The messenger’s speech

When your two boys and husband had appeared

At the bride’s house and entered, those of us who

Had suffered from your griefs were greatly cheered:

From ear to ear, the welcome news that you

Had settled amicably with your spouse

Went buzzing through the servants of the house.

One kissed the children’s hands in his elation,

Another, their golden curls. I shared in their joys

And followed the swelling throng in celebration

Into the women’s quarters with your boys.

          The mistress we now honor in your place

Wasn’t aware your sons were there at first—

Her gaze was fixed on her new husband’s face,

And the boys’ approach took her by surprise.

Soon as she noticed them, she veiled her eyes

And turned away her pale cheek in disgust.

          Your husband, though, attempted to assuage

Her anger, telling her, “You mustn’t be

An enemy of those who are dear to me;

Turn back to us again, without your rage,

Let those I call my friends be yours as well;

They bring you gifts, which I would have you take—

Then plead with Creon so he won’t expel

The children from this land—for your husband’s sake!”

          As soon as she had seen the elegant

Finery they offered, all resistance

Collapsed, and she gave Jason her consent.

He and the boys had traveled no great distance

From the bride’s house, when she put on the gown,

And on her golden curls set the gold crown,

As pleased as any girl by a new bonnet.

She held a mirror up before her hair,

Smiled at the lifeless image glimpsed within it,

Then lifted herself lightly from her chair

And elegantly danced about her suite,

Rapt in her gifts, admiring them

And how they suited her: her pale white feet

Capering as she checked her swirling hem.

          Then came a truly horrifying sight:

Her color changed, she staggered left and right

Stumbling until she found her seat once more,

Managing, barely, to avoid the floor!

One of her slaves, perhaps in the belief

That she had either been possessed by Pan

Or by another god, raised a festive cry—

Until she saw the white foam on her lips,

And the tormented madness in her eye,

Her bloodless skin—the hymn that she began

Trailed off and turned into a wail of grief.

          At once a servant ran to find her father

Back in his chambers, as yet unaware

Of what had just been happening—another

Went searching for the husband, now outside,

To tell him what had happened to his bride;

Others were running madly everywhere.

          In the time in which a rapid sprinter runs

The second leg of a two hundred yard dash,

The princess became conscious once again.

Her eyes sprang open and she groaned in pain,

For grief assailed her from two sources now,

As suddenly a dreadful stream of flame

Erupted from the garland on her brow,

While the woven robe, the gift of your two sons,

Was eating through the wretched woman’s flesh.

           Then leaping from her chair, she fled, on fire,

Tossing her hair now one way, now another,

Trying to shake the garland from her head,

But the golden band shook off her instead,

And her exertions made the flames leap higher!

Disaster claimed her. She crumpled to the floor,

Unrecognizable but to a father:

Her eyes no longer lovely, as before,

That face of hers no longer beautiful.

Fiery blood dripped from her ruined crown,

And from her white bones the scorched flesh fell

Like resin from a pine torch dripping down

All burned off by the poisons you’d employed.

No one could bear to see the girl destroyed,

Yet none was brave enough to intervene,

So well had we all learned from what we’d seen.

           But when her father, who had not yet heard

Of the calamity that had occurred,

Came in and stumbled on her without warning,

He clasped her body in a last embrace,

And as he kissed her desolated face,

Maddened by grief, cried out these words of mourning:

“O my unlucky darling, my poor dear,

Which of the gods has treated you this way,

Has shamed you like this on your wedding day?

I am bereft, a walking sepulcher!

O daughter, daughter, let me die with you!”

But when his lamentation had at last

Ended and the king attempted to

Lift his aged body to his feet once more,

He found himself stuck to the gown, held fast

By the subtle stuff that drew him toward the floor,

Clinging to him as ivy clings to bay.

He struggled, but he couldn’t get away:

She held him and prevented him from rising,

And if he struggled with her, it would flense

The ancient flesh from his unyielding bones.

That was enough. Enough to say that he

Died, overwhelmed by his catastrophe.

Who would not weep? They lie there side by side

In death, an agèd father, a young bride.

          I will say nothing of your likely fate,

But soon enough, you’ll get your recompense.

I’ve often thought that life is just a show

Of shadows, and I wouldn’t hesitate

To say that those most sure of what they know,

Whose polished speeches reek of confidence,

Are the more fools to think themselves clever!0

          Turns from Medea to address the audience directly:

No mortal may attain to a blessèd state:

If wealth pours in, you’re truly fortunate,

You’re lucky in your life. But blessèd? Never.

                             Exit Messenger from stage right.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 3, on page 26
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