Briseis to Achilles
THE letter which you now read in broken Greek, written by a foreign hand, comes from captive Briseis. Whatever blots you observe, were occasioned by my tears; but even tears are often more prevalent than words. If it may be allowed to complain a little of my lord and husband, I have a few causes of complaint against you, who are both. I do not blame you that I was so tamely delivered up to the king when demanded; and yet, even in that point, you are not altogether without blame: for no sooner was I demanded by Eurybates and Talthybius, than I was delivered up to be carried away by those military
heralds. each regarding the other with a look of surprise, inquired in whispers, Where is their so famed love?
I might have been detained somewhat longer; delay of miscry would have been grateful. Alas! when torn from you, I gave no parting kisses: but my tears flowed without ceasing; I tore my hair, and hapless seemed to myself, for the second time, a captive. I have often thought to deceive my keeper and escape, but trembled at the apprehension of falling into the hands of the enemy. I dreaded that, upon leaving the Grecian camp, I might again perhaps become a captive, and presented to some of the daughters-in-law of Priam. But I was delivered up, because so it must be. Though absent many nights, I am not demanded back. You linger, and are slow of resenting. Patroclus himself, when I was carried away, whispered in my ear, Why do you weep? your stay
with Agamemnon will be very short.
But your neglect of requiring me again from the hing
is the least part of your crime; you even strive against my return. Weight now with yourself what right you have to the name of a lover. The sons of Telamon and Amyntor came ambassadors from Agamemnon;
the first related to you by blood, the other your friend and
guardian: the son also of Laertes came;
by whom I might have returned attended. Softening entreaties were added to their costly presents,----twenty shining vessels curiously wrought in Corinthian
brass, and seven tripods, alike in weight and workmanship. To these were added twice five talents of gold, and twelve spirited steeds. matchless in the race; and (what might have well been spared) Lesbian girls of exquisite beauty, captives of that pillaged island. With these (but what need of this?) you had the choice of one of Agamemnon's three daughters for a wife. You refused to accept me with
gifts, which, had Agamemnon consented to my ransom, you ought with joy to have carried to him. What have I done thus to merit your neglect, Achilles? Whither has your changeable love so soon fled? Does cruel fortune incessantly pursue the wretched? Shall no propitious gales favour my chaste hopes?
I saw the walls of Lyrnessus give way to your irresistible attack; nor was I an inconsiderable part of my native country. I saw three fall, brethren in blood as well as fate; who all sprang from the same mother. I saw my husband too stretched upon the bloody plain, and tossing with anguish his breast drenched in gore. Yet all these losses were recompensed in you alone; you were to me instead of a husband, a lord, a brother. You swore to me by the sacred deity of your sea-green mother, that it should be my happiness to have fallen a captive into your hands: for instance; to refuse me though offered to you with a large dowry, and reject the riches which you are urged to accept with me! It is even reported, that when returning Aurora gilds the mountains, you will open your flaxen sails to the cloud-bearing south winds. Soon as this cruel resolve reached my trembling ears, the blood forsook my breast; I was without life or soul. You will then abandon me! O barbarous man, what misery are you preparing for hapless Briseis! What solace can I expect in my forlorn state? Sooner may the gaping earth swallow me up, or the missile bolts of Jove overwhelm me, than I, abandoned, be doomed to behold the sea foaming after your Thessalian oars, and your ships deserting my distracted view. If you are determined to return, and visit again your native fields, I can be no very cumbersome load to your fleet. I submit to follow you as a captive subject to her conqueror, not as a spouse accompanying her husband. My hand will not disdain the meanest office. May the fairest of the Grecian dames become the happy partner of your bed, one worthy of such a father-in-law as the grandson of Jupiter and Ægina, to whom old Nereus will not disdain to be related. I her humble handmaid will diligently ply my task, and the twisted threads shall lessen the loaded distaff. Grant only that your wife, who I fear will regard me as a rival, be not suffered to treat me cruelly. Let her not tear my hair in your presence, while you unconcerned say, This girl was once dear to me.
But I will submit to bear even this, rather than be left behind helpless and neglected. The dread of such treatment shakes my wretched frame. What can you wish for more? Agamemnon repents of his anger; and disconsolate Greece falls at your feet. You
who are conqueror every where else, be master also of yourself and your passions. Why is insulting Hector allowed to triumph over the Grecian troops? Take arms, brave grandson of Æacus, after first receiving me to your embraces; and urge their vanquished troops with a victorious spear. Your resentment was first kindled for my sake; let it cease also for my sake: may I be both the cause and measure of your disgust. Nor think it dishonorable to yield to my entreaties. Meleager took up arms at the request of his wife. I have it only by hearsay; but you are acquainted with the whole story. Althæa's brothers being slain by her son, the unhappy parent devoted him with many imprecations.
A war ensued: he, disgusted, laid down his arms, retired, and obstinately refused to assist his native country. His wife alone had power to move him: thrice happy she! But my words, alas! have no weight with you. Yet do I not repine; nor, though often called to my lord's bed, did I ever boast that I was your wife.
One of the captives, I remember, called me mistress. You only increase, said I, the weight of my servitude by that name. I swear by the slightly-buried bones of my husband, those remains which must ever appear venerable to me; by the sacred ghosts of my three undaunted brothers, who bravely died for and with their country; by your lips and mine, which we have often joined in love; and by your conquering sword, too well known to my house; that Agamemnon has shared none of the joys of my bed. If I speak falsely, may I be eternally forsaken by you. Where I now to say, Do you too, great hero, swear that you have tasted no joys apart from me, must you not refuse? And yet the Greeks fancy you plunged in grief. You, mean-while, solace yourself with the harp, resigned to the soft embraces of a fond mistress. Should any one ask why you so obstinately refuse to fight, you say, War is become hateful; only night, love, and music, charm.
It is safer to be content with domestic
pleasures, to cherish a beloved mistress, and exercise the fingers upon a Thracian harp, than to grasp a target and sharp-pointed spear, and load the head with a weighty helmet. Heretofore you preferred the glory of illustrious actions to ease; and the fame acquired in war was all your aim. Could martial deeds then only please till I was made a captive? Is your thirst of praise extinguished in the fall of my country? Heaven forbid! May the Pelian spear, urged by your victorious arm, pierce the loins of Hector. Send me, O ye Greeks, as your ambassador, to solicit my lord: I will enforce your requests with a thousand melting kisses. Trust me, I can do more with him than Phœnix, more than the brother of Teucer, even more than eloquent Ulysses. There is rhetoric in throwing my once
familiar arms round his neck, and putting him in mind that it is his Briseis who urges the request. Though you are cruel and more obdurate than the waves of the sea, my silence and tears must prevail.
Now then (so may your father Peleus measure out his full term of years, and Pyrrhus enter upon war with your propitious fortune), brave Achilles, have respect to your Briseis, oppressed with a load of anxiety; nor kill her with your cruel delays. Or, if your former love is turned to disdain, rather hasten my fate, than force me thus to live without you. And even as it is, you hasten it; my beauty and bloom have fled; and the remaining faint hope of your love alone supports life: if this also should fail, my hard destiny will soon join me to the shades of my brothers and husband; nor will it add to your fame, to have occasioned the death of one who loved you. But why thus torment me by a lingering death? Plunge into my breast your naked poignard; I have still blood enough left to stream from the gaping wound. Let your sword, which (had not Minerva interposed) would have reached the heart of Atrides, find its way to mine. Ah rather preserve a life that is your own gift: I ask no more from my lover than what he formerly granted me when an enemy. The walls of Troy, built by Neptune, will afford more ample matter for your resentment. Hunt ruin in the hostile field. Let me only request, whatever be your design, whether to remain here, or navigate your fleet home, that, in right of master, you command me to attend you.