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THE SHEPHERD OF KING ADMETUS*
There came a youth upon the earth,
Some thousand years ago,
Upon an empty tortoise-shell
He stretched some chords, and drew Music that made men's bosoms swell Fearless, or brimmed their eyes with dew.
Then King Admetus, one who had
Pure taste by right divine,
And so, well pleased with being soothed
Into a sweet half-sleep, Three times his kingly beard he smoothed? And made him viceroy o'er his sheep.
His words were simple words enough,
And yet he used them so,
Men called him but a shiftless youth,
In whom no good they saw;
They knew not how he learned at all,
For idly, hour by hour,
It seemed the loveliness of things
Did teach him all their use, For, in mere weeds, and stones, and springs He found a healing power profuse.
Men granted that his speech was wise,
But, when a glance they caught
Yet after he was dead and gone
And e'en his memory dim,
And day by day more holy grew
§ 81. Admetus and Alcestis.1 — Admetus was a suitor, with others, for the hand of Alcestis, the daughter of Pelias, who promised her to him who should come for her in a chariot drawn by lions and boars. This task Admetus performed by the assistance of his divine herdsman, and was made happy in the possession of Alcestis. But Admetus fell ill, and being near to death, Apollo prevailed on the Fates to spare him on condition that some one should consent to die in his stead. Admetus, in his joy at this reprieve, thought little of the ransom, and, perhaps remembering the declarations of attachment which he had often heard from his courtiers and dependents, fancied that it would be easy to find a substitute. But it was not so. Brave warriors, who would willingly have perilled their lives for their prince, shrunk from the thought of dying for him on the bed of sickness; and old servants who had experienced his bounty and that of his house from their childhood up were not willing to lay down the scanty remnant of their days to show their gratitude. Men asked, " Why does not one of his parents do it? They cannot in the course of nature live much longer, and who can feel like them the call to rescue the life they gave from an untimely end?" But the parents, distressed though they were at the thought of losing him, shrunk from the
1 See Commentary, \ 81.
call. Then Alcestis, with a generous self-devotion, proffered herself as the substitute. Admetus, fond as he was of life, would not have submitted to receive it at such a cost; but there was no remedy. The condition imposed by the Fates had been met, and the decree was irrevocable. As Admetus revived, Alcestis sickened, rapidly sank, and died.
Just after the funeral procession had left the palace, Hercules, the son of Jupiter and Alcmena, arrived. He, to whom no labor was too arduous, resolved to attempt her rescue. Said he : —
"I will go lie in wait for Death, black-stoled
l From Browning's Balaustion's Adventure. The Greek form of the proper names has been retained.
And so went striding off, on that straight way
Leads to Larissa and the suburb tomb.
Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world!
I think this is the authentic sign and seal
Of Godship that it ever waxes glad,
And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts
Into a rage to suffer for mankind,
And recommence at sorrow: drops like seed
After the blossom, ultimate of all.
Say, does the seed scorn earth and seek the sun?
Surely it has no other end and aim
Than to drop, once more die into the ground,
Taste cold and darkness and oblivion there:
And thence rise, tree-like grow through pain to joy,
More joy and most joy, — do man good again.
So to the struggle off strode Herakles.
Long time the Thessalians waited and mourned. As for Herakles, no doubt they supposed him dead. When —■ but can it be ? —
. . . Ay, he it was advancing! In he strode,
And took his stand before Admetos,—turned
Now by despair to such a quietude,
He neither raised his face nor spoke, this time,
The while his friend surveyed him steadily.
That friend looked rough with fighting: had he strained
Worst brute to breast was ever strangled yet?
Somehow, a victory — for there stood the strength,
Happy, as always; something grave, perhaps;
The great vein-cordage on the fret-worked front,
Black-swollen, beaded yet with battle-dew
The golden hair o' the hero! — his big frame
A-quiver with each muscle sinking back
Into the sleepy smooth it leaped from late.
Under the great guard of one arm, there leant
A shrouded something, live and woman-like,
Propped by the heartbeats 'neath the lion-coat.
When he had finished his survey, it seemed,
The heavings of the heart began subside,
The helpful breath returned, and last the smile
Shone out, all Herakles was back again,
"Admetus," said he, " take and keep this woman, my captive, till I come thy way again." But Admetus would admit no woman into the hall that Alcestis had left empty. Then cried Herakles, "Take hold of her. See now, my friend, if she look not somewhat like that wife thou hast lost."
Ah, but the tears come, find the words at fault!
There is no telling how the hero twitched
The veil off; and there stood, with such fixed eyes
And such slow smile, Alkestis' silent self!
It was the crowning grace of that great heart,
To keep back joy: procrastinate the truth
Until the wife, who had made proof and found
The husband wanting, might essay once more,
Hear, see, and feel him renovated now —
Able to do now all herself had done,
Risen to the height of her: so, hand in hand,
The two might go together, live and die.
Beside, when he found speech, you guess the speech.
He could not think he saw his wife again:
It was some mocking God that used the bliss
To make him mad! Till Herakles must help:
Assure him that no spectre mocked at all;
He was embracing whom he buried once,
Still, —did he touch, might he address the true,
True eye, true body of the true live wife?
. . . And Herakles said little, but enough —
How he engaged in combat with that king
O' the daemons: how the field of contest lay
By the tomb's self: how he sprang from ambuscade,
Captured Death, caught him in that pair of hands.
But all the time, Alkestis moved not once
Out of the set gaze and the silent smile;
And a cold fear ran through Admetos' frame:
"Why does she stand and front me, silent thus?"