To whom thus spake the herdsman of the herd,
Pausing a moment from his handiwork:
"Friend, I will solve thy questions, for I fear
The angry looks of Hermes of the roads.
No dweller in the skies is wroth as he,
With him who saith the asking traveller nay.
"The flocks Augeas owns, our gracious lord,
One pasture pastures not, nor one fence bounds.
They wander, look you, some by Elissus' banks
Or god-beloved Alpheus' sacred stream,
Some by Buprasion, where the grape abounds,
Some here: their folds stand separate. But before
His herds, though they be myriad, yonder glades
That belt the broad lake round lie fresh and fair
For ever: for the low-lying meadows take
The dew, and teem with herbage honeysweet,
To lend new vigour to the horned kine.
Here on thy right their stalls thou canst descry
By the flowing river, for all eyes to see:
Here, where the platans blossom all the year,
And glimmers green the olive that enshrines
Rural Apollo, most august of gods.
Hard by, fair mansions have been reared for us
His herdsmen; us who guard with might and main
His riches that are more than tongue may tell:
Casting our seed o'er fallows thrice upturn'd
Or four times by the share; the bounds whereof
Well do the delvers know, whose busy feet
Troop to his wine-vats in fair summer-time.
Yea, all these acres wise Augeas owns,
These corn-clad uplands and these orchards green,
Far as yon ledges whence the cataracts leap.
Here do we haunt, here toil, as is the wont
Of labourers in the fields, the livelong day.
But prythee tell me thou--so shalt thou best
Serve thine own interests--wherefore art thou here?
Seeking Augeas, or mayhap some slave
That serves him? I can tell thee and I will
All thou would'st know: for of no churlish blood
Thou earnest, nor wert nurtured as a churl:
That read I in thy stateliness of form;
The sons of heaven move thus among mankind."
Then answered him the warrior son of Zeus.
"Yea, veteran, I would see the Epean King
Augeas; surely for this end I came.
If he bides there amongst his citizens,
Ruling the folk, determining the laws,
Look, father; bid some serf to be my guide,
Some honoured master-worker in the fields,
Who to shrewd questions shrewdly can reply.
Are not we made dependent each on each?"
To him the good old swain made answer thus:
"Stranger, some god hath timed thy visit here,
And given thee straightway all thy heart's desire.
Hither Augeas, offspring of the Sun,
Came, with young Phyleus splendid in his strength,
But yesterday from the city, to review
(Not in one day) his multitudinous wealth,
Methinks e'en princes say within themselves,
'The safeguard of the flock's the master's eye.'
But haste, we'll seek him: to my own fold I
Will pilot thee; there haply find the King."
He said and went in front: but pondered much
(As he surveyed the lion-skin and the club,
Itself an armful) whence this stranger came;
And fain had asked. But fear recalled the words
That trembled on his lip, the fear to say
Aught that his fiery friend might take amiss.
For who can fathom all his fellow's mind?
The dogs perceived their coming, yet far off:
They scented flesh, they heard the thud of feet:
And with wild gallop, baying furiously,
Ran at Amphitryon's son: but feebly whined
And fawned upon the old man at his side.
Then Heracles, just lifting from the ground
A pebble, scared them home, and with hard words
Cursed the whole pack; and having stopped their din
(Inly rejoiced, nathless, to see them guard
So well an absent master's house) he spake:
"Lo! what a friend the royal gods have given
Man in the dog! A trusty servant he!
Had he withal an understanding heart,
To teach him when to rage and when forbear,
What brute could claim like praise? But, lacking wit,
'Tis but a passionate random-raving thing."
He spake: the dogs ran scurrying to their lairs.
And now the sun wheeled round his westering car
And led still evening on: from every field
Came thronging the fat flocks to bield and byre.
Then in their thousands, drove on drove, the kine
Came into view; as rainclouds, onward driven
By stress of gales, the west or mighty north,
Come up o'er all the heaven; and none may count
And naught may stay them as they sweep through air;
Such multitudes the storm's strength drives ahead,
Such multitudes climb surging in the rear--
So in swift sequence drove succeeded drove,
And all the champaign, all the highways swarmed
With tramping oxen; all the sumptuous leas
Rang with their lowing. Soon enough the stalls
Were populous with the laggard-footed kine,
Soon did the sheep lie folded in their folds.
Then of that legion none stood idle, none
Gaped listless at the herd, with naught to do:
But one drew near and milked them, binding clogs
Of wood with leathern thongs around their feet:
One brought, all hungering for the milk they loved,
The longing young ones to the longing dams.
One held the pail, one pressed the dainty cheese,
Or drove the bulls home, sundered from the kine.
Pacing from stall to stall, Augeas saw
What revenue his herdsman brought him in.
With him his son surveyed the royal wealth,
And, strong of limb and purpose, Heracles.
Then, though the heart within him was as steel,
Framed to withstand all shocks, Amphitryon's son
Gazed in amazement on those thronging kine;
For none had deemed or dreamed that one, or ten,
Whose wealth was more than regal, owned those tribes:
Such huge largess the Sun had given his child,
First of mankind for multitude of flocks.
The Sun himself gave increase day by day
To his child's herds: whatever diseases spoil
The farmer, came not there; his kine increased
In multitude and value year by year:
None cast her young, or bare unfruitful males.
Three hundred bulls, white-pasterned, crumple-horned,
Ranged amid these, and eke two hundred roans,
Sires of a race to be: and twelve besides
Herded amongst them, sacred to the Sun.
Their skin was white as swansdown, and they moved
Like kings amid the beasts of laggard foot.
Scorning the herd in uttermost disdain
They cropped the green grass in untrodden fields:
And when from the dense jungle to the plain
Leapt a wild beast, in quest of vagrant cows;
Scenting him first, the twelve went forth to war.
Stern was their bellowing, in their eye sat death,
Foremost of all for mettle and for might
And pride of heart loomed Phaeton: him the swains
Regarded as a star; so bright he shone
Among the herd, the cynosure of eyes.
He, soon as he descried the sun-dried skin
Of the grim lion, made at Heracles
(Whose eye was on him)--fain to make his crest
And sturdy brow acquainted with his flanks.
Straight the prince grasped him with no tender grasp
By the left horn, and bowed that giant bulk
To earth, neck foremost: then, by pressure brought
To bear upon his shoulder, forced him back.
The web of muscles that enwraps the nerves
Stood out from the brute's fore-arm plain to see.
Marvelled the King, and Phyleus his brave son,
At the strange prowess of Amphitryon's child.
Then townwards, leaving straight that rich champaign,
Stout Heracles his comrade, Phyleus fared;
And soon as they had gained the paven road,
Making their way hotfooted o'er a path
(Not o'er-conspicuous in the dim green wood)
That left the farm and threaded through the vines,
Out-spake unto the child of Zeus most high,
Who followed in his steps, Augeas' son,
O'er his right shoulder glancing pleasantly.
"O stranger, as some old familiar tale
I seem to cast thy history in my mind.
For there came one to Argos, young and tall,
By birth a Greek from Helice-on-seas,
Who told this tale before a multitude:
How that an Argive in his presence slew
A fearful lion-beast, the dread and death
Of herdsmen; which inhabited a den
Or cavern by the grove of Nemean Zeus.
He may have come from sacred Argos' self,
Or Tiryns, or Mycenae: what know I?
But thus he told his tale, and said the slayer
Was (if my memory serves me) Perseus' son.
Methinks no islander had dared that deed
Save thee: the lion's skin that wraps thy ribs
Argues full well some gallant feat of arms.
But tell me, warrior, first--that I may know
If my prophetic soul speak truth or not--
Art thou the man of whom that stranger Greek
Spoke in my hearing? Have I guessed aright?
How slew you single-handed that fell beast?
How came it among rivered Nemea's glens?
For none such monster could the eagerest eye
Find in all Greece: Greece harbours bear and boar,
And deadly wolf: but not this larger game.
'Twas this that made his listeners marvel then:
They deemed he told them travellers' tales, to win
By random words applause from standers-by."
Then Phyleus from the mid-road edged away,
That both might walk abreast, and he might catch
More at his ease what fell from Heracles:
Who journeying now alongside thus began:--
"On the prior matter, O Augeas' child,
Thine own unaided wit hath ruled aright.
But all that monster's history, how it fell,
Fain would I tell thee who hast ears to hear,
Save only whence it came: for none of all
The Argive host could read that riddle right.
Some god, we dimly guessed, our niggard vows
Resenting, had upon Phoroneus' realm
Let loose this very scourge of humankind.
On peopled Pisa plunging like a flood
The brute ran riot: notably it cost
Its neighbours of Bembina woes untold.
And here Eurystheus bade me try my first
Passage of arms, and slay that fearsome thing.
So with my buxom bow and quiver lined
With arrows I set forth: my left hand held
My club, a beetling olive's stalwart trunk
And shapely, still environed in its bark:
This hand had torn from holiest Helicon
The tree entire, with all its fibrous roots.
And finding soon the lion's whereabouts,
I grasped my bow, and on the bent horn slipped
The string, and laid thereon the shaft of death.
And, now all eyes, I watched for that fell thing,
In hopes to view him ere he spied out me.
But midday came, and nowhere could I see
One footprint of the beast or hear his roar:
And, trust me, none appeared of whom to ask,
Herdsman or labourer, in the furrowed lea;
For wan dismay kept each man in his hut.
Still on I footed, searching through and through
The leafy mountain-passes, till I saw
The creature, and forthwith essayed my strength.
Gorged from some gory carcass, on he stalked
At eve towards his lair; his grizzled mane,
Shoulders, and grim glad visage, all adrip
With carnage; and he licked his bearded lips.
I, crouched among the shadows of the trees
On the green hill-top, waited his approach,
And as he came I aimed at his left flank.
The barbed shaft sped idly, nor could pierce
The flesh, but glancing dropped on the green grass.
He, wondering, raised forthwith his tawny head,
And ran his eyes o'er all the vicinage,
And snarled and gave to view his cavernous throat.
Meanwhile I levelled yet another shaft,
Ill pleased to think my first had fled in vain.
In the mid-chest I smote him, where the lungs
Are seated: still the arrow sank not in,
But fell, its errand frustrate, at his feet.
Once more was I preparing, sore chagrined,
To draw the bowstring, when the ravenous beast
Glaring around espied me, lashed his sides
With his huge tail, and opened war at once.
Swelled his vast neck, his dun locks stood on end
With rage: his spine moved sinuous as a bow,
Till all his weight hung poised on flank and loin.
And e'en as, when a chariot-builder bends
With practised skill his shafts of splintered fig,
Hot from the fire, to be his axle-wheels;
Flies the tough-rinded sapling from the hands
That shape it, at a bound recoiling far:
So from far-off the dread beast, all of a heap,
Sprang on me, hungering for my life-blood. I
Thrust with one hand my arrows in his face
And my doffed doublet, while the other raised
My seasoned cudgel o'er his crest, and drave
Full at his temples, breaking clean in twain
On the fourfooted warrior's airy scalp
My club; and ere he reached me, down he fell.
Headlong he fell, and poised on tremulous feet
Stood, his head wagging, and his eyes grown dim;
For the shrewd stroke had shattered brain and bone.
I, marking him beside himself with pain.
Fell, ere recovering he should breathe again,
At vantage on his solid sinewy neck,
My bow and woven quiver thrown aside.
With iron clasp I gripped him from the rear
(His talons else had torn me) and, my foot
Set on him, forced to earth by dint of heel
His hinder parts, my flanks entrenched the while
Behind his fore-arm; till his thews were stretched
And strained, and on his haunches stark he stood
And lifeless; hell received his monstrous ghost.
Then with myself I counselled how to strip
From off the dead beast's limbs his shaggy hide,
A task full onerous, since I found it proof
Against all blows of steel or stone or wood.
Some god at last inspired me with the thought,
With his own claws to rend the lion's skin.
With these I flayed him soon, and sheathed and armed
My limbs against the shocks of murderous war.
Thus, sir, the Nemean lion met his end,
Erewhile the constant curse of beast and man."
Last updated January 14, 2019