The Great War

from The Poems of Robert W. Sterling, an electronic edition

The Burial of Sophocles

Καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν πατρῷον τάφον ἐτέθητὸν ἐπὶ τῇ κατὰ τὴν Δεκέλειαν φερούσῃ κείμενον πρὸ τοῦ τείχους ἕνδεκα σταδίων. .... καὶ τοῦτον τὸν τόπον ἐπιτετειχικότων Λακεδαιμονίων κατ᾽ Ἀθηναίων Διόνυσος κατ᾽ ὄναρ ἐπιστὰς Λυσάνδρῳ ἐκέλευσεν ἐπιτρέψαι τεθῆναι τὸν ἄνδρα εἰς τὸν τάφον. ὡς δ᾽ ωλιγώρησεν ὁ δὲ Λύσανδρος, δεύτρον αὐτῷ ἐπέστη ὁ Διόνυσος τὸ αὐτὸ κελεύων. ὁ δὲ Λύσανδρος πυνθανόμενος παρὰ τῶν φυγάδων τίς εἴν ὁ τελευτήσας, καὶ μαθὼ ὅτι Σοφοκλῆς ὑπάρχει, κήρυκα πέμψας ἐδίδου θάπτειν τὸν ἄνδρα.

' And he was laid in the tomb of his fathers, that is situated eleven furlongs in front of the wall, on the road leading past Decelea. . . Now Decelea had been taken from the Athenians and fortified against them by the Lacedaemonians; to whose general, Lysander, the god Dionysus appeared in a dream, bidding him give leave for the man to be buried in the tomb. When Lysander made light of it, the God appeared a second time with the same behest. Then Lysander inquired from deserters who the dead man was; and learning that it was Sophocles, sent a herald with permission for the burial.'

Sophocles, the grandson, speaks at the poet's tomb.

GREEN hills that wave your olives to the sun.

Who but an hour ago did flaming rise

Over the tombs of hidden Marathon

And gave you back your shining jewelleries

What meaning dear can the dull eyes of grief

Trace in your moving groves and wizard streams?--

Have ye a knowledge of our troubled quest,

The lamentation brief,

The grey road and the haunting twilight dreams,

And the lov'd burden laid this morn to rest?

Ah! surely there is wonder and strange stir

Amid Earth's guardian gods, when the last goal

Hath gain'd the crown, and to Earth's sepulchre

We bear the way-worn chariot of the soul!--

And surely here a memory shall last,

In hill and grove and torrent, of this day,

For bards to glean who can: and they shall sing

How the sweet singer pass'd

Forth to his rest with war about his way

And a dread mask of Ares menacing!

Alas! poor city, fate-enshadowèd,

How powerless all thy pride of piety

To give due service to thy poet dead--

Save by the favour of an enemy!--

A bitter hard-won favour; for folks say

Lord Dionysus twice in vision came,

Jealous and wroth, to school Lysander's might,

That, where his fathers lay,

The darling prophet of the god's own flame,

Cradled in calm, should sleep his endless night.

'Twas thus, that, ere the arrows of the dawn

First shot the peaks of clear Pentelicus

With the day's golden promise, we had drawn

Nigh to the house of death and girded us

With the dim livery of the funeral:

A small, sad band, whom love or blood allow'd

To tend the dead; while vexing the repose

Of stars, who listening all

Peer'd through a shifting curtain of frail cloud,

Like a wild song the women's wailing rose.

Slowly we brought him forth--can I forget?--

And soft adown the lantern-hemmèd street

Parted the throngs who paid their pious debt

Of patient watching and of reverence meet.

And there were sudden tears and murmurs faint

And floating cries upon the midnight air,--

Not that they grudg'd him death, nor would importune

The gods in idle plaint:

But oh! he went (their burthen of despair)--

Athens' last light--in Athens darkest fortune!

How lingeringly we reached the guarded gate

Of the dear city fate-enshadowèd!--

As if reluctantly she bore the fate

That stole his presence. For of old ('twas said)

The palaces of Kings had sought in vain

To woo him from his Athens, and the long

Proof of the years had found him ever true:

So, like a lover, fain

Would she have held him from this shelter strong

Once hers, now--gift of a curs'd stranger crew!

But when we left the wakeful, following crowd

Within the walls, and passed the sentinels,

Pausing we turn'd: and lo! for us the shroud

Of silent night hid nothing. All the bells

Were set a-chiming in each memory,

And to fond eyes, that knew the outline clear

Of every tower and temple and the whole

Form of her majesty,

Athens, the queenly city, bade appear,

Rob'd in revealing shade, her wondrous soul.

Her wondrous soul, her wondrous, grieving soul

Captur'd and fill'd us.--Oh, how fevrous then

(When we had forfeited the passing toll

Of tears, that Love itself exacts from men

On such an errand) did we take the road,

And by Cephisus' ' sleepless fountains' bore

On the dead singer of Colonus fair,

Yon kindly last abode

Of the royal Theban martyr, who of yore

Curs'd a false son and dying triumph'd there.

Ah! Fancy loves to weave at such an hour

A faery web of false resemblances.--

And who hath strength to curb her perilous power

Of blind divining? Many phantasies

Made riot in our thought and seem'd to bring

The living children of his poesy

Winging from out the night to claim a part

In all our sorrowing:

While the lorn gale out of the Northern sky

Sped its far, sullen mutterings to our heart.

And then that "darkly-riding company!--

What rapid, iron question stabb'd the air?

Rude force in-bursting on our reverie

With Insolence of arms and doubting stare!

But when the whisper flew that this was he

Poet of all the nations, rare bequest

Of Hellas to the treasuries of Time,--

Forgot was enmity,

And, sons of Hellas all, we onward press'd

Hot with one fervour and one care sublime.

And last, the tomb.--One struck the dead man's lyre

By Death long silenc'd, and our hearkening ears

Were open'd for one moment of desire

To the pure, perfect music of the spheres;

As if his Spirit had vouchsaf'd to us

A fragment of eternal harmony

From its new dwelling-place. The player ceas'd;

All dumb and tremulous

We smooth'd the coffin, cas'd in greenery

And with our own shorn tresses over-fleec'd.

And so we laid him: even so he lies

To be for aye the Muse's pensioner:

Poets unborn shall sing him, centuries

Untold tell of his fealty to her.--

For oh! the service of his life will live

Deathlessly eloquent. But I------alas!

Left desolate within this teasing world--

What comfort can I give

My comrades ere again those walls we pass

Whose flag of hope for evermore is furl'd?

O multitudinous music of the day--

Bird-song and breeze and forest-minstrelsy--

You storm this heart and to your chorus gay

Marry its dirge of desolate misery:

Whence a faint song of musing hope is born,--

Hope for Earth's children whom the Master lov'd,

And for God's justice that he witness'd e'er,

Hope for his Athens torn

By foe and feud: So be my spirit prov'd

Not all unworthy him whose name I bear.

Ah! Master, when the blast uproots a tree,

Its form lies bedded--but a god beneath

Treasures its leaves and perish'd fragrancy

To pierce anew the pregnant soils of death:

So from thy poetry, thy spirit-tomb,

Shall burgeon wealth of tears and tenderness

And beauty, when forgotten is this pit

And drain'd is Athens' doom-----

Come, leave his body, friends, to Earth's caress.--

Oh, lightly, lightly. Earth, encompass it!