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To My Father by John Milton Translated from the Latin by David R. Slavitt

 

 

My wish is that the Pierian fountainís waters might flood

my breast and that the Castalian stream flowing down the slopes

of Parnassus might wet my lips so that my Muse could rise

from the trivial strains to which I have often turned my attention

and fly on adventurous wings to honor my reverend father.

I havenít the least idea whether the verses I write

will please your discerning eye, but I cannot imagine what else

could better serve to repay in some small part your giftsó

for which there is no adequate way of expressing my thanks.

No empty words could equal my feeling of obligation.                                                 10

This page, nevertheless, displays all my resources

and my small horde of talent is here on these pieces of paper.

There is nothing I possess except what golden Clio

has given me, what my dreams have brought to me from the caves

of sleep, and what the laurel groves of the sacred wood

in the shade of Mount Parnassus have seen fit to bestow.

 

            Do not scorn the poetís song.  These works are divine

for they reveal more than anything else our ethereal nature

and heavenly heritage. Nothing else in its origin shows

the mysterious workings of grace in the human mind that displays                         20

still some small but sacred trace of Promethean fire.

The gods have a special fondness for song, which is able to move

even the trembling depths of Hades and melt the hearts

of the desperate shades and the cruel gods of the underworld.

Apolloís priestesses and Sibyls express themselves

in song when they disclose to us what the future holds.

At the sacred altars, the priest composes his verses whether

he sacrifices a bull that tosses its golden horns

or consults the reeking entrails for hints of destinyís purpose.

When I return to my home on Olympus and see the changeless                               30

ages of eternity stretching out before me,

I shall enter the temples of heaven adorned with gold, singing

my sweet songs to the gentle strum of the ivory plectrum

with which the stars in the arches of heaven shall resound.

Even now, although we cannot hear it, the spirit

that encircles the swift bodies in orbit himself sings

along with the starry choirs in ineffable harmony,

while the Serpentís constellationís angry hiss is stilled.

Fierce Orion, turning tranquil, lowers his sword

and Atlas is relieved of the burden his shoulders bear.                                                40

 

            Before there was any sybaritic and showy feasting

and back when there was only temperate drinking of wine,

the banquets of kings were graced by the recitations of bards

who sat at the dinner table with their flowing locks encircled

by a garlands of oak, and they used to sing of the feats of heroes

and all their mighty deeds, or else they would sing of chaos

and how the broad foundations that underlie the world

came to be created by creeping gods that fed

on berries and acorns, before the thunderbolts were brought

from the cavern under Aetna.  But what can music alone                                            50

accomplish without the words and the meaning of verseís numbers?

Sylvan choirs perhaps can content themselves with this

but for Orpheus it wasnít the lute alone but the song

that held the rivers back and gave the oak trees ears,

moved the shades of the dead to shed tears of the living

as they comprehended the passionate utterance of his mouth.

 

            Do not dismiss the sacred Musesí efforts; think

not that they are vain or poor but the source of all

settings of words to fitting music.  They are trained

to vary the vocalise through a thousand modulations.                                                 60

With your talent, you deserve to be the heir of Arion,

the great harper who first devised the dithyramb.

If I was born a poet, why should it seem strange

that we, so closely joined by the loving bond of blood,

should pursue related arts and similar ways of living?

Apollo, wishing that he could divide himself in twain,

gave some of his gifts to me and others to you,

so that we, father and son, comprise the divided god.   

 

            You pretend to disesteem the gentle Muses, but I

cannot believe you hate them.  You did not direct my steps                                        70

to the broad way that leads to the fields of gain and money

and to men who hope to acquire their sacks of glittering gold.

You did not drag me off to the bar and the laws of the land

(so poorly observed) to condemn my delicate ears with the wrangles

and foolish disputations.  Instead, you indulged your son

and allowed my already nurtured mind to continue to grow

ever more rich and strong in retreats from the cityís uproar

and pass my pleasant leisure hours by pastoral streams,

a happy companion or even the acolyte of Apollo. 

 

            I pass over in silence (as Cicero used to say)                                                      80

the common kindnesses of any loving parent,

for greater matters demand mention and my attention.

When at your cost I became fluent in Romulusí tongue

and mastered the graces of Latin as well as the lofty words

of the splendid Greeks (which became the lips of Jove himself),

you urged me to add to this florilegium more blossoms:

the harvest of Gallic gardens and even Italian weeds,

admittedly degenerate but not without tang,

as well as the stately phrases in which the ancient prophets

of Palestine held forth.  And beyond all that, you set me                                              90

on the path of study of all the secrets of heaven and earth,

whatever flows in the air or is hidden beneath the waves.

All this I learn through you, if only I make the effort,

and the parted clouds will reveal the naked beauties of science

offering her face to my adoring kissesó

unless I am too timid about what they could mean

and flee rather than undergo the risk of passion. 

 

            Let fools go in search of wealth who prefer the undemanding

riches of Austriaís mines of those of far-off Peru.

Nothing is better than learning:  my fatherís gift to me                                                 100

could not have been more precious.  Jove if he had granted

all but heaven could not have been more lavish.

He who gave Hyperionís blazing chariotís reins

and its radiant light and tiara to Phaethon his son

could notóeven if they were safe--have matched these gifts to me.

Therefore, since I am one, although the least and last,

of the company of scholars, I shall sit among ivy

and laurel, with the leaves of which victors are crowned

and mix in no more with the dull and vulgar rabble.  My feet

will avoid the gaze of profane and uncomprehending eyes.                                       110

Sleepless cares, away, and away with all complaints!

The glance of naked envy and the sidelong goatish leer

I shall take as praises.  Calumny, keep still!

You may close your serpentís jaws which I do not at all fear.   

All of you tormenters, begone, away, avaunt.

None of you can hurt me: I am not under your law,

and I may walk secure from the threat of your viper strikes.

 

            But as for you, dear father, since I can not repay

your generous gifts to me nor begin recompense

with any deeds of mine, let it be sufficient                                                                        120

that I remember and with great thankfulness count over

in a faithful mind each one of your many kindnesses.

            And you, my youthful verses, my first feeble attempts,

if you hope to survive your masterís pyre and thus endure

for endless years, and if oblivionís grasping paw

does not drag you down to Orcus, do you remember

and cherish these praises of mine for a splendid father

whose name and fame will be an examplar for later ages.

 

 

 

 

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