Augusta Webster: “Medea in Athens”.
Dead is he? Yes, our stranger guest said dead —
said it by noonday, when it seemed a thing
most natural and so indifferent
as if the tale ran that a while ago
there died a man I talked with a chance hour
when he by chance was near me. If I spoke
“Good news for us but ill news for the dead
when the gods sweep a villain down to them,”
’twas the prompt trick of words, like a pat phrase
from some one other’s song, found on the lips
and used because ’tis there: for through all day
the news seemed neither good nor ill to me.
And now, when day with all its useless talk
and useless smiles and idiots’ prying eyes
that impotently peer into one’s life,
when day with all its seemly lying shows
has gone its way and left pleased fools to sleep,
while weary mummers, taking off the mask,
discern that face themselves forgot anon
and, sitting in the lap of sheltering night,
learn their own secrets from her — even now
does it seem either good or ill to me?
No, but mere strange.
And this most strange of all
that I care nothing.
Nay, how wild thought grows.
Meseems one came and told of Jason’s death:
but ’twas a dream. Else should I, wondering thus,
reck not of him, nor with the virulent hate
that should be mine against mine enemy,
nor with that weakness which sometimes I feared
should this day make me, not remembering Glaucè,
envy him to death as though he had died mine?
Can he be dead? It were so strange a world
with him not in it.
Dimly I recall
some prophecy a god breathed by my mouth.
It could not err. What was it? For I think; —
it told his death¹.
Has a god come to me?
Is it thou, my Hecate? How know I all?
For I know all as if from long ago:
and I know all beholding instantly.
Is not that he, arisen through the mists? —
a lean and haggard man, rough round the eyes,
dull and with no scorn left upon his lip,
decayed out of his goodliness and strength;
a wanned and broken image of a god;
dim counterfeit of Jason, heavily
wearing the name of him and memories.
And lo, he rests with lax and careless limbs
on the loose sandbed wind-heaped round his ship
that rots in sloth like him, and props his head
on a half-buried fallen spar. The sea,
climbing the beach towards him, seethes and frets,
and on the verge two sunned and shadowed clouds
take shapes of notched rock-islands; and his thoughts
drift languid to the steep Symplegades
and the sound of waters crashing at their base.
Su d, wsper eikos, katqanei kakos kakws, Argous kara son leiyanw peplhgmenos. EUR. Med. 1386, 7.
And now he speaks out to his loneliness
“I was afraid and careful, but she laughed:
‘Love steers’ she said: and when the rocks were far,
grey twinkling spots in distance, suddenly
her face grew white, and, looking back to them,
she said, ‘Oh love, a god has whispered me
‘twere well had we died there, for strange mad woes
are waiting for us in your Greece’: and then
she tossed her head back, while her brown hair streamed
gold in the wind and sun, and her face glowed
with daring beauty, ‘What of woes’, she cried,
‘if only they leave time for love enough?’
But what a fire and flush! It took one’s breath!”
And then he lay half musing, half adoze,
shadows of me went misty through his sight.
And bye and bye he roused and cried “Oh dolt!
Glaucè was never half so beautiful.”
Then under part-closed lids remembering her,
“Poor Glaucè, a sweet face, and yet methinks
she might have wearied me:” and suddenly,
smiting the sand awhirl with his angry hand,
scorned at himself “What god befooled my wits
to dream my fancy for her yellow curls
and milk-white softness subtle policy?
Wealth and a royal bride: but what beyond?
Medea, with her skills, her presciences,
man’s wisdom, woman’s craft, her rage of love
that gave her to serve me strength next divine,
Medea would have made me what I would;
Glaucè but what she could. I schemed amiss
and earned the curses the gods send on fools.
Ruined, ruined! A laughing stock to foes!
No man so mean but he may pity me;
no man so wretched but will keep aloof
lest the curse upon me make him wretcheder.
And lo I see him hide his face
like a man who’ll weep with passion: but to him
the passion comes not, only slow few tears
of one too weary. And from the great field
where the boys race he hears their jubilant shout
hum through the distance, and he sighs “Ah me!
she might have spared the children, left me them: —
no sons, no sons to stand about me now
and prosper me, and tend me bye and bye
in faltering age, and keep my name on earth
when I shall be departed out of sight.”
And the shout hummed louder forth: and whirring past
a screaming sea-bird flapped out to the bay,
and listlessly he watched it dip and rise
till it skimmed out of sight, so small a speck
as a mayfly on the brook; and then he said
“Fly forth, fly forth, bird, fly to fierce Medea
where by great Ægeus she sits queening it,
belike a joyful mother of new sons;
tell her she never loved me as she talked,
else had no wrong at my hand shewn so great:
tell her that she breaks oaths more than I broke,
even so much as she seemed to love most —
she who fits fondling in a husband’s arms
while I am desolate.” And again he said
“My house is perished with me — ruined, ruined!”
At that he rose and, muttering in his teeth
still “ruined, ruined,” slowly paced the sands:
then stood and, gazing on the ragged hulk,
cried “Oh loathed tool of fiends, that, through all storms
and sundering waters, borest me to Medea,
rot, rot, accursed thing,” and petulant
pashed at the side —
Lo, lo! I see it part!
a tottering spar — it parts, it falls, it strikes!
He is prone on the sand, the blood wells from his brow,
he moans, he speaks, “Medea’s prophecy.”
See he has fainted.
Hush, hush! he has lain
with death and silence long: now he wakes up —
“Where is Medea? Let her bind my head.”
Hush, hush! A sigh — a breath — He is dead.
* * * * * *
What, is it thou? What, thou, this whimpering fool,
this kind meek coward! Sick for pity art thou?
Or did the vision scare thee? Out on me!
do I drivel like a slight disconsolate girl
wailing her love?
No, not one foolish tear
that shamed my cheek welled up for any grief
at his so pitiful lone end. The touch
of ancient memories and the woman’s trick
of easy weeping took me unawares:
but grief! Why should I grieve?
And yet for this,
that he is dead. He should still pine and dwine,
hungry for his old lost strong food of life
vanished with me, hungry for children’s love,
hungry for me. Ever to think of me —
with love, with hate, what care I? hate is love —
Ever to think and long. Oh it was well!
Yea, my new marriage hope has been achieved:
for he did count me happy, picture me
happy with Ægeus; he did dream of me
as all to Ægeus that I was to him,
and to him nothing; and did yearn for me
and know me lost — we two so far apart
as dead and living, I an envied wife
and he alone and childless. Jason, Jason,
come back to earth; live, live for my revenge.
But lo the man is dead: I am forgotten.
Forgotten; something goes from life in that —
as if oneself had died, when the half self
of one’s true living time has slipped away
from reach of memories, has ceased to know
that such a woman is.
A wondrous thing
to be so separate having been so near —
near by hate last and once by so strong love.
Would love have kept us near if he had died
in the good days? Tush, I should have died too:
we should have gone together, hand in hand,
and made dusk Hades glorious each to each.
Ah me, if then when through the fitful seas
we saw the great rocks glimmer, and the crew
howled “We are lost! lo the Symplegades!”
too late to shun them, if but then some wave,
our secret friend, had dashed us from our course,
sending us to be shivered at the base,
well, well indeed! And yet what say I there?
Ten years together were they not worth cost
of all the anguish? Oh me, how I loved him!
Why did I not die loving him?
* * * * * *
Have the dead no room, or do they drive thee forth
loathing thee near them? Dost thou threaten me?
Why, so I saw thee last, and was not scared:
think not to scare me now; I am no babe
to shiver at an unavailing shade.
Go, go, thou canst not curse me, none will hear:
the gods remember justice. Wrongs! thy wrongs!
the vengeance, ghost! What hast thou to avenge
as I have? Lo, thy meek-eyed Glaucè died,
and thy king-kinsman Creon died: but I,
I live what thou hast made me.
Oh smooth adder,
who with fanged kisses changedst my natural blood
to venom in me, say, didst thou not find me
a grave and simple girl in a still home,
learning my spells for pleasant services
or to make sick beds easier? With me went
the sweet sound of friends’ voices praising me:
all faces smiled on me, even lifeless things
seemed glad because of me; and I could smile
to every face, to everything, to trees,
to skies and waters, to the passing herds,
to the small thievish sparrows, to the grass
with sunshine through it, to the weed’s bold flowers:
for all things glad and harmless seemed my kin,
and all seemed glad and harmless in the world.
Thou cam’st, and from the day thou, finding me
in Hecate’s dim grove to cull my herbs,
didst burn my cheeks with kisses hot and strange,
the curse of thee compelled me. Lo I am
The wretch thou say’st; but wherefore? by whose work?
Who, binding me with dreadful marriage oaths
in the midnight temple, led my treacherous flight
from home and father? Whose voice when I turned,
desperate to save thee, on my own young brother,
my so loved brother, whose voice as I smote
nerved me, cried “Brave Medea”? For whose ends
did I decoy the credulous girls, poor fools,
to slay their father? When have I been base,
when cruel, save for thee, until — Man, man,
wilt thou accuse my guilt? Whose is my guilt?
mine or thine, Jason? Oh, soul of my crimes,
how shall I pardon thee for what I am?
Never. And if, with the poor womanish heart
that for the loving’s sake will still love on,
I could let such a past wane as a dream
and turn to thee at waking — turn to thee!
I, put aside like some slight purchased slave
who pleased thee and then tired, still turn to thee! —
yet never, not if thou and I could live
thousands of years and all thy years were pain
and all my years were to behold thy pain,
never could I forgive thee for my boys;
never could I look on this hand of mine
that slew them and not hate thee. Childless thou,
what is thy childlessness to mine? Go, go,
thou foolish angry ghost, what wrongs hast thou?
would I could wrong thee more. Come thou sometimes
and see me happy.
Dost thou mock at me
with thy cold smiling? Aye, can I not love?
What then? am I not folded round with love,
with a life’s whole of love? There doth no thought
come near to Ægeus save what is of me:
am I no happy wife? And I go proud,
and treasure him for noblest of the world:
am I no happy wife?
Dost mock me still?
My children is it? Are the dead so wise?
Why, who told thee my transport of despair
when from the Sun who willed me not to die
nor creep away, sudden and too late came
the winged swift car that could have saved them, mine,
from thee and from their foes? Tush, ’twas best so;
If they had lived, sometimes thou hadst had hope:
for thou wouldst still have said “I have two sons,”
and dreamed perchance they’d bring thee use at last
and build thy greatness higher: but now, now,
thou hast died shamed and childless, none to keep
thy name and memory fresh upon the earth,
none to make boast of thee “My father did it.”
Yea, ’twas best so: my sons, we are avenged.
Thou, mock me not. What if I have ill dreams
to see them loathe me, fly from me in dread,
when I would feed my hungry mouth with kisses?
what if I moan in tossing fever thirsts,
crying for them whom I shall have no more,
here nor among the dead, who never more,
here nor among the dead, will smile to me
with young lips prattling “Mother, mother dear”?
what if I turn sick when the women pass
that lead their boys, and hate a child’s young face?
what if —
Go, go, thou mind’st me of my sons,
and then I hate thee worse; go to thy grave
by which none weeps. I have forgotten thee.
The poem is from the poet’s 1879 collection, Portraits.