Thebais - Book One - part V
The king once more the solemn rites requires,
And bids renew the feasts, and wake the fires.
his train obey, while all the courts around
With noisy care and various tumult sound.
Embroidered purple clothes the golden beds;
This slave the floor, and that the table spreads;
A third dispels the darkness of the night,
And fills depending lamps with beams of light.
Here loaves in canisters are piled on high,
And there in flames the slaughtered victims fry.
Sublime in regal state Adrastus shone,
Stretched on rich carpets on his iv’ry throne;
A lofty couch rcceives each princely guest;
Around, at awful distance, wait the rest.
And now the king, his royal feast to grace,
Acestis calls, the guardian of his race,
Who first their youth in arts of virtue trained,
And their ripe years in modest grace maintained;
Then softly whispered in her faithful ear,
And bade his daughters at the rites appear.
When from the close apartments of the night,
The royal nymphs approach divinely bright;
Such was Diana’s, such Minerva’s face;
Nor shine their beauties with superior grace,
But that in these a milder charm endears,
And less of terror in their looks appears.
As on the heroes first they cast their eyes,
O’er their fair cheeks the glowing blushes rise,
Their downcast looks a decent shame confessed,
Then on their father’s rev’rend features rest.
The banquet done, the monarch gives the sign
To fill the goblet high with sparkling wine,
Which Danaus used in sacred rites of old,
With sculpture graced, and rough with rising gold.
Here to the clouds victorious Persons flies,
Medusa seems to move her languid eyes,
And, ev’n in gold, turns paler as she dies.
There from the chace Jove’s tow’ring eagle bears,
On golden wings, the Phrygian to the stars:
Still as he rises in th’ ethereal height,
His native mountains lessen to his sight;
While all his sad companious upward gaze,
Fixed on the glorious scene in wild amaze;
And the swift hounds, affrighted as he flies,
Run to the shade, and bark against the skies.
This golden bowl with gen’rous juice was crowned,
The first libations sprinkled on the ground,
By turns on each celestial pow’r they call;
With Phœbus’ name resounds the vaulted hail.
The courtly train, the strangers, and the rest,
Crowned with chaste laurel, and with garlands dressed,
While with rich gums the fuming altars blaze,
Salute the god in num’rous hymns of praise.
Then thus the king: “Perhaps, my noble guests,
These honoured altars, end these annual feasts
To bright Apollo’s awful name designed,
Unknown, with wonder may perplex your mind.
Great was the cause; our old solemnities
From no blind zeal, or fond tradition rise;
But saved from death, our Argives yearly pay
These grateful honours to the god of day.
“When by a thousand darts the Python slain
With orbs unrolled lay cov’ring all the plain,
(Transfixed as o’er Castalia’s streams he hung,
And sucked new poisons with his triple tongue)
To Argos’ realms the victor god resorts,
And enters old Crotopus’ humble courts.
This rural prince one only daughter blest,
That all the charms of blooming youth possessed;
Fair was her face, and spotless was her mind,
Where filial love with virgin sweetness joined.
Happy ! and happy still she might have proved,
Were she less beautiful, or less beloved !
But Phœbus loved, and on the flow’ry side
Of Nemea’s stream, the yielding fair enjoyed:
Now, ere ten moons their orb with light adorn,
Th’ illustrious offspring of the god was born;
The nymph, her father’s anger to evade,
Retires from Argos to the sylvan shade;
To woods and wilds the pleasing burden bears,
And trusts her infant to a shepherd’s cares.
“How mean a fate, unhappy child ! is thine?
Ah how unworthy those of race divine?
On flow’ry herbs in some green covert laid,
His bed the ground, his canopy the shade,’
He mixes with the bleating lambs his cries,
While the rude swain his rural music tries
To call soft slumbers on his infant eyes.
Yet ev’n in those obscure abodes to live,
Was more, alas ! than cruel fate would give,
For on the grassy verdure as he lay,
And breathed the freshness of the early day,
Devouring dogs the helpless infant tore,
Fed on his trembling limbs, and lapped the gore.
Th’ astonished mother, when the rumour came,
Forgets her father, and neglects her fame;
With loud complaints she fills the yielding air,
And beats her breast, and rends her flowing hair;
Then wild with anguish to her sire she flies:
Demands the sentence, and contented dies.
“But touched with sorrow for the dead too late,
The raging god prepares t’ avenge her fate.
He sends a monster, horrible and fell,
Begot by furies in the depths of hell.
On me, on me, let all thy fury fall,
Nor err from me, since I deserve it all:
Unless our desert cities please thy sight,
Or fun’ral flames reflect a grateful light.
Discharge thy shafts, this ready bosom rend,
And to the shades a ghost triumphant send;
But for my country let my fate atone,
Be mine the vengeance, as the crime my own.
“Merit distressed, impartial heav’n relieves:
Unwelcome life relenting Phœbus gives;
For not the vengeful pow’r, that glowed with rage,
With such amazing virtue durst engage.
The clouds dispersed, Apollo’s wrath expired,
And from the wond’ring god th’ unwilling youth retired.
Thence we these altars in his temple raise,
And offer annual honours, feasts, and praise;
These solemn feasts propitious Phœbus please;
These honours, still renewed, his ancient wrath appease.”
“But say, illustrious guest,” adjoined the king,
“What name you bear, from what high race you spring?
The noble Tydeus stands confessed, and known
Our neighbour prince, and heir of Calydon.
Relate your fortunes, while the friendly night
And silent hours to various talk invite.”
The Theban bends on earth his gloomy eyes,
Confused, and sadly thus at length replies:
“Before these altars how shall I proclaim,
O gen’rous prince! my nation, or my name,
Or through what ancient veins our blood has rolled?
Let the sad tale for ever rest untold!
Yet if propitious to a wretch unknown,
You seek to share in sorrows not your own;
Know, then, from Cadmus I derive my race,
Jocasta’s son, and Thebes my native place.”
To whom the king (who felt his gen’rous breast
Touched with concern for his unhappy guest)
Replies: “Ah! why forbears the son to name
His wretched father, known too well by fame?
Fame, that delights around the world to stray,
Scorns not to take our Argos in her way.
Ev’n those who dwell where sans at distance roll,
In northern wilds, and freeze beneath the pole;
And those who tread the burning Lybian lands,
The faithless Syrtes and the moving sands;
‘Who view the western sea’s extremest bounds,
Or drink of Ganges in their eastern grounds;
All these the woes of Œdipus have known,
Your fates, your furies, and your haunted town.
If on the sons the parents’ crimes descend,
What prince from those his lineage can defend?
Be this thy comfort, that ’tis thine t’ efface,
With virtuous acts, thy ancestor’s disgrace,
And be thyself the honour of thy race.
But see! the stars begin to steal away,
And shine more faintly at approaching day;
Now pour the wine; and in your tuneful lays
Once more resound the great Apollo’s praise.”
“O father Phœbus ! whether Lycia’s coast
And snowy mountain, thy bright presence boast;
Whether to Sweet Castalia thou repair,
And bathe in silver dews thy yellow hair;
Or pleased to find fair Delos float no more,
Delight in Cynthus, and the shady shore;
Or choose thy seat in Ilion’s proud abodes,
The shining structures raised by lab’ring gods;
By thee the bow and mortal shafts are borne;
Eternal charms thy blooming youth adorn:
Skilled in the laws of secret fate above,
And the dark counsels of almighty Jove,
‘Tis thine the seeds of future war to know,
The change of sceptres, and impending woe,
When direful meteors spread, through glowing air,
Long trails of light, and shake their blazing hair.
Thy rage the Phrygian felt, who durst aspire
T’ excel the music of thy heav’nly lyre;
Thy shafts avenged lewd Tityus’ guilty flame,
Th’ immortal victim of thy mother’s fame;
Thy hand slew Python, and the dame who lost
Her num’rous offspring for a fatal boast.
In Phlegyas’ doom thy just revenge appears,
Condemned to furies and eternal fears;
He views his food, but dreads, with lifted eye,
The mould’ring rock that trembles from on high.
“Propitious hear our prayer, O pow’r divine !
And on thy hospitable Argos shine;
Whether the style of Titan please thee more,
Whose purple rays th’ Achæmenes adore;
Or great Osiris, who first taught the swain
In Pharian fields to sow the golden grain;
Or Mitra, to whose beams the Persian bows,
And pays, in hollow rocks, his awful vows;
Mitra, whose head the blaze of light adorns,
Who grasps the struggling heifer’s lunar horns.”