Martin Robertson

Now and Then

Pelopia and Thyestes


Under the spring sun moves the innocent band

white-dressed, green garlanded, under the blue

bright sky, keeping their rhythm fairly true,

snaking in line or circle, hand in hand

between temple and altar and the crowd

of worshippers, the crowded offerings,

statues, tripods, the rest, to ringing strings

and high pipe, pretty and innocently proud.

But at such fêtes, that honour may be done

duly to deity, fine steers are brought;

and by the altar where they slashed the throat

blood stood in puddles, slopped on grass and stone.

The leader skirts these hazards.  Several more

follow her skill.  One, dreaming after these,

treads in the slippery mess, skids to her knees,

gets up, her dress and hands dripping with gore.

Red smears down her white skirt, the red of shame

hot in her face, friends giggling, crowd’s rude cracks

barking about her, the poor child makes tracks

out of the temenos.  Outside she came

to silence—or rather to cicada-shrill

stillness, where thickly-bushed steep mountain-side

broke to a torrent summer had not yet dried.

On hard bare feet she hurried down the hill.


The maddened father, fed

by his own brother’s hate

his own children for meat,

learning the horror, fled

… night and day, day and night…

came to the Delphic fane,

burst in (uncleansed his stain)

crying on the Lord of Light

not to be purified

but to be shown the way

to vengeance—how repay?

The oracle replied:

      “Vengeance condign may come

      indeed, but it must grow

      from seed yourself shall sow

      in your own daughter’s womb.”

One horror makes another

easy, makes heart and mind

horror-blunt, horror-blind

—a sword drawn on a mother,

a daughter’s innocence

perverted to a tool

of irresistible

perpetual revenge.

His daughter, sent away

(the hospitable stranger

would hold her out of danger

against a happier day)

must now be coming on

her ripe, her bearing age.

Still in his cloud of rage

he came to Sicyon.

He heard the hum and buzz,

the shrilling and the twang,

snatches of what they sang,

“Goddess, be good to us”,

knew his polluted state

(the cloud a moment thinning)

—for that unwitting sinning

dared not approach the fête,

crept in the scrub below

the holy place.  He lay

under the hot, bright day,

watched bright, cool water flow,

drowsing (he had not slept

nights, days) saw—in a dream?—

a girl come to the stream

and strip herself.  He leapt

awake.  The girl was there.

Slender and firm and white,

formed for a man’s delight,

lovely and unaware,

he watched her kneel and bend.

She turned her face.  It all

—horror, lust, oracle—

flared to one hideous end.


She fought the hard sinews, the horribly

cloaked face she could not glimpse; but she was caught,

trapped, pinned on the rough bank; yet still she fought,

biting him, scratching him, and suddenly

this was a hilt her fingers fastened on.

Twisted, no purchase, she tugged pitifully,

and then at last the naked blade came free…

but he had done his business and was gone.

She sat a long time on the stony ground,

the naked sword across her naked thighs,

staring down at it with unseeing eyes.

Then she saw it, and knew it, and there found

a truth she dare not meet.  Trembling and cold

she wrung the water from her blood-cleared dress,

sluiced her own dried blood from the aching place,

put the wet dress back on.  She hid the sword,

seeming to hide her knowledge and his deed;

straightened herself, turned slowly, and still slow

made her way up the hill again, as though

heavy already with the vengeful seed.