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Walter Savage Landor, Achilles and Helena
Helena. Where am I ? Desert me not, O ye blessed from above ! ye twain who brought me hither !
Was it a dream ?
Stranger ! thou seemest thoughtful ; couldst thou answer me I Why so silent ? I beseech and implore thee, speak.
Achilles. Neither thy feet nor the feet of mules have borne thee where thou standest. Whether in the hour of departing sleep, or at what hour of the morning, 1 know not, O Helena ! but Aphrodit^ and Thetis, inclining to my prayer, have, as thou art conscious, led thee into these solitudes. To me also have they shown the way, that I might behold the pride of Sparta, the marvel of the earth, and — how my heart swells and agonizes at the thought ! — the cause of innumerable woes to Hellas.
Helena. Stranger ! thou art indeed one whom the goddesses or gods might lead, and glory in ; such is thy stature, thy voice, and thy demeanour ; but who, if earthly, art thou ?
Achilles. Before thee, O Helena I stands Achilles, son of Peleus. Tremble not, turn not pale, bend not thy knees, O Helena !
Helena. Spare me, thou goddess-born ! thou cherished and only son of silver-footed Thetis ! Chryse'is and Briseis ought to soften and content thy heart. Lead not me also into captivity. Woes too surely have I brought down on Hellas ; but woes have been mine alike, and will for ever be.
Achilles. Daughter of Zeus ! what word hast thou spoken ! Chryse'is, child of the aged priest who performs in this land due sacrifices to Apollo, fell to the lot of another ; an insolent and unworthy man, who hath already brought more sorrows upon our people than thou hast ; so that dogs and vultures prey on the brave who sank without a wound.^ Briseis is indeed mine ; the lovely and dutiful Briseis. He, unjust and contumelious, proud at once and base, would tear her from me. But, gods above ! in what region has the wolf with impunity dared to seize upon the kid which the lion hath taken ?
Talk not of being led into servitude. Could mortal be guilty of such impiety ? Hath it never thundered on these mountainheads ? Doth Zeus, the wide-seeing, see all the earth but Ida ? doth he watch over all but his own ? Capaneus and Typhoeus less offended him, than would the wretch whose grasp should violate the golden hair of Helena. And dost thou still tremble ? irresolute and distrustful !
Helena. I must tremble ; and more and more.
Achilles. Take my hand : be confident ; be comforted.
Helena. May I take it ? may I hold it ? I am comforted.
Achilles. The scene around us, calm and silent as the sky itself, tranquillizes thee ; and so it ought. Turnest thou to survey it ? perhaps it is unknown to thee.
Helena. Truly ; for since my arrival I liave never gone beyond the walls of the city.
Achilles. Look then around thee freely, perplexed no longer. Pleasant is this level eminence, surrounded by broom and myrtle, and crisp-leaved beech and broad dark pine above. Pleasant the short slender grass, bent by insects as they alight on it or climb along it, and shining up into our eyes, interrupted by tall sisterhoods of gray lavender, and by dark-eyed cistus, and by lightsome citisus, and by little troops of serpolet running in disorder here and there.
Helena. Wonderful ! how didst thou ever learn to name so many plants ?
Achilles. Chiron ^ taught me them, when I walked at his side while he was culling herbs for the benefit of his brethren. All these he taught me, and at least twenty more ; for wondrous was his wisdom, boundless his knowledge, and I was proud to learn.
Ah, look again ! look at those little yellow poppies ; they appear to be just come out to catch all that the sun will throw into their cups : they appear in their joyance and incipient dance to call upon the lyre to sing among them.
Helena. Childish ! for one with such a spear against his shoulder ; terrific even its shadow : it seems to make a chasm across the plain.
Achilles. To talk or to think like a child is not always a proof of folly : it may sometimes push aside heavy griefs where the strength of wisdom fails. What art thou pondering, Helena ?
Helena. Recollecting the names of the plants. Several of them I do believe I had heard before, but had quite forgotten ; my memory will be better now.
Achilles. Better now ? in the midst of war and tumult ?
Helena. I am sure it will be, for didst thou not say that Chiron taught them?
Achilles. He sang to me over the lyre the lives of Narcissus and Hyacynthus, brought back by the beautiful Hours, of siJent unwearied feet, regular as the stars in their courses. Many of the trees and bright-eyed flowers once lived and moved, and spoke as we are speaking. They may yet have memories, although they have cares no longer.
Helena. Ah! then they have no memories; and they see their own beauty only.
Achilles. Helena ! thou turnest pale, and droopest. Helena. The odour of the blossoms, or of the gums, or the height of the place, or something else, makes me dizzy. Can it be the wind in my ears ? Achilles, There is none. Helena. I could wish there were a little. Achilles. Be seated, O Helena !
Helena. The feeble are obedient ; the weary may rest even in the presence of the powerful.
Achilles. On this very ground where we are now reposing, they who conducted us hither told me, the fatal prize of beauty was awarded. One of them smiled ; the other, whom in duty I love the most, looked anxious, and let fall some tears. Helena. Yet she was not one of the vanquished. Achilles. Goddesses contended for it ; Helena was afar.
Helena. Fatal was the decision of the arbiter ! But could not the venerable Peleus, nor Pyrrhus the infant so beautiful and so helpless, detain thee, O Achilles, from this sad, sad war ?
Achilles. No reverence or kindness for the race of Atreus brought me against Troy : I detest and abhor both brothers ; but another man is more hateful to me still. Forbear we to name him. The valiant, holding the hearth as sacred as the temple, is never a violator of hospitality. He carries not away the gold he finds in the house ; he folds not up the purple linen worked for solemnities, about to convey it from the cedar chest to the dark ship, together with the wife confided to his protection in her husband's absence, and sitting close and expectant by the altar of the gods. It was no merit in Menelaiis to love thee ; it was a crime in another — I will not say to love, for even Priam or Nestor might love thee — but to avow it, and act on the avowal.
Helena. Menelaiis, it is true, was fond of me, when Paris was sent by Aphrodit' to our house. It would have been very wrong to break my vow to Menelaiis ; but AphroditS urged me by day and by night, telling me that to make her break hers to Paris would be quite inexpiable. She told Paris the same thing at the same hour ; and as often. He repeated it to me every morning : his dreams tallied with mine exactly. At last —
Achilles. The last is not yet come. Helena, by the Immortals ! if ever I meet him in battle I transfix him with this spear.*
Helena. Pray do not.
Achilles. I am not sure of that ; she soon pardons. Variable as Iris, one day she favours and the next day she forsakes.
Helena. She may then forsake me.
Achilles. Other deities, O Helena, watch over and protect thee. Thy two brave brothers are with those deities now, and never are absent from their higher festivals.
Helena. They could protect me were they living, and they would. Oh that thou couldst but have seen them !
Achilles. Companions of my father on the borders of the Phasis, they became his guests before they went all three to hunt the boar in the brakes of Kalydon. Thence too the beauty of a woman brought many sorrows into brave men's breasts, and caused many tears to hang long and heavily on the eyelashes of matrons.
Helena. Horrible creatures ! — boars I mean.
Didst thou indeed see my brothers at that season ? Yes, certainly.
Achilles. I saw them not, desirous though I always was of seeing them, that I might have learned from them, and might have practised with them, whatever is laudable and manly. But my father, fearing my impetuosity, as he said, and my inexperience, sent me away. Soothsayers had foretold some mischief to me from an arrow : and among the brakes many arrows might fly wide, glancing from trees.
Helena. I wish thou hadst seen them, were it only once. Three such youths together the blessed sun will never shine upon again.
O my sweet brothers ! how they tended me ! how they loved me ! how often they wished me to mount their horses and to hurl their javelins ! They could only teach me to swim with them ; and when I had well learned it I was more afraid than at first. It gratified me to be praised for anything but swimming.
Happy, happy hours ! soon over ! Does happiness always go away before beauty ? It must go then : surely it might stay that little while. Alas ! dear Kastor ! and dearer Polydeuk's ! often shall I think of you as ye were (and oh ! as I was) on the banks of the Eurotas.
Brave, noble creatures ! they were as tall, as terrible, and almost as beautiful, as thou art. Be not wroth ! Blush no more for me !
Achilles. Helena ! Helena ! wife of Menelaiis ! my mother is reported to have left about me only one place vulnerable:
I have at last found where it is. Farewell !
Helena. Oh leave rae not ! Earnestly I entreat and implore thee, leave me not alone ! These solitudes are terrible : there must be wild beasts among them ; there certainly are Fauns and Satyrs. And there is Cybel', who carries towers and temples on her head ; who hates and abhors Aphrodit', who persecutes those she favors, and whose priests are so cruel as to be cruel even to themselves.
Achilles. According to their promise, the goddesses who brought thee hither in a cloud will in a cloud reconduct thee, safely and unseen, into the city.
Again, O daughter of Leda and of Zeus, farewell !
"Imaginary conversations" by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864)