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THE SHEPHERD OF KING ADMETUS*

There came a youth upon the earth,

Some thousand years ago,
Whose slender hands were nothing worth,
Whether to plough, or reap, or sow.

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,
Decreed his singing not too bad
To hear between the cups of wine:

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,
That what in other mouths was rough
In his seemed musical and low.

Men called him but a shiftless youth,

In whom no good they saw;
And yet, unwittingly, in truth,
They made his careless words their law.

They knew not how he learned at all,

For idly, hour by hour,
He sat and watched the dead leaves fall,
Or mused upon a common flower.

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.

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Men granted that his speech was wise,

But, when a glance they caught
Of his slim grace and woman's eyes,
They laughed, and called him good-for-naught.

Yet after he was dead and gone

And e'en his memory dim,
Earth seemed more sweet to live upon,
More full of love, because of him.

And day by day more holy grew
Each spot where he had trod,
Till after-poets only knew
Their first-born brother as a go8.

§ 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
King of the corpses!1 I shall find him, sure,
Drinking, beside the tomb, o' the sacrifice:
And if I lie in ambuscade, and leap
Out of my lair, and seize — encircle him
Till one hand join the other round about —
There lives not who shall pull him out from me,
Rib-mauled, before he let the woman go!
But even say I miss the booty, — say,
Death comes not to the boltered blood, — why, then,
Down go I, to the unsunned dwelling-place
Of Kore and the king there, — make demand,
Confident 1 shall bring Alkestis back,
So as to put her in the hands of him
My host, that housed me, never drove me off:
Though stricken with sore sorrow hid the stroke,
Being a noble heart and honoring me!
Who of Thessalians, more than this man, loves
The stranger? Who that now inhabits Greece?
Wherefore he shall not say the man was vile
Whom he befriended, — native noble heart!"
So, one look upward, as if Zeus might laugh
Approval of his human progeny,—
One summons of the whole magnific frame,
Each sinew to its service, — up he caught,
And over shoulder cast the lion-shag,
Let the club go, — for had he not those hands?

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,
As the words followed the saluting hand.

"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?"

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