pine trees against mountain background
Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

The Lament of an Ancient Shepherd of Laius by J. Weintraub

I should have left him alone up there to die

on Cithaeron, beneath the jagged pines,

exposed to starve or to be eaten alive

by wolves or feral hogs, his limbs entwined,

a bloody peg through each ankle bone;

but his cries moved my heart enough to betray

a king; yet who could ever have known?

A kind act, three times blessed—a life that was saved,

a child to a childless pair,

to Corinth, a royal heir—

nothing more than a small act of charity

that led to regicide, the soiled bed,

pollution, plague, and all those Theban dead;

and as penance for my culpability,

I, a witness to the first, and forced to flee.

I should have left him up there to die, obeyed

my king, allowed the gods, then, to be betrayed

and the fate that they had prepared before time

began; yet, surely, they’d have devised a way,

and I, too, would then have been bloodied with crime.

Still, the guilt and terror, like silt, left behind—

ironic how the gods design their darkest arts

in deference to the windings of the human heart.


J. Weintraub has published fiction, essays, translations, and poetry in all sorts of literary reviews and periodicals, from The Massachusetts Review to New Criterion, from Prairie Schooner to the Modern Philology. He has been an Around-the-Coyote poet and a StoneSong poet, and, as a member of the Dramatists Guild, he has had one-act plays and staged readings produced throughout the United States and in Australia, New Zealand, India, and Germany. His two-act adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s canonical Villeggiatura trilogy, The Summer Season, was recently published in The Mercurian: A Theatrical Translation Review and can be read online. More here.

Author's note

Since I tend to view each of my poems as an independent, coherent work, in a similar way that a potter might see one of his or her pots as a stand-alone object (although certainly with considerably more utility in mind than my poetry), I strive to give all of my poems a singular voice, and it therefore should be no surprise that the dramatic monologue is one of my favorite forms. The mythological past, of course, provides abundant material for such poetry and I have frequently mined this resource for my own narratives, writing fictions, if not directly in the voice but occasionally through the perspectives of such luminaries as Orpheus, Circe, the Sphinx, and even Flash Gordon.

For this issue of Carmina, I’m pleased to present another pair of ancient voices, one from the Classical past and one from the Old Testament. The Shepherd of King Laius is a supernumerary character from the Oedipus legend (and, in particular, the Sophocles play) but he nevertheless contributes mightily to the irony that suffuses the drama with an act of—at the same time—charity and betrayal, a sort of inadvertent original sin that leads to the ultimate tragedy. My Noah, on the other hand, has a more comic role to play, but his choices, too, lead perhaps to an even graver catastrophe, through an act of “unfaith” (in my Noah's case a speculative one) that perhaps could have contributed to the Old Testament God abandoning forever his intervention in the affairs of his creation.

And so, the myths of the past—exploited and, on occasion, manipulated— offer a wealth of possibilities for our imaginings, and I am very pleased to join Carmina in its continuing cultivation of such efforts.

"The Lament of an Ancient Shepherd of Laius” was originally published in The Mountain (Outrider Press, 2014)