From Man Up

Ajax by Sophocles

Lines 1-133

Son of Laertes, ever do I behold thee
Scheming to snatch some vantage o’er thy foes.
And now among the tents that guard the ships
Of Ajax, camped at the army’s outmost verge,
Long have I watched thee hunting in his trail,
And scanning his fresh prints, to learn if now
He be within or forth. Skilled in the chase
Thou seemest, as a keen-nosed Spartan hound.
For the man but now has passed within, his face
And slaughterous hands streaming with sweat and blood.
No further need for thee to peer about
Inside these doors. But say what eager quest
Is thine, that I who know may give thee light.

Voice of Athena, dearest of Gods to me,
How clearly, though thou be invisible,
Do I hear thy call, and seize it with my soul,
As when a bronze-mouthed Tyrrhene trumpet sounds!
Rightly thou judgest that on a foe’s trail,
Broad-shielded Ajax, I range to and fro.
Him, and no other, I have long been tracking.
This very night against us he has wrought
A deed incredible, if in truth ’tis he.
For we know nothing sure, but drift in doubt.
Gladly I assumed the burden of this task.
For not long since we found that our whole spoil
Had been destroyed, both herds and flocks, slaughtered
By some man’s hand, their guardians dead beside them.
Now ’tis on him that all men lay this guilt:
And a scout who had seen him swiftly bounding
Across the plain alone with reeking sword,
Informed me and bore witness. I forthwith,
Darting in hot chase, now pick out his tracks,
But now, bewildered, know not whose they are.
Timely thou comest. As in past days, so
In days to come I am guided by thy hand.

I know it, Odysseus: so on the path betimes
A sentinel friendly to thy chase I came.

Dear mistress, do I labour to good purpose?

Know ’twas by yonder man these deeds were wrought.

And why did he so brandish a frenzied hand?

In grievous wrath for Achilles’ panoply.

Why then upon the flocks did he make this onslaught?

Your blood he deemed it was that stained his hand.

Was this outrage designed against the Greeks?

He had achieved it too, but for my vigilance.

What bold scheme could inspire such reckless daring?

By night he meant to steal on you alone.

Did he come near us? Did he reach his goal?

He stood already at the two chiefs’ doors.

What then withheld his eager hand from bloodshed?

’Twas I restrained him, casting on his eyes
O’ermastering notions of that baneful ecstasy,
That turned his rage on flocks and mingled droves
Of booty yet unshared, guarded by herdsmen.
Then plunging amid the thronging horns he slew,
Smiting on all sides; and one while he fancied
The Atreidae were the captives he was slaughtering,
Now ’twas some other chief on whom he fell.
And I, while thus he raved in maniac throes,
Urged him on, drove him into the baleful toils.
Thereafter, when he had wearied of such labours,
He bound with thongs such oxen as yet lived,
With all the sheep, and drove them to his tents,
As though his spoil were men, not horned cattle.
Now lashed together in the hut he tortures them.
But to thee too will I expose this madness,
That seeing thou mayst proclaim it to all the Greeks.
Boldly await him here, nor apprehend
Mischance; for I will turn aside his eyes,
Foiling his vision lest he see thy face.
[She calls to Ajax within the tent.]
Hearken, thou who art pinioning with cords
The wrists of captives; hither, I bid thee, come.
Thou, Ajax, hear me: come to thy tent’s door.

What dost thou, Athena? Do not summon him forth.

Abide in silence. Earn not the name of coward.

Nay, by the Gods, let him remain within.

What dost thou dread? Was he not once a man?

Yes, and to me a foeman, and still is.

To mock foes, is not that the sweetest mockery?

I am content he should remain indoors.

To look upon a madman art thou afeard?

Had he been sane, no fear had made me shrink.

Even now he shall not see thee, near as thou art.

How so, if still with the same eyes he sees?

His orbs will I make dark, though vision is theirs.

Well, all is possible, when ’tis a god contrives.

Stand then silent, abiding as thou art.

Stay I must; yet I fain would be far hence.

Ho, Ajax! Once again I summon thee.
So slight is thy regard for thine ally?

[Ajax appears in the tent door, with a blood-stained scourge in his hand.]

Oh hail, Athena! Hail thou Zeus-born maid!
Nobly hast thou stood by me. Now will I crown thee
With trophies all of gold for this rich conquest.

Thy words are welcome. But now tell me this:
Hast thou dyed well thy sword in the Argive host?

Such vaunt is mine. I disclaim not that glory.

Against the Atreidae didst thou arm thy hand?

So that Ajax nevermore shall they insult.

The men are dead, if rightly I take thy meaning.

Yes, dead. Now let them rob me of my arms.

’Tis well. And what then of Laertes’ son?
In what plight does he stand? Or has he escaped thee?

Wouldst thou know where is that accursed fox?

Even so-Odysseus, thine old adversary.

Goddess, a most dear captive in my tent
He sits. I do not mean him to die yet.

Till thou hast done what, gained what further vantage?

Till bound fast to a pillar beneath my roof —

What evil wilt thou inflict on the poor wretch?

His back the scourge must crimson ere he dies.

Nay, do not torture so the wretched man.

Athena, in all else will I do thy will;
But his shall be no other doom than this.

Thou then, since thy delight is to act thus,
Smite, spare not, abate nought of thy intent.

To my work I return: and thus I charge thee,
As now, so always fight thou upon my side.
[Ajax goes back into the tent.]

Seest thou, Odysseus, how great the strength of gods?
Whom couldst thou find more prudent than this man,
Or whom in act more valiant, when need called?

I know none nobler; and I pity him
In his misery, albeit he is my foe,
Since he is yoked fast to an evil doom.
My own lot I regard no less than his.
For I see well, nought else are we but mere
Phantoms, all we that live, mere fleeting shadows.

Warned therefore by his fate, never do thou
Thyself utter proud words against the gods;
Nor swell with insolence, if thou shouldst vanquish
Some rival by main strength or by wealth’s power.
For a day can bring all mortal greatness low,
And a day can lift it up. But the gods love
The wise of heart, the froward they abhor.

The complete text of Ajax


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