Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Sophocles, Oedipus The King, 427 BCE

Translation: David Green 

Death of Jocasta

Sophocles, Oedipus, King of Thebes

Translation: Gilbert Murray, 1911

Death of Jocasta

Sophocles, Oedipus The King, 427 BCE
Translation: David Green


Death of Jocasta

Second Messenger:

          Shortest to hear and tell — our glorious queen

          Jocasta’s dead.



Unhappy women! How?


Second Messenger:

          By her own hand. The worst of what was done

          you cannot know. You did not see the sight.

          Yet in so far as I remember it

          you’ll hear the end of our unlucky queen.

          When she came raging into the house she went

          straight to her marriage bed, tearing her hair

with both hands, and crying upon Laius

          long dead — Do you remember, Laius,

          that night long past which bred a child for us

          to send you to death and leave

          a mother making children with her son?

          And then she groaned and cursed the bed in which

          she brought forth husband by her husband, children

          by her own child, and infamous double bond.

          How after that she died I do not know —

          for Oedipus distracted us from seeing.

          He burst upon us shouting and we looked

          to him as he paced frantically around,

          begging us always: Give me a sword, I say,

          to find this wife no wife, this mother’s womb

          this field of double sowing whence I sprang

          and where I sowed my children! As he raved

          some god showed him the way — none of us there.

          Bellowing terribly and led by some

          invisible guide he rushed on the two doors, —

          wrenching the hollow bolts out of their sockets,

          he charged inside. There, there, we saw his wife

          hanging, the twisted rope around her neck.


When he saw her, he cried out fearfully

          and cut the dangling noose. Then, as she lay,

          poor woman, on the ground, what happened after,

          was terrible to see. He tore the brooches —

          the gold chased brooches fastening her robe —

          away from her and lifting them high

          dashed them on his own eyeballs, shrieking out

          such things as: they will never see the crime

          I have committed or had done upon me!

          Dark eyes, now in day to come look on

          forbidden faces, do not recognize

          those whom you long for — with such imprecations

          he struck he eyes again and yet again

          with the brooches. And bleeding eyeballs gushed

          and stained his beard — no sluggish oozing drops

but a black rain and bloody hail poured down.


So it has broken — and not on one head

but troubles mixed for husband and wife.

The fortune of the days gone by was true

good fortune — but today groans and destruction

and death and shame — of all ills can be named

not one is missing.



          Is he now in any ease from pain?


Second Messenger

          He shouts

          for some one to unbar the doors and show him

          to all the men of Thebes, his father’s killer,

          his mother’s — no I cannot say the word,

          it is unholy — for he’ll cast himself,

          out of the land, he says, and not remain

          to bring a curse upon his house, the curse

          he called upon it in his proclamation. But

          he wants for strength, aye, and some one to guide him;

          his sickness is too great to bear. You, too,

          will be shown that. The bolts are opening.

          Soon you will see a sight to waken pity

          even in the horror of it.                                (Enter the blinded Oedipus.)


Sophocles, Oedipus, King of Thebes

Translation: Gilbert Murray, 1911

Death of Jocasta



One thing I bring thee first….’Tis quickly said.

Jocasta, our anointed queen, is dead.



Unhappy woman! How came death to her?



By her own hand. . . . Oh, of what passed in there

Ye have been spared the worst. Ye cannot see.

Howbeit, with that which still is left in me

Of mind and memory, ye shall hear her fate.

Like one entranced with passion, through the gate

She passed, the white hand flashing o’er her head.

Like blades that tear, and fled, unswerving fled,

Toward her old bridal room, and disappeared

And the doors crashed behind her. But we heard

Her voice within, crying to him of old,

Her Laius, long dead; and things untold

Of the old kiss unforgotten, that should bring

The lover’s death and leave the loved a thing

Of horror, yea, a field beneath the plough

Fore sire and son: then wailing bitter-low

Across that bed of births unreconciled,

Husband from husband born and child from child.

And, after that, I know not how her death

Found her. For sudden, with a roar of wrath,

Burst Oedipus upon us. Then, I ween,

We marked no more what passion held the Queen,

But him, as in the fury of his stride,

“ A sword! A sword! And show me here,” he cried,

“That wife, no wife, that field of bloodstained earth

Where husband, father, sin on sin, had birth,

Polluted generations!”  While he thus

Raged on, some god — for sure’t was none of us —

Showed where she was; and with a shout away,

As though some hand had pointed to the prey,

He dashed him on the chamber door. The straight

Door-bar of oak, it bent beneath his weight,

Shook from its sockets free, and in he burst

To the dark chamber.

    There we saw her first

Hanged, swinging from a noose, like a dead bird.

He fell back when he saw her. Then we heard

A miserable groan, and straight he found

And loosed the strangling knot, and on the ground

Laid her. — Ah, then the sight of horror came!

The pin of gold, broad-beaten like a flame,

He tore from off her breast, and, left and right,

Down on the shuddering orbits of his sight

Dashed it: “Out! Out! Ye never more shall see

Me nor the anguish nor the sins of me.

Ye looked on lives whose like earth never bore,

Ye knew not those my spirit thirsted for:

Therefore be dark for ever!!”

          Like a song

His voice rose, and again, again, the strong

And stabbing hand fell, and the massacred

And bleeding eyeballs streamed upon his beard,

Wild rain, and gouts of hail amid the rain.

          Behold affliction, yea, afflictions twain

From man and woman broken, now made one

In downfall. All the riches yester son

Saw in this house were rich in verity.

What call ye now our riches? Agony,

Delusion, Death, Shame, all that eye or ear

Hath ever dreamed of misery, is here.



And now how fares he? Doth the storm abate?



He shouts for one to open wide the gate

And lead him forth, and all Thebes display

His father’s murderer, his mother’s. . . . Nay,

Such words I will not speak. And his intent

Is set, to cast himself in banishment

Out to the wild, not walk ‘mid human breed

Bearing the curse he bears. Yet sore his need

Of strength and of some guiding hand. For sure

He hath more burden now than man may endure.

          But see, the gates fall back, and that appears

Which he who loathes shall pity — yea, with tears.


          Oedipus is led in, blinded and bleeding.    

          The Old Men bow down and hide their

          Faces; some of them weep.



Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.