Twenty-six items from Special Collections (x)

Bibliography: Theocritus: The Idyllstranslated with an introduction and notes by Robert Wells (Penguin, 1988).

Comment: My original plan for this series excluded any poetry in Latin or Greek, on the grounds that such works are so much more likely to be familiar to readers of Jacket2. I make an exception today only because I have the sense that whenever one finally locates an effective translation of a {famous piece that had always seemed hopeless}, one has a strong duty to report the fact. For example, Wang Wei had always seemed to me the Great Tang Poet Whom I Don't Get,—until I found the 1991 translation by Tony Barnstone and Xu Haixin. Having thoroughly enjoyed and digested Wang Wei for the first time, I spent the next few months running from place to place saying "Barnstone and Xu! Barnstone and Xu!" 

In my experience, foreign eclogues generally refuse to speak English. Of all the people I know who admire and love Virgil's, for example, not one is willing to stand up for any particular English translation. Everybody tells you: "Oh, just read two or three chaste and respectable versions, ’til your imagination has enough to go on, and then picture the same stuff, except beautiful and satisfactory."

It seems clear to me Theocritus translates better than most of those guys, but the material still seems quite vulnerable to having all the life and color squeezed out of it. One thing I have observed: Any turgidity in the translation is fatal.

Now look what an elegant and convincing job Robert Wells does. In my opinion, there are two real tests to apply here. Number one, the refrain lines. They should have a Palgrave's Golden Treasury quality. And number two, the sexy stuff. It should have a heartbeat.

Have a look and judge for yourself whether Wells pulls it off.



Pharmaceutria


Give me the bay-leaves, Thestylis, give me the charms;
Put a circlet of fine red wool around the cup.
Hurry! I must work a spell to bind my lover.
O how he hurts me! Twelve days without a visit,
Without so much as a knock at my door to learn
If I were alive or dead. Does he care so little
Whose bed he shares? Is his love so slight? Tomorrow
I'll go down to the wrestling school of Timagetus,
Find him and let him know how he's treated me.
But now I'll bind him with magic. Moon, shine clearly;
Listen to my song; I'll chant it low for you
And for blood-bathed Hecate, your earthly double,
From whom dogs cower as she wanders among graves.
Be with me, Hecate, queen of terrors; help me
To make these drugs as strong as any brewed
By Circe, Medea or yellow-haired Perimede.

                                               •

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

First barley-grains must be scattered in the fire,
   Thestylis. Do it, and as you throw them on—
Are you laughing at me, girl, or have you forgotten?—
   Repeat, I scatter Delphis bone by bone.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

Next I light the bay-leaves. They crackle and flare;
   When the flame has died no trace of ash remains.
Delphis wounds me. Then let the fire seize Delphis,
   Shrivel his heart and burn along his veins.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

Now I throw on the corn-husks. Nothing holds fast
   Against you, Artemis, either on earth or in hell.
The town-dogs howl; the goddess is at the crossroads.
   Keep us safe from her, Thestylis. Strike the bell!

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

Listen, the night is windless, the sea lies still;
   Only my turmoil interrupts the calm,
My love-gone-bad for a man in love with himself,
   The thief of my happiness and my good name.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

As this wax image melts at the goddess's prompting
   Let Myndian Delphis melt in love once more.
As the bronze blade whirrs with Aphrodite's power
   Let him hover and twist in pain about my door.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

I make three libations and say this three times, Lady:
   May the woman or the man who shares his bed
Miss him sooner than Theseus was missed on Naxos
   When heavy-haired Ariadne woke betrayed.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

Mares and their foals, if they eat Arcadian coltsfoot,
   Gallop in frenzy over the upland meadows.
O to see Delphis break madly from the wrestling school
   And never stop till he burst into my house.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

I shred the fringe that Delphis lost from his cloak
   And throw it in the brazier. Devil or god,
You stick to me, Love, like a fat leech from the marshes,
   Suck my body and drain out all the blood.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

I'll give him juice from a lizard to drink tomorrow.
   Now, Thestylis, before the dawn comes on,
Take these ashes, crush them over his doorstep
   And whisper, I crush Delphis bone by bone.

Turn, magic wheel, and force my lover home.

                                               

How did it start, this misery? Left to myself
I trace the story back to its small beginning.
Eubulus's child, Anaxo, went as altar-girl
To the grove of Artemis. They brought wild animals
And even a lioness for the grand procession.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

Theumaridas's nurse, the woman from Thrace
Who used to live next door—she's dead and gone now—
Begged me to come and watch the parade. Light-heartedly
I put on my long fine linen dress with the shawl
Clearista lent me, and we set off together.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

We were half-way along the road, near Lycon's place,
When I saw Delphis walking with Eudamippus.
They had come from the gymnasium, flushed and handsome
After exercise. Their russet beards curled glistening.
Their bare chests shone more splendidly, Moon, than you.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

In that mad moment my heart burst into flame.
The life went out of my look; I barely noticed
The procession, and how I got myself back home
I don't know. Fever shook me from head to foot.
Ten days and nights I lay helpless on my bed.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

My skin turned dull and sallow as cinnamon bark.
My hair began to fall out and my body shrank
To skin and bones. I looked everywhere for help,
For a wise woman to charm the sickness away.
I found no relief, and time was hurrying on.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

At last I spoke to my slave-girl and told the truth:
"Thestylis, you must fetch me the man from Myndus.
He is the whole cause of my sickness; he must cure me.
Wait for him by the wrestling school of Timagetus.
That's his favorite place for passing the time.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

"When you see him alone, beckon him over quietly,
Tell him 'Simaetha wants you' and bring him here."
She did as I said and brought him to my house,
Delphis the golden-skinned. When I heard him enter
And the threshold touched by that untroubled step—

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about—

I froze to a drift of snow; across my forehead
The sweat broke out and ran like a heavy dew.
I could not utter a sound, not even the whimper
A child makes for its mother as it lies asleep.
My body grew stiff as if it were a doll's.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

Seeing me, he lowered his eyes and sat on the bed.
His words came glibly, full of shallow feeling:
"You beat me to it, Simaetha, only by as much
As I outran young Philinus today on the race-track.
Invited or not, I would have been at your door.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

"Tonight was the night I meant to come to you,
Bringing two or three good friends for company,
With the apples of Dionysus under my shirt
And on my forehead a garland of white poplar
Sacred to Heracles, twined with purple ribbons.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

"And well and good if you had taken me in
(Fine-looking and nimble as the young men call me):
One kiss on your lovely mouth and I would have slept.
But if you had pushed me away and bolted the door,
I would have come against you with axes and torches.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

"Now I offer my thanks to the goddess Cypris
And to you, Simaetha, for coming to my rescue.
Your invitation snatched me out of the fire
Already half-burnt. Love often kindles a blaze
More bright and fierce than Hephaestus on Lipara.

Think, Lady Moon, how my love came about.

"He will draw a bride to leave the still-warm bed
Of her husband, or tempt a young girl from her room,
Scared but willful...."

                                       Full of foolish trust
I reached for his hand and pulled him softly down.
His skin touched mine with secret sudden warmth;
Face to hot face, we murmured. There is no need
To draw out the story, Goddess. What happened happened,
So strange, so commonplace; and both were pleased.
And nothing, no spite or quarrel, came between us
Till yesterday. But this morning, as dawn was breaking
Rosily over the sea, I had a visit
From the mother of Melixo and young Philiste
Our fluteplayer. She told me all her gossip
And among much else, that Delphis was deep in love.
Whether with a man or a woman she couldn't say
But she knew this much: he called for unmixed wine
And drank "To Love," then hurried off, declaring
That there was a house he must festoon with flowers.
This was what she told me, and she spoke the truth.
He used to come to me three or four times a day
(He kept his oil-flask here for the wrestling-school).
But it's twelve days now since I set eyes on him;
That means he's found a good reason to forget me.
Lucky for him if the magic binds him. If not,
I'll make him beat at death's door to be let in;
There are poisons—strong ones—ready for him in my box;
I brewed them as an Assyrian woman taught me . . . .

Lady, goodbye. Now turn your horses seaward
And leave me to my longing, which I must bear
As I have borne it. Goodbye, remote bright Goddess.
Goodbye, you stars that crowd night's silent path.