Sophocles was in his nineties when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus; we think it was not performed until after his death. It is, of course, part of the cycle that starts with Oedipus Rex and ends with Antigone, but Colonus was written last and reveals an Oedipus with a different temperament than the younger, brasher man who was overcome by and angry at his fate. Oedipus is now old and has found a kind of reconciliation with what has happened to him: “You’ll never find / A man on earth, if a god leads him on, / Who can escape his fate.” So Oedipus seems to have dispensed with the guilt. He is in a grove near Athens, getting ready to die, and to lend his protective spirit to Athens rather than to Thebes. The gods have said that whoever accepts the dying Oedipus will be “blessed.” Oedipus has no wish to bless Thebes, the city that cursed him.
Oedipus is not the only old person in the play. Old Creon shows up trying to convince Oedipus to die at Thebes, and the chorus is composed of “elders.” Oedipus has come to the sacred grove at Colonus (outside of Athens) with his adoring daughters (Ismene and Antigone), and has a confrontation with one of his two hated sons. But, while the passionate young Oedipus spurned fate, the aged Oedipus has decided to accept his fate and die in the sacred grove. Zeus thunders his approval.
In his posthumous book, On Late Style, Edward Said differentiates between two artistic approaches at the end of creative lives. He proposes that some aging literary and musical artists reflect “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of miraculous transformation of common reality,” and puts the Sophocles of Oedipus at Colonus in this category, along with the Shakespeare of the late romances (think of Winter’s Tale or The Tempest). These writers have come to a kind of late serenity, and perhaps also a kind of truce with death. I would probably put Eliot’s Elder Statesman in this category too. There are angry old people too, though, and not everyone comes to resolution, peace. While Oedipus says that his “experience and length of days teach me to be content,” even Oedipus comes to no reconciliation with Thebes, Creon, or his sons. Reconciliation should not require capitulation. And perhaps contentment does not require any reconciliation beyond one’s own conscience.
Colonus influenced Eliot’s Elder Statesman and also influenced other writers. E. M. Forster (at a much younger age) rewrote Colonus as a perfectly wonderful short story (“The Road to Colonus“) with a completely different ending. In the story, the aging Mr. Lucas is touring Greece with his caring daughter Ethel. The story starts with the sentences: “For no very intelligible reason, Mr. Lucas had hurried ahead of his party. He was perhaps reaching the age at which independence becomes valuable, because it is soon to be lost.” And, of course, we find out that it is already too late. We can all relate to that. The party comes through the parched countryside to a ramshackle inn by a spring in a grove of trees. An oasis of sorts. Mr. Lucas finds some peace there by an old tree; he wants to stay; he wants to die there. But unlike the obedient daughters of Oedipus, the efficient Ethel is having none of this. He gets tricked into leaving and spends the rest of his life not exactly living with his daughter and her husband back in England. We learn later that the inn was destroyed when the tree fell later that evening; Mr. Lucas was meant to die there but did not accept (or was not allowed to accept) his fate. While his daughter Ethel says, “Such a marvelous deliverance does make one believe in Providence,” we are left to conclude that escaping Providence was a disaster for the poor old man living half a life in his daughter’s house back in England, forever complaining about the noise and forever being ignored.
Colonus is full of strange and mysterious occurrences. So is life. We can rage against the things we do not like (including our own mortality – think of Dylan Thomas’s advice that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light”). However, if we rage on and on, we may lose any ability to enjoy the parts of life that we do like. “Our life is not as pitiful as you’d think,” says the elderly Oedipus, “as long as we find joy in every hour.” This sounds a little like Lear’s speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage… and take upon’s the mystery of things.” There is, perhaps, time in old age to take upon ourselves the mystery of things. And to let them be.
I drafted a novel once about the Great Books Institute which takes place every year at Colby College. If you are interested in what my fictional readers had to say about Colonus, click here.