Phaedra to Hippolytus
of Crete wishes to Hippolytus, born of an Amazon, that health. which, if he will not give it, she herself must want. Read this at least; how can the reading of a letter hurt you? Perhaps, too, you may meet with some things in it that will be agreeable. In this manner secrets are conveyed over land and sea. Even enemies look at the letters sent from each other. Thrice I essayed to speak with you; thrice my tongue failed; thrice the words forsook me at my tongue's end. Modesty is to be joined with love, as far as is
possible and convenient. Love commands me to write what I was ashamed to speak. It is not safe to slight the commands of Love; he reigns uncontrolled,
and has power even over the sovereign gods. He first commanded me, when full of doubts and fears, to write; Write,
said he; though hard as steel, he will yield his captive hands.
Be present, Love; and, as you nourish in my bones a wasting fire, fix also in his breast a dart that may soften it towards me. Yet will I not by any crime stain my connubial vows. My fame (search into it) you will find fair and spotless. Love, the later it seizes us, rages the more. I burn inwardly; I burn, and my breast feels the hidden wound. As the tender bull is at first impatient of the yoke, and the young courser is with difficulty rendered obedient to the rein: so my unconquered heart resists the first attacks of love, and this unusual
burthen sits heavy on my unpractised mind. When love is habitual from our cradle, we may learn by art to manage it; but, in our riper years, it assaults us with violence. You will taste the first offerings of my
spotless fame, and the guilt will be the same in both. There is a pleasure in plucking the ripe apples from loaded branches, and gathering with an industrious hand the earliest roses. If yet my chastity, hitherto unstained, must be blotted by an unusual crime, it has happily fallen out that I burn with a noble flame. A worthless partner of my crime, something still worse than the crime itself, cannot in my case
by objected. If Juno should resign her brother and husband in my favour, even Jupiter would probably be disregarded in competition with Hippolytus. And now (what you will scarcely believe) my inclinations carry me after new and unaccustomed delights. I long to assault with you
the savage breed; already the Delian goddess, distinguished by the crooked bow, presides in my thoughts; your judgement in this determines also mine. I am impatient to range the woods, to pursue the stage into the toils, and cheer the nimble hounds along the rocky cliffs; or lance the trembling dart with a
vigorous arm, and stretch my wearied
limbs on a grassy bank. Oft I am pleased to drive the nimble chariot involved in dust, and guide the panting steeds with steady rein. Now wild, I rave as a Bacchanal when full of the inspiring god, or like those who on the Idean hill urge with redoubled strokes the sounding brass; yea more wild than those whom the Dryads half divine, and horned Satyrs, strike with terror and amazement.
For, when this fury abates, I am informed of all; and silent feel that conscious love rages in my breast. Perhaps, I am urged to this love by the fate of my blood, and Venus exacts this tribute of all our race. Jupiter loved Europa (hence the first rise
of our family) disguising the god under the form of a bull. Pasiphae my mother, enjoyed by a deluded bull, was in time delivered of her guilty load. Perfidious Theseus, guided by the faithful thread, escaped by my sister's help the deluding labyrinth. Lo, I too, that I might not belie the race of Minos, yield the last to the powerful laws of my blood. Surely it was our destiny; one house gained the inclinations of both. I am charmed with your shape and appearance; my sister yielded to the attractions of your father. Theseus and his son have triumphed over two sister nymphs. Raise trophies of your victory over our race. Oh how I wish that I had been wandering in the fields of Crete, when first I saw you enter Eleusis, the city of Ceres! It was then chiefly (yet even before that time you had charmed me), that the penetrating flame of love raged in my bones. White was your robe; your hair was adorned
with a garland; a modest blush had overspread your comely face. That countenance which appears, to others, stern and fierce, was in Phædra's eyes noble and full of manly
courage. I hate youths fond of dress and a female nicety: a manly form requires little fashioning. That sternness, those careless locks, and noble face stained with dust, are becoming. Whether you bend in the fiery steed's reluctant neck, I am delighted to see him wheeling in the narrow ring; or if with vigorous arm you dart the heavy spear, still my eyes watch the manly throw. Or do you brandish the hunting-spear of broad-pointed steel? In fine, every thing you do gives me delight. Leave your cruelty to the woods and mountains; nor let me, undeserving of such a fate,
perish for your sake. What pleasure can it give to be wholly taken up in the exercises of Diana, and deny Venus the vows and engagements due to her? What admits no interval of rest cannot subsist long. Rest renews our strength, and refreshes our wearied limbs. The bow (and surely the arms of your favorite goddess may furnish an example for your imitation), if always bent, will lose its force. Cephalus was famed in the woods; by his hand were many wild beasts slain; yet he was no enemy to the delights of love. Aurora wisely forsook old age for him. Oft, under a spreading oak, were Venus and Adonis seated on the yielding grass. Meleager too burned for Areadian Atalanta: she, as a pledge of his love, enjoyed the spoils of the Calydonian boar. Let us also be now first joined to this glorious crowd. If you banish love, the forest will be turned into a desert.
I will be the partner of your toils: neither the rocks hideous with dens and caves, nor the fierce aspect of the threatening boar, shall terrify me. There is an isthmus seated between two seas; the rising billows beat against either shore. Here will I meet thee at
Trœzen, once the kingdom of Pittheus: already it is dearer far than my native country. The hero of Neptune's race is happily absent, and will be so long: he is now in the country of his dear Pirithous. Theseus (unless we dispute what is manifest) prefers Pirithous, both to his Phædra and to thee: nor is this the only injury he has offered us; for we have both been wronged in matters of great importance. The bones of my brother, broken with a knotted club, he scattered on the bloody ground: my sister was left a prey to wild beasts. You boast of a mother worthy of the bravery of her son, of distinguished valor among the Amazonian maids. If you enquire after her, Theseus inhumanly stabbed her; nor could so great a pledge protect the unhappy mother. Nor was she wedded, nor received with the nuptial torch. Why all this, but to exclude you from your father's throne? He has added, moreover, brothers to you by me, who have been bred up by his command rather than
mine. I could wish, loveliest of men, that the child who may stand in competition with you, had died in the birth. What reverence, after all this, can be due to your father's bed, which he even shuns himself, and has deserted? Nor let vain fears alarm you, that the commerce, between a son and mother-in-law, is infamous. This old-fashioned piety, which could not subsist long, suited only the rustic age of Saturn. Jupiter has made pleasure the test of piety, and has given us an example in espousing his own sister. That tie of blood is firmest, which is strengthened by the bonds of Venus. It will be an easy matter to conceal it: the name of relative will justify our freedoms. Whoever sees our mutual embraces will praise us; I shall be thought a stepmother, tender of my husband's son.
No stubborn gates are to be forced open in the night; no watchful keeper to be deceived. One house served us both; one house will still serve us. You caressed me openly, and my do so still. Here you will be in safety; and our freedoms, far from exposing us to blame, will gain us praise. Only banish delay, and hasten to consummate
our mutual loves; so may the tyrant that rages in my breast, prove gentle to you. I condescend to address you by prayers and entreaties; where is now my pride? where are my wonted boasts? I had resolved to hold out long, and not easily yield to a crime, if love were capable of any steady resolution. But, subdued by its power,
I turn to prayers, and with my royal hands clasp your knees. Lovers, alas! are seldom awed by a sense of decency: shame and modesty have fled. Think favorably of my fond confession, and pity my sufferings. What though my father holds the empire of the seas, and my great grandsire darts the rapid thunder? What though my grandfather, crowned with pointed rays, guides the resplendent chariot of the day? Nobility gives place to love. Have some regard, however, for my race; and, if you undervalue me, yet shew respect to mine. The famous island of Crete falls by inheritance to me: here shall my Hippolytus reign supreme. Conquer that stubborn soul.
My mother could even inspire a bull with love; and will you be more cruel than a fierce bull? Hear, then, for Venus' sake, who is all-powerful with me; so may you never love a scornful fair. So may swift Diana still attend you in the remote forests, and the woods offer you the best game. So may the Satyrs and mountain Gods protect you, and the boar fall, pierced by your quivering spear. So may the kind Nymphs (though you are said to hate the softer sex) allay with grateful streams your burning thirst. Many tears accompany these prayers; think, while you read over the words of your Phædra, that you see also the tears streaming from her eyes.