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A.E. Housman (1859-1936)
"Fragment of a Greek Tragedy"


O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveler, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
to this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say
Then wave your hand, to signify as much.
I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
To learn your name would not displease me much.
Not all that men desire do they obtain.
Might I then hear at what your presence shoots?
A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that —
What? for I know not yet what you will say. —
Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
— This house was Eriphyla's, no one's else.
Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
May I then enter, passing through the door?
Go, chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is very much the safest plan.
I go into the house with heels and speed.


      In speculation
I would not willingly acquire a name
      For ill-digested thought;
      But after pondering much
To this conclusion I at last have come:
      Life is uncertain.
      This truth I have written deep
      in my reflective midriff
      On tablets not of wax,
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
For many reasons: Life, I say, is not
      A stranger to uncertainty.
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
      This fact did I discover.
Nor did the Delphic tripod bark it out,
      Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingenuity sufficed
      My self-taught diaphragm.

      Why should I mention
The Inachean daughter , loved of Zeus?
      Her whom of old the gods,
      More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
      A gift not asked for
      And sent her forth to learn
      The unfamiliar science
      Of how to chew the cud.
She therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
      Nor did they disagree with her.
But yet, howe'er nutritious, such repasts
      I do not hanker after:
Never may Cypris for her seat select
      My dappled liver!
Why should I mention Io? [FN 2] Why indeed?
      I have no notion why.

      But now does my boding heart,
      Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
      A strain not meet for the dance.
      Yea even the palace appears
      To my yoke of eyes
      (The right, nor omit I the left)
      Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
      Garnished with woolly deaths
      And many shipwrecks of cows.
I therefore in a Cissian strain lament;
      And to the rapid,
Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
      Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.

ERIPHYLA [within].
O, I am smitten with a hatchet's jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.
I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
He splits my skull, not in a friendly way.
One more: he purposes to kill me dead.
I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.
O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.


[FN 1] Alcmaeon, like Orestes, is one of the famous matricides of Greek myth. He murdered his mother Eriphyle (here Eriphyla) in revenge for her having encompassed the death of his father Amphiaraus (one of the Seven against Thebes). [Return to text]

[FN 2] Io, daughter of Inachus, whom Zeus loved but whom he changed into a cow when detected by Hera. [Return to text]

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