The Life and Death of Jason


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The Fleece taken from the temple. The departure of Argo. The death of Absyrtus.

BUT when they reached the precinct of the God,
And off the hallowed turf their feet now trod,
Medea turned to Jason, and she said:--
O love, turn round, and note the goodlihead
My father's palace shows beneath the stars.
Bethink thee of the men grown old in wars,
Who do my bidding; what delights I have,
How many ladies lie in wait to save
My life from toil and carefulness, and think
How sweet a cup I have been used to drink,
And how I cast it to the ground for thee.
Upon the day thou weariest of me,
I wish that thou mayst somewhat think of this,
And 'twixt thy new-found kisses, and the bliss
Of something sweeter than thine old delight,
Remember thee a little of this night
Of marvels, and this starlit, silent place,
And these two lovers standing face to face.
O love, he said, by what thing shall I swear
That while I live thou shalt not be less dear
Than thou art now? Nay, sweet, she said, let be;
Wert thou more fickle than the restless sea,
Still should I love thee, knowing thee for such;
Whom I know not, indeed, but fear the touch
Of Fortune's hand when she beholds our bliss,

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And knows that nought is good to me but this.
BUT now be ready, for I long full sore
To hear the merry dashing of the oar,
And feel the freshness of the following breeze
That sets me free, and sniff the rough salt seas.
Look! yonder thou mayst see armed shadows steal
Down to the quays, the guiders of thy keel;
Now follow me, though little shalt thou do
To gain this thing, if Hecate be true
Unto her servant. Nay, draw not thy sword,
And, for thy life, speak not a single word
Until I bid thee, else may all be lost,
And of this game our lives yet pay the cost.
THEN toward the brazen temple-door she went,
Wherefrom, half open, a faint gleam was sent;
For little need of lock it had forsooth,
Because its sleepless guardian knew no ruth,
And had no lust for precious things or gold;
Whom, drawing near, Jason could now behold,
As back Medea thrust the heavy door,
For prone he lay upon the gleaming floor,
Not moving, though his restless glittering eyes
Left them no hope of wile or of surprise.
Hideous he was, where all things else were fair;
Dull-skinned, foul-spotted, with lank rusty hair
About his neck; and hooked yellow claws
Just showed from 'neath his belly and huge jaws,
Closed in the hideous semblance of a smile.
Then Jason shuddered, wondering with what guile
That fair king's daughter such a beast could tame,
And of his sheathed sword had but little shame.
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BUT being within the doors, both mantle grey
And heavy gown Medea cast away,
And in thin clinging silk alone was clad,
And round her neck a golden chain she had,
Whereto was hung a harp of silver white.
Then the great dragon, at that glittering sight,
Raised himself up upon his loathly feet,
As if to meet her, while her fingers sweet
Already moved amongst the golden strings,
Preluding nameless and delicious things;
But now she beckoned Jason to her side,
For slowly towards them 'gan the beast to glide,
And when close to his love the hero came,
She whispered breathlessly: On me the blame
If here we perish; if I give the word,
Then know that all is lost, and draw thy sword,
And manlike die in battle with the beast;
So dying shalt thou fail to see at least
This body thou desiredst so to see,
In thy despite here mangled wretchedly.
Peace, for he cometh! O thou Goddess bright,
What help wilt thou be unto me this night?
So murmured she, while ceaselessly she drew
Her fingers through the strings, and fuller grew
The tinkling music, but the beast drawn nigh
Went slower still, and turning presently
Began to move around them in a ring.
And as he went, there fell a strange rattling
Of his dry scales; but as he turned, she turned,
Nor failed to meet the eyes that on her burned
With steadfast eyes, and, lastly, clear and strong
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Her voice broke forth in sweet melodious song:
EVIL thing, what brought thee here
To be a wonder and a fear
Unto the river-haunting folk?
Was it the God of Day that broke
The shadow of thy windless trees,
Gleaming from golden palaces,
And shod with light, and armed with light,
Made thy slime stone, and day thy night,
And drove thee forth unwillingly
Within his golden house to lie?
OR was it the slim messenger,
Who, treading softly, free from fear,
Beguiled thee with his smiling face
From out thy dim abiding place,
To follow him and set thee down
Midst of this twice-washed royal town?
OR, was it rather the dread Lord
Who slayeth without spear or sword,
And with the flower-culling maid
Of Enna, dwelleth in the shade,
Who with stern voice compelling thee,
Hath set thee here, our bane to be?
OR was it Venus, seeking far
A sleepless guard 'gainst grief and war,
Who, journeying through thy dismal land,
Beside the heavy lake did stand,
And with no word, but very sight
Of tender limbs and bosom white,
Drew forth thy scaly feet and hard,
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To follow over rock and shard?
OR rather, thy dull, waveless lake
Didst thou not leave for her dread sake,
Who, passing swift from glade to glade,
The forest-dwellers makes afraid
With shimmering of her silver bow
And dreadful arrows? Even so
I bid thee now to yield to me,
Her maid, who overmastered thee,
The Three-formed dreadful one who reigns
In heaven and in the fiery plains,
But on the green earth best of all.
LO, now thine upraised crest let fall,
Relax thy limbs, let both thine eyes
Be closed, and bestial fantasies
Fill thy dull head till dawn of day
And we are far upon our way.
AS thus she sung the beast seemed not to hear
Her words at first, but ever drew anear,
Circling about them, and Medea's face
Grew pale unto the lips, though still the place
Rung with the piercing sweetness of her song;
But slower soon he dragged his length along,
And on his limbs he tottered, till at last
All feebly by the wondering prince he passed,
And whining to Medea's feet he crept,
With eyes half closed, as though well-nigh he slept,
And there before her laid his head adown;

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Who, shuddering, on his wrinkled neck and brown
Set her white foot, and whispered: Haste, O love!
Behold the keys; haste! while the Gods above
Are friendly to us; there behold the shrine
Where thou canst see the lamp of silver shine.
Nay, draw not death upon both thee and me
With fearless kisses; fear, until the sea
Shall fold green arms about us lovingly,
And kindly Venus to thy keel be nigh.
Then lightly from her soft side Jason stept,
While still upon the beast her foot she kept,
Still murmuring gently many an unknown word,
As when through half-shut casements the brown bird
We hearken when the night is come in June,
And thick-leaved woods are 'twixt us and his tune.
BUT Jason, going swiftly with good heart,
Came to the wished-for shrine built all apart
Midmost the temple, that on pillars stood
Of jasper green, and marble red as blood,
All white itself and carven cunningly
With Neptune bringing from the wavy sea
The golden shining ram of Athamas;
And the first door thereof of silver was,
Wrought over with a golden glittering sun
That seemed well-nigh alike the heavenly one.
Such art therein the cunningest of men
Had used; which little Jason heeded then,
But thrusting in the lock the smallest key
Of those he bore, it opened easily;
And then five others, neither wrought of gold,
Nor carved with tales, nor lovely to behold,
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He opened; but before the last one stayed
His hand, wherein the heavy key he weighed,
And pondering, spake a low and muttered word:
The prize is reached, which yet I am afeard
To draw unto me; since I know indeed,
That henceforth war and toil shall be my meed.
Too late to fear! it was too late, the hour
I left the grey cliffs and the beechen bower,
So here I take hard life and deathless praise,
Who once was fain of nought but quiet days,
And painless life, not empty of delight;
I, who shall now be quickener of the fight,
Named by a great name…a far babbled name,
The ceaseless seeker after praise and fame.
May all be well, and on the noisy ways
Still may I find some wealth of happy days.
Therewith he threw the last door open wide,
Whose hammered iron did the marvel hide,
And shut his dazzled eyes, and stretched his hands
Out toward the sea-born wonder of all lands,
And plunged them deep within the locks of gold,
Grasping the Fleece within his mighty hold.
WHICH when Medea saw, her gown of grey
She caught up from the ground, and drew away
Her wearied foot from off the rugged beast,
And while from her soft strain she never ceased,
In the dull folds she hid her silk from sight,
And then, as bending 'neath the burden bright,
Jason drew nigh, joyful, yet still afraid,
She met him, and her wide grey mantle laid
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Over the fleece, whispering: Make no delay;
He sleeps, who never slept by night or day
Till now; nor will his charmed sleep be long.
Light-foot am I, and sure thine arms are strong;
Haste, then! No word! nor turn thine eyes aback,
As he who erst on Hermes' shadowy track
Turned round to see once more the twice-lost face.
THEN swiftly did they leave the dreadful place,
Turning no look behind, and reached the street,
That with familiar look and kind did greet
Those wanderers, mazed with marvels and with fear.
And so, unchallenged, did they draw anear
The long white quays, and at the street's end now
Beheld the ships' masts standing row by row
Stark black against the stars: then cautiously
Peered Jason forth, ere they took heart to try
The open starlit place; but nought he saw
Except the night-wind twitching the loose straw
From half-unloaded keels, and nought he heard
But the strange twittering of a caged green bird
Within an Indian ship, and from the hill
A distant baying: dead night lay so still,
Somewhat they doubted; natheless forth they passed,
And Argo's painted sides they reached at last.
On whom down-looking, scarce more noise they heard
Than from the other ships; some muttered word,
Some creaking of the timbers, as the tide
Ran gurgling seaward past her shielded side.
Then Jason knelt, and whispered: Wise be ye,
O fair companions on the pathless sea,
But come, Erginus, Nestor, and ye twain
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Of Lacedæmon, to behold my gain;
Take me amongst you, neither be afraid
To take withal this gold, and this fair maid.
Yare!...for the ebb runs strongly towards the sea,
The east wind drives the rack to Thessaly.
And lightly do such kings as this one sleep
If now and then small watch their servants keep.
Then saw Medea men like shadows grey,
Rise from the darksome decks, who took straightway
With murmured joy, from Jason's outstretched hands,
The conquered Fleece, the wonder of all lands,
While with strong arms he raised the royal maid,
And in their hold the precious burthen laid,
And scarce her dainty feet could touch the deck,
Ere down he leapt, and little now did reck
That loudly clanged his armour therewithal.
But, turning townward, did Medea call:
O noble Jason, and ye heroes strong,
To sea, to sea! Nor, pray ye loiter long;
For surely shall ye see the beacons flare
Ere in mid stream ye are, and running fair
On toward the sea with tide, and oar, and sail.
My father wakes, nor bides he to bewail
His loss and me; I see his turret gleam
As he goes towards the beacon, and down stream
Absyrtus lurks before the sandy bar
In mighty keel well manned and dight for war.
But as she spoke, rattling the cable slipped
From out the hawse-hole, and the long oars dipped
As from the quays the heroes pushed away,
And in the loosened sail the wind 'gan play;
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But e'en as they unto the stroke leaned back,
And Naulplius, catching at the main-sheet slack
Had drawn it taut, out flared the beacon wide,
Lighting the waves, and they heard folk who cried:
Awake, awake, awake, O Colchian folk!
And all about the blare of horns outbroke,
As watch-tower answered watch-tower down the stream,
Where far below they saw the bale-fires gleam;
And galloping of horses now they heard,
And clang of arms, and cries of men afeard;
For now the merchant mariners who lay
About the town, thought surely an ill day
Had dawned upon them while they slept at ease,
And, half awake, pushed madly from the quays
With crash of breaking oars and meeting ships,
And cries and curses from outlandish lips;
So fell the quiet night to turmoil sore,
While in the towers, high over din and roar,
Melodiously the bells began to ring.
BUT Argo, leaping forward to the swing
Of measured oars, and, leaning to the breeze,
Sped swiftly 'twixt the dark and whispering trees;
Nor longer now the heroes silence kept,
So joyously their hearts within them leapt,
But loud they shouted, seeing the Golden Fell
Laid heaped before them, and longed sore to tell
Their fair adventure to the maids of Greece;
And as the mingled noises did decrease
With added distance, and behind them night
Grew pale with coming of the eastern light,
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Across the strings his fingers Orpheus drew,
And through the woods-his winged music flew:
O SURELY, now the fisherman
Draws homeward through the water wan
Across the bay we know so well,
And in the sheltered chalky dell
The shepherd stirs; and now afield
They drive the team with white wand peeled,
Muttering across the barley-bread
At daily toil and dreary-head.
AND midst them all, perchance, my love
Is waking, and doth gently move
And stretch her soft arms out to me,
Forgetting thousand leagues of sea;
And now her body I behold,
Unhidden but by hair of gold,
And now the silver waters kiss,
The crown of all delight and bliss.
And now I see her bind her hair
And do upon her raiment fair;
And now before the altar stand,
With incense in her outstretched hand,
To supplicate the Gods for me;
AH, one day landing from the sea,
Amid the maidens shall I hear
Her voice in praise, and see her near,
Holding the gold-wrapt laurel crown,
'Midst of the shouting, wondering town!
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SO sung he joyously, nor knew that they
Must wander yet for many an evil day
Or ever the dread Gods should let them come
Back to the white walls of their long-left home.
BUT on the shouting heroes gazed adown
The foundress of their triumph and renown,
And to her lover's side still drew anear,
With heart now swelled with joy, now sick with fear,
And cheeks now flushed with love, now pale and wan,
As now she thought upon that goodly man,
And now on the uncertain, dreadful Gods,
And now upon her father, and the odds
He well might raise against the reckless crew,
For all his mighty power full well she knew;
No wonder therefore if her heart grew cold,
And if her wretched self she did behold,
Led helpless through some old familiar place,
With none to turn on her a pitying face,
Unto the death in life, she still might win;
And yet, if she should ‘scapethe meed of sin
This once, the world was fair and bright enough,
And love there was to lead her o'er the rough
Of life, and love to crown her head with flowers,
And fill her days and nights with happy hours.
NOW swift beneath the oar-strokes Argo flew,
While the sun rose behind them, and they drew
Unto the river's mouth, nor failed to see
Absyrtus' galley waiting watchfully
Betwixt them and the white-topped turbid bar.

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Therefore they gat them ready for the war,
With joyful hearts, for sharp they sniffed the sea,
And saw the great waves tumbling green and free
Outside the bar upon the way to Greece,
The rough green way to glory and sweet peace.
THEN to the prow gat Jason, and the maid
Must needs be with him, though right sore afraid,
As nearing now the Colchian ship, they hung
On balanced oars; but the wild Arcas strung
His deadly bow, and clomb into the top.
Then Jason cried: Absyrtus, will ye stop
Our peaceful keel, or let us take the main?
For of thy slaying nowise are we fain
If we may pass unfoughten, therefore say,
What is it thou wilt have this dawn of day?
Now on the other prow Absyrtus stood,
His visage red with eager wrathful blood,
And in his right hand shook a mighty spear,
And said: O seafarers, ye pass not here,
For gifts or prayers, but if it must be so,
Over our sunken bulwarks shall ye
Nor ask me why, for thus my father wills,
Yet, as I now behold you, my heart thrills
With wrath indeed; and hearken for what cause!
That ye against all friendship and good laws
Bear off my sister with you; wherefore now
Mars give you courage and a brazen brow!
That ye may try this dangerous pass in vain,
For soothly of your slaying am I fain.
Then Jason wrathfully threw up his head,
But ere the shout came, fair Medea said,
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In trembling whisper thrilling through his ear:
Haste, quick upon them! if before is fear,
Behind is death! Then Jason turning, saw
A tall ship staggering with the gusty flaw,
Just entering the long reach where they were,
And heard her horns through the fresh morning air.
Then lifted he his hand, and with a cry
Back flew the balanced oars full orderly,
And toward the doomed ship mighty Argo passed;
Thereon Absyrtus shouted loud, and cast
His spear at Jason, that before his feet
Stuck in the deck; then out the arrows fleet
Burst from the Colchians; and scarce did they spare
Medea's trembling side and bosom fair;
But Jason, roaring as the lioness
When round her helpless whelps the hunters press,
Whirled round his head his mighty brass-bound spear
That flying, smote the Prince beneath the ear,
As Arcas' arrow sank into his side.
Then falling, scarce he met the rushing tide,
Ere Argo's mighty prow had dashed apart
The huddled oars, and through the fair ship's heart
Had thrust her iron beak, and the green wave
Rushed in as rush the waters through a cave
That tunnels half a sea-girt lonely rock.
Then drawing swiftly backward from the shock,
And heeding not the cries of fear and woe,
They left the waters dealing with their foe;
And at the following ship threw back a shout,
And seaward o'er the bar drave Argo out.
Then joyful felt all men as now at last
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From hill to green hill of the sea they passed;
But chiefly joyed Medea, as now grew
The Colchian hills behind them faint and blue,
And like a white speck showed the following ship.
There 'neath the canopy, lip pressed to lip,
They sat and told their love, till scarce he thought
What precious burden back to Greece he brought
Besides the maid, nor for his kingdom cared,
As on her beauty with wet eyes he stared,
And heard her sweet voice soft as in a dream,
When all seems gained, and trouble dead doth seem.
SO passed this day, and she no less forgot
That wreck upon the bar, the evil spot,
Red with a brother's blood, where long was stayed
The wrathful king as from the stream he weighed
The bleeding body of his well-loved son.
LO in such wise their journey was begun,
And so began short love and long decay,
Sorrow that bides and joy that fleets away. Notes Book IX



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