The Bacchae

Lines 1-369


Behold, God's Son is come unto this land

Of heaven's hot splendour lit to life, when she

Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand

Who bore me, Cadmus' daughter Semele,

Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,

I walk again by Dirce's streams and scan

Ismenus' shore. There by the castle side

I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning's Bride,

The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great

Faint wreaths of fire undying - as the hate

Dies not, that Hera held for Semele.

Aye, Cadmus hath done well; in purity

He keeps this place apart, inviolate,

His daughter's sanctuary; and I have set

My green and clustered vines to robe it round

Far now behind me lies the golden ground

Of Lydian and of Phrygian; far away

The wide hot plains where Persian sunbeams play,

The Bactrian war-holds, and the storm-oppressed

Clime of the Mede, and Araby the Blest,

And Asia all, that by the salt sea lies

In proud embattled cities, motley-wise

Of Hellene and Barbarian interwrought;

And now I come to Hellas - having taught

All the world else my dances and my rite

Of mysteries, to show me in men's sight

Manifest God.

And first of Helene lands

I cry this Thebes to waken; set her hands

To clasp my wand, mine ivied javelin,

And round her shoulders hang my wild fawn-skin.

For they have scorned me whom it least beseemed,

Semele's sisters; mocked by birth, nor deemed

That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.

My mother sinned, said they; and in her need,

With Cadmus plotting, cloaked her human shame

With the dread name of Zeus; for that the flame

From heaven consumed her, seeing she lied to God.

Thus must they vaunt; and therefore hath my rod

On them first fallen, and stung them forth wild-eyed

From empty chambers; the bare mountain side

Is made their home, and all their hearts are flame.

Yea, I have bound upon the necks of them

The harness of my rites. And with them all

The seed of womankind from hut and hall

Of Thebes, hath this my magic goaded out.

And there, with the old King's daughters, in a rout

Confused, they make their dwelling-place between

The roofless rocks and shadowy pine trees green.

Thus shall this Thebes, how sore soe'er it smart,

Learn and forget not, till she crave her part

In mine adoring; thus must I speak clear

To save my mother's fame, and crown me here,

As true God, born by Semele to Zeus.

Now Cadmus yieldeth up his throne and use

Of royal honour to his daughter's son

Pentheus; who on my body hath begun

A war with God. He thrusteth me away

From due drink-offering, and, when men pray,

My name entreats not. Therefore on his own

Head and his people's shall my power be shown.

Then to another land, when all things here

Are well, must I fare onward, making clear

My godhead's might. But should this Theban town

Essay with wrath and battle to drag down

My maids, lo, in their path myself shall be,

And maniac armies battled after me!

For this I veil my godhead with the wan

Form of the things that die, and walk as Man.

O Brood of Tmolus o'er the wide world flown,

O Lydian band, my chosen and mine own,

Damsels uplifted o'er the orient deep

To wander where I wander, and to sleep

Where I sleep; up, and wake the old sweet sound,

The clang that I and mystic Rhea found,

The Timbrel of the Mountain! Gather all

Thebes to your song round Pentheus' royal hall.

I seek my new-made worshippers, to guide

Their dances up Kithaeron's pine clad side.

[As he departs, there comes stealing in from the left a band of fifteen Eastern Women, the light of the sunrise streaming upon their long white robes and ivy-bound hair. They wear fawn-skins over the robes, and carry some of them timbrels, some pipes and other instruments. Many bear the thyrsus, or sacred Wand, made of reed ringed with ivy. They enter stealthily till they see that the place is empty, and then begin their mystic song of worship.]


A Maiden

From Asia, from the dayspring that uprises

To Bromios ever glorying we came.

We laboured for our Lord in many guises;

We toiled, but the toil is as the prize is;

Thou Mystery, we hail thee by thy name!


Who lingers in the road? Who espies us?

We shall hide him in his house nor be bold.

Let the heart keep silence that defies us;

For I sing this day to Dionysus

The song that is appointed from of old.

All the Maidens

Oh, blessed he in all wise,

Who hath drunk the Living Fountain,

Whose life no folly staineth,

And his soul is near to God;

Whose sins are lifted, pall-wise,

As he worships on the Mountain,

And where Cybele ordaineth,

Our Mother, he has trod:

His head with ivy laden

And his thyrsus tossing high,

For our God he lifts his cry;

"Up, O Bacchae, wife and maiden,

Come, O ye Bacchae, come;

Oh, bring the Joy-bestower,

God-seed of God the Sower,

Bring Bromios in his power

From Phrygia's mountain dome;

To street and town and tower,

Oh, bring ye Bromios home."

Whom erst in anguish lying

For an unborn life's desire,

As a dead thing in the Thunder

His mother cast to earth;

For her heart was dying, dying,

In the white heart of the fire;

Till Zeus, the Lord of Wonder,

Devised new lairs of birth;

Yea, his own flesh tore to hide him,

And with clasps of bitter gold

Did a secret son enfold,

And the Queen knew not beside him;

Till the perfect hour was there;

Then a horned God was found,

And a God of serpents crowned;

And for that are serpents wound

In the wands his maidens bear,

And the songs of serpents sound

In the mazes of their hair.

Some Maidens

All hail, O Thebes, thou nurse of Semele!

With Semele's wild ivy crown thy towers;

Oh, burst in bloom of wreathing bryony,

Berries and leaves and flowers;

Uplift the dark divine wand,

The oak-wand and the pine-wand,

And don thy fawn-skin, fringed in purity

With fleecy white, like ours.

Oh, cleanse thee in the wands' waving pride!

Yea, all men shall dance with us and pray,

When Bromios his companies shall guide

Hillward, ever hillward, where they stay,

The flock of the Believing,

The maids from loom and weaving

By the magic of his breath borne away.


Hail thou, O Nurse of Zeus, O Caverned Haunt

Where fierce arms clanged to guard God's cradle rare,

For thee of old crested Corybant

First woke in Cretan air

The wild orb of our orgies,

The Timbrel; and thy gorges

Rang with this strain; and blended Phrygian chant

And sweet keen pipes were there.

But the Timbrel, the Timbrel was another's,

And away to Mother Rhea it must wend;

And to our holy singing from the Mother's

The mad Satyrs carried it, to blend

In the dancing and the cheer

Of our third and perfect Year;

And it serves Dionysus in the end!

A Maiden

O glad, glad on the mountains

To swoon in the race outworn,

When the holy fawn-skin clings,

And all else sweeps away,

To the joy of the red quick fountains,

The blood of the hill-goat torn,

The glory of wild-beast ravenings,

Where the hill-tops catch the day;

To the Phrygian, Lydian, mountains!

'Tis Bromios leads the way.

Another Maiden

Then streams the earth with milk, yea, streams

With wine and nectar of the bee,

And through the air dim perfume steams

Of Syrian frankincense; and He,

Our leader, from his thyrsus spray

A torchlight tosses high and higher,

A torchlight like a beacon-fire,

To waken all that faint and stray;

And sets them leaping as he sings,

His tresses rippling to the sky,

And deep beneath the Maenad cry

His proud voice rings:

"Come, O ye Bacchae, come!"

All the Maidens

Hither, O fragrant of Tmolus the Golden,

Come with the voice of timbrel and drum;

Let the cry of your joyance uplift and embolden

The God of the joy-cry; O Bacchanals, come!

With pealing of pipes and with Phrygian clamour,

On, where the vision of holiness thrills,

And the music climbs and the maddening glamour,

With the wild White Maids, to the hills, to the hills!

Oh, then, like a colt as he runs by a river,

A colt by his dam, when the heart of him sings,

With the keen limbs drawn and the fleet foot a-quiver,

Away the Bacchanal springs!

[Enter TEIRESIAS. He is an old man and blind, leaning upon a staff

and moving with slow stateliness, though wearing the Ivy and the

Bacchic fawn-skin.]


Ho, there, who keeps the gate? - Go, summon me

Cadmus, Agenor's son, who crossed the sea

From Sidon and upreared this Theban hold.

Go, whosoe'er thou art. See he be told

Teiresias seeketh him. Himself will gauge

Mine errand, and the compact, age with age,

I vowed with him, grey hair with snow-white hair,

To deck the new God's thyrsus, and to wear

His fawn-skin, and with ivy crown our brows.

[Enter CADMUS from the Castle. He is even older than

TEIRESIAS, and wears the same attire.]


True friend! I knew that voice of thine, that flows

Like mellow wisdom from a fountain wise.

And, lo, I come prepared, in all the guise

And harness of this God. Are we not told

His is the soul of that dead life of old

That sprang from mine own daughter? Surely then

Must thou and I with all the strength of men

Exalt him.

Where then shall I stand, where tread

The dance and toss this bowed and hoary head?

O friend, in thee is wisdom; guide my grey

And eld-worn steps, eld-worn Teiresias. - Nay;

I am not weak.

[At the first movement of worship his manner begins to change;

a mysterious strength and exaltation enter into him.]

Surely this arm could smite

The wild earth with its thyrsus, day and night,

And faint not! Sweetly and forgetfully

The dim years fall from off me!


As with thee,

With me 'tis likewise. Light am I and young,

And will essay the dancing and the song.


Quick, then, our chariots to the mountain road.


Nay; to take steeds were to mistrust the God.


So be it. Mine old arms shall guide thee there.


The God himself shall guide! Have thou no care.


And in all Thebes shall no man dance but we?


Aye, Thebes is blinded. Thou and I can see.


'Tis weary waiting; hold my hand, friend; so.


Lo, there is mine. So linked let us go.


Shall things of dust the Gods' dark ways despise?


Or prove our wit on Heaven's high mysteries?

Not thou and I! That heritage sublime

Our sires have left us, wisdom old as time,

No word of man, how deep soe'er his thought

And won of subtlest toil, may bring to naught.

Aye, men will rail that I forgot my years,

To dance and wreath with ivy these white hairs;

What recks it? Seeing the God no line hath told

To mark what man shall dance, or young or old;

But craves his honours from mortality

All, no man marked apart; and great shall be!

CADMUS (after looking away toward the Mountain).

Teiresias, since this light thou canst not read,

I must be seer for thee. Here comes in speed

Pentheus, Echion's son, whom I have raised

To rule my people in my stead. - Amazed

He seems. Stand close, and mark what we shall hear.

[The two stand back, partially concealed, while there enters in hot

haste PENTHEUS, followed by a bodyguard. He is speaking to the

SOLDIER in command.]


Scarce had I crossed our borders, when mine ear

Was caught by this strange rumour, that our own

Wives, our own sisters, from their hearths are flown

To wild and secret rites; and cluster there

High on the shadowy hills, with dance and prayer

To adore this new-made God, this Dionyse,

Whate'er he be! - And in their companies

Deep wine-jars stand, and ever and anon

Away into the loneliness now one

Steals forth, and now a second, maid or dame

Where love lies waiting, not of God! The flame

They say, of Bacchios wraps them. Bacchios! Nay,

'Tis more to Aphrodite that they pray.

Howbeit, all that I have found, my men

Hold bound and shackled in our dungeon den;

The rest, I will go hunt them! Aye, and snare

My birds with nets of iron, to quell their prayer

And mountain song and rites of rascaldom!

They tell me, too, there is a stranger come,

A man of charm and spell, from Lydian seas,

A head all gold and cloudy fragrancies,

A wine-red cheek, and eyes that hold the light

Of the very Cyprian. Day and livelong night

He haunts amid the damsels, o'er each lip

Dangling his cup of joyance! Let me grip

Him once, but once, within these walls, right swift

That wand shall cease its music, and that drift

Of tossing curls lie still - when my rude sword

Falls between neck and trunk! 'Tis all his word,

This tale of Dionysus; how that same

Babe that was blasted by the lightning flame

With his dead mother, for that mother's lie,

Was re-conceived, born perfect from the thigh

Of Zeus, and now is God! What call ye these?

Dreams? Gibes of the unknown wanderer? Blasphemies

That crave the very gibbet?

Stay! God wot,

Here is another marvel! See I not

In motley fawn-skins robed the vision-seer

Teiresias? And my mother's father here -

O depth of scorn! - adoring with the wand

Of Bacchios? - Father! - Nay, mine eyes are fond;

It is not your white heads so fancy-flown!

It cannot be! Cast off that ivy crown,

O mine own mother's sire! Set free that hand

That cowers about its staff.

'Tis thou hast planned

This work, Teiresias! 'Tis thou must set

Another altar and another yet

Amongst us, watch new birds, and win more hire

Of gold, interpreting new signs of fire!

But for thy silver hairs, I tell thee true,

Thou now wert sitting chained amid thy crew

Of raving damsels, for this evil dream

Thou hast brought us, of new Gods! When once the gleam

Of grapes hath lit a Woman's Festival,

In all their prayers is no more health at all!

LEADER OF THE CHORUS (the words are not heard by PENTHEUS)

Injurious King, hast thou no fear of God,

Nor Cadmus, sower of the Giants' Sod,

Life-spring to great Echion and to thee?


Good words my son, come easily, when he

That speaks is wise, and speaks but for the right.

Else come they never! Swift are thine, and bright

As though with thought, yet have no thought at all

Lo this new God, whom thou dost flout withal,

I cannot speak the greatness wherewith He

In Hellas shall be great! Two spirits there be,

Young Prince, that in man's world are first of worth.

Demeter one is named; she is the Earth -

Call her which name thou will! - who feeds man's frame

With sustenance of things dry. And that which came

Her work to perfect, second, is the Power

From Semele born. He found the liquid show

Hid in the grape. He rests man's spirit dim

From grieving, when the vine exalteth him.

He giveth sleep to sink the fretful day

In cool forgetting. Is there any way

With man's sore heart, save only to forget?

Yea, being God, the blood of him is set

Before the Gods in sacrifice, that we

For his sake may be blest. - And so, to thee,

That fable shames him, how this God was knit

Into God's flesh? Nay, learn the truth of it

Cleared from the false. - When from that deadly light

Zeus saved the babe, and up to Olympus' height

Raised him, and Hera's wrath would cast him thence

Then Zeus devised him a divine defence.

A fragment of the world-encircling fire

He rent apart, and wrought to his desire

Of shape and hue, in the image of the child,

And gave to Hera's rage. And so, beguiled

By change and passing time, this tale was born,

How the babe-god was hidden in the torn

Flesh of his sire. He hath no shame thereby.

A prophet is he likewise. Prophecy

Cleaves to all frenzy, but beyond all else

To frenzy of prayer. Then in us verily dwells

The God himself, and speaks the thing to be.

Yea, and of Ares' realm a part hath he.

When mortal armies, mailed and arrayed,

Have in strange fear, or ever blade met blade,

Fled maddened, 'tis this God hath palsied them.

Aye, over Delphi's rock-built diadem

Thou yet shalt see him leaping with his train

Of fire across the twin-peaked mountain-plain,

Flaming the darkness with his mystic wand,

And great in Hellas. - List and understand,

King Pentheus! Dream not thou that force is power;

Nor, if thou hast a thought, and that thought sour

And sick, oh, dream not thought is wisdom! - Up,

Receive this God to Thebes; pour forth the cup

Of sacrifice, and pray, and wreathe thy brow.

Thou fearest for the damsels? Think thee now;

How toucheth this the part of Dionyse

To hold maids pure perforce? In them it lies,

And their own hearts; and in the wildest rite

Cometh no stain to her whose heart is white.

Nay, mark me! Thou hast thy joy, when the Gate

Stands thronged, and Pentheus' name is lifted great

And high by Thebes in clamour; shall not He

Rejoice in his due meed of majesty?

Howbeit, this Cadmus whom thou scorn'st and I

Will wear His crown, and tread His dances! Aye,

Our hairs are white, yet shall that dance be trod!

I will not lift mine arm to war with God

For thee nor all thy words. Madness most fell

Is on thee, madness wrought by some dread spell,

But not by spell nor leechcraft to be cured!


Grey prophet, worthy of Phoebus is thy word,

And wise in honouring Bromios, our great God.


My son, right well Teiresias points thy road.

Oh, make thine habitation here with us,

Not lonely, against men's uses. Hazardous

Is this quick bird-like beating of thy thought

Where no thought dwells. - Grant that this God be naught,

Yet let that Naught be Somewhat in thy mouth;

Lie boldly, and say He is! So north and south

Shall marvel, how there sprang a thing divine

From Semele's flesh, and honour all our line.

[Drawing nearer to PENTHEUS.]

Is there not blood before thine eyes even now?

Our lost Actaeon's blood, whom long ago

His own red hounds through yonder forest dim

Tore unto death, because he vaunted him

Against most holy Artemis? Oh, beware

And let me wreathe thy temples. Make thy prayer

With us, and walk thee humbly in God's sight.

[He makes as if to set the wreath on PENTHEUS head.]


Down with that hand! Aroint thee to thy rite

Nor smear on me thy foul contagion!

[Turning upon TEIRESIAS.]


Thy folly's head and prompter shall not miss

The justice that he needs! - Go, half my guard

Forth to the rock-seat where he dwells in ward

O'er birds and wonders; rend the stone with crown

And trident; make one wreck of high and low

And toss his bands to all the winds of air!

Ha, have I found the way to sting thee, there?

The rest, forth through the town! And seek amain

This girl-faced stranger, that hath wrought such bane

To all Thebes, preying on our maids and wives

Seek till ye find; and lead him here in gyves,

Till he be judged and stoned and weep in blood

The day he troubled Pentheus with his God!

[The guards set forth in two bodies; PENTHEUS goes into the Castle.]


Hard heart, how little dost thou know what seed

Thou sowest! Blind before, and now indeed

Most mad! - Come, Cadmus, let us go our way,

And pray for this our persecutor, pray

For this poor city, that the righteous God

Move not in anger. - Take thine ivy rod

And help my steps, as I help thine. 'Twere ill,

If two old men should fall by the roadway. Still,

Come what come may, our service shall be done

To Bacchios, the All-Father's mystic son

O Pentheus, named of sorrow! Shall he claim

From all thy house fulfilment of his name,

Old Cadmus? - Nay, I speak not from mine art,

But as I see - blind words and a blind heart!

[The two Old Men go off towards the Mountain.]