Suppliants of all ages are seated round the altar at the palace doors, at their head a PRIEST OF ZEUS. To them enter OEDIPUS.
OEDIPUS My children, latest born to Cadmus old, Why sit ye here as suppliants, in your hands Branches of olive filleted with wool? What means this reek of incense everywhere, And everywhere laments and litanies? Children, it were not meet that I should learn From others, and am hither come, myself, I Oedipus, your world-renowned king. Ho! aged sire, whose venerable locks Proclaim thee spokesman of this company, Explain your mood and purport. Is it dread Of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave? My zeal in your behalf ye cannot doubt; Ruthless indeed were I and obdurate If such petitioners as you I spurned.
PRIEST Yea, Oedipus, my sovereign lord and king, Thou seest how both extremes of age besiege Thy palace altars--fledglings hardly winged, and greybeards bowed with years; priests, as am I of Zeus, and these the flower of our youth. Meanwhile, the common folk, with wreathed boughs Crowd our two market-places, or before Both shrines of Pallas congregate, or where Ismenus gives his oracles by fire. For, as thou seest thyself, our ship of State, Sore buffeted, can no more lift her head, Foundered beneath a weltering surge of blood. A blight is on our harvest in the ear, A blight upon the grazing flocks and herds, A blight on wives in travail; and withal Armed with his blazing torch the God of Plague Hath swooped upon our city emptying The house of Cadmus, and the murky realm Of Pluto is full fed with groans and tears. Therefore, O King, here at thy hearth we sit, I and these children; not as deeming thee A new divinity, but the first of men; First in the common accidents of life, And first in visitations of the Gods. Art thou not he who coming to the town of Cadmus freed us from the tax we paid To the fell songstress? Nor hadst thou received Prompting from us or been by others schooled; No, by a god inspired (so all men deem, And testify) didst thou renew our life. And now, O Oedipus, our peerless king, All we thy votaries beseech thee, find Some succor, whether by a voice from heaven Whispered, or haply known by human wit. Tried counselors, methinks, are aptest found 1 To furnish for the future pregnant rede. Upraise, O chief of men, upraise our State! Look to thy laurels! for thy zeal of yore Our country's savior thou art justly hailed: O never may we thus record thy reign:-- "He raised us up only to cast us down." Uplift us, build our city on a rock. Thy happy star ascendant brought us luck, O let it not decline! If thou wouldst rule This land, as now thou reignest, better sure To rule a peopled than a desert realm. Nor battlements nor galleys aught avail, If men to man and guards to guard them tail.
OEDIPUS Ah! my poor children, known, ah, known too well, The quest that brings you hither and your need. Ye sicken all, well wot I, yet my pain, How great soever yours, outtops it all. Your sorrow touches each man severally, Him and none other, but I grieve at once Both for the general and myself and you. Therefore ye rouse no sluggard from day-dreams. Many, my children, are the tears I've wept, And threaded many a maze of weary thought. Thus pondering one clue of hope I caught, And tracked it up; I have sent Menoeceus' son, Creon, my consort's brother, to inquire Of Pythian Phoebus at his Delphic shrine, How I might save the State by act or word. And now I reckon up the tale of days Since he set forth, and marvel how he fares. 'Tis strange, this endless tarrying, passing strange. But when he comes, then I were base indeed, If I perform not all the god declares.
PRIEST Thy words are well timed; even as thou speakest That shouting tells me Creon is at hand.
OEDIPUS O King Apollo! may his joyous looks Be presage of the joyous news he brings!
PRIEST As I surmise, 'tis welcome; else his head Had scarce been crowned with berry-laden bays.
OEDIPUS We soon shall know; he's now in earshot range. [Enter CREON] My royal cousin, say, Menoeceus' child, What message hast thou brought us from the god?
CREON Good news, for e'en intolerable ills, Finding right issue, tend to naught but good.
OEDIPUS How runs the oracle? thus far thy words Give me no ground for confidence or fear.
CREON If thou wouldst hear my message publicly, I'll tell thee straight, or with thee pass within.
OEDIPUS Speak before all; the burden that I bear Is more for these my subjects than myself.
CREON Let me report then all the god declared. King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate A fell pollution that infests the land, And no more harbor an inveterate sore.
OEDIPUS What expiation means he? What's amiss?
CREON Banishment, or the shedding blood for blood. This stain of blood makes shipwreck of our state.
OEDIPUS Whom can he mean, the miscreant thus denounced?
CREON Before thou didst assume the helm of State, The sovereign of this land was Laius.
OEDIPUS I heard as much, but never saw the man.
CREON He fell; and now the god's command is plain: Punish his takers-off, whoe'er they be.
OEDIPUS Where are they? Where in the wide world to find The far, faint traces of a bygone crime?
CREON In this land, said the god; "who seeks shall find; Who sits with folded hands or sleeps is blind."
OEDIPUS Was he within his palace, or afield, Or traveling, when Laius met his fate?
CREON Abroad; he started, so he told us, bound For Delphi, but he never thence returned.
OEDIPUS Came there no news, no fellow-traveler To give some clue that might be followed up?
CREON But one escape, who flying for dear life, Could tell of all he saw but one thing sure.
OEDIPUS And what was that? One clue might lead us far, With but a spark of hope to guide our quest.
CREON Robbers, he told us, not one bandit but A troop of knaves, attacked and murdered him.
OEDIPUS Did any bandit dare so bold a stroke, Unless indeed he were suborned from Thebes?
CREON So 'twas surmised, but none was found to avenge His murder mid the trouble that ensued.
OEDIPUS What trouble can have hindered a full quest, When royalty had fallen thus miserably?
CREON The riddling Sphinx compelled us to let slide The dim past and attend to instant needs.
OEDIPUS Well, I will start afresh and once again Make dark things clear. Right worthy the concern Of Phoebus, worthy thine too, for the dead; I also, as is meet, will lend my aid To avenge this wrong to Thebes and to the god. Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself, Shall I expel this poison in the blood; For whoso slew that king might have a mind To strike me too with his assassin hand. Therefore in righting him I serve myself. Up, children, haste ye, quit these altar stairs, Take hence your suppliant wands, go summon hither The Theban commons. With the god's good help Success is sure; 'tis ruin if we fail. [Exeunt OEDIPUS and CREON]
PRIEST Come, children, let us hence; these gracious words Forestall the very purpose of our suit. And may the god who sent this oracle Save us withal and rid us of this pest. [Exeunt PRIEST and SUPPLIANTS]
CHORUS (Str. 1) Sweet-voiced daughter of Zeus from thy gold-paved Pythian shrine Wafted to Thebes divine, What dost thou bring me? My soul is racked and shivers with fear. (Healer of Delos, hear!) Hast thou some pain unknown before, Or with the circling years renewest a penance of yore? Offspring of golden Hope, thou voice immortal, O tell me.
(Ant. 1) First on Athene I call; O Zeus-born goddess, defend! Goddess and sister, befriend, Artemis, Lady of Thebes, high-throned in the midst of our mart! Lord of the death-winged dart! Your threefold aid I crave From death and ruin our city to save. If in the days of old when we nigh had perished, ye drave From our land the fiery plague, be near us now and defend us!
(Str. 2) Ah me, what countless woes are mine! All our host is in decline; Weaponless my spirit lies. Earth her gracious fruits denies; Women wail in barren throes; Life on life downstriken goes, Swifter than the wind bird's flight, Swifter than the Fire-God's might, To the westering shores of Night.
(Ant. 2) Wasted thus by death on death All our city perisheth. Corpses spread infection round; None to tend or mourn is found. Wailing on the altar stair Wives and grandams rend the air-- Long-drawn moans and piercing cries Blent with prayers and litanies. Golden child of Zeus, O hear Let thine angel face appear!
(Str. 3) And grant that Ares whose hot breath I feel, Though without targe or steel He stalks, whose voice is as the battle shout, May turn in sudden rout, To the unharbored Thracian waters sped, Or Amphitrite's bed. For what night leaves undone, Smit by the morrow's sun Perisheth. Father Zeus, whose hand Doth wield the lightning brand, Slay him beneath thy levin bold, we pray, Slay him, O slay!
(Ant. 3) O that thine arrows too, Lycean King, From that taut bow's gold string, Might fly abroad, the champions of our rights; Yea, and the flashing lights Of Artemis, wherewith the huntress sweeps Across the Lycian steeps. Thee too I call with golden-snooded hair, Whose name our land doth bear, Bacchus to whom thy Maenads Evoe shout; Come with thy bright torch, rout, Blithe god whom we adore, The god whom gods abhor.