Fragment of a Greek Tragedy

Original Text: 
Fragment of a Greek Tragedy. Amherst: Snail's Pace Press, 1925. [Reprinted by Francis Howard Fobes from the Cornhill Magazine edition in 1901; and employed in the current copytext in Ralph Marcellino's "A. E. Housman's 'Fragment of a Greek Tragedy,'" The Classical Journal 48.5 (Feb. 1953): 171-78, 188.]
        Alcmaeon. Chorus.
3Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
5My object in inquiring is to know.
6But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
7And do not understand a word I say,
10Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
11Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
12Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
14To learn your name would not displease me much.
15Not all that men desire do they obtain.
16Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.
17A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that--
18What? for I know not yet what you will say.
19Nor will you ever if you interrupt.
20Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
21--This house was Eriphyla's, no one's else.
22Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
23May I then enter, passing through the door?
24Go, chase into the house a lucky foot.
26And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
28I go into the house with heels and speed.
        Chorus: Strophe
29In speculation
30I would not willingly acquire a name
31For ill-digested thought;
32But after pondering much
33To this conclusion I at last have come:
34Life is uncertain.
35This truth I have written deep
37On tablets not of wax,
38Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
39For many reasons: Life, I say, is not
40A stranger to uncertainty.
41Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
42This fact did I discover,
45Its native ingenuity sufficed
46My self-taught diaphragm.
47Why should I mention
49Her whom of old the gods,
50More provident than kind,
51Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
52A gift not asked for,
53And sent her forth to learn
54The unfamiliar science
55Of how to chew the cud.
57Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
58Nor did they disagree with her.
59But yet, how'er nutritious, such repasts
60I do not hanker after:
63Why should I mention Io? Why indeed?
64I have no notion why.
65But now does my boding heart,
66Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
67A strain not meet for the dance.
68Yea even the palace appears
69To my yoke of circular eyes
70(The right, nor omit I the left)
71Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
72Garnished with wooly deaths
73And many shipwrecks of cows.
75And to the rapid,
76Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
77Resounds in concert
78The battering of my unlucky head.
        Eriphyla (within):
80And that in deed and not in word alone.
81I thought I heard a sound within the house
82Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
83He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
85I would not be reputed rash, but yet
86I doubt if all be gay within the house.
87O! O! another stroke! That makes the third.
88He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
89If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
90But thine arithmetic is quite correct.


1] A parody of two plays by Aeschylus, the Agamemnon and the Choephoroe.
Alcmaeon: son of Amphiaraus, one of the original Seven against Thebes, whose spouse Eriphyle, bribed by Polyneices, sent him to a war from which he would not return alive. When Alcmaeon returned from the second sorty against Thebes--by the Epigoni, descendants of the original Seven--he avenged his father by killing his mother Eriphyle.
suitably-attired-in-leather-boots: burlesquing Aeschylus's love of big words (Marcellino 172). Back to Line
2] Head: person. Alcmaeon has leather boots that we learn later are dusty. Back to Line
4] well-nightingaled: not a good sign, as the legendary Philomela was turned into a nightingale in Sophocles' tragedy after murdering Tereus, who had raped her. Back to Line
8] These three lines translate Clytemnestra's words to Cassandra (Agamemnon; Marcellino 173). Back to Line
9] Stichomythia. Boeotian road: as in the second sorty against Thebes. Back to Line
13] The sun was shining because his shoes have dry dirt on them. Back to Line
25] be, on the one hand, good: advice that Alcmaeon may or may not take, depending on whether the reader likes feminists or revengers. Back to Line
27] Alcmaeon, in one story, had the bad luck of choosing unwittingly to marry his own daughter. Back to Line
36] midriff: the diaphragm, which helps one breathe in and hence, perhaps, speak reflectively of life. Back to Line
43] Delphic tripod: the oracle of Apollo at Delphos sat on a tripod. Back to Line
44] Dodona: the oracle of Zeus in the mountains of Epirus. Back to Line
48] Io, daughter of Inachus, king of Argos, was transformed into a heifer after Zeus fell in love with her. Back to Line
56] Argive: belonging to the city of Argos (thus Greek). Back to Line
61] Cypris: Aphrodite, goddess of love. Back to Line
62] dappled liver: believed to be the spring of the emotions in classical times. A healthy liver is reddish-brown, not white (hence "lily-livered" means cowardly). If the Chorus indeed has a spotted or dappled liver, a visit to the doctor might be in order. Back to Line
74] Cissian: Persian. Back to Line
79] Eriphyla is "within" (i.e., offstage), as usual in classical drama where violence occurs.
I am smitten: the first blow.
hatchet's jaw: the OED lists "hatchet-jaw" as a phrasal form but understandably gives neither definition nor examples. Back to Line
84] Once more: the second blow. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
In The Bromsgrovian, a school journal.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: