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THE ABDUCTION OF HELEN
OF COLUTHUS, A POET OF LYCOPOLIS
IN THE THEBAIS
Neither the ardor of fellow citizens urging base things, nor the countenance of a threatening tyrant, nor the South wind, stormy lord of the restless Adriatic, nor the great hand of thundering Jove shakes the just man, tenacious of purpose. If the world were to be stricken and collapse, its ruins would strike him, unafraid.
Horace, Odes III.iii.
TO THAT MOST ILLUSTRIOUS LORD, HENRY PERCY, EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND AND DISTINGUISHED BY MANY OTHER TITLES
Lately in Aonian fields, by the banks of the Phocis, when my Muse thirsted for Gorgonean waters, Apollo suggested that Coluthus become a Roman, and gave his aid on the marge of the Clarian fountain. Indeed, while he sat with me by the sacred waters, he uttered words such as these in heavenly tones, “Let me be the author of your counsel, as I am of your song — perhaps the counsel will be better than the song. There is a youth, a masculine Phoenix in your ocean-girt world, ruled by the holy Sibyl. Though his cheek be untouched by down, he equals his distinguished forebears with his youthful glory; he, the golden hope of his nation, will bear the olive in time of peace, but arms in that of war; when destiny creates pious peace for the goddess, he will be a child of Pallas, but when it brings wars to the god, he will be a son of Mars. Moreover, his brow wreathed with my laurel, he will be the praise and glory of the Pimplaean choir. For he has already begun to weave garlands with the Nymphs, and to ply meters with the goddesses of Hippocrene. I myself was there, when he sang of poor Amyntas’ fate in maternal tones and, enchanted by the wondrous sweetness of his plaintive tune, I fancied a new god was come to Parnassus. Then the Naiad Thamesina, Nereus’ fairest daughter, transfixed youthful Hylas in his soft breast, and Mercury dropped his shell and gave ear, as the dying swan lamented. So seek such a great man as patron for Coluthus, a man whom the gods and the Graces, that bright crew, adore. For who is more eminent than he for the venerable honor of his manners? Or born to a nobler station? Who surpasses him in wit, who is wiser in his first years? Who cultivates and adores the Muses more than he? Who is as loyal and dear a friend to his friend, he who stands as a sacred anchor for your fortunes? If such doubtful mists becloud these oracles that you cannot perceive who your writings must seek, he is Percy, called such per se for the famous deeds ascribed to his ancestors. And when this Perseus has Andromeda for a wife, there will not be, as they say, trouble from the North, but he will rise, an elderly Nereus, with a happy star.” This much said the wise god with his prophetic mouth. And so, noblest of men, do you not read with happy brow the things which are communicated to you by command of the god? Bah, away with doubtful, empty fears, there is no blemish on a Boeotian face. Come now, great man, let my Muse sing in your arms, so that Momus will deny her to be a slipper of Venus. When a better Apollo gives me a better song, my Thalia will sing Andromeda’s praise. Live long, a Phoenix enjoying Phoenician centuries, live above the sun when you have perished. Farewell.
Most devoted to your honor,
THE ABDUCTION OF HELEN
Trojan nymphs, fairest offspring of the Xanthus, you who often abandon the holy toys of your hands and the bindings of your hair on your father’s golden sands, and as a band have led the dances on Phyrgian Ida, having come forth from your chill streams and sonorous currents, recall for me the shepherd’s judgment, and the cause that compelled him to come down from the high mountains and, though ignorant of the sea, to make trial of the toils of the ocean. What business had he with ruinous ships? Why did a simple herdsman confound sea and earth? Why was a shepherd permitted to pronounce judgment on the goddesses of heaven? What manner of verdict ended the quarrel? Whence did he hear the praises of that Grecian bride, and her great repute? For you yourselves saw him sitting alone in Ida’s deserted vales, and Venus, the mother of the Graces, glorying in her triumph.
Once upon a time, when in the realm of Thessaly’s high mountains the marriage of Phthia’s lord was to be celebrated, and the steward of the gods bore cups to the banquet, there gathered there a bevy of the heaven-dwellers, that with torches they might accomplish fair Thetis’ rites. Jupiter came from highest heaven, Neptune from the waves, and shining Apollo, accompanied by the Muses, who, having quit Helicon, sang sweet tunes. And Juno, Jove’s sister-wife, followed him, and with no slothful step Venus, mother of Harmonia, came after her into the house of the biform Chiron. Persuasion was there, weaving nuptial garlands, she who bore gentle Love’s painted quiver. Minerva came too, doffing her crested helmet, though herself a stranger to marriage. Nor did Phoebus’ lovely sister Dictynna delay in her arrival, unschooled in manners though she was. And, like a guest come to Vulcan’s homestead, Mars joined the festive dances, his armor laid aside. Discord alone was absent from this great assembly, for Peleus and Chiron wanted her to keep away from their celebrations, both being desirous of peace. Bacchus shook his golden locks hither and thither, letting his tresses flow in the breeze. Meanwhile, as a heifer, bit by a furious gadfly, impatiently flees the grassy pastures, and with frantic step wanders amidst the forest brambles, in its errant frenzy ruining the bracken, so Discord went a-wandering, as if wounded by this cruel blow, as she yearned to disturb the gods’ feasting with quarrels. She would often stand upright, and then sit down again, and with her hand attempt (though in vain) to lift a rock from the ground. and by her striking to produce a roaring flame from veins of hard flint, and also free the Titans from their locked caverns, so that with fire they might attack heaven and the home of the Thunderer. But, gripped by rage as she was, she shrank from Mulciber, that lord of eternal flame and iron. Next she decided, by rousing shields and arms, to terrify the gods’ carefree minds by a threatening din. But soon, deep within her heart, she pondered a newer plan, fearing the powers of shield-bearing Mars. For there entered her mind the golden apples of the Hesperides, the fertile seeds of a noble war. Next, with her hand she plucked an apple, the origin of quarrels, and straightway tossed it into the banquet, by that device stirring up strife and quarrels. Jove’s consort Juno, proud of her marriage to the Thunderer, claimed its gold for herself, as being the worthiest. Next, thinking herself superior to the two others, mother Venus claimed as being sweet love’s reward. But the ruler of the gods, to remove the bitter squabble, addressed his Pleiad-born son, and commanded him as follows:
“My son, if you know Paris, the beardless son of the Trojan king who sits by pleasant streams and pastures his kine in Ida’s trackless glades, give him this apple, and ask him to pass judgment on the goddess’ beauty, on their starry eyes, the comeliness of their faces, and let only she rejoice in the apple’s precious weight who strikes the lad as fairer than the others.”
Saturn, born Jupiter thus instructed the winged god; he quickly carried out his father’s bidding, and paid deserved duty to the goddesses as they traveled. All clad themselves in gold-decked garments, but wily Venus in particular spread out her veil. The clasp of her hair breathed a divine fragrance, and gems adorned her locks. And thus with her sweet voice she addressed the gentle Loves:
“Oh help your mother now, my children, for today a rustic opinion judges my charms, and I fear Priam’s boy will not approve me, and that another will bear off the palm, stolen from me. For Jove’s consort is called the most sweet nurse of the Graces, mother of scepters, and divine kingmaker, and Pallas is named as the great queen of battles. I alone am unwarlike, nor do I grasp the high scepters of kings, nor the weaponry of Mars. But why do I fear in vain? In lieu of a fleet lance, I have a chest, by whose honey the Loves are subdued, and I shoot shafts, nor does my bow fail. Whatever brides are captivated by my chest often grieve heavily, but life overcomes their sorrow.” So spoke Cypris, noble for her rosy fingers, and when her twin Cupids had heard this with a wide-open ear, they heaped praises and good cheer on their darling mother.
At length Mercury, that god of Arcady, came to Mt. Ida and found Paris, who was pasturing his father’s sheep on one side of the stream of winding Anaurus, for he had separated his tender flock from his kine, placing his fleecy sheep on one side and his herd on the other. A goatskin hung at his back, which reached down and touched the top of his leg. His shepherd’s crook lay on the ground, he walked slowly to the rustic sounds of his pipe as he played a sweet tune on his many-holed reed. For often, as he filled the nearby bracken with his tunes, he abandoned care for his bulls and his sheep. And now, plying his light reeds, as rustics do, he played music honoring Mercury and Pan. His dogs did not bark, nor did any bull bellow; rather, echo alone answered with uncertain tones and raised her cry, ringing wide through the peaks of the Phrygian hills, and the fat bulls, sated with the tender grass, lay down on their flanks, pressing down the earth. Then in truth, sweetly singing among the trees in the cool shadows, the shepherd chanced to see Mercury hastening towards him, and in terror he hastily sprang up from the soft grass, fleeing the appearance of the goddesses; his pipes abandoned among the shrubs and greenery, the sweet singer’s voice was suddenly interrupted. But the god of Arcady addressed the frightened lad with words such as these:
“Set aside your fear, shepherd, and for a little while ignore your flocks. By your arbitration put an end to the goddess’ quarrel, for you must give this lovely fruit to whichever of the three shall seem to you to excel the others in beauty.” And when he had ended, Priam’s son began to lift his blinking eyes to their celestial faces, contemplating their gray eyes, their ivory necks. And he carefully inspected their heads, glittering with gems and gold, their noble shoulders, their veils flowing in the breezes, and the marks of their feet. And straightway Minerva grasped the smiling boy’s hands and spoke as follows:
“Come now, son of Priam. Come hither, abandoning Juno and the Cyprus-born goddess, that gentle mistress of the bedchamber, and give me, the goddess of battles, your praises. If, as is said, the Trojan scepter is destined for you, how can you oppose Minerva in security, since is given me to defend citizens by my aid when savage wars threaten dire evil? I myself will enhance your powers and teach you to fight.” Wise Pallas had scarce made an end to these words, when Juno, praiseworthy for her snow-white arms, took up the speech, and thus spoke with sweet voice:
“If you shall judge me to be the fairest of aspect, pretty boy, and adjudge me worthy of the golden apple as a prize, in happiness you shall rule all Asia. What business have you with wars? What has a king to do with battle? He who governs rules bold and craven alike. The laurel wreath does not always crown Bellona’s captains: often they die in the forefront of battle.”
Saturn’s daughter gave her charge to Paris with words such as these. But Cypris, loosening her gown, more sweetly showed her bared bosom, nor was she at all ashamed to expose her swelling breasts to the gentle breezes. Then, holding aloft the sweet girdle of the Loves, she thus addressed the boy:
“You should despise warfare, Paris, and abandon the harsh weight of government; let my beauty’s gifts please you. I have no care for battles, for why should Venus wear the aegis? A woman should not prevail by weaponry, but by her ivory face. Thanks to me, you shall have a fair bride instead of strength, and enjoy Helen’s bed instead of government. Sparta, after your Troy, will see you as a bridegroom.” She had not yet ceased praying with kindly words, when the Phrygian shepherd bestowed on Venus the apple brighter than gold, the noble prize for beauty but the unhappy seed of war and grave evils. And she, grasping the gift in her hand, thus began to level taunts at her fellow goddesses in saucy tones:
“Yield now, companions in strife, yield me the palm: glory accompanies the beauty I have always cultivated. They say, oh Juno, famous mother of Mars, that once you bore the fair-haired Graces. But they have all failed you today, nor has a single one borne you aid. Oh patroness of shields, and mother of the lame god, Mars has failed you, no matter how much he rages with the spear, and your Vulcan who wrests fire from steel. And you, Minerva, why boast so of such vain things, you whom no happy marriage brought forth, lacking a mother, but the beating of many axes made you spring forth from your father’s star-bearing head with out childbirth? Why encase your womanly limbs in hard brass? Why shun embraces as you betake yourself to Mars’ encampments, ignorant of marriage, ignorant of tranquil peace? Surely you know that both womanly bodies and those of men, worn down by the excessive toils of war, lose both all their strength and also the praise of unsullied beauty?”
Venus spoke such insulting words to Minerva, and by her wiles won beauty’s prize, ruinous to cities, and mocked her companions with bitter jests. Unlucky Paris already felt the fires in his silent breast, completely intent on Menelaus’ wife, whom he did not know. And straightway he led men skilled in Daedalus’ arts into the dark oak forest, employing the aid and advice of ruinous Phereclus. For out of the forest wood he built a swift ship for Alexander, hewing it with his sharp steel. And now the lad, the peak of his father’s mountain abandoned, sailed the treacherous sea on a sail-bearing ship, and with him went Venus herself, by whose means his love had been born, Venus, to whom he often made sacrifice on the dry shore as he clove the azure waters of the Phryxaean sea. But he saw signs foretelling great ills. For a dark cyclone overhung the glassy waters in that region surveyed by both the Bears, which send down a rapid downpour from its painted cloud, and a towering wave of the sea dashed against the oars. At length he saw the Dardanian parapets recede and the land of Pergamum: driven by the wind and the black currents, he sailed by the shores of the Ismarian lake. Afterwards, where Thracian Pangaeon nods its lofty peak, he caught sight of Phyllis’ soft tomb, she who yielded to her miserable love, and of the ground she is said to have circled nine times while with sad lamenting she grieved for her absent lover Demophon, and complained that he had not yet returned from Attic Athens. Hence, gliding with swift course along the shores of rich Thessaly, he saw the towers of which Greece boasts, Phthia, fertile in men, and broad Mycenae. And then he saw those pastures encircled by the waters of Eurymanthus, and the Atreid’s Sparta, famed for its fair maidens, which lies by Eurotas’ streams. Now he marveled at lovely Therapnae nearby, situated in a giant glade, bereft of light. He was not far from the city and, carried over the water by peaceful rowing, he soon reached land, and with busy hand a sailor threw a loose rope from the prow and fixed it on the beach. Bathed in pure water, Paris came onto the high shore, and he walked, planting his steps daintily, lest he befoul his snow-white feet with dust, and lest by going too fast and striking he air he allow he let his flowing locks be tangled by the breeze. Here, looking round at the high buildings of this people, and the gods’ temples standing nearby, he remarked on the city’s splendor, and the gilt statue of their native Minerva. But now from a distance he gazed at Hyacinthus’ eager expression, carved on his statue, showing him as the boy whom Carneian Apollo once played with, and the throng Amyclae’s people feared, lest Latona would grow angry at Jove and do away with him. Phoebus did not know of Zephyrus’ rival fires, and with how much love he was pursuing the boy. But earth, pitying the afflicted god’s complaint, produced a purple flower as a consolation for this sad lover, and the boy’s initial is stamped on the flower.
Now Paris stood before the Atreid’s court and halls, by a divine gift splendid in his exceeding beauty. Thyone had not borne such a son when seduced by Jove. Oh, though Jupiter himself was your father, Bacchus, let me tell this truth: for celestial beauty shone on his Phrygian face. Meanwhile Tyndaris’ daughter, unaware of what was transpiring, came out of her chamber and straightway came down to her hall. Seeing Paris standing at her threshold, such a handsome youth, she gently led him into the midmost hall, and bade him sit next to her, where stood a newly-built silver chair. She could not fill her eyes or heart in gazing at him. For she imagined that Venus’ snow-white son was standing there, the author of love’s flames, the servant of the bedchamber, until she saw that there was no missile-bearing quiver on his back. Often she thought she was looking at Lyaeus, lord of the vine, such was the beauty of his fair complexion. Though stupefied, at length she opened her mouth: “Guest, pray tell me of what race you are sprung, tell me your noble race, your homeland. Your most honorable appearance shows that you are born of royal stock, yet I do not remember seeing you among the Argives. Pylos and Neleus’ land did not produce you. I know Antilochus, but you are not descended from him. Nor do you inhabit tranquil Phthia, excellent for its sons, for I am familiar with the entire house of Aeacus, what kind of a man is Peleus, how great is Telamon’s glory, the ways of Patroclus, and the strength of stout Achilles.”
Thus the daughter of Tyndarus asked, scorched by secret fires, and he responded with gentle words: “Ilium, if you chance to have heard of it, lies in Phrygian land. Teamed with Neptune, Apollo raised its walls. Here a Trojan king rules, who happily traces his pedigree from high Jove. There I am preeminent and govern all civil affairs, and am the son of Priam, rich with gold, and I am of the race of Dardanus; and Dardanus too, lady, is descended from all-powerful Jove. For the gods of heaven, though they be immortal, often undertake mortal toils. Thus the walls of the Trojan city trust up, destined never to perish, built by the great effort of Neptune and Phoebus. I myself settled the quarrels and contendings of the goddesses, I passed judgment on the gods, and by my decision Venus’ fairest beauty won the palm. I passed judgment on the gods, and by my decision Venus’ fairest beauty won the palm. Hence she promised me a lover worthy of my deserts, Tyndarus’ daughter Helen, descended from the Thunderer, for whose sake I rowed over so many waters. Now, therefore, let us marry, since Venus herself commands. Do not scorn me as a husband, resisting the bidding of the great goddess. Why say more to you, to whom everything is known? You yourself know that the son of Atreus is descended from pusillanimous forebears, unworthy to share your bed, since you surpass all Greek wives in beauty. For your womenfolk are weaker, and uglier with their disheveled limbs, and for the most part look more like men.”
He made an ending, but she did not raise her fair countenance from the ground, long perplexed and struck with amazement. But at length she broke the silence: “Oh guest, for a long time I have hoped to see the Neptunian walls of your homeland, the labors of Phoebus, and also those meadows green with fragrant grass where Apollo, wandering by himself, often tended his shambling kine before the battlements of a carefree Troy. Now there lead me from Sparta to Priam’s walls. I shall obey you and Venus, that kindly mistress of marriage, and I shall visit foreign shores. Nor do I much care, if Menelaus discovers I have submitted to your will in the city of Ilium.”
When this most beautiful bride had made her pact with Paris, dark night now gave peace to the world, and Aurora, again bringing daylight, closed the portals of sleep, of which one is said to be horn, by which a ready exit is given to true images. But the other, made of pure ivory, gleams, and by it the god’s cheating dreams are sent into the world. Straightway on his ship the Priam-born guest abducted his Spartan darling from the Atreid’s bedchamber, rejoicing in the promised gift of the foam-born goddess. Thus the cargo of deadly war sought Troy. And indeed, when Aurora had routed the night, Hermione cast her veil to the winds and wept bitterly. The complaining girl summoned her handmaids from their beds, and with sad voice thus addressed them:
“Where has my mother gone, my servants, and left me abandoned, she who a little time ago was sharing a single chamber with me, and was seizing peaceful sleep in the same bed?” Thus she spoke, weeping, and they wept with her; with one mind they all surrounded their mistress, and with such advice as this attempted to restrain her lamentation: “Be of good cheer, nor yield yourself to mad grief, for soon your mother will return unscathed. Don’t you see how you harm your eyes by crying, how you destroy your ruddy cheeks and handsome visage? Beauty’s grace withers because of excessive grieving. While, perchance, by her self she sought the Nymphs’ dances, she turned her unknowing steps from the right path and now mournfully wanders the Hours’ fields, or sits on the ground, delayed on the sunny earth. Or perhaps she is going to bathe her body in her paternal stream, and is lingering in the region of the river Eurotas.” But Hermione sadly answered them:
“Indeed, she knows the mountains, and she knows the rivers, and I know she is familiar with the path over the meadow and the tranquil field of roses. But why, servants, trouble my ears with such statements? The stars have gone to bed, yet she rests on the crags. And now the stars return, but she has not come back. Oh mother, in what fields, on what mountains are you wandering? Have the beasts snatched you as prey? But even every beast loathes to violate the offspring of the great Thunderer. Or have you truly fallen to the plain from a cliff’s height, your limbs torn to shreds in a wild glade? I myself have wandered everywhere through the leafy forests, examining the tree branches and the very leaves, yet I have found nothing: the forest is blameless. And neither does she float on the waters of sacred Eurotas, her life lost beneath its fresh stream. Furthermore, that most peaceful crew dwells in its currents, the Naiads, which is scarce ever injurious to gentle girls.”
Thus, thus the maid groaned and, drooping her neck, she fell into a sleep, which is the comrade of death. For one birth produced them both, and it seems necessary for sleep to perform the office of its elder brother. And so, her cheeks stained by lengthy tears, the girl ended her sad lamentations with deep slumber. Hermione, plunged in such care and sleep, and seeing her mother in a false dream, said these sad words, though amazed and angry:
“Oh my mother, fleeing yesterday from these halls, you obliged me to grieve in this ancestral bed, heavy with sleep. What was I to do, thus left alone? What peaks, what mountains did I not seek in my wandering? Thus do you seek bondage to the wanton goddess?”
Hearing this, Menelaus’ consort made answer: “Daughter, though you are sad, do not rail at me, your mother, who has suffered misfortunes. The Priam-born lord, who sought me with hidden guile, has taken me away with him.”
Straightway Hermione, waking from her sad sleep, leapt up, and when she saw her mother absent from the bed, she filled the air with yet greater lamentations. “Oh you birds who cleave the liquid air on your pinions, without delay go and with swift wings fly quickly to azure Crete. Tell Menelaus what manner of guest has just now stolen the splendor of his bedchamber from Spartan lands.”
While the maiden assaulted the golden stars with her lamentation and poured forth piteous complaints with her voice, in vain, the bridegroom rowed his bride from Taenarum over the flood of the Aeolian sea and past the cities of the Cicones to Trojan harbors. But when from the high palace battlements Cassandra saw her approach the Trojan homeland, she took off the precious gold headband from her hair, and with angry nails tore at her flowing locks. And yet Troy threw open her gates on their creaking hinges and sang a happy victory-hymn for Paris on his return, with applause greeting their fellow citizen, the author of their evils.