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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