Thebais - Book One - Part I Poem by Pablius Papinius Statius

Thebais - Book One - Part I

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Fraternal rage, the guilty Thebes’ alarms,
Th’ alternate reign destroyed by impious arms,
Demand our song; a sacred fury fires
My ravished breast, and all the muse inspires.
O goddess, say, shall I deduce my rhymes
From the dire nation in its early times,
Europa’s rape, Agenor’s stern decree,
And Cadmus searching round the spacious sea?
How with the serpent’s teeth he sowed the soil,
And reaped an iron harvest of his toil?
Or how from joining stones the city sprung,
While to his harp divine Amphion sung?
Or shall I Juno’s hate to Thebes resound,
Whose fatal rage th’ unhappy monarch found?
The sire against the son his arrows drew,
O’er the wide fields the furious mother flew,
And while her arms a second hope contain,
Sprung from the rocks and plunged into the main.
But waive whate’er to Cadmus may belong,
And fix, O muse ! the barrier of thy song
At Œdipus: from his disasters trace
The long confusions of his guilty race:
Nor yet attempt to stretch thy bolder wing,
And mighty Cæsar’s conqu’ring eagles sing;
How twice he tamed proud Ister’s rapid flood,
While Dacian mountains streamed with barb’rous blood;
Twice taught the Rhine beneath his laws to roll,
And stretched his empire to the frozen pole;
Or long before, with early valour, strove,
In youthful arms, t’ assert the cause of Jove.’
And thou, great heir of all thy father’s fame,
Increase of glory to the Latian name,
Oh ! bless thy Rome with an eternal reign,
Nor let desiring worlds entreat in vain.
What though the stars contract their heav’nly space,
And crowd their shining ranks to yield thee place;
Though all the skies, ambitious of thy sway,
Conspire to court thee from our world away;
Though Phœbus longs to mix his rays with thine,
And in thy glories more serenely shine;
Though Jove himself no less content would be
To part his throne and share his heaven with thee
Yet stay, great Cæsar ! and vouchsafe to reign
O’er the wide earth, and o’er the wat’ry main,
Resign to Jove his empire of the skies,
And people heav’n with Roman deities.
The time will come, when a diviner flame
Shall warm my breast to sing of Cæsar’s fame:
Meanwhile permit, that my preluding muse
In Theban wars an humbler theme may chuse:
Of furious hate surviving death, she sings,
A fatal throne to two contending kings,
And fun’ral flames that, parting wide in air,
Express the discord of the souls they bear :
Of towns dispeopled, and the wand’ring ghosts
Of kings unburied in the wasted coasts;
When Dirce’s fountain blushed with Grecian blood,
And Thetis, near Ismenos’ swelling flood,
With dread beheld the rolling surges sweep,
In heaps, his slaughtered sons into the deep.
What hero, Clie ! wilt thou first relate?
The rage of Tydeus, or the prophet’s fate?
Or how, with hills of slain on ev’ry side,
Hippomedon repelled the hostile tide
Or how the youth with ev’ry grace adorned
Untimely fell, to be for ever mourned?
Then to fierce Capaneus thy verse extend,
And sing with horror his prodigious end.
Now wretched Œdipus, deprived of sight,
Led a long death in everlasting night;
But while he dwells where not a cheerful ray
Can pierce the darkness, and abhors the day,
The clear reflecting mind presents his sin
In frightful views, and makes it day within;
Returning thoughts in endless circles roll,
And thousand furies haunt his guilty soul:
The wretch then lifted to th’ unpitying skies
Those empty orbs from whence he tore his eyes,
Whose wounds, yet fresh, with bloody hands he strook,
‘While from his breast these dreadful accents broke.
“Ye gods ! that o’er the gloomy regions reign,
Where guilty spirits feel eternal pain;
Thou, sable Styx ! whose livid streams are rolled
Through dreary coasts, which I though blind behold:
Tisiphone, that oft hast heard my pray’r,
Assist, if Œdipus deserve thy care !
If you received me from Jocasta’s womb,
And nursed the hope of mischiefs yet to come:
If leaving Polybus, I took my way,
To Cirrha’s temple on that fatal day,
When by the son the trembling father died,
Where the three roads the Phocian fields divide:
If I the Sphinx’s riddles durst explain,
Taught by thyself to win the promised reign:
If wretched I, by baleful furies led,
With monstrous mixture stained my mother’s bed,
For hell and thee begot an impious brood,
And with full lust those horrid joys renewed;
Then se1f-condemned to shades of endless night,
Forced from these orbs the bleeding balls of sight:
If worthy thee, and what thou mightst inspire.
Oh hear ! and aid the vengeance I require,
My sons their old, unhappy sire despise,
Spoiled of his kingdom, and deprived of eyes;
Guideless I wander, unregarded mourn,
Whilst these exalt their sceptres o’er my urn;
These sons, ye gods ! who with flagitious pride
Insult my darkness, and my groans deride.
Art thou a father, unregarding Jove !
And sleeps thy thunder in the realms above?
Thou fury, then some lasting curse entail,
Which o’er their children’s children shall prevail :
Place on their heads that crown distained with gore,
Which these dire hands from my slain father tore;
Go ! and a parent’s heavy curses bear;
Break all the bonds of nature, and. prepare
Their kindred souls to mutual hate and war.
Give them to dare, what I might wish to see
Blind as I am, some glorious villainy !
Soon shalt thou find, if thou but arm their hands,
Their ready guilt preventing thy commands:
Couldst thou some great, proportioned mischief frame,
They’d prove the father from whose loins they came.”
The fury heard, while on Cocytus’ brink
Her snakes untied, sulphureous waters drink;
But at the summons rolled her eyes around,
And snatched the starting serpents from the ground.
Not half so swiftly shoots along in air
The gliding lightning, or descending star.
Through crowds of airy shades she winged her flight,
And dark dominions of the silent night;
Swift as she passed the flitting ghosts withdrew,
And the pale spectres trembled at her view:
To th’ iron gates of Tænarus she flies,
There spreads her dusky pinions to the skies.
The day beheld, and sick’ning at the sight,
Yelled her fair glories in the shades of night.
Affrighted Atlas, on the distant shore,
Trembled, and shook the heav’ns and gods he bore.
Now from beneath Malea’s airy height
Aloft she sprung, and steered to Thebes her flight;
With eager speed the well-known journey took,
Nor here regrets the hell she late forsook.
A hundred snakes her gloomy visage shade,
A hundred serpents guard her horrid head,
In her sunk eye-balls dreadful meteors glow:’
Such rays from Phœbe’s bloody circle flow,
When lab’ring with strong charms, she shoots from high
A fiery gleam, and reddens all the sky.
Blood stained her cheeks, and from her mouth there came tie
Blue steaming poisons, and a length of flame:
From ev’ry blast of her contagious breath
Famine and drought proceed, and plagues, and death.

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