Argument: The Interview of Telemachus and Nestor
Telemachus, guided by Pallas in the shape of Mentor, arrives in the morning at Pylos, where Nestor and his sons are sacrificing on the sea-shore to Neptune. Telemachus declares the occasion of his coming: and Nestor relates what passed in their return from Troy, how their fleets were separated, and he never since heard of Ulysses. They discourse concerning the death of Agamemnon, the revenge of Orestes, and the injuries of the suitors. Nestor advises him to go to Sparta, and inquire further of Menelaus. The sacrifice ending with the night, Minerva vanishes from them in the form of an eagle: Telemachus is lodged in the palace. The next morning they sacrifice a bullock to Minerva; and Telemachus proceeds on his journey to Sparta, attended by Pisistratus.
The sacred sun, above the waters raised, Through heaven’s eternal brazen portals blazed; And wide o’er earth diffused his cheering ray, To gods and men to give the golden day. Now on the coast of Pyle the vessel falls, Before old Neleus’ venerable walls. There suppliant to the monarch of the flood, At nine green theatres the Pylians stood, Each held five hundred (a deputed train), At each, nine oxen on the sand lay slain. They taste the entrails, and the altars load With smoking thighs, an offering to the god. Full for the port the Ithacensians stand, And furl their sails, and issue on the land. Telemachus already press’d the shore; Not first, the power of wisdom march’d before, And ere the sacrificing throng he join’d, Admonish’d thus his well-attending mind:
“Proceed, my son! this youthful shame expel; An honest business never blush to tell. To learn what fates thy wretched sire detain, We pass’d the wide immeasurable main. Meet then the senior far renown’d for sense With reverend awe, but decent confidence: Urge him with truth to frame his fair replies; And sure he will; for wisdom never lies.”
“Oh tell me, Mentor! tell me, faithful guide (The youth with prudent modesty replied), How shall I meet, or how accost the sage, Unskill’d in speech, nor yet mature of age? Awful th’approach, and hard the task appears, To question wisely men of riper years.”
To whom the martial goddess thus rejoin’d: “Search, for some thoughts, thy own suggesting mind; And others, dictated by heavenly power, Shall rise spontaneous in the needful hour. For nought unprosperous shall thy ways attend, Born with good omens, and with heaven thy friend.”
She spoke, and led the way with swiftest speed; As swift, the youth pursued the way she led; and join’d the band before the sacred fire, Where sate, encompass’d with his sons, the sire. The youth of Pylos, some on pointed wood Transfix’d the fragments, some prepared the food: In friendly throngs they gather to embrace Their unknown guests, and at the banquet place, Pisistratus was first to grasp their hands, And spread soft hides upon the yellow sands; Along the shore the illustrious pair he led, Where Nestor sate with the youthful Thrasymed, To each a portion of the feast he bore, And held the golden goblet foaming o’er; Then first approaching to the elder guest, The latent goddess in these words address’d: “Whoe’er thou art, from fortune brings to keep These rites of Neptune, monarch of the deep, Thee first it fits, O stranger! to prepare The due libation and the solemn prayer; Then give thy friend to shed the sacred wine; Though much thy younger, and his years like mine, He too, I deem, implores the power divine; For all mankind alike require their grace, All born to want; a miserable race!” He spake, and to her hand preferr’d the bowl; A secret pleasure touch’d Athena’s soul, To see the preference due to sacred age Regarded ever by the just and sage. Of Ocean’s king she then implores the grace. “O thou! whose arms this ample globe embrace, Fulfil our wish, and let thy glory shine On Nestor first, and Nestor’s royal line; Next grant the Pylian states their just desires, Pleased with their hecatomb’s ascending fires; Last, deign Telemachus and me to bless, And crown our voyage with desired success.”
Thus she: and having paid the rite divine, Gave to Ulysses’ son the rosy wine. Suppliant he pray’d. And now the victims dress’d They draw, divide, and celebrate the feast. The banquet done, the narrative old man, Thus mild, the pleasing conference began:
“Now gentle guests! the genial banquet o’er, It fits to ask ye, what your native shore, And whence your race? on what adventure say, Thus far you wander through the watery way? Relate if business, or the thirst of gain, Engage your journey o’er the pathless main Where savage pirates seek through seas unknown The lives of others, venturous of their own.”
Urged by the precepts by the goddess given, And fill’d with confidence infused from Heaven, The youth, whom Pallas destined to be wise And famed among the sons of men, replies: “Inquir’st thou, father! from what coast we came? (Oh grace and glory of the Grecian name!) From where high Ithaca o’erlooks the floods, Brown with o’er-arching shades and pendent woods Us to these shores our filial duty draws, A private sorrow, not a public cause. My sire I seek, where’er the voice of fame Has told the glories of his noble name, The great Ulysses; famed from shore to shore For valour much, for hardy suffering more. Long time with thee before proud Ilion’s wall In arms he fought; with thee beheld her fall. Of all the chiefs, this hero’s fate alone Has Jove reserved, unheard of, and unknown; Whether in fields by hostile fury slain, Or sunk by tempests in the gulfy main? Of this to learn, oppress’d with tender fears, Lo, at thy knee his suppliant son appears. If or thy certain eye, or curious ear, Have learnt his fate, the whole dark story clear And, oh! whate’er Heaven destined to betide, Let neither flattery soothe, nor pity hide. Prepared I stand: he was but born to try The lot of man; to suffer, and to die. Oh then, if ever through the ten years’ war The wise, the good Ulysses claim’d thy care; If e’er he join’d thy council, or thy sword, True in his deed, and constant to his word; Far as thy mind through backward time can see Search all thy stores of faithful memory: ’Tis sacred truth I ask, and ask of thee.”
To him experienced Nestor thus rejoin’d: “O friend! what sorrows dost thou bring to mind! Shall I the long, laborious scene review, And open all the wounds of Greece anew? What toils by sea! where dark in quest of prey Dauntless we roved; Achilles led the way; What toils by land! where mix’d in fatal fight Such numbers fell, such heroes sunk to night; There Ajax great, Achilles there the brave, There wise Patroclus, fill an early grave: There, too, my son — ah, once my best delight Once swift of foot, and terrible in fight; In whom stern courage with soft virtue join’d A faultless body and a blameless mind; Antilochus — What more can I relate? How trace the tedious series of our fate? Not added years on years my task could close, The long historian of my country’s woes; Back to thy native islands might’st thou sail, And leave half-heard the melancholy tale. Nine painful years on that detested shore; What stratagems we form’d, what toils we bore! Still labouring on, till scarce at last we found Great Jove propitious, and our conquest crown’d. Far o’er the rest thy mighty father shined, In wit, in prudence, and in force of mind. Art thou the son of that illustrious sire? With joy I grasp thee, and with love admire. So like your voices, and your words so wise, Who finds thee younger must consult his eyes. Thy sire and I were one; nor varied aught In public sentence, or in private thought; Alike to council or the assembly came, With equal souls, and sentiments the same. But when (by wisdom won) proud Ilion burn’d, And in their slips the conquering Greeks return’d, ’Twas God’s high will the victors to divide, And turn the event, confounding human pride; Some be destroy’d, some scatter’d as the dust (Not all were prudent, and not all were just). Then Discord, sent by Pallas from above, Stern daughter of the great avenger Jove, The brother-kings inspired with fell debate; Who call’d to council all the Achaian state, But call’d untimely (not the sacred rite Observed, nor heedful of the setting light, Nor herald sword the session to proclaim), Sour with debauch, a reeling tribe the came. To these the cause of meeting they explain, And Menelaus moves to cross the main; Not so the king of men: be will’d to stay, The sacred rites and hecatombs to pay, And calm Minerva’s wrath. Oh blind to fate! The gods not lightly change their love, or hate. With ireful taunts each other they oppose, Till in loud tumult all the Greeks arose. Now different counsels every breast divide, Each burns with rancour to the adverse side; The unquiet night strange projects entertain’d (So Jove, that urged us to our fate, ordain’d). We with the rising morn our ships unmoor’d, And brought our captives and our stores aboard; But half the people with respect obey’d The king of men, and at his bidding stay’d. Now on the wings of winds our course we keep (For God had smooth’d the waters of the deep); For Tenedos we spread our eager oars, There land, and pay due victims to the powers; To bless our safe return, we join in prayer; But angry Jove dispersed our vows in air, And raised new discord. Then (so Heaven decreed) Ulysses first and Neator disagreed! Wise as he was, by various counsels away’d, He there, though late, to please the monarch, stay’d. But I, determined, stem the foamy floods, Warn’d of the coming fury of the gods. With us, Tydides fear’d, and urged his haste: And Menelads came, but came the last, He join’d our vessels in the Lesbian bay, While yet we doubted of our watery way; If to the right to urge the pilot’s toil (The safer road), beside the Psyrian isle; Or the straight course to rocky Chios plough, And anchor under Mimas’ shaggy brow? We sought direction of the power divine: The god propitious gave the guiding sign; Through the mid seas he bid our navy steer, And in Euboea shun the woes we fear. The whistling winds already waked the sky; Before the whistling winds the vessels fly, With rapid swiftness cut the liquid way, And reach Gerestus at the point of day. There hecacombs of bulls, to Neptune slain, High-flaming please the monarch of the main. The fourth day shone, when all their labours o’er, Tydides’ vessels touched the wish’d-for shore. But I to Pylos scud before the gales, The god still breathing on my swelling sails; Separate from all, I safely landed here; Their fates or fortunes never reach’d my ear. Yet what I learn’d, attend; as here I sat, And ask’d each voyager each hero’s fate; Curious to know, and willing to relate.
“Safe reach’d the Myrmidons their native land, Beneath Achilles’ warlike son’s command. Those, whom the heir of great Apollo’s art, Brave Philoctetes, taught to wing the dart; And those whom Idomen from Ilion’s plain Had led, securely cross’d the dreadful main How Agamemnon touch’d his Argive coast, And how his life by fraud and force he lost, And how the murderer, paid his forfeit breath; What lands so distant from that scene of death But trembling heard the fame? and heard, admire. How well the son appeased his slaughter’d sire! Ev’n to the unhappy, that unjustly bleed, Heaven gives posterity, to avenge the deed. So fell Aegysthus; and mayest thou, my friend, (On whom the virtues of thy sire descend,) Make future times thy equal act adore, And be what brave Orestes was before!”
The prudent youth replied: “O thou the grace And lasting glory of the Grecian race! Just was the vengeance, and to latest days Shall long posterity resound the praise. Some god this arm with equal prowess bless! And the proud suitors shall its force confess; Injurious men! who while my soul is sore Of fresh affronts, are meditating more. But Heaven denies this honour to my hand, Nor shall my father repossess the land; The father’s fortune never to return, And the sad son’s to softer and to mourn!” Thus he; and Nestor took the word: “My son, Is it then true, as distant rumours run, That crowds of rivals for thy mother’s charms Thy palace fill with insults and alarms? Say, is the fault, through tame submission, thine? Or leagued against thee, do thy people join, Moved by some oracle, or voice divine? And yet who knows, but ripening lies in fate An hour of vengeance for the afflicted state; When great Ulysses shall suppress these harms, Ulysses singly, or all Greece in arms. But if Athena, war’s triumphant maid, The happy son will as the father aid, (Whose fame and safety was her constant care In every danger and in every war: Never on man did heavenly favour shine With rays so strong, distinguish’d and divine, As those with which Minerva mark’d thy sire) So might she love thee, so thy soul inspire! Soon should their hopes in humble dust be laid, And long oblivion of the bridal bed.”
“Ah! no such hope (the prince with sighs replies) Can touch my breast; that blessing Heaven denies. Ev’n by celestial favour were it given, Fortune or fate would cross the will of Heaven.”
“What words are these, and what imprudence thine? (Thus interposed the martial maid divine) Forgetful youth! but know, the Power above With ease can save each object of his love; Wide as his will, extends his boundless grace; Nor lost in time nor circumscribed by place. Happier his lot, who, many sorrows’ pass’d, Long labouring gains his natal shore at last; Than who, too speedy, hastes to end his life By some stern ruffian, or adulterous wife. Death only is the lot which none can miss, And all is possible to Heaven but this. The best, the dearest favourite of the sky, Must taste that cup, for man is born to die.”
Thus check’d, replied Ulysses’ prudent heir: “Mentor, no more — the mournful thought forbear; For he no more must draw his country’s breath, Already snatch’d by fate, and the black doom of death! Pass we to other subjects; and engage On themes remote the venerable sage (Who thrice has seen the perishable kind Of men decay, and through three ages shined Like gods majestic, and like gods in mind); For much he knows, and just conclusions draws, From various precedents, and various laws. O son of Neleus! awful Nestor, tell How he, the mighty Agamemnon, fell; By what strange fraud Aegysthus wrought, relate (By force he could not) such a hero’s fate? Live Menelaus not in Greece? or where Was then the martial brother’s pious care? Condemn’d perhaps some foreign short to tread; Or sure Aegysthus had not dared the deed.” To whom the full of days: Illustrious youth, Attend (though partly thou hast guess’d) the truth. For had the martial Menelaus found The ruffian breathing yet on Argive ground; Nor earth had bid his carcase from the skies, Nor Grecian virgins shriek’d his obsequies, But fowls obscene dismember’d his remains, And dogs had torn him on the naked plains. While us the works of bloody Mars employ’d, The wanton youth inglorious peace enjoy’d: He stretch’d at ease in Argos’ calm recess (Whose stately steeds luxuriant pastures bless), With flattery’s insinuating art Soothed the frail queen, and poison’d all her heard. At first, with the worthy shame and decent pride, The royal dame his lawless suit denied. For virtue’s image yet possess’d her mind. Taught by a master of the tuneful kind; Atrides, parting for the Trojan war, Consign’d the youthful consort to his care. True to his charge, the bard preserved her long In honour’s limits; such the power of song. But when the gods these objects of their hate Dragg’d to the destruction by the links of fate; The bard they banish’d from his native soil, And left all helpless in a desert isle; There he, the sweetest of the sacred train, Sung dying to the rocks, but sung in vain. Then virtue was no more; her guard away, She fell, to lust a voluntary prey. Even to the temple stalk’d the adulterous spouse, With impious thanks, and mockery of the vows, With images, with garments, and with gold; And odorous fumes from loaded altars roll’d. “Meantime from flaming Troy we cut the way With Menelaus, through the curling sea. But when to Sunium’s sacred point we came, Crown’d with the temple of the Athenian dame; Atride’s pilot, Phrontes, there expired (Phrontes, of all the songs of men admired To steer the bounding bark with steady toil, When the storm thickens, and the billows boil); While yet he exercised the steerman’s art, Apollo touch’d him with his gentle dart; Even with the rudder in his hand, he fell. To pay whole honours to the shades of hell, We check’d our haste, by pious office bound, And laid our old companion in the ground. And now the rites discharged, our course we keep Far on the gloomy bosom of the deep: Soon as Malae’s misty tops arise, Sudden the Thunderer blackens all the skies, And the winds whistle, and the surges roll Mountains on mountains, and obscure the pole. The tempest scatters, and divides our fleet; Part, the storm urges on the coast of Crete, Where winding round the rich Cydonian plain, The streams of Jardan issue to the main. There stands a rock, high, eminent and steep, Whose shaggy brow o’erhangs the shady deep, And views Gortyna on the western side; On this rough Auster drove the impetuous tide: With broken force the billows roll’d away, And heaved the fleet into the neighb’ring bay. Thus saved from death, the gain’d the Phaestan shores, With shatter’d vessels and disabled oars; But five tall barks the winds and water toss’d, Far from their fellows, on the Aegyptian coast. There wander’d Menelaus through foreign shores Amassing gold, and gathering naval stores; While cursed Aegysthus the detested deed By fraud fulfilled, and his great brother bled. Seven years, the traitor rich Mycenae sway’d, And his stern rule the groaning land obey’d; The eighth, from Athens to his realm restored, Orestes brandish’d the avenging sword, Slew the dire pair, and gave to funeral flame The vile assassin and adulterous dame. That day, ere yet the bloody triumphs cease, Return’d Atrides to the coast of Greece, And safe to Argos port his navy brought, With gifts of price and ponderous treasure fraught. Hence warn’d, my son, beware! nor idly stand Too long a stranger to thy native land; Lest heedless absence wear thy wealth away, While lawless feasters in thy palace away; Perhaps may seize thy realm, and share the spoil; And though return, with disappointed toil, From thy vain journey, to a rifled isle. However, my friend, indulge one labour more, And seek Atrides on the Spartan shore. He, wandering long a wider circle made, And many-languaged nations has survey’d: And measured tracks unknown to other ships, Amid the monstrous wonders of the deeps, (A length of ocean and unbounded sky. Which scarce the sea-fowl in a year o’erfly); Go then; to Sparta take the watery way, Thy ship and sailors but for orders stay; Or, if my land then choose thy course to bend, My steeds, my chariots, and my songs, attend; Thee to Atrides they shall safe convey, Guides of thy road, companions of thy way. Urge him with truth to frame his wise replies, And sure he will; for Menelaus is wise.” Thus while he speaks the ruddy sun descends, And twilight grey her evening shade extends. Then thus the blue-eyed maid: “O full of days! Wise are thy words, and just are all thy ways. Now immolate the tongues, and mix the wine, Sacred to Neptune and the powers divine, The lamp of day is quench’d beneath the deep, And soft approach the balmy hours of sleep; Nor fits it to prolong the heavenly feast, Timeless, indecent, but retire to rest.”
So spake Jove’s daughter, the celestial maid, The sober train attended and obey’d. The sacred heralds on their hands around Pour’d the full urns; the youths the goblets crown’d; From bowl to bowl the homely beverage flows; While to the final sacrifice they rose. The tongues they cast upon the fragrant flame, And pour, above, the consecrated stream. And now, their thirst by copious draughts allay’d, The youthful hero and the Athenian maid Propose departure from the finish’d rite, And in their hollow bark to pass the night; But this hospitable sage denied, “Forbid it, Jove! and all the gods! (he cried), Thus from my walls and the much-loved son to send Of such a hero, and of such a friend! Me, as some needy peasant, would ye leave, Whom Heaven denies the blessing to relieve? Me would ye leave, who boast imperial sway, When beds of royal state invite your stay? No — long as life this mortal shall inspire, Or as my children imitate their sire. Here shall the wandering stranger find his home, And hospitable rites adorn the dome.”
“Well hast thou spoke (the blue-eyed maid replies), Beloved old man! benevolent as wise. Be the kind dictates of thy heart obey’d, And let thy words Telemachus persuade: He to thy palace shall thy steps pursue; I to the ship, to give the orders due, Prescribe directions and confirm the crew. For I alone sustain their naval cares, Who boast experience from these silver hairs; All youths the rest, whom to this journey move Like years, like tempers, and their prince’s love There in the vessel shall I pass the night; And, soon as morning paints the fields of light, I go to challenge from the Caucons bold A debt, contracted in the days of old, But this, thy guest, received with friendly care Let thy strong coursers swift to Sparta bear; Prepare thy chariot at the dawn of day, And be thy son companion of his way.”
Then, turning with the word, Minerva flies, And soars an eagle through the liquid skies. Vision divine! the throng’d spectators gaze In holy wonder fix’d, and still amaze. But chief the reverend sage admired; he took The hand of young Telemachus, and spoke: “Oh, happy youth! and favoured of the skies, Distinguished care of guardian deities! Whose early years for future worth engage, No vulgar manhood, no ignoble age. For lo! none other of the course above, Then she, the daughter of almighty Jove, Pallas herself, the war-triumphant maid; Confess’d is thine, as once thy fathers aid. So guide me, goddess! so propitious shine On me, my consort, and my royal line! A yearling bullock to thy name shall smoke, Untamed, unconscious of the galling yoke, With ample forehead, and yet tender horns, Whose budding honours ductile gold adorns.”
Submissive thus the hoary sire preferr’d His holy vow: the favouring goddess heard. Then, slowly rising, o’er the sandy space Precedes the father, follow’d by his race, (A long procession) timely marching home In comely order to the regal dome. There when arrived, on thrones around him placed, His sons and grandsons the wide circle graced. To these the hospitable sage, in sign Of social welcome, mix’d the racy wine (Late from the mellowing cask restored to light, By ten long years refined, and rosy bright). To Pallas high the foaming bowl he crown’d, And sprinkled large libations on the ground. Each drinks a full oblivion of his cares, And to the gifts of balmy sleep repairs. Deep in a rich alcove the prince was laid, And slept beneath the pompous colonnade; Fast by his side Pisistratus was spread (In age his equal) on a splendid bed: But in an inner court, securely closed, The reverend Nestor and his queen reposed.
When now Aurora, daughter of the dawn, With rosy lustre purpled o’er the lawn, The old man early rose, walk’d forth, and sate On polish’d stone before his palace gate; With unguents smooth the lucid marble shone, Where ancient Neleus sate, a rustic throne; But he descending to the infernal shade, Sage Nestor fill’d it, and the sceptre sway’d. His sons around him mild obeisance pay, And duteous take the orders of the day. First Eehephron and Stratius quit their bed; Then Perseus, Aretus, and Thrasymed; The last Pisistratus arose from rest: They came, and near him placed the stranger-guest. To these the senior thus declared his will: “My sons! the dictates of your sire fulfil. To Pallas, first of gods, prepare the feast, Who graced our rites, a more than mortal guest Let one, despatchful, bid some swain to lead A well-fed bullock from the grassy mead; One seek the harbour where the vessels moor, And bring thy friends, Telemachus! ashore (Leave only two the galley to attend); Another Laerceus must we send, Artist devine, whose skilful hands infold The victim’s horn with circumfusile gold. The rest may here the pious duty share, And bid the handmaids for the feast prepare, The seats to range, the fragrant wood to bring, And limpid waters from the living spring.”
He said, and busy each his care bestow’d; Already at the gates the bullock low’d, Already came the Ithacensian crew, The dexterous smith the tools already drew; His ponderous hammer and his anvil sound, And the strong tongs to turn the metal round. Nor was Minerva absent from the rite, She view’d her honours, and enjoyed the sight, With reverend hand the king presents the gold, Which round the intorted horns the gilder roll’d. So wrought as Pallas might with pride behold. Young Aretus from forth his bride bower Brought the full laver, o’er their hands to pour, And canisters of consecrated flour. Stratius and Echephron the victim led; The axe was held by warlike Thrasymed, In act to strike; before him Perseus stood, The vase extending to receive the blood. The king himself initiates to the power: Scatters with quivering hand the sacred flour, And the stream sprinkles; from the curling brows The hair collected in the fire he throws. Soon as due vows on every part were paid, And sacred wheat upon the victim laid, Strong Thrasymed discharged the speeding blow Full on his neck, and cut the nerves in two. Down sunk the heavy beast; the females round Maids, wives, and matrons, mix a shrilling sound. Nor scorned the queen the holy choir to join (The first born she, of old Clymenus’ line: In youth by Nestor loved, of spotless fame. And loved in age, Eurydice her name). From earth they rear him, struggling now with death; And Nestor’s youngest stops the vents of breath. The soul for ever flies; on all sides round Streams the black blood, and smokes upon the ground The beast they then divide and disunite The ribs and limbs, observant of the rite: On these, in double cauls involved with art, The choicest morsels lay from every part. The sacred sage before his altar stands, Turns the burnt offering with his holy hands, And pours the wine, and bids the flames aspire; The youth with instruments surround the fire. The thighs now sacrificed, and entrails dress’d, The assistants part, transfix, and broil the rest While these officious tend the rites divine, The last fair branch of the Nestorean line, Sweet Polycaste, took the pleasing toil To bathe the prince, and pour the fragrant oil. O’er his fair limbs a flowery vest he throw, And issued, like a god, to mortal view. His former seat beside the king he found (His people’s father with his peers around); All placed at ease the holy banquet join, And in the dazzling goblet laughs the wine.
The rage of thirst and hunger now suppress’d, The monarch turns him to his royal guest; And for the promised journey bids prepare The smooth hair’d horses, and the rapid car. Observant of his word, tire word scarce spoke, The sons obey, and join them to the yoke. Then bread and wine a ready handmaid brings, And presents, such as suit the state of kings. The glittering seat Telemachus ascends; His faithful guide Pisistratus attends; With hasty hand the ruling reins he drew; He lash’d the coursers, and the coursers flew. Beneath the bounding yoke alike they hold Their equal pace, and smoked along the field. The towers of Pylos sink, its views decay, Fields after fields fly back, till close of day; Then sunk the sun, and darken’d all the way.
To Pherae now, Diocleus’ stately seat (Of Alpheus’ race), the weary youths retreat. His house affords the hospitable rite, And pleased they sleep (the blessing of the night). But when Aurora, daughter of the dawn, With rosy lustre purpled o’er the lawn, Again they mount, their journey to renew, And from the sounding portico they flew. Along the waving fields their way they hold The fields receding as their chariot roll’d; Then slowly sunk the ruddy globe of light, And o’er the shaded landscape rush’d the night.