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Translator's Notes: Little Soul

by W.S. Merwin

It must have been at some time during my years at the university that I first encountered this brief, mysterious poem. It is ascribed to the Emperor Hadrian (76–138 AD) without any scholarly question that I know of, but it has always seemed surprising to me that a poem so assured in its art, so flawless and so haunting, could have been the only one he ever wrote. Perhaps he wrote poems all his life and this was the only one that was saved, or this one alone was unforgettable.

Certainly, whenever I read it first, I never forgot it, and I examined each of the translations of it into English as I came across them. The one I liked best was by Dudley Fitts. But it was the original that I was happy to return to, as any reader would who could do so.

Ten years or so after I left college, Marguerite Yourcenar published her novel Hadrian’s Memoirs, in which the poem acquires a resonant imaginary context, memorable in itself, yet it was the original poem that I went on remembering, still ignorant of the circumstances in which it had come to exist. I am not certain whose soul the poem addresses, and as far as I know no one else can be sure of that either, though of course there are rooted assumptions about it.

Although I have tried to translate poetry (in full awareness of the limitations, the utter impossibility of the enterprise) ever since those student days, it never occurred to me to attempt to import this small solitaire. But in the past years poems have come to me arising from events that recalled the familiar Latin phrases too, and one day I realized that I knew, suddenly, how I would like to hear them in English—if they could exist in English—and the words of the translation, as they occurred to me, seemed to be as literal as they could possibly be.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2006

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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