Now, Neoptolemus, true-born son of Achilles,
Greatest of all the Greeks, it was here that I once
Put ashore the Malian, Poeas’ son, Philoctetes,
Acting upon the orders of my superiors.
The gnawing wound in his foot was oozing with pus.
We couldn’t pour a libation or offer sacrifice
Undisturbed. His animal shouts and yells
Were constantly filling the camp with sounds of ill omen.
That story needn’t detain us now, however.
This isn’t the moment for long discussion.
Now let me explain why you can safely meet
This man and secure his trust, when I can not.
You didn’t sail with the main expedition. You weren’t
Committed by oath or forced into taking part.
But every one of these charges applies to me.
If he sights me while the bow’s in his own possession,
I’m finished and you’ll be finished for being with me.
Those weapons can’t be resisted. Our task must be
To contrive a way for you to steal them from him.
I know, my boy, it isn’t part of your nature
To tell untruths or resort to double-dealing.
But victory’s a prize worth gaining. Bring yourself
To do it. We’ll prove our honesty later on.
Now, for a few hours, put yourself in my hands
And forgo your scruples. Then, for the rest of time,
Be called the most god-fearing man in the world!
His dreadful fate’s no wonder to me.
If I have an inkling, his sufferings first
Were sent by the gods, when he entered the shrine
Of cruel Chryse, who dealt him his wound.
So what he endures now, far from his friends.
Must also be due to the will of some god:
He may not aim those god-given shafts,
Which none can resist, at the towers of Troy,
Till the time has come when the prophet declares
Those arrows will prove her destruction.
I’m here because the two Greek generals, backed
By Odysseus, shamefully flung me ashore, alone
And abandoned, to waste away with a raging wound.
Struck down by the savage bite of a deadly snake.
With that for company, son, they marooned me here
And left me to rot on my own. (The fleet had sailed
From the isle of Chryse, and this was their first port of call.)
Then once, to their joy, they’d seen me asleep on the shore
After a stormy passage, they laid me inside
A rocky cave and left, tossing me out
A few beggarly rags, with a small amount of available
Food to keep me alive and avoid pollution.
Now, my boy, let me tell you about the island.
No sailor will ever land here, if he can help it.
There’s nowhere safe he can anchor his ship, no port
In which he can trade for profit or find a welcome.
No sensible man would steer a course for this place.
He might, perhaps, put in because he is forced to—
It happens now and again in a long lifetime.
Such people, when they arrive, my boy, will say
They’re sorry for me. They might feel sorry enough
To give me a scrap of food or something to wear.
But when I raise the question of taking me home,
Nobody wants to do it.
No, either bring me safely as far as your home
In Scyros, or else to Calchodon’s place in Euboea.
From there it’s only an easy crossing to Oeta,
To Trachis’ heights and Spercheiis’ beautiful stream.
And so you can show me again to my own dear father—
Though I’ve been long afraid I shall find him gone.
When people arrived, I often used to send him
Imploring messages, hoping he might be able
To come in a ship of his own and fetch me home.
But either he’s dead, or else my messengers couldn’t
Be bothered with me—it was natural enough, I suppose—
And wanted to hurry on with their homeward voyage.
Neoptolemus: What new attack is this?
What’s making you groan and howl so loudly?
Philoctetes: You know, my boy!
Neoptolemus: What is it?
Philoctetes: You know, my son!
Neoptolemus: I don’t. Tell me!
Philoctetes: You must know! [Another howl of pain.]
Neoptolemus: Yes, your wound—it’s a terrible load to carry.
Philoctetes: It can’t be described. Still, you can show me pity.
Neoptolemus: What can I do?
Philoctetes: Don’t leave me because you are frightened.
The torturer comes and goes and will let me alone,
Perhaps, when he’s done his worst.
Death, death, I call on you to my aid
Like this every day. Why can you never come?
My boy, you are nobly born. Seize my body
And burn me in the volcano, the holy fire
Of Lemnos. Be true to your nature. I brought myself
To do the same for Heracles, son of Zeus,
The hero who gave me the arms you now are guarding.
What do you say, my son? Oh, speak!
Why are you dumb? You seem to be lost, boy!
You are not bad, I’m sure. But wicked men
Have taught you this base behavior. Leave it to others
And sail. But first return my weapons to me.
So why are you taking me now and carting me off?
What for? I’m nothing to you. I’ve long been dead.
How, you bane of the gods, am I no longer
A stinking cripple? How, if I come on board,
Will you burn your victims or go on pouring libations?
That was your specious pretext for throwing me out.
Perish the lot of you! Perish you surely will
For the injuries done to me, if the gods have any
Concern for justice. I know they have. You’d never
Have crossed the sea in quest of a mouldering wretch,
Unless some spur from heaven were goading you on.
You only have yourself to blame, unhappy man.
Nothing has struck you with force irresistible.
Where was your better judgement?
Fate would have been kinder, but you
Chose to accept a worse life.
True men always will plead their causes justly.
Yet once they’ve spoken, they say no more.
Curb their spite and withdraw their sting.
Our young master was chosen.
Under Odysseus’ orders he came.
Helping friends and doing his public duty.
Odysseus: Please tell me why you’re coming back!
What’s all this frantic haste for, man?
Neoptolemus: To undo the wrongs that I did before.
Odysseus: I don’t understand. What wrong have you done?
Neoptolemus: I listened to you and the whole Greek army.
Odysseus: What wicked action did that entail?
Neoptolemus: Guile and deceit to entrap a man.
Odysseus: For god’s sake, whom? What crazy idea . . .
Neoptolemus: Not crazy at all. To give Philoctetes . . .
Odysseus: What do you mean to do? I’m frightened.
Neoptolemus: To restore this bow I stole to its proper . . .
Odysseus: What! Are you going to give it back?
Neoptolemus: Yes, it was shameful and wrong to take it.
Odysseus: For heaven’s sake, are you joking with me?
Neoptolemus: If telling the truth is a joke, I am.
Odysseus: Look here, Neoptolemus! What do you mean?
Neoptolemus: Have I got to repeat it three times over?
Odysseus: I wish I needn’t have heard it once.
Neoptolemus: Well, it’s all that I have to say.
Odysseus: Be careful! You may quite well be prevented.
Neoptolemus: Tell me, Odysseus, who will prevent me?
Odysseus: The whole Greek army, myself included.
Neoptolemus: A foolish remark for a clever man!
Odysseus: Your words and actions are no less foolish.
Neoptolemus: I’d rather my actions were right than wise.
My actions will prove me true. Put out your hand.
These weapons belong to you. Take hold of them now.
All men are bound to endure with patience
The various chances of life which heaven brings.
But if they cling to trouble that’s self-inflicted,
As you are doing, they don’t deserve any pity
Or understanding. You’ve grown too brutal. You won’t
Accept advice, and if somebody out of kindness
Makes a suggestion, you hate him as though he were
Your implacable foe. But still. I’m going to speak,
And I call on Zeus, god of oaths, to bear me witness.
Mark what I say, and carefully take it to heart.
Now that you know this, surely you must agree,
And gladly. You have so much to gain. First,
To come into healing hands, and then to be judged
The foremost hero of Greece, by taking Troy,
The city of sorrows, and winning the highest glory.
You’ll go with Neoptolemus to Troy,
Where first your painful wound will soon be healed.
Then, chosen for your prowess from the host,
You’ll use my bow and arrows to bring down
Paris, the cause of all this bitter strife.
When you’ve sacked Troy, the army will present
You with the prize of valour, and you’ll bear
Your spoils back to your home on Oeta’s heights
To show your father Poeas. Do not fail,
Whatever spoils the army grants to you,
To lay a portion on my pyre in tribute
To my bow.
My words concern you too. You’ll not take Troy
Without his aid, nor he without your help.
No, each one guard the other, like two lions
Prowling the bush together. [to Philoctetes:] I shall send
Asclepius to heal your wounds in Troy.
The citadel must be captured by my bow
A second time. But when you lay the land
To waste, remember this: show piety
Towards the gods, since nothing ranks so high
With Zeus. For piety does not die with men.
Men live or die, but piety cannot perish.