Sunday, March 22, 2015


Found on Internet Philoctetes and Neoptolemus at Lemnos
Philoctetes had been abandoned to the desolate island of Lemnos by Ulysses on his way to the war against Troy. Philoctetes was useless as a warrior because of a festering, stinking sore on his leg as a result of a snake bite. Ten years later with the war still in progress Ulysses was warned that the Trojan War would not end without the bow of Heracles which was the possession of of Philoctetes. To retrieve the bow Ulysses took Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to Lemnos to negotiate with Philoctetes for the use of the bow to bring the Trojan War to a close.

The details of the situation were dramatized by Sophocles in his play Philoctetes. Blake's choose to illustrate the dilemma posed by the difficulties of obtaining the instrument which Ulysses believed could put an end to the slaughter which had been going on for a decade.

In The Judgement of Paris discord had been introduced by Eris. The Greeks attributed the course of human events to be under the direction of their panoply of Gods and Goddesses. The situation in Philoctetes and Neoptolemus at Lemnos is resolved by the intervention on Heracles to whom the bow had belonged when he enjoyed an earthly life. The reconciliation brought about at Lemnos can be seen as symbolic of the efforts necessary to end not only the Trojan War but all wars.

If wars were begun and ended by the intervention of Gods, man would be absolved of responsibility. But if the Gods do not decree wars, perhaps they could be avoided by not allowing ourselves to be drawn into dissension and conflict as were the Greeks and Trojans over who should possess the Golden Apple. And perhaps wars could be ended by self-sacrifice, forgiveness, unselfishness and reconciliation, if vengeance were not sought. In the drama of Sophocles, the bow of Heracles was sought not to win the war but to end the war.   

This is the resolution of the tensions over the possession of Heracles' bow and arrows in the play by Sophocles:

Perseus Digital Library
Sophocles, Philoctetes
Robert Torrance, Ed

"Not yet, until you have heard the words
which I will speak to you, son of Poeas.
Be certain that you are hearing the voice
and beholding the presence of Heracles.
For your sake I have departed from
my heavenly home,
to tell you the counsels of Zeus on high,
and now it is ordained for you as well
to build from suffering a noble life.
First you will travel with this man to Troy
and there will find release from your disease;
and then, foremost among the ranks in courage,
you will slay Paris with that bow of mine,
Paris, who was the cause of all these hardships,
and conquer Troy, and choose the prize of valor
You too, son of Achilles,
must listen: for without him you cannot
take Troy, nor he apart from you.
Come let us go now all together,
and pray to the nymphs of the sea
to grant us a prosperous voyage."

Blake's awareness of the depravations of war is evident in this passage. Blake's answer to this alarming situation is the birth of Los and Enitharmon, through whom regeneration will gain a foothold.
Four Zoas, Night I, Page 14, (E 309)
"The Cities send to one another saying My sons are Mad
With wine of cruelty. Let us plat a Scourge O Sister City 
Children are nourishd for the Slaughter; once the Child was fed
With Milk; but wherefore now are Children fed with blood  
PAGE 15 
The Horse is of more value than the Man. The Tyger fierce
Laughs at the Human form. the Lion mocks & thirsts for blood
They cry O Spider spread thy web! Enlarge thy bones & fill'd
With marrow. sinews & flesh Exalt thyself attain a voice

Call to thy dark armd hosts, for all the sons of Men muster together       
To desolate their cities! Man shall be no more! Awake O Hosts
The bow string sang upon the hills! Luvah & Vala ride
Triumphant in the bloody sky. & the Human form is no more   

The listning Stars heard, & the first beam of the morning started back
He cried out to his Father, depart! depart! but sudden Siez'd 
And clad in steel. & his Horse proudly neighd; he smelt the battle    
Afar off, Rushing back, reddning with rage the Mighty Father

Siezd his bright Sheephook studded with gems & gold, he Swung it round
His head shrill sounding in the sky, down rushd the Sun with noise
Of war, The Mountains fled away they sought a place beneath      
Vala remaind in desarts of dark solitude. nor Sun nor Moon

By night nor day to comfort her, she labourd in thick smoke 
Tharmas endurd not, he fled howling. then a barren waste sunk
Conglobing in the dark confusion, Mean time Los was born
And Thou O Enitharmon! Hark I hear the hammers of Los"

In this book, Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, is this comment summarizing some of the virtues of the play Philoctests, all of which would have made it attractive to Blake:

"Less musical and less full of action than many Greek tragedies, Philoctests none the less engages its audience deeply in problems of ethics, politics, loyalty, and male ideals of virtue and achievement, as well as in the possibility of redemption, forgiveness, and healing miraculously granted after years of unmerited suffering."

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