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how, when she lay in childbirth round her stood
the three attendant sisters of his fate.
There was a billet in the room, and this
they took and cast upon the wasting flames,
and as they spun and drew the fatal threads
they softly chanted, “Unto you we give,
O child new-born! only the life of this;
the period of this billet is your life.”
And having spoken so, they vanished in the smoke.
Althaea snatched the billet from the fire,
and having quenched it with drawn water, hid
it long and secretly in her own room,
where, thus preserved, it acted as a charm
to save the life of Meleager. This
the mother now brought forth, and fetched a pile
of seasoned tinder ready for the torch.
She lit the torches and the ready pile,
and as the flames leaped up, four times prepared
to cast the fatal billet in the midst;
and four times hesitated to commit
the dreadful deed,—so long the contest veered
between the feelings of a mother's breast
and the fierce vengeance of a sister's rage.
Now is the mother's visage pale with fear,
and now the sister's sanguinary rage
glows in her eyes. Her countenance contorts
with cruel threats and in bewildered ways
dissolves compassionate: And even when
the heat of anger had dried up her eyes
the conflict of her passion brought new tears.
As when the wind has seized upon a ship
and blows against a tide of equal force,
the vexed vessel feels repellent powers,
and with unsteady motion sways to both;
so did Althaea hesitate between
the conflict of her passions: when her rage
had cooled, her fury was as fast renewed:
but always the unsatisfied desire
of blood, to ease the disembodied shades
of her slain brothers, seemed to overcome
the mother-instinct; and intensity
of conduct proved the utmost test of love.
She took the billet in her arms and stood
before the leaping flames, and said, “Alas,
be this the funeral pyre of my own flesh!”
And as she held in her relentless hand
the destiny of him she loved, and stood
before the flames, in all her wretchedness
she moaned, “You sad Eumenides attend!
Relentless Gods of punishment,—turn, turn
your dreadful vision on these baneful rites!
I am avenging and committing crime!
With death must death be justified and crime
be added unto crime! Let funerals
upon succeeding funerals attend!
“Let these accumulating woes destroy
a wicked race. Shall happy Oeneus bask
in the great fame of his victorious son,
and Thestius mourn without slaughtered ones?
'Tis better they should both lament the deed!
Witness the act of my affection, shades
of my departed brothers! and accept
my funeral offering, given at a cost
beyond my strength to bear. Ah wretched me!
Distracted is my reason! Pity me,
the yearnings of a stricken mother's heart
withholding me from duty! Aye, although
his punishment be just, my hands refuse
the office of such vengeance. What, shall he
alive, victorious, flushed with his success,
inherit the broad realms of Calydon,
and you, my slaughtered brothers, unavenged,
dissolved in ashes, float upon the air,
unpalpitating phantoms? How can I
endure the thought of it? Oh let the wretch
forever perish, and with him be lost
the hopes of his sad father, in the wreck
of his distracted kingdom. Where are now
the love and feelings of a mother; how
can I forget the bitter pangs endured
while twice times five the slow moon waxed and waned?
“O had you perished in your infancy
by those first fires, and I had suffered it!
Your life was in my power! and now your death
is the result of wrongs which you have done—
take now a just reward for what you did:
return to me the life I gave and saved.
When from the flames I snatched the fatal brand.
Return that gift or take my wretched life,
that I may hasten to my brothers' tomb.
“What dreadful deed can satisfy the law,
when I for love against my love am forced?
For even as my brothers' wounds appear
in visions dreadful to denounce my son,
the love so nurtured in a mother's breast
breaks down the resolution! Wretched me!
Such vengeance for my brothers overcomes
first at your birth I gave it, and again
the yearning of a mother for her son!
Let not my love denounce my vengeance!
My soul may follow with its love the shade
of him I sacrifice, and following him
my shade and his and yours unite below.”
She spoke and as she turned her face away,
she threw the fatal billet on the fire,
and as the flames devoured it, a strange groan
was heard to issue from the burning wood
but Meleager at a distance knows
of naught to wreck his hour of victory,
until he feels the flame of burning wood
scorching with secret fire his forfeit life.
Yet with a mighty will, disdaining pain
he grieves his bloodless and ignoble death.
He calls Ancaeus happy for the wounds
that caused his death. With sighs and groans he called
his aged father's name, and then the names
of brothers, sisters, and his wife—and last,
they say he called upon his mother's name.
His torment always with the fire increased,
until, as little of the wood remained,—
his pain diminished with the heat's decrease;
and as the flames extinguished, so his life
slowly ascended in the rising air.
And all the mighty realm of Calydon
was filled with lamentations —young and old
the common people and the nobles mourned;
and all the wailing women tore their hair
his father threw his body on the ground,
and as he covered his white hair and face
with ashy dust, bewailed his aged days.
Althaea, maddened in her mother's grief,
has punished herself with a ruthless hand;
she pierced her heart with iron. —Oh! if some God
had given a resounding harp, a voice
an hundred-fold more mighty, and a soul
enlarged with genius, I could never tell
the grief of his unhappy sisters.—They,
regardless of all shame, beat on their breasts;
before the body was consumed with fire,
embraced it, and again embracing it,
rained kisses on their loved one and the bier.
And when the flames had burnt his shrinking form
they strained his gathered ashes to their breasts,
and prostrate on the tomb kissed his dear name,
cut only in the stone,—and bathed it with their tears
Latona's daughter, glutted with the woes
inflicted on Parthaon's house, now gave
two of the weeping sisters wide-spread wings,
but Gorge and the spouse of Hercules
not so were changed. Latona stretched long wings
upon their arms, transformed their mouths to beaks,
and sent them winging through the lucent air.
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