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,

looted," 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.

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