Shards of Time


Selected Translations by Jon Corelis

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Sappho:  On What Is Best

from the Greek

Some celebrate the beauty
   of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
   at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
   but I place far above
these military splendors
   the one thing that you love.

For proof of this contention
   examine history:
we all remember Helen,
   who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
   to take a stranger's hand:
her beauty had no equal,
   but bowed to love's command.

As love then is the power
   that none can disobey,
so too my thoughts must follow
   my darling far away:
the sparkle of her laughter
   would give me greater joy
than all the bronze-clad heroes
   who fought it out at Troy.

Archilochos:  To his soul

Soul, my soul, don't let them break you,
all these troubles. Never yield:
though their force is overwhelming,
up! attack them shield to shield,

nor victorious rise exalted,
vaunting you can never fall,
nor defeated lie in endless
grieving, as if loss were all.

Take the joy and bear the sorrow,
looking past your hopes and fears:
learn to recognize the measured
dance that orders all our years.

Praxilla:  Three Fragments
from the Greek

Look out, my friend, there's a scorpion under every rock!


O lovely one, gazing through the window,
your face a child's, your body a blossoming girl's . . .


Zenobius the Proverb-collector writes five centuries later: "Sillier than Praxilla's Adonis" is proverbial for foolish people.  Praxilla of Sicyon was (as Polemon records) a lyric poet.  This Praxilla in her "Hymns" portrayed Adonis, upon being asked by those in the world below what was the most beautiful thing he had left behind, as replying:

     The sunlight was the loveliest thing of all,
     and after that the shining moon and stars,
     and also ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.

For only a silly person would count cucumbers, etc., along with the sun and the moon.


from the Greek


The women tell me, "Man, you're old;
don't be so bold.
Look into a mirror
to make it clearer:
your hair
ain't there."

But I can't see what lies
above my eyes.
I do see more reason to play the game,
when Death takes aim.


If wealth with all its money
could make us never die,
I'd give my life to earning,
and then, when Death came by,

I'd pay him and forget him.
But there's no way to spend
yourself into forever.
So since my life must end,

what good does money do me,
or why then should I mourn
the certainty of dying,
which comes with being born?

My riches are in friendship
and drinking wine at ease,
and moon-lit celebrations
of Love's solemnities.


Old Gyges had a ton of gold
  when he was Asia's king;
his treasure houses leave me cold,
  I don't grudge him a thing.

What counts with me is scented hair,
  rose garlands, and today;
so let's drink while the weather's fair:
  tomorrow's far away.


 Sophocles:  The death of Oedipus

from the Greek

You've seen yourselves how he went from here,
no friend as guide, but showing us all
where we had to go.  When he'd reached the sheerly
plunging Verge rooted to earth
by its Steps of Bronze, he paused at a place
in the branching ways where the Basin of Rock
still testifies to the deathless trust
King Theseus placed in Perithous,
and, poised at a point equidistant from there
and the Crag of Dawn and the Maiden's Tree
and the Marble Tomb, he took his stand,
and stripping off his ragged clothes
he called to his daughters and told them to find
some running stream for water to wash
and offer the gods, and they ran to the Mound
of Green Mother Earth, which lies close by,
and brought down what their father had asked,
and they washed his body and wrapped him in white
like you do when it comes; and when he was sure
it was all done right and that none of the things
he had meant to arrange had been left undone,
then a rumbling thunder roared underground
from the Zeus of the Dead, and the terrified girls
fell at their father's knees with a scream,
beating their breasts with long drawn moans,
and he, at the sound of their keening lament,
gathered them into his arms and said,
"Today forever your father is gone.
All that I am dissolves:  lay down
the heavy load of sustaining my life.
I know it was hard, but a single word
cancels the pain:  that word is love.
No man's was ever like mine for you.
Without me now let your lives unfold."
Clinging together with words like these,
father and children became one torrent
of tears, but when, exhausting their grief,
there was nothing more left, a silence prevailed,
but was shattered then by a summoning voice
so dreadful it stood our hair on end;
from everywhere echoed the call of the god:
"You there, Oedipus, what are you waiting for?
It is time to go.  You're making us late."
And he, recognizing the voice of the god,
groped for Lord Theseus, King of this land,
to come near, and told him, "Dearest of friends,
give me the pledge of your hand for my daughters,
and you, children, for him.  Promise
not to desert them; be their protector;
act in their interest; always be kind."
And the King, with the calm of noble restraint,
accepted the oath this stranger imposed.
When all this was done, Oedipus then,
stroking his daughters with his blind hands,
said, "Children, your duty is now to leave
this place, not claiming the right to see
or hear what the god forbids.  Go quickly:
Theseus alone has the right to stay
to witness what now must happen at last."
All of us there could hear what he said,
and helpless with weeping we followed the girls.
After we'd gone a short way, we turned
and found he was gone:  the King was alone,
holding his hand as a shield for his eyes,
as if he looked on a terror beyond
the painfulness human sight could endure;
and after a moment of stillness, he bowed
in reverence both to the earth and the sky.
As for Oedipus, no one but Theseus knows
exactly how he passed from this world.
No thunderbolt struck him, no storm of the sea,
when his time had arrived, but some messenger
must have come from the gods above, or the underworld
below may have opened a painless way out
with mercy at last.  Whatever it was,
there was nothing unclean in his passing.  If ever
a man had a wonderful death, it was his.
And if anyone thinks I'm not talking sense,
I can only say, you can have your sense.


Theocritus:  Cyclops

from the Greek

When you're in love, ain't no cure gonna help,
Nikias, way I reckon:  not no salve,
no liniment, 'cept'n for the Pierian maids.
They got them a medicine that's sweet and mild,
but hard to come by.  Shucks, you know all that,
'count'a being a doc yourself, and the Muses' darling.
Least, that's how our Cyclops eased his time
as a young'un, with scarce a whisker on his chin,
old Polyphemus, when he loved Galatea.
He didn't send flowers or fruits or locks of hair,
-- he was too het up to send anything but love!
His sheep high-tailed it back to their pens alone
from the grazing grounds, while he sung Galatea,
just wasting in the seaweed on the beach
from dawn to dusk, his heart just fit to bust,
since the Love Queen sent her arrow in his guts.
But he found him a cure.  On some high rock,
he'd sit looking over the sea, and sing like this:
"Aw honey, how come you don't want your lover?
You're white as curds, and softer than a lamb,
cute as a calf, and sleeker than a green grape.
You come to me when sweet sleep holds me tight,
and run off soon as sweet sleep lets me go,
like some scared sheep from some grey wolf she's seen.
I done fell plumb in love, girl, that first time
you came by with my Ma, so's I could take
the both of you hyacinth picking in the hills.
I ain't been able to shake you out of my mind
since then, but you don't give a two cent darn.
I know why you run off, you sweet little thing:
it's 'count my one big shaggy old eyebrow
that stretches cross my face from ear to ear,
with one eye under, and my plug-ugly nose.
Well, whatever I'm like, I feed a thousand cattle,
and get bodacious milk from them to drink.
I got me cheese in summer and in fall,
and even in dead of winter.  My pantry's busting!
And ain't no other 'klops plays pipes like me
-- I stay up way late singing 'bout me and you,
my candy-apple!  And I'm raising eleven fawns
for you, with cute little collars, and four bear cubs.
Now come to me -- what all you got to lose?
Let that blue ocean splash against the shore;
you'll spend night sweeter in my cave with me.
There's laurel grows there, pretty cypresses,
dark ivy, and the vine with its sweet fruit,
and a cool stream foresty Aetna sends to me
from its white snows -- a drink that would tickle the gods.
Instead of all this, who'd want the sea and waves?
But if you just can't stand my shaggy hide,
I got oak firewood and a smoldering grate:
I'd let you burn me right down to my soul,
and even my one eye, my pride and joy.
Shoot, wish my Ma had borne me fixed with gills,
so's I could dive right and and kiss your hand,
or your lips, if you'd allow.  And I'd have brung
white lilies for you, or poppies with broad red petals.
(You see, one's a summer flower, and the other's winter,
so's ain't no way I could bring them both at once.)
Little gal, leastways I'll learn to swim right now,
or would, if someone sailed here in a ship,
so's I'd know why y'all love that ocean life.
Come on out, Galatea, and forget,
like I have sitting here, to go back home.
Sure wish you'd want to tend my flocks with me,
and milk them and make cheese with powerful rennet.
My Ma's done this to me; it's all her fault.
She won't put me no good word in with you,
though every day she sees me pine away.
I'll tell her I got the miseries in my head
and both my feet, so's she'll feel bad like me.
Aw, Cyclops -- why are you flying off the handle?
If you'd go weave your baskets and gather branches
to bring your lambs, you'd be a heap sight smarter.
Just milk the cow you got:  don't chase what's running.
There's other Galateas, maybe prettier.
There's lots of girls call me at night to play,
and they all start giggling when I answer back.
It looks like I'm still someone on the land!"

So that's how Polyphemus tended love
with song, and got him peace no cash could buy.


An Exchange from the Latin

The Metelli boys took over Rome by luck:
bad luck for Rome.

               -- Naevius the Poet

The Metelli boys will see about
this "Naevius the Poet."

              -- The Metelli


After Catullus

from the Latin

I say not not Helios burns so strong,
I say he outshines the flickering sun
when your laughter's radiance falls on him there,
trembling before you;

the song draws the soul from my body, it
shakes me with wanting and fear, because when I
see you I arch to the stars and dissolving I
fade into darkness,

and now, like a mawkish boy, I stammer,
pale flame veins my flesh and my ears ring
crazy in chimes and night veils my eyes,
failing such brightness.

Languor, Catullus, destroys you.  Look out!
Languor ripens your womanish ease.
Languor before has ruined great kings,
laid waste happy cities.

Horace:  Regulus

from the Latin

Jove in the heavens thunders us into belief;
Caesar among us will gain a divine respect
  through augmentation of our empire
    with British tribes and dangerous Persians.

How could the soldiers of Crassus endure to live,
stained by a shameful wedlock with barbarous wives
  (what mockery of all our values,)
    to fade into age as the enemy's minions,

Marsian, Apulian, under a Persian king;
undying Vesta, the toga, our sacred arms
  forgotten, the name of Rome forgotten,
    though Jove's high city rules unconquered?

This was the vision forewarned of by Regulus,
spurning a treaty that stipulated disgrace
  and could not fail to blight the unborn
    future with its corrupt example,

had not our captured troops been consigned to death
unpitied.  "With my own eyes I have seen our swords
  and standards hung in Punic temples,
he said, "from compliant warriors,

seen freeborn Romans pinioned and bound in chains,
seen fields our warfare once left a sterile waste
  grow fruitful, while that city's gateway
    stood unafraid and safely open.

Bought back for money, our soldiers will surely fight
new battles fiercely.  You are adding doom to shame:
  just as wool once dyed with crimson
    can never revert to its virgin whiteness,

so a man's courage, once it has been destroyed,
gains never after a home in his craven breast.
  When deer released from huntsmen's netting
    give fight, then we will see courageous

men who entrusted themselves to a treacherous foe,
then they will vanquish that realm in a second war
  who now in meekness feel a prisoner's
    shackles and bonds, afraid of dying.

Such men, unknowing how life is to be secured,
lose sight of what peace means, and of why there is war.
  Where now is honor?  Mighty Carthage,
    proudly reared over Italy's ruins!"

When with such counsel as no man had ever dared,
rendered with pitiless bravery, his tearless gaze
  fixed straight ahead, he had recovered
    a stronger resolve for the hesitant Senate,

he turned from the kisses, they say, of his faithful wife,
like a man ruined, an outcast in our hearts,
  and turned away from his small children,
    away from his weeping friends and allies:

all along knowing what bestial device
the barbarous torturer had laid for his return,
  he pushed aside the crowd of kinsmen
    and citizens trying to block his leaving,

passing them calmly, with the confident relief
of one who had settled some tedious case at law
  and now could rest in Samnium's orchards
    or Tarentum, once a Spartan outpost.


The Archpoet His Confession:  A Recasting

from the Latin

Seething over inwardly
with savage indignation,
in my bitterness of soul
I make this declaration.
My substance is an element
refined of all pretension,
a plaything for the fluttering breeze,
a gossamer invention.

You'll find among the good advice
with which The Bible's filled,
to dig right down to solid rock
before you start to build.
That sounds too much like work to me:
I've built my house on air,
and like a soaring wind-borne dove,
my home is everywhere.

I cannot bear austerity,
and, since I am confessing,
the gravity of saints has always
struck me as depressing.
Virtue is a tedious job,
love's work is sweet as honey;
the riches that Queen Venus gives
mean more to me than money.

So down the open road I go,
exulting in my youth.
I flaunt my weaknesses with pride,
and if I search for truth,
I'm likelier to encounter it
in one beguiling face
than all the monkish breviaries
imploring heaven's grace.

Bless me, father, I have sinned,
or curse me if you'd rather.
Our fate is ashes, dust, and night;
theology is blather.
What fun can an angel have?
The flesh is sweet damnation,
so let me glory in its joys,
and you can have salvation.

Each creature needs its proper food
to keep it flourishing:
our youthful flesh requires the same
for proper nourishing.
The world is filled with lovely girls,
our prime will soon have ceased:
with such a splendid banquet spread,
why not enjoy the feast?

Hold a hot coal in your hand:
you think that it won't burn you?
If you think you're chaste, Pavia's
fleshpots soon will learn you.
There, each day's a holy day,
the Feast of Saint Carouse;
the streets are lined with palaces,
and every one's a house.

Take a youth so pure, he looks
on sex as an infection;
set him in Pavia and
he'll be one big erection.
There, Venus smiles from every door:
Pavia!  where you'll see
a monument to every vice,
except virginity.

A further accusation lodged
is that I like to gamble.
Well, what do you expect from one
whose whole life is a ramble?
And if I have to pawn my cloak
and shiver in the cold,
that gives me the asperity
to keep my verses bold.

The third indictment, please.  Ah yes:
it's that I've got a thirst.
The tavern is my second home,
they charge.  No, it's my first.
They tell me to abandon it. 
I say, "don't hold your breath.
Can you think of a better place
to wait around for death?"

And when he comes, I'll greet him as
a friend should, with a toast,
and may my fellow drinkers cry,
when I give up the ghost,
"Our comrade's gone to his reward,
so throw him on the wagon,
while we drink to his memory.
Innkeeper, a flagon!"

Now I have done:  I have confessed
to what's been charged of me,
admitting guilt of every sin,
except hypocrisy,
so judge, my lords.  I have no more
to plead but this alone:
consider what's in your own heart,
before you throw that stone.

Bertran de Born:  Youth and Age

from the Provençal

I love to see the previous order turning,
when the old leave all their property to youth:
it's this, not buzz of bee or flowers returning,
that makes me feel the world has found its truth;
and if a man produces sons enough,
the chances are at least one will be tough;
and a younger loyalty in love or war
will make the heart and sword arm young once more.

A woman is old who sets no warrior yearning;
she's old, if she keeps faithful to her spouse;
old, if she uses black and sorcerous learning,
or lets more than one lover in her house.
She's old, if her hair's a mess of ragged stuff,
or if she takes a lover who is rough.
She's old, if she thinks that music is a chore,
and she's old when all her talk becomes a bore.

Women are young, whose hearts remain discerning,
whose actions show the values they espouse,
who do not look with scorn on merit's earning,
whose virtues are a light no scandals douse.
A woman is young, whose manner is not gruff,
yet gives impetuous youths a wise rebuff.
She's young, if her figure's nothing to ignore,
and she doesn't pry and listen at every door.

I call a man young who's passionate concerning
jousts and courts, considering thrift uncouth.
He's young, when he thinks that money is for burning;
when, ruined, he smiles without a trace of ruth.
He's young, when he stakes his fortune on a bluff,
and feels that no extravagance is enough.
He's young, if he is skilled in lovers' lore,
and he's young, if he judges risk what life is for.

Though a man be rich, I say that he's old, if, spurning
pillage and war, he wastes away his youth
piling up bread and beef and wine, then turning
monkish, serves eggs, as if we'd nary a tooth.
He's old, if he muffles himself in woven stuff,
and can't command a horse and ride him rough.
He's old, if he rests in peace when battles roar;
old, if he shirks the field and bars the door.

Poet Arnaut, go take this song of youth
and age to Richard, that he may feel its truth
and never wish to heap up worldly store,
since youthful daring enriches honor more.