Friday, February 18, 2005


Oedipus at Colonus

Apollodorus, Library 3.5.8-9 (tr. James G. Frazer):
Oedipus both succeeded to the kingdom [Thebes] and unwittingly married his mother [Jocasta], and begat sons by her, Polynices and Eteocles, and daughters, Ismene and Antigone .... When the secret afterwards came to light, Jocasta hanged herself in a noose, and Oedipus was driven from Thebes, after he had put out his eyes and cursed his sons, who saw him cast out of the city without lifting a hand to help him. And having come with Antigone to Colonus in Attica, where is the precinct of the Eumenides, he sat down there as a suppliant, was kindly received by Theseus, and died not long afterwards.
Henry Alford (1810–1871) wrote a sonnet about Oedipus at Colonus:
Colonos! can it be that thou hast still
Thy laurel and thine olives and thy vine?
Do thy close-feather'd nightingales yet trill
Their warbles of thick-sobbing song divine?
Does the gold sheen of the crocus o'er thee shine
And dew-fed clusters of the daffodil,
And round thy flowery knots Cephisus twine,
Aye oozing up with many a bubbling rill?
Oh, might I stand beside thy leafy knoll,
In sight of the far-off city-towers, and see
The faithful-hearted pure Antigone
Toward the dread precinct, leading sad and slow
That awful temple of a kingly soul,
Lifted to heaven by unexampled woe!
Sophocles was a native of the deme Colonus, and in a chorus of his play Oedipus at Colonus, he described the place with obvious affection. Many of the details in Alford's poem (olive trees, nightingale, crocus, river Cephisus, etc.) come from this chorus (lines 668-706, tr. Richard C. Jebb):
Stranger, in this land of goodly steeds thou hast come to earth's fairest home, even to our white Colonus; where the nightingale, constant guest, trills her clear note in the covert of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the god's inviolate bowers, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by wind of any storm; where the reveller Dionysus ever walks the ground, companion of the nymphs that nursed him.

And, fed of heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms morn by morn with fair clusters, crown of the Great Goddesses from of yore; and the crocus blooms with golden beam. Nor fail the sleepless founts whence the waters of Cephisus wander, but each day with stainless tide he moveth over the plains of the land's swelling bosom, for the giving of quick increase; nor hath the Muses' quire abhorred this place, nor Aphrodite of the golden rein.

And a thing there is such as I know not by fame on Asian ground, or as ever born in the great Dorian isle of Pelops, -- a growth unconquered, self-renewing, a terror to the spears of the foemen, a growth which mightily flourishes in this land, -- the grey-leafed olive, nurturer of children. Youth shall not mar it by the ravage of his hand, nor any who dwells with old age; for the sleepless eye of the Morian Zeus beholds it, and the grey-eyed Athena.

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