Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Still Are Thy Pleasant Voices, Thy Nightingales, Awake"

Considering that the odds of writing a good poem are long (even for an accomplished poet), being remembered for a single poem is not a bad thing.  Such is the case of William Johnson Cory (1823-1892).  In Cory's case the single poem is the translation of an epigram by Callimachus.  But Cory's version of Callimachus's poem is so fine that he has transformed it into his own -- while remaining true to the spirit of the original.

                                   Heraclitus

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

William Johnson Cory, Ionica (1891).

Well, on the strength of this poem, I believe we can say of William Johnson Cory himself:  "Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake . . ."

Alan Sorrell (1904-1974), "The Artist in the Campagna" (c. 1931)

Here is a prose version of Callimachus's poem:

"One told me of thy death, Heraclitus, and it moved me to tears, when I remembered how often the sun set on our talking.  And thou, my Halicarnassian friend, liest somewhere, gone long long ago to dust; but they live, thy Nightingales, on which Hades who seizeth all shall not lay his hand."

Callimachus (translated by W. R. Paton), in W. R. Paton, The Greek Anthology (Heinemann 1919).  The "Heraclitus" referred to in the epigram is not the well-known Greek philosopher, but a poet from Halicarnassus. According to Paton, "Nightingales" is "the title of a book of poems."

For purposes of comparison, here are two other verse translations:

They told me, Heraclitus, thou wert dead;
And then I thought, and tears thereon did shed,
How oft we two talk'd down the sun:  but thou,
Halicarnassian guest! art ashes now.
Yet live thy nightingales of song; on those
Forgetfulness her hand shall ne'er impose.

Callimachus (translated by Henry Nelson Coleridge), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849).

One told me, Heraclitus, of thy fate,
Which brought the tear into my eye to think
How oft we two, conversing long and late,
Have seen the sun into his chamber sink;
But that is past and gone, and somewhere thou,
Halicarnassian guest! art ashes now.
Yet live those nightingales of thine; on these
The all-grasping hand of Hades will not seize.

Callimachus (translated by Charles Neaves), in Charles Neaves, The Greek Anthology (1874).

Alan Sorrell, "Sudanese Express Passing Abu Simbel"

The prose translation and the two verse translations contain the same elements as Cory's version:  tears of sorrow; a memory of friends talking until the sun went down; ashes/dust; poems as nightingales; Death/Hades/forgetfulness.  But they cannot hold a candle to what Cory has pulled off.  Because I am a sworn enemy of explication and explanation, I will say only this:  Cory has written a lovely poem.  A poem which, once read, cannot be forgotten.  Why this is so is what makes poetry the wondrous thing it is.  We should leave it at that.  Definitions destroy.

Alan Sorrell, "Train in a Landscape"

4 comments:

Terra said...

I love this first translation, it is so close to perfection. I like how you shared a prose translation and other poetic versions. How intriguing to be remembered for one ideal poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

Terra: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. If possible, I always try to find alternative translations for purposes of comparison -- if nothing else, it gives me a feel for the key elements of the original text. I agree that Cory's version is wonderful, and provides a timeless (I hope) monument for him (and for Callimachus).

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. Cory's version seems to leap off the page; the others leaden by comparison.
I also heard the faintest of echoes -- I must have heard someone long ago say "We tired the sun with talking..."
Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: yes, Cory's version is wonderful, isn't it? I understand what you mean about "We tired the sun with talking . . ." -- it does seem to be an echo of something, but I can't put my finger on it either. Or perhaps Cory simply came up with a phrase so lovely and so resonant that we think we ought to have heard it before.

It's always nice to hear from you. Thank you for visiting.