"When my soul boiled within me - when 'to die'
Was all my prayer - and death was sweetness, yea,
Had they but stoned me like a dog, I'd blessed them;
Then no man rose against me - but when time
Brought its slow comfort - when my wounds were scarred -
All my griefs mellow'd, and remorse itself
Judged my self-penance mightier than my sins,
Thebes thrust me from her breast, and they, my sons,
My blood, mine offspring, from their father shrunk:
A word of theirs had saved me - one small word -
They said it not - and lo! the wandering beggar!"
In the mean while, during the exile of Oedipus, strife had broken out between the brothers: Eteocles, here represented as the younger, drove out Polynices, and seized the throne; Polynices takes refuge at Argos, where he prepares war against the usurper: an oracle declares that success shall be with that party which Oedipus joins, and a mysterious blessing is pronounced on the land which contains his bones. Thus, the possession of this wild tool of fate - raised up in age to a dread and ghastly consequence - becomes the argument of the play, as his death must become the catastrophe. It is the deep and fierce revenge of Oedipus that makes the passion of the whole. According to a sublime conception, we see before us the physical Oedipus in the lowest state of destitution and misery - in rags, blindness, beggary, utter and abject impotence. But in the moral, Oedipus is all the majesty of a power still royal. The oracle has invested one, so fallen and so wretched in himself, with the power of a god - the power to confer victory on the cause he adopts, prosperity on the land that becomes his tomb. With all the revenge of age, all the grand malignity of hatred, he clings to this shadow and relic of a sceptre. Creon, aware of the oracle, comes to recall him to Thebes. The treacherous kinsman humbles himself before his victim - he is the suppliant of the beggar, who defies and spurns him. Creon avenges himself by seizing on Antigone and Ismene. Nothing can be more dramatically effective than the scene in which these last props of his age are torn from the desolate old man. They are ultimately restored to him by Theseus, whose amiable and lofty character is painted with all the partial glow of colouring which an Athenian poet would naturally lavish on the Athenian Alfred. We are next introduced to Polynices. He, like Creon, has sought Oedipus with the selfish motive of recovering his throne by means of an ally to whom the oracle promises victory. But there is in Polynices the appearance of a true penitence, and a mingled gentleness and majesty in his bearing which interests us in his fate despite his faults, and which were possibly intended by Sophocles to give a new interest to the plot of the "Antigone," composed and exhibited long before. Oedipus is persuaded by the benevolence of Theseus, and the sweet intercession of Antigone, to admit his son. After a chant from the chorus on the ills of old age , Polynices enters. He is struck with the wasted and miserable appearance of the old man, and bitterly reproaches his own desertion.
"But since," he says, with almost a Christian sentiment -
"Since o'er each deed, upon the Olympian throne,
Mercy sits joint presider with great Jove,
Let her, oh father, also take her stand
Within thy soul - and judge me! The past sins
Yet have their cure - ah, would they had recall!
Why are you voiceless? Speak to me, my father?
Turn not away - will you not answer me?" etc.
Oedipus retains his silence in spite of the prayers of his beloved Antigone, and Polynices proceeds to narrate the wrongs he has undergone from Eteocles, and, warming with a young warrior's ardour, paints the array that he has mustered on his behalf - promises to restore Oedipus to his palace - and, alluding to the oracle, throws himself on his father's pardon.
Then, at last, outspeaks Oedipus, and from reproach bursts into curses.