from Electra

Sophocles
Greek
c. 497 BC – c. 406 BC

 

They took their stand where the appointed judges
Had cast their lots and ranged the rival cars.
Rang out the brazen trump! Away they bound,
Cheer the hot steeds and shake the slackened reins;
As with a body the large space is filled
With the huge clangor of the rattling cars.
High whirl aloft the dust-clouds; blent together,
Each presses each and the lash rings; and loud
Snort the wild steeds, and from their fiery breath,
Along their manes and down the circling wheels
Scatter the flaking foam. Orestes still—
Ays, as he swept around the perilous pillar
Last in the course, wheeled in the rushing axle;
The left rein curbed,—that on the dexter hand
Flung loose.— So on erect the chariots rolled!
Sudden the Ænian’s fierce and headlong steeds
Broke from the bit — and, as the seventh time now
The course was circled, on the Libyan car
Dashed their wild fronts: then order changed to ruin:
Car crashed on car; the wide Crissæan plain
Was sea-like strewed with wrecks; the Athenian saw,
Slackened his speed, and wheeling round the marge,
Unscathed and skillful, in the midmost space,
Left the wild tumult of that tossing storm.
Behind, Orestes, hitherto the last,
Had yet kept back his coursers for the close;
Now one sole rival left — on, on he flew,
And the sharp sound of the impelling scourge
Rang in the keen ears of the flying steeds.
He nears, he reaches — they are side by side —
Now one — the other — by a length the victor.
The courses all are past — the wheels erect —
All safe — when, as the hurrying coursers round
The fatal pillar dashed, the wretched boy
Slackened the left rein: on the column’s edge
Crashed the frail axle: headlong from the car
Caught and all meshed within the reins, he fell;
And masterless the mad steeds raged along!
Loud from that mighty multitude arose
A shriek — a shout! But yesterday such deeds,
To-day such doom! Now whirled upon the earth,
Now his limbs dashed aloft, they dragged him — those
Wild horses — till all gory from the wheels
Released; — and no man, not his nearest friends,
Could in that mangled corpse have traced Orestes.
They laid the body on the funeral-pyre;
And while we speak, the Phocian strangers bear,
In a small, brazen, melancholy urn,
That handful of cold ashes to which all
The grandeur of the Beautiful hath shrunk.

from The Argonautica

06-13 Apollonius
Apollonius of Rhodes
Greek
c. 300 B.C.

 

First in my song shalt thou be, O Phœbus, the song that I sing
Of the heroes of old, who sped, at the hest of Pelias the king,
When down through the gorge of the Pontus-sea, through the Crags Dark-blue,
On the Quest of the Fleece of Gold the strong-ribbed Argo flew.
For an oracle came unto Pelias, how that in days to be
A terrible doom should be dealt him of him whom his eyes should see
From the field coming in, with the one foot only sandal-shod.
Nor long thereafter did Jason fulfil the word of the God:
For in wading the rush of Amaurus swollen with winter-tide rain
One sandal plucked he forth of the mire, but the one was he fain
To leave in the depths, for the swirl of the waters to sweep to the main.
Straightway to the presence of Pelias he came, and his hap was to light
On a banquet, the which unto Father Poseidon the king had dight,
And the rest of the Gods, but Pelasgian Hêrê he heeded not.
And the king beheld him, and straightway laid for his life the plot,
And devised for him toil of a troublous voyage, that lost in the sea,
Or lost amid alien men his home-return might be.
Of the ship and her fashioning, bards of the olden time have told
How Argus wrought, how Athênê made him cunning-souled.
But now be it mine the lineage and names of her heroes to say,
And to tell of the long sea-paths whereover they needs must stray,
And the deeds that they wrought:—may the Muses vouchsafe to inspire the lay.

 

Translation by Arthur S. Way

fragment

05-20 Alcman
Alcman of Sparta
Greek
c. 700 B.C.

 

Verily there is a vengeance from on high, and happy he that weaveth merrily one day’s weft without a tear. And so, as for me, I sing now of the light that is Agido’s. Bright I see it as the very sun’s which the same Agido now invoketh to shine upon us. And yet neither praise nor blame can I give at all to such as she without offence to our splendid leader, who herself appeareth as pre-eminent as would a well-knit steed of ringing hoof that overcometh in the race, if he were set to graze among the unsubstantial cattle of our dreams that fly.

 

Translation by J.M. Edmonds

The Hyperboreans from Pythian X

04-13 Pindar
Pindar
Greek
c. 518 B.C. – c. 438 B.C.

Among them too are the Muses
For everywhere
To flute and string the young girls
Are dancing,
In their hair the gold leaves of the bay:
The dance whirls them away:
Age or disease, no toil,
Battle or ill-day’s luck
Can touch them, they
Are holy, they
Will outlast time, exempted
From the anger of the Goddess
And all decay.

Here the hero came
With the head
That shocked a royal house, turning
King and all into stone:
It was long long ago, if
Time means anything;
Long, long ago.

First Poem

01-23 Sulpicia
Sulpicia
Italian
c. 40 B.C.

 

At last. It’s come. Love,
the kind that veiling
will give me reputation more
than showing my soul naked to someone.
I prayed to Aphrodite in Latin, in poems;
she brought him, snuggled him
into my bosom.
Venus has kept her promises:
let her tell the story of my happiness,
in case some woman will be said
not to have had her share.
I would not want to trust
anything to tablets, signed and sealed,
so no one reads me
before my love—
but indiscretion has its charms;
it’s boring
to fit one’s face to reputation.
May I be said to be
a worthy lover for a worthy love.

 

Translation by Lee Pearcy

from The Birds

12-10 Aristophanes
Aristophanes
Greek
c. 446 B.C. – c. 386 B.C.

 

Ye Children of Man! whose life is a span,
Protracted with sorrow from day to day,
Naked and featherless, feeble and querulous,
Sickly calamitous creatures of clay!
Attend to the words of the Sovereign Birds,
(Immortal, illustrious, lords of the air),
Who survey from on high, with a merciful eye,
Your struggles of misery, labor, and care.
Whence you may learn and clearly discern
Such truths as attract your inquisitive turn;
Which is busied of late with a mighty debate,
A profound speculation about the creation,
And organical life, and chaotical strife,
With various notions of heavenly motions,
And rivers and oceans, and valleys and mountains,
And sources of fountains, and meteors on high,
And stars in the sky… We propose by and by,
(If you’ll listen and hear,) to make it all clear.
And Prodicus henceforth shall pass for a dunce,
When his doubts are explained and expounded at once.

Our antiquity proved, it remains to be shown
That Love is our author and master alone;
Like him we can ramble, and gambol and fly
O’er ocean and earth, and aloft to the sky;
And all the world over, we’re friends to the lover,
And when other means fail, we are found to prevail,
When a Peacock or Pheasant is sent as a present.
All lessons of primary daily concern
You have learnt from the Birds, and continue to learn,
Your best benefactors and early instructors;
We give you the warning of seasons returning.
When the Cranes are arranged, and muster afloat
In the middle air, with a creaking note,
Steering away to the Libyan sands,
Then careful farmers sow their lands;
The crazy vessel is hauled ashore,
The sail, the ropes, the rudder and oar
Are all unshipped and housed in store.
The shepherd is warned, by the Kite reappearing,
To muster his flock, and be ready for shearing.
You quit your old cloak at the Swallow’s behest,
In assurance of summer, and purchase a vest.
For Delphi, for Ammon, Dodona, in fine
For every oracular temple and shrine,
The Birds are a substitute equal and fair,
For on us you depend, and to us you repair
For counsel and aid when a marriage is made,
A purchase, a bargain, a venture in trade:
Unlucky or lucky, whatever has struck ye,
An ox or an ass that may happen to pass,
A voice in the street, or a slave that you meet,
A name or a word by chance overheard,
If you deem it an omen, you call it a Bird;
And if birds are your omens, it clearly will follow
That birds are a proper prophetic Apollo.

 

Translation by John Hookham Frere

The Owl

11-22 Jia Yi
Jia Yi
Chinese
c. 200 B.C. – c. 169 B.C.

 

In the year tan-o,
Fourth month, first month of summer,
The day kuei-tzu, when the sun was low in the west,
An owl came to my lodge
And perched on the corner of my mat,
Phlegmatic and fearless.
Secretly wondering the reason
The strange thing had come to roost,
I took out a book to divine it
And the oracle told me its secret:
“Wild bird enters the hall;
The master will soon depart.”
I asked and importuned the owl,
“Where is it I must go?
Do you bring good luck? Then tell me!
Misfortune? Relate what disaster!
Must I depart so swiftly?
And speak to me of the hour!”
The owl breathed a sigh,
Raised its head and beat its wings.
Its beak could utter no word,
But let me tell you what it sought to say:
All things alter and change,
Never a moment of ceasing,
Revolving, whirling, and rolling away,
Driven far off and returning again,
Form and breath passing onward,
Like the mutations of the cicada.
Profound, subtle, and illimitable,
Who can finish describing it?

Good luck must be followed by bad,
Bad in turn bow to good.
Sorrow and joy throng the gate,
Weal and woe in the same land.
Wu was powerful and great;
Under Fu-ch’a it sank in defeat.
Yüeh was crushed at K’uai-chi,
But Kou-chien made it an overlord.
Li Ssu, who went forth to greatness, at last
Suffered the five mutilations.
Fu Yüeh was sent into bondage,
Yet Wu Ting made him his aide.
Thus fortune and disaster
Entwine like the strands of a rope.
Fate cannot be told of,
For who shall know its ending?
Water, troubled, runs wild;
The arrow, quick-sped, flies far.
All things, whirling and driving,
Compelling and pushing each other, roll on.
The clouds rise up, the rains come down,
In confusion inextricably joined.
The Great Potter fashions all creatures,
Infinite, boundless, limit unknown.
There is no reckoning Heaven,
Nor divining beforehand the Tao.
The span of life is fated;
Man cannot guess its ending.

Heaven and earth are the furnace,
The workman, the Creator;
His coal is the yin and the yang,
His copper, all things of creation.
Joining, scattering, ebbing and flowing,
Where is there persistence or rule?
A thousand, a myriad mutations,
Lacking and end’s beginning.
Suddenly they form a man:
How is this worth taking thought of?
They are transforming again in death:
Should this perplex you?
The witless take pride in his being,
Scorning others, a lover of self.
The man of wisdom sees vastly
And knows what all things will do.
The covetous run after riches,
The impassioned pursue a fair name;
The proud die struggling for power,
While the people long only to live.
Each drawn and driven onward,
They hurry east and west.
The great man is without bent;
A million changes are as one to him.
The stupid man chained by custom
Suffers like a prisoner bound.
The sage abandons things
And joins himself to the Tao alone,
While the multitudes in delusion
With desire and hate load their hearts.
Limpid and still, the true man
Finds his peace in the Tao alone.

Discarding wisdom, forgetful of form,
Transcendent, destroying self,
Vast and empty, swift and wild,
He soars on wings of the Tao.
Borne on the flood he sails forth;
He rests on the river islets.
Freeing his body to Fate,
Unpartaking of self,
His life is a floating,
His death a rest.
And stillness like the stillness of deep springs,
Like an unmoored boat drifting aimlessly,
Valuing not the breath of life,
He embraces and drifts with Nothing.
Comprehending Fate and free of sorrow,
The man of virtue heads no bounds.
Petty matters, weeds and thorns–
What are they to me?

 

Translation by Burton Watson

from The Distaff

06-15 Erinna
Erinna
Greek
c. 500 B.C.

 

…From white horses with madcap bound into the deep wave you leapt: “I catch you,” I shouted, “my friend!” And you, when you were Tortoise, ran leaping through the yard of the great court.

Thus I lament, unhappy Baucis, and make deep moan for you. These traces of you, dear maid, lie still glowing in my heart: all that we once enjoyed, is embers now.

We clung to our dolls in our chambers when we were girls, playing Young Wives, without a care. And towards dawn your Mother, who allotted wool to her attendant workwomen, came and called you to help with the salted meat. Oh, what a trembling the Bogy brought us then, when we were little ones! – On its head were huge ears, and it walked on all fours, and changed from one face to another!

But when you went to a man’s bed, you forgot all that you heard from your Mother, dear Baucis, in babyhood: Aphrodite set oblivion in your heart. So I lament you, yet neglect your obsequies — my feet are not so profane as to leave the house, my eyes may not behold a body dead, nor may I moan with hair unbound, yet a blush of shame distracts me…

 

Translation by A.S. Hunt and C.C. Edgar