(Adapted from: Œdipus)
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, outside that gate;
It 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 fierce Sphinx set:
Not one had survived!. Œdipus, as was
His habit, would have turned aside to find
Another entry to the city, for
He never looked for trouble if he might
Attain his purpose otherwise. But Fate
Once more directed his life’s destiny!.
For, as he turned away, the sentry said
That Queen Jocasta – childless widow she,
Yet not uncomely – had declared the right
Of any man who killed the Sphinx to claim
Her hand in marriage and obtain, thereby,
The crown ofThebesitself!.
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 gate 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 atCorinth. So the dowry’s gain
Seemed worth the hazard: it became his cause.
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.
Knowing now the creature’s reputation,
Œdipus rehearsed the riddles he’d heard
AtCorinth, 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
Soon he drew near the 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.
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!.
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 gutteral, like stones
Grinding together. “Who are you who thinks
To enterThebesthis way?”.
“If that’s the riddle which you pose, I find
A ready answer. I have come to take
Away fromThebesthe 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.”
“Tell me”, said Œdipus, “since you’re 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 and her fœtid breath
Sickened him with its stench. “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 dull 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.
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!”.
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 most is endowed?”.
Then she was silent, watching him.
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!.
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). 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.
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 has arrived. Quickly he leaped
Towards her, sword unsheathed and, with one stroke,
With all his strength severed her neck right through.
The curse ofThebeshad turned to stuff of dreams
And Œdipus had triumphed as she died!.