vile

Marauder, known as Sphinx, haunting the gates

Of Thebes. It was a huge, voracious beast

That ambushed travellers and made them tell

The answer to a riddle, failing which

It killed and ate them. Nobody had yet

Resolved the puzzle which the sly Sphinx set:

Not one had survived!

                                                  Œdipus, as was

His habit, would have turned aside to find

Another way into the city, for

He never looked for trouble if he might

Attain his purpose otherwise. Yet he

Had urgent business to transact in Thebes

And would not easily be thwart. But then,

Just as he turned to seek another path

That might avoid the Spinx but bring him near

His wanted destination, malign Fate

 Once more directed him toward the doom

That was his forecast destiny, because

The sentry casually to him  said —

Almost as an afterthought, it seemed —

That Queen Jocasta – childless widow she,

Yet not uncomely – had declared the right

Of any man. (who dared the Sphinx’s wrath

And killed the monstrous beast),  to claim

Her hand in marriage and obtain, thereby,

The crown of Thebes itself!.

                                                Œdipus, poor

In wealth, but holding in his noble mind

The memory of that bright crown he’d lost

Through his firm loyalty to Merope

And Polybus, saw here a chance which well

Could reinstate his fortunes at a twitch

Of luck, if he but dared to risk his head!

     Though peaceable by nature, full of kind

And gentle sentiments, he had no fear

Of man or beast. So he resolved to tame

The monster at the Theban gates and try

His wit and courage on it. If the cost

Outstripped his means then he would have to dare

The necessary to achieve his aim:

Failure would end his exile, while success

Would bring him heightened hopes of happiness!

And if the widowed Queen were old and plain,

At least he’d earn a crown and, in her name,

Would rule atThebesas once his future was

Promised at Corinth. So the dowry’s gain

Seemed worth the hazard: it became his cause.

(His other business was of small import

If he should win the greater prize; a Crown!).

     He then informed the Sentry of his plan

To challenge the Sphinx. The Captain was called

To verify the case; and he declared

That it was stupid for so young a man –

Œdipus was barely twenty then – to

Lose his life in such a confrontation:

But his orders were, to let those pass who,

Having been warned, stated themselves prepared

To rid the city of the Sphinx’s curse.

     When Œdipus confirmed that he would try

To best the Sphinx and was prepared to die

In the attempt, the Captain took him to

The register of those who earlier had tried

To beat the monster, but had failed and died.

     Amongst the names were many men — some who

Had famous names — and even, (here and there),

A few heroic women!. (Perhaps they

Supposed that women’s wiles had better chance

Than men’s against the Sphinx, which dreadful beast

Was female). Œdipus then signed his name

Upon the list as he was told to do.

     The Captain shook his grizzled head and sighed,

Bade Œdipus “Good luck!” and with a frown

Of utter puzzlement, he turned away.

He’d seen so many who had rashly dared

The ogress in the hope of instant fame,

With fatal consequences, so the loss

Of yet another life made him despair

At such irrationality. At least

He’d done his duty, there was nothing more

That he could say. Without a backward glance

He left the room.

 

                                     Œdipus stepped across

The threshold after him, then turned toward

The city’s walls whose tower-tops peeked just

Above the trees, about a mile from where

The Sentry stood, at the still open door

Of his observatory, watching him

Go toward certain death.

 

                                                       The road he took

Was overgrown with weeds; its surface holed.

Few people used it, since the Sphinx controlled

All access to the city. He did not look

Around him as he walked towards his Fate,

His mind deep in his thoughts.

                                                      Knowing he must

Prepare himself, now that he was aware

Of what awaited when he met the grim

Destroyer of ambitions’ heady dreams,

Œdipus rehearsed the riddles he’d heard

At Corinth, and whilst travelling, in verse

And prose, prolix and terse, the lot. He hauled

Them through his memory, and even framed

Some new ones of his own, in case the Sphinx

Should give him opportunity to take

Advantage of.

 

                              Soon he drew near a gate.

Around the area he saw the bones

Of many who had braved the Sphinx and failed.

Well-gnawed they were, those skeleton remains,

And scattered near and far amongst the stones

Crowding the awful site. He wondered where

The creature was that he had come to find.

The stench was overpowering. Vile stinks

Began to sting his eyes and throat. Perhaps

The air was poisoned and the cunning beast

Waited for challengers to first collapse

In semi-consciousness before it came

To pose a question which a fuddled mind

Could not devise an answer to; at least,

One which it would accept!. The creature’s fame

Kept arbiters away, so none could learn

Its practices or otherwise discern

How to defeat its wiles. He understood

That he must keep his mind clear, muscles strong,

If he were to survive.

                                               Over his nose

And mouth he pulled his cloak, although his eyes

Were unprotectable. So, when he came

Almost to the locked gate itself, he stood

Uncertain what to do: except to close

His eyes and wait until he heard a sound

Which would inform him that his enemy

Had come to join him on this battleground

Of its own choosing, and thereon to pose

The fateful question.

 

                                               Time passed; so he sat

Down with his back against a rock, on soil

Hard-baked and sandy, strewn with bones and stones.

Pulling a hood over his head so that

The atmosphere’s malign effects might be

Reduced, he waited.

 

                                 vi.

 

                                   Then, at last, he heard

The sound of beating wings. The Sphinx that brings

Death was coming to claim his life! It flew

Close, hovering above his mantled head.

     He felt the pulsing air throb like the beat

Of his own heart, but stronger yet than that!

And felt the mighty down-draught from those wings,

Almost cyclonic in its energy,

Lashing his cloak-hood, (tossing in the roil

Small stones and sand into the troubled air),

And making rattle the disjointed bones

In his immediate vicinity.

     “This thing”, he reasoned, “must be enormous;

Yet I am safe until I’ve had the chance

To try its riddle.” Motionless he stayed

Until the wing-wind tore away the hood

From his bowed head. The time had come to dare

The legendary creature!

                                                         Œdipus

Opened his rested eyes that he might view

The figure of his foe. At first his glance

Met only vacant space.

 

                                              Then, like a bird

Of giant size, the monster from the sky

Landed before him, folding back her wings.

     Her body was a lion’s, ten feet long

From nape of neck to base of tail, whose tip

Lashed six feet further off. A look of hate

Glared from her amber eyes, as though there flamed

In them a pyre. Her shoulder was as high

As Œdipus himself, though on all fours

She went; and on each paw five fearsome claws.

Her breast and face were human to the sight,

But grossly formed and brutishly defined,

Proportionately large to suit her size;

Whilst lion’s teeth gleamed from her hanging lip,

Drooling thick, yellow foam. And when she spake

Her voice was harshly guttural, like stones

Grinding together. “Who are you who thinks

To enter Thebes this way?”

                                                    Œdipus said:

“If that’s the riddle which you pose, I find

A ready answer!. I have come to take

Away from Thebes the terror that now reigns

Outside its walls.  I do not count the cost,

For I have nothing I can lose but life

And am inured to sufferings and pains.

My name is Œdipus. Since this reply

Suffices as a truthful answer to

Your question, I have won and you must go!”

     The Sphinx snarled angrily, tossing her head –

Spit splattering upon the bone-strewn ground –

A baleful glitter in her yellow eyes.

     “You think you’re clever, don’t you, little man?

Do you suppose that your poor human mind

Could outwit my intelligence, which can

Number the stars and galaxies and hold

The secrets of the universe? Gods quailed

When I had put them to the test those long

Millennia ago; for they soon found

Their powers were inferior. What brings

You here is no concern of mine. Your name

Has no significance, for deathless fame

Will not be yours despite your silly boast.

Your pride will be your fall; the only prize

Which you can win is death! Fate has decreed

It for you. There is no escape for those

Who cannot solve the riddle which I pose.

     You claim you’ve won already, yet you knew

My question was rhetorical, a mere

Irrelevance. Many men of your kind

Have met their mental match in me, right here,

Beside this Theban gate. They thought, like you

That they were clever; yet these bones have paled

For many months since those who owned them lost

The forfeit of their lives. Your own remains

Will soon be pickings for coarse crows. You dare

To challenge me, but you will quickly learn

That, like the rest, for you there’s no return

To home and family! It was not wise

To come, for you must pit your puny brains

Against my subtlety. What stupid things

You humans are, to come within the might

Of superhuman strength! However strong

You think yourselves to be, your feeble force

Cannot prevail against my magic laws.”

     Œdipus answered: “Since you are inclined

To talk so much of my impending death,

As though the outcome of our meeting were

Foregone, like these dismembered heroes’ fates,

Beyond all argument before I test

Your potency – for you should know that I’m

Protected by a prophecy whose time

Is unfulfilled – would you elucidate

The situation should I answer right

Your lethal question?”

                                     At his words the Sphinx

Bellowed with laughter of such force  the walls

Nearby were shaken whilst her fœtid breath,

Exhaled with it, appalled him by its stench.

     Her mirth was brief. She  roared: “That is the most

Ridiculous request I ever heard!

Your prophesied protection cannot save

You from my power if you cannot best

My wits; I am more potent than the gods,

As I’ve already said. They are mere clods

Compared to me. You think that you are brave,

But you will quickly find that quality

Avails you nothing when opposed to me!

     Nevertheless, to answer your request,

I’ll tell you this – not that you’ll benefit,

For nothing can be gained by you from it –

I am immune until my riddle’s solved.

If you had wit enough to do the thing

Then all my magic powers were dissolved;

And for a little space of time – till dawn

In fact – I would no longer be immune

To human weapons. But my creature strength,

Within these mighty muscles, would remain;

And you’re no match for them if we should fight!

You have your answer, now you must reply

To my conundrum; and then you shall die!”

     “Your strength may be more potent than the gods’,

But for your wisdom I must have a doubt.”

Said Œdipus. “The Delphic Sybil knew

My name before I said a word; but you

Must ask my family identity

To learn it from my mouth! Nor do you seem

To know the substance of the Sybil’s dream

Which rules my destiny. Moreover she,

(Though wan from sitting in a darkened room

And breathing inspiration’s fœtid fume),

Seemed more attractive than yourself to me!”

     Trembling with rage, her glaring eyes aflame,

The Sphinx snarled: “You are insolent, and I

Can scarcely wait the moment when you die!

All that preserves you, for the instant, is

That by my self-imposed conditions you

Must have the opportunity to find

The answer to the riddle I shall pose.

Else you had been already dead! The odds

On your survival can’t be summed: your mind

Is quite unequal to fulfil the task

Your coming here entailed, because your thought

Is feeble.

                          Now: it’s time you took the test

And, having failed, join your bones with the rest

That litter this delightful place whence none

Can get away, however fast they run”.

     “There is a certain time-span, I presume?”

Asked Œdipus, “For it would be absurd

To have no scope for thought when my whole fate

Depends upon this thing.”

                                            “You waste your breath,”

The Sphinx responded. “Why prevaricate?

Your quibbles bore me!” Then she gave a yawn,

Bared her huge teeth and smiled a feline grin,

Malicious, calculating, fierce.

                                                             At length

She said: “The shadow of that tower lies

Upon the ground and moves as time goes past.

When it has reached this boulder, over here,

Your answer will be due; then, if your brain

Has got it wrong, or failed to make response,

It will be time for you to die the death!”

     “I understand”, said Œdipus, “that once

The tower-shadow reaches to the rock

Beside you, I must make reply. Within

The intervening period I’m free

To cogitate without distraction. Now,

I’m ready for your riddle. Tell it!”

                                                                     Eyes

Locked with eyes in confrontation. At last

The Sphinx lay down upon the ground and said:

     “Now tell me this: what living thing is that

     Which goes on four feet in the morning, then

     At midday moves on two alone, but in

     The evening-time travels along on three;

     But has least strength when with the most endowed?”

Then she was silent, watching him!

 

                                    vii.

 

                                                          His stock

Of puzzles he reviewed. None would compare

With what the Sphinx had asked. He put his head

Between his hands and thought it through again.

He watched the shadow as it quickly passed

Towards the rock. The Sphinx, too – as a cat

Observes potential prey, without a stir:

Until it pounces, suddenly! – stared at

The shadow but, with sidelong glance

From time to time, kept watch on him!

                                                                         Somehow

A vision came to Œdipus. (Therein,

Young parents with their infant child at play

Beside them whilst, nearby, there stood a grey

Haired grandsire smiling at the scene who, bent

Beneath the burden of his decades, leant

On a stout stick for his support). He knew

The riddle’s answer!

                                             Now he must devise

Some way to catch the ogress by surprise

And slay her. He must wait to launch his coup

Until the very latest chance. To win

The final mastery would need great care.

His strike must be both quick and accurate;

There only would be time to instigate

Just one attack, and that would have to be

The very model of efficiency:

If he should fail to kill the monster, fast,

He would be torn to pieces in her grasp!

     He waited till the shadow almost touched

The rock, the better to surprise the beast

Whilst, underneath his travel-cloak, he clutched

The handle of his sword. And then he spoke:

     “Perhaps your riddle’s answer, Sphinx, is this:

     What go on four limbs in their morning ways

     When weakest, and at their strength’s noon-zenith

     Make progress using only two but, with

     Onset of evening, travel by the means

     Of odd, tri-pedal steps; is it not true

     That these adaptive beings are us Men?”

The Sphinx looked shocked: her eyes went blank, her jaw

Dropped to her breast; as stunned, her huge head bowed

To her paws. Heavily she sighed, but gave

No direct answer to him. His reply,

So unexpected, had upset her schemes

And caught her unawares.

                                           Œdipus saw

That he was right! And also that she’d try

To kill him when she realised he’d won;

A victory for him was not allowed!

There was no time to lose; he’d be undone

If she recovered sense; for she would crave

His blood to expiate defeat, whilst he

Himself could not resist her force, since she

Had in her massive body and huge limbs

The strength of many men.

                                                         The time to chance

His fortune had arrived. Quickly he leaped

Towards her, sword unsheathed and, with one stroke,

With all his strength severed her neck-bones through.

The curse of Thebes had turned to stuff of dreams

And Œdipus had triumphed as she died!

 

                                   viii.

 

     The news soon spread. (How very strange it is

That unseen actions reach the ears of men

As though by magic spread!).

                                                             Jocasta wept

With happiness to hear of it. Without

Delay she hurried, from her palace, down

To the gate where Œdipus had freed her

City from the monstrous tyranny. She

Took him in her chariot through roadways

Thronged with cheering people. There was no doubt

He was a hero worthy of high praise!

     Once in the palace, he was asked to tell

The secret of his clever victory.

It soon was done; there was not much to say.

     So when Jocasta offered him her hand,

Her bed, her treasure and the Theban crown,

He thought it prudent to accept the same!

     Thus he became the ruler of that land

Which, by his wisdom, prospered in its fame;

For he was a thoughtful, fair, kind leader.

Thebes never was before ruled half as well;

Nor ever will be, to its final day!

 

                                                       ix.

 

     The years passed by which brought them happiness:

Boys, Eteocles and Polynices;

And girls, Ismene and Antigone.

It seemed that fair good fortune smiled upon

Their house, their family and all of Thebes.

 

     The fall from highest peaks of proud success,

Down to the chasmic deeps of dire despair,

Has been the theme of many tales and songs,

And will continue so to be; for we

Are fascinated by the contrasts drawn

Together compactly, which shew us their

Dramatic force. But when that fall belongs

To our own lives the fascination palls

Beyond all telling!

                                       (If, perchance, I can

First take another drink, I shall be glad…

 

                                     [Theseus again brings some, which is shared amongst those present.]

 

…That’s better!…Thank you, Sir.

                                                    My frequent calls

Upon your kind forbearance – and the check

They put upon the telling of this tale –

Are no doubt irksome to you; but this sad

Account quite chokes my throat, which is unused

To such extensive exercise as this,

And I should fail to finish did I not

Refresh myself from time to time. Besides,

The hot sun must discomfort you as well!…

Once more I thank you, Sir, for your most kind

Consideration of my needs.

                                                             It is

So hard for me to speak of things my mind

Has hid in fearful secrecy for years;

But I must earn my fee! If I’ve abused

Your patience, I apologise. The tears

You see escaping from my eyes, despite

My efforts to prevent their exodus,

Are not dissimulations aimed to wring

Your undeserved indulgence, but the plain

Expression of my soul’s remembered pain

Concerning what befell King Œdipus

To overthrow his glory from its height.

For what I’m now about to say to you

Revives in me the anguish that I felt

As those events occurred and caused to melt –

Like Winter frost and snow at Spring’s return –

The carefree happiness that once I knew:

The memories of which make my heart burn

As then it did. And yet, Sir, you shall hear

The tragic ending of my tale).

 

                                                   By now

You certainly have guessed that this sad wreck

Is Œdipus himself, poor wretched man,

Who through no fault of his had brought about

Fulfilment of that very prophecy

He tried to thwart. If there remains a doubt

Within your mind, I will explain just how

It happened. Through my words you then will see

How simple curiosity can tear

A great man’s life to shreds.

                                               (Your pardon, Sir?

What is my name? I am Antigone

His daughter, Sir; and sister, too, through force

Of circumstance! This tale is not of me

Though, but of him, once King of Thebes and great

In all men’s eyes: until unkindly Fate

Destroyed his honour and his sanity.

So, if it please you, Sir, I’ll once again

Resume his history).

 

                             x.

 

                                    One fateful day,

In idle conversation with his wife –

I was sat by a window sewing thread,

So I could see them and hear what was said –

King Œdipus asked if she would explain

The circumstance of her first husband’s death.

     (Why, after twenty years, he wished to know

 About his royal predecessor’s end

I never did discover for events,

After that moment, overthrew all sense

Of order).

                     It seemed innocent enough

At first; but soon the atmosphere was dense

With mounting tension. I desired to go

Elsewhere, but could not move. I had to lend

Attention to the words they said and try

To understand what so disturbed the scene.

     My mother seemed oblivious, lost in

Her memories; it was my father’s state

Which caused me such concern. Oh, Sir! How I

Wish he’d never thought to ask the question!

     Idle curiosity – the one sin

My father had – is dangerous. From that

There followed so much misery and pain.

I trust I never shall know such again

As long as I may live. I don’t know what

My father thought to gain from his request;

But what he got from it destroyed his rest

And all our former happiness. Our fate

Was fashioned in our mother’s clear reply!

     For, as she spoke, Œdipus soon became

Alarmed and agitated in both mind

And manner. Though Jocasta thought a band

Of robbers had cut short King Laius’s life

In hopes of plunder, she described the place

With such particularity – the way

The crossroads looked, and how the dozen dead

Were neatly laid there, side-by-side as though

Awaiting funeral; and how the face

Of Laius seemed, in death, to know who slew

Him – Œdipus had felt his heart and breath

Stick in his throat. He recognised the same

Grim battleground where he had fought those years

Ago! Trying to mask the strain behind

The lightness of his tone, he asked if she

Recalled the date of this event? His fears

Were heightened when she told him, for it was

Two years before himself had just appeared

To rid the city of the Sphinx! His head

Reeled in confusion as suspicion grew

To certainty. Only one doubt could be

Of solace for him now; but though he feared

Its resolution, he just had to know

The truth of it! He forced his words to be

As innocent of tension as his heart

Was guilty of the same. His shaking hands

Betrayed his nervousness. It seemed to me

As if a Sphinx-like spirit filled the air

With poisoned fumes which made my flesh turn ice,

Slowing my pulse and tearing at my eyes.

     Dissembling ease – though I could see and sense,

(Sat silent and uncomprehendingly

As yet, across the spacious room; my stare

Unnoticed by them both), his misery –

He smoothed his robes as, softly, he enquired,

In tones of simulated innocence,

Whether King Laius and Jocasta had

A baby who had died, perhaps, when young?

     She did not sense his fierce anxieties:

She could not know she spoke to him of him,

As she related how their only son,

Whilst still an infant, had been killed because

The Delphic Oracle’s prophetic tongue

Had warned them of a destiny so grim

It was not to be borne!

                                                His last doubt gone,

Œdipus abruptly left the room. Part

Of him died that moment!. All he desired

Was solitude. He would not eat. No talk

Could coax from him the reason for his mad

And melancholic looks, his sudden rage

Wildly immoderate, his drinking-bouts.

     He, who had always been wise, gentle, kind

And temperate in all he did or spoke,

Had suddenly become a misanthrope

Indifferent to all. His interest

In government was gone. He seemed to age

A dozen years within a week. His walk

Was crooked: hair unkempt; eyes red and blear;

Tired face unshaven. He would take no rest,

But staggered round the rooms like one gone blind.

Often he mumbled nonsense to himself;

Sometimes the palace echoed to his shouts:

In short, he went quite mad.

                                                            His sons, abused

Beyond all reason, kept apart from him;

And Ismene, my sister, did not dare

Even to look at him!. Only the Queen,

Jocasta, and myself, together bore

His shameless conduct in the hope his health

Might be recovered if we persevered;

We loved him for the man he once had been.

 

                                xi.

 

     The final crisis of his tragic state

Came suddenly one evening. It was late.

Mother and I were in his room. By dim

Light from the candles we conversed in hushed

Concern. My father limped about the place

Relentlessly. He had been drinking hard

All through the day and seemed in a stupor;

For drink was all that gave him solace now.

     Then both of us became aware that he

Had ceased his wandering. His ravaged face

Was turned towards us, but he did not see

Us sitting there. He muttered in his beard,

Inaudibly at first; and then he brushed

His hand across the furrows on his brow

And spoke distinctly!.

                                               Gone were the confused,

Inconsequential phrases: what we heard

Broke both our hearts! For, clearly, he rehearsed

The Delphic Oracle’s bleak prophecy

Word perfect, though it was not told to him

By Queen Jocasta! Then he made it plain

That he had been the heir to Corinth’s crown

Before the Oracle had cast him down.

Then, how he’d killed his father in a fight,

Unknowing who he was, upon the road.

     The details which he mentioned left no room

For doubting that he did it. Then he cursed

Remorseless Fate for bringing him back there,

To Thebes– the city of his birth – to dare

The Sphinx and thereby earn the promised right

To wed the Queen, now known by him to be

His own birth-mother!

                                                Turning to her, then,

I saw her face contorted with the pain

Of knowledge that the long-forecasted doom

She and her son had sought to void, at great

Cost to themselves, had come to pass. The code

Of moral law had been transgressed. She knew

He spoke the truth!

                                  Œdipus, silent now,

Began his fretful pacing once again –

Oblivious that he had spoken out

Or that his words were overheard – the grim

Scowl back upon his face.

                                                        Jocasta rose,

Pale, voiceless, gaunt. She kissed me tenderly,

Pressed my hand softly and then left the room.

     Amazed, I sat beside the candle’s flame

Trying to understand what all this meant.

I was my father’s sister and his child

At once: that much I knew. I wondered how

My mother would react to that, and to

The thought that her own son was father of

Her children! My senses were awry; wild

Things chased round my brain!. I sensed the gloom

Grow gloomier. And then my simple love

Turned to that crazed, tormented man, heart-rent

By gross misfortune, (through the prior claim

Of mystic prophecy), which overthrows

Our best endeavours to improve our fate.

 

                                   xii.

 

     But then, within my ears, there rang a shout

Of mingled grief and torment, so extreme

In its intensity I could not bear

To hear it more!. The shout became a scream,

The scream a dying moan. I sat in dread,

Too stunned to realise what it could mean

At first: until I recognised the voice

Of her, my mother!

                                         Quickly I ran there,

To her room. She lay upon her bed. Dead!

I guessed she had decided that no choice,

But end her life to expiate the guilt

And shame of incest, had remained to her.

     Owl-eyed, both hands clasping the dagger’s hilt

Close to her still-warm breast, almost serene

She looked; except the sightless stare betrayed

The fading remnants of that wild despair

Which forced her to the fatal deed.

                                                                         In deep

Remorse – although too sudden-shocked to weep

Just then – I stroked her combed and scented hair,

New-pinned with jewelled clasps. She wore the dress

In which she took the most delight – made up,

With shimmering rich ornaments, from cloth

Of finest quality to please the eye –

When she had been the newly-wedded bride

Of Œdipus in happier times.

 

                                                              As my

Witless fingers still with her tresses played

I realised that, silent by my side,

My father stood! His face wept deep distress.

His eyes moved uncontrolledly, their wide

Dark pupils burning brightly as his tears

Reflected highlights from her ornaments.

I could but guess what were his troubled fears

As he stood silent there, bereft of sense,

Seeming consumed with bitterness and loth

To comprehend the evidence he saw.

     He stood there, weeping, for a timeless space

Until acceptance came that she was dead;

Then emptied at one draught the brimming cup

He held and flung the vessel from him!. I

Recoiled, alarmed. But then his hollow face,

Put on a mournful smile. To me he said,

In measured, lucid words and accents kind,

Which instantly gave reassurance he

Intended no aggression toward me:

     “Antigone, dear daughter, you are sore

From many griefs borne in your faithful breast.

I, Œdipus your father, ask of you

A single favour; then you may depart

Forever from me, so that you may find

Escape from the worst horrors of my fate.

     Take me away from Thebes and guide my way

To Delphi’s temple. If you should be true

To me till then I shall release your heart,

That day, from further service to me. Say

You will do this and I shall ask no more”.

     What could I, but agree to his request?

He bent to kiss my forehead tenderly;

Told me he loved me more than any son;

And promised that, forever, whilst his breath

Continued, he would hold me dear.

                                                                           A great

Contentment filled my sense. It seemed to me

As if his madness, through our mother’s death,

Had been removed. Father and child were one

Again, in shared relief from that dark curse

Which had so much oppressed us. But my hope

Was premature!.

                          (How utterly perverse

Is mad irrationality, whose scope

For mischief cannot be contained! Just when

We dare believe stability and peace

Have been attained, misfortune strikes again

And shatters our anticipated ease!).

 

     Œdipus stooped to kiss Jocasta’s brow

In last farewell for mother and for wife.

Then he unpinned the largest brooch she wore

And placed it, carefully, beside her head

Upon the pillow. Gently he unclasped

Her fingers, folding her lifeless hands, pale

Arms, across her bosom.

                                            In his eyes, red

From his grief, a sudden purpose kindled

Like a summer fire! Roughly, then, he tore

From out her breathless breast the fatal knife,

Releasing from the unstopped wound a flow

Of blood which stained her garment as it streamed

Like Phlegethon itself! The gush dwindled

To a trickling rivulet.

                                             Then, before

I could prevent him, suddenly he grasped

His own tongue and, sawing with vicious force,

Severed the thing and threw it down! Words fail

To tell the horror of that sight!. I screamed

And tried disarm him, thinking that he sought

To kill himself. He thrust me to the floor.

     Dropping the knife he snatched, instead, the brooch

Which he had laid upon the pillow near.

Then he began to stab and gouge his eyes

With wild ferocity, as though he fought

A battle with some dæmon in his head,

Or by such actions murdered his reproach!

     Although he seemed insensitive to pain

And mutilation, I could not endure

That torture he inflicted on his dear,

Guilt-stricken self. I grappled with him and –

Sheer desperation lending me more power

Than even he could counter at that hour –

At length I wrestled from his bloody hands

The instrument with which he tried to cure

His soul’s remorse. I threw it out of reach.

     He struggled for some moments longer, gore

Drooling from his ravaged mouth, whilst from each

Pierced eye bright-blooded fountains pumped in spurts

And rained upon us both; until a calm,

Sudden and complete, dowsed his wild furore.

He fought no more. To my immense surprise

His lucid self returned and he was sane;

Though for how long I had no means to know.

     (Ah, Sir!. If you had seen him then, I’m sure

Your sleep with nightmares would be fraught, as mine

Is to this present: even though it’s near

Four years since these events occurred!).

                                                                                      I led

Him to his room and washed him clean; put balm

Upon his injuries and changed his dress

For something fresh and fit for travel. Then,

Having cleaned myself and changed my clothes, I

Packed some food, drink, bandages and such. When

All was readied, I put a staff of beech

Into his hand and led him out to go,

As I had promised him, to Delphi’s den

Though, in my heart, I felt I’d rather die!

     (Fearing that more delay would risk a new

Crisis of madness in my father’s mind,

I left Jocasta lying on her bed.

Others must do the Office of the Dead

Whilst I led Œdipus to where he’d find

The Sybil – who had forecast so much woe –

Though ignorant of what he planned to do).

 

                                 xiii.

 

     It was a slow and stumbling journey there –

As you would not find difficult to guess –

Although the weather could not be more fine.

     When we arrived, he made me lead him close

To where the Sybil sat, wreathed in the smoke

Of sacred inspiration which exhaled

From underneath her seat through some deep cleft

Reputed to descend to Hades’ Court

Far in the Underworld.

                                         Scarcely had we

Approached her, and before a word was said

By anyone, the Sybil turned her head

To us. Her eyes were shut yet seemed to see

Us! In most solemn accents, then, she spoke:

          “Œdipus, you have returned. In your thought

     Is vengeance! Do you think that I invoke

     The prophecies I make of my own choice?

     If that were so, then I had surely failed

     The honour and integrity which are

     Essential to my holy function here.

     I am indifferent to all. My voice

     Only announces what my senses see

     Revealed by mystic forces. You prepare,

     Urged by your wrath, to seek dreadful redress

     Against my temple and myself. Such pride

     Would merit retribution were it not

     Considered that your grief has made you mad!

          It has now been decreed that you are free

     From that compelling destiny you bear

     Because the prophecy has been fulfilled.

     You may go where you wish: except I bar

     Your entry into Thebes and Corinth, less

     For their sakes than for yours; for you would know

     Much hurt where once you had been more than glad.

          So long as you obey this rule, I take

     The curse of madness from your troubled mind.

     A peaceful mendicant your future, till

     The day ordained for you to die.

                                      But what

     Of young Antigone?. Her lot to guide

     And care for you, that you be not bereft

     Of love and comfort, till the Mighty Will,

     Which knows all things, shall end your days. Then she

     Will be allowed to go to Thebes and find

     Her final fate. But I shall not now make

     Her future plain to her; though I could shew

     It, if I chose! It is enough to know

     That she shall be, until your own life’s tide

     Has ceased, at last, its destined ebb and flow,

     Your faithful friend and loyal helpmate. Be

     Content to share with her life’s gifts, for she

     Will bring you comfort till the day you die.

     Now go! For you I no more prophesy!”

 

                               xiv.

 

     Since then, Sir, we have wandered near and far

Through all ofGreece, as was foretold to us

At Delphi; begging, as we go, for food

And lodging.

                                 So the tale of Œdipus

Is brought right up-to-date. You have been good,

And patient, to have heard it out.

                                        Now, Sir –

Though many troubles in so short a space

Have left their painful scars within my heart;

Which, though they may not shew upon my face,

Still torture my sad mind with anguished smart;

Whilst in my eyes keen watchers may discern

The agonies in which my spirits burn –

We must be on our way, for we must find

Somewhere to stay this night…

 

                                         [Moved by her story, Theseus gives a purse of coins to Antigone.]

 

                          What? All this purse

Of golden staters? You are much too kind;

There must be near a hundred coins here! Are

You sure you mean us to have all? My heart

Does not know how to thank you worthily;

My gratitude is witnessed by my tears.

     You are a gentleman, Sir, and I’ll pray

To all the gods for your advantage! We

Now have the means to keep us for some years

In what we need; and, as our shoes are worse

For wear and these poor garments patched and thin,

We shall be able to replace them new,

Thanks to the generosity of you.

The gods be with you, Sir. Farewell!.

 

[As they wander slowly away King Theseus turns towards Athens, troubled by the revelation that Fate rules mighty monarchs as surely as it does the meanest of their slaves. But Antigone continues talking happily to Œdipus]

 

                                                                    This day

Has brought great benefit. Let’s find an inn

Where we can get some comfort for a start.

Tomorrow we shall buy some better clothes;

And after that, dear father, well….. who knows?.

 

[Afterword: According to one account, the ultimate fate of Antigone was tragic. After wandering around Greece for several years with Œdipus, she returned to Thebes after he had died and been buried near Athens. (Theseus was himself was amongst the mourners). Shortly after her arrival in Thebes her two brothers – Eteocles and Polynices – were killed fighting for the crown. Their uncle Creon, who had taken power, forbade the burial of their bodies. Nevertheless, the ever-loyal Antigone interred them herself. This act of charitable piety resulted in Creon having her immured alive in a cave, where she died of starvation and thirst. Some accounts say that her lover, Hæmon, chose to die with her. J.A.B].

 

Author: J. A. Bosworth

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