The Chorus invites praise to the horses, architecture, nightingales, and the immortal ladies of Colonus. In a nearby gymnasts’ garden grow olive trees. These gnarled, wild trees reflect the shape of the Athenian intellect, and are protected by Athena.
Travelers to this country see the crocus and narcissus bloom where the Great Mother plucks a flower and mourns for her daughter. The country is pious and remembers that when mankind was confined to land, it was Poseidon who gave them bit and oar so that they might sail. All Athenian children talk about the oar and bit, and talk day and night of the sea.
This is an original adaptation from Oedipus at Colonus, one in Sophocles’ series of tragedies based around Oedipus, and first performed around 400 BC. The more familiar first play of the cycle, Oedipus Rex, features a man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. The second play, Oedipus at Colonus, follows Oedipus on his journey to Athens (Colonus), where he is fated to die. After strongly arguing that he is not responsible for the atrocities he was destined to commit, Oedipus does indeed die — an offstage event that is reported by the chorus. The chorus, which narrates many of Yeats’ poems, was a traditional feature of Classical poetry, and served as a narrator for the audience.
This poem presents a quite different view of death, in that it describes the place where Oedipus knows he must die as a promised land. There are some hints of sadness in the poem. The narcissus, for example, is the symbolic flower of death. Although Oedipus figures in the title, there is no mention of him in the poem: he is not included in the bounty that Athens has to offer. Indeed, later in the play the Athenians try to drive him out of their city, fearing that he will curse it with his bad deeds.