Orestes

A poem by Stephen Phillips

Me in far lands did Justice call, cold queen
Among the dead, who after heat and haste
At length have leisure for her steadfast voice,
That gathers peace from the great deeps of hell.
She call'd me, saying: 'I heard a cry by night!
Go thou, and question not; within thy halls
My will awaits fulfilment. Lo, the dead
Cries out before me in the under-world.
Seek not to justify thyself: in me
Be strong, and I will show thee wise in time;
For, though my face be dark, yet unto those
Who truly follow me through storm or shine,
For these the veil shall fall, and they shall see
They walked with Wisdom, though they knew her not.'
So sped I home; and from the under-world
Forever came a wind that fill'd my sails,
Cold, like a spirit! and ever her still voice
Spoke over shoreless seas and fathomless deeps,
And in great calms, as from a colder world;
Nor slack'd I sail by day, nor yet when night
Fell on my running keel, and now would burn,
With all her eyes, my errand into me.
So sped I on, fill'd with a voice divine:
And hardly wist I whom I was to slay,
My mother! but a vague, heroic dream
Possess'd me; fired to do the will of gods,
I lost the man in minister of Heaven;
Nor took I note of sandbank, nor of storm,
Nor of the ocean's thunders, when the shores
All round had faded, leaving me alone:
I knew I could not die, till I had slain!
But, when I came once more upon the land
That rear'd me, all the sweetness of old days
Came back on me: I stood, as from a dream
Waked to a sudden, sad reality.
And when, far off, I saw those ancient towers,
The palaces and places of my youth,
I long'd to fall into my mother's arms,
And tell a thousand tales of near escapes.
And lo! the nurse, that fondled me of yore,
Fell with glad tears upon my neck, and told
How she, and how my mother, all this while
Had dream'd of all I was to do, and said
How dear I should be to my mother's eyes.
Her words shook me, but shook not my resolve.
For even then there came that sterner voice,
Echoing to what was highest in the soul.
Then, like to those who have a work on earth,
And put far from them lips of wife or child,
And gird them to the accomplishment; so I
Strode in, nor saw at all mine ancient halls;
And struck my father's murderess, not my mother.
And, when I had smitten, lo, the strength of gods
Pass'd from me, and the old, familiar halls
Reel'd back on me; dim statues, that of old
Holding my mother's hand I marvell'd at,
And questioned her of each. And she lies there,
My mother! ay, my mother now; O hair
That once I play'd with in these halls! O eyes
That for a moment knew me as I came,
And lighten'd up, and trembled into love;
The next were darkened by my hand! Ah me!
Ye will not look upon me in that world.
Yet thou, perchance, art happier, if thou go'st
Into some land of wind and drifting leaves,
To sleep without a star; but as for me,
Hell hungers, and the restless Furies wait.
Then the dark Curse, that sits upon the towers,
Bow'd down her awful head, thus satisfied,
And I fled forth, a murderer, through the world.

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