Earlier I posted about literary friendships, and indeed I was just at AWP for a panel on the late (is that possible?) Craig Arnold.   One of the most beautiful poem-portraits of literary friendship is surely Callimachus’ Elegy for Heraclitus.  It’s a perfect poem in Greek, in jewel-like elegiac couplets.  But in English, it is much more famous in William Johnson Cory’s marvelous and memorable translation.  Rarely does a translation achieve classic status in its own right.  Somehow this seems appropriate for an elegy from poet to poet, that it should be passed on through the generations, from language to language.In Constantine Trypanis’ (from the Penguin Book of Greek Verse) “plain prose” translation, it reads:

Someone spoke of your death, Heraclitus, and it moved me to tears, and I remembered how often we put the sun to sleep as we were talking.  You, my friend from Halicarnassus, lie somewhere, long long ago gone to dust; but your nightingales are living, and Hades who snatches everything will never lay his hand upon them.

Or, here is the Loeb translation by A. W. Mair:

One told me, Heracleitus, of thy death and brought me to tears, and I remembered how often we two in talking put the sun to rest. Thou, methinks, Halicarnasian friend, art ashes long and long ago; but thy nightingales live still, whereon Hades, snatcher of all things, shall not lay his hand.

(See the Greek here.)

It is the image of the two friends talking till the sun goes down that brings this to life.  And then the sad reassurance to the dead, and comfort to the living, that his verses (charmingly called “nightingales,” that ancient symbol of poet and song) shall live on.  Callimachus was a poet and scholar of consummate learning and polish (he was librarian at the famous library of Alexandria).  He flourished in the first half of the third century BC.  (Sorry, I don’t go in for the politically correct BCE…)  

The Heraclitus in question is a fellow-poet from, well, Halicarnassus (in modern Turkey).  He is NOT the philosopher who said everything flows.  That Heraclitus lived some 200 years earlier.  I point this out because of the dangers of the internet—there are footnotes all over the place (even some “legitimate” academic sites…) for the Cory poem that explain that Heraclitus was the presocratic philosopher of that name, even though, then, the poem makes no sense.  I mean, surely it could not have come as much of a shock to Callimachus that that Heraclitus was dead.  Really.

But I digress. This poem is more famous in the English-speaking world from the Victorian translation of William Johnson Cory.  Like Callimachus, he was a scholar as well as a poet, and served as headmaster of Eton.  His version goes:

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 remember'd 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.


It is a faithful, accurate and instantly memorable translation—and the bold liberties Cory takes are all meaningful and telling.  An indication of its classic status is surely the presence of many excellent parodies.  (Some are here.)

Evelyn Waugh also did a parody, and no doubt there are others.

Cory expands the efficient six lines of elegiac couplets in Greek to eight lines—and, importantly, two stanzas—of hexameter and heptameter couplets in English.  The six-beat line tends to break in two in English, leaving a rest in the middle, so that the seven-beat lines don’t feel longer, they just feel completely filled out.  The two lines that are completely filled out are the points of greatest emotional pressure:  lines 2 and 8.  

In the English, the first line is all Anglosaxon monosyllables besides the mellifluous, resounding and foreign “Heraclitus”—the name is lingered on.  The repetition seems to speak of denial.  And indeed, coming to “dead” at the end of the line is shocking—perhaps, we think for a moment, this is a false rumor—after all, we are addressing this “dead” person. 

Cory has changed the one someone who brings the news in the Greek, to a sinister “they.”  Hewing closely to the Greek, Cory calls the sun “him,” but in Greek, there is no choice but to give the sun a gender.  In English, doing so personifies him.  He becomes a companion to their long conversations, even though he goes to bed first. 

The big shift in the English, though, is between stanzas.  In the first stanza, Heraclitus seems still alive—if  in the past tense, these shared memories have a freshness and urgency to them.  He speaks to Heraclitus directly as “you.”  By the second stanza, Heraclitus has become a dead poet, whose poems survive him.  He is suddenly an archaic “thou,” (there is no such register shift in the Greek), and the repetition of “long, long” (though an accurate rendering of the original) is less about denial than about acceptance.   

In Greek, the nightingales (the poems, of course) of Heraclitus still live, but in the English they are “awake”—it comes to the same thing, but whereas the Greek is a plain and simple, elegant statement, the English is a metaphor—awake and thus singing though the night—the eternal night of death.  (And it foregrounds the contrast of the sleepy sun in the first stanza with the wakeful nightingales.) 

I often hear that the cardinal sin of translation is adding something, but I think this is often misconstrued.  Translation isn’t a word for word operation.  A phrase may sometimes explain something that is actually contained or latent in one word of the original.  “Thy pleasant voices” is not in the Greek, but in a way it is contained in the etymology of nightingale, which in Greek is cognate with the Greek verb for singing.  The “handful” of grey ashes is not exactly in the Greek either, but one wonders if Cory wasn’t influenced here by the end of the Greek poem:  grasping Death shall not lay a "hand" on his friend’s poems.

The synonym of “Carian” for Halicarnassian is metrically useful—it gives Cory more space to work with in the line.  But is there not also some vague hint to the ear here of “carrion”?  (Or I am going to far there?  Maybe.)  Death becomes the ultimate archaizer, or rather maker of timelessness, as indicated by the grand and old-fashioned “taketh,” and the slightly inverted syntax of the close, hammered home by alliteration, repetition and meter.  The poem begins in denial and ends in defiance. 

The Greek here of Callimachus has an elegance and restraint that we associate with the classical.  The translation gets that feeling across; but it is also more highly colored (the alliteration and internal and end rhyme for instance, the repetition of "bitter" in line 2, which is Cory's own interpolation) than the original, more emphatic, more emotional.  More, well, Victorian.  But what it loses in that anonymous elegance of the Greek Anthology it makes up for in other ways.  It becomes (arguably) a great English poem in its own right.  The Greek is like pure, transparent spring water.  The English is like a vintage claret.

In any of its incarnations, though, it embodies beautifully our feelings towards our departed poet friends.  Our fond memories of our conversations, when we sent the sun to bed.  And our hope that their poems will live on, singing through the night.  Many poet friends and acquaintances have left us these past few years, translated out of time, and when I think of them, this poem pulses through my mind.

Originally Published: April 11th, 2010

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...