Elegiac tangents

The nineteenth-century poet William Johnson Cory is remembered chiefly for this translation from Callimachus, which I include for anyone not familiar with it:

 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.

That must surely count as one of the great poems of the English language. I stumbled on Cory at a tangent while reading on the lawn. Here is another by him, not so fine, but with a similar elegiac zest for life, if I may be allowed the oxymoron:

     Mimnermus in Church

     You promise heavens free from strife,
     Pure truth, and perfect change of will;
     But sweet, sweet is this human life,
     So sweet, I fain would breathe it still;
     Your chilly stars I can forego,
     This warm kind world is all I know.

     You say there is no substance here,
     One great reality above:
     Back from that void I shrink in fear,
     And child-like hide myself in love:
     Show me what angels feel. Till then,
     I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

     You bid me lift my mean desires
     From faltering lips and fitful veins
     To sexless souls, ideal quires,
     Unwearied voices, wordless strains:
     My mind with fonder welcome owns
     One dear dead friend's remembered tones.

     Forsooth the present we must give
     To that which cannot pass away;
     All beauteous things for which we live
     By laws of time and space decay.
     But oh, the very reason why
     I clasp them, is because they die.

Mimnermus, I did not know, is an early Greek poet whose work is almost completely lost. But there is this:

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή·
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίγνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· ἐπεὶ δ’ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ’ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ καλὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ’ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ’ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

The following version, lacking Cory’s grace, gives the sense, more or less; found on Wikipedia:

What is life, what is sweet, if it is missing golden Aphrodite?
Death would be better by far than to live with no time for
Amorous assignations and the gift of tenderness and bedrooms,
All of those things that give youth all of its coveted bloom,
Both for men and for women. But when there arrives the vexatiousness
Of old age, even good looks alter to unsightliness
And the heart wears away under the endlessness of its anxieties:
There is no joy anymore then in the light of the sun;
In children there is found hate and in women there is found no respect.
So difficult has old age been made for us all by God!

The translation of the penultimate line is euphemistic, or ignorant of Greek ways; and the more literal sense of ‘even good looks’ is that age, the leveller, reduces the ugly and the handsome man to the same state.

For good measure, here are some fine words by Cory on the purpose of education:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.

Wikipedia

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