Thursday, March 16, 2017

Martial 5:34, On the Death of Erotion

This is one of the best poems I know of (the original, I mean. The translation clunks and clanks and barely manages.) There is nothing more tender in the ancient world than Martial's grief and his concern that this child not be frightened in the underworld (she was, it seems, a real girl, not an imagined one). It occurs to me that this is also a gesture of love and piety toward Martial's parents, who must have died recently, if a five-year-old is going to recognize them. He sends her on ahead, trusting to his parents' kindness and letting them know that they are still in his mind.

On the Death of Erotion, a Slave Child

I commend this girl, this sweet one, my delight,
Fronto and Flaccilla, my parents, into your care,
so that with you little Erotion might not take fright
at Cerberus's triple roar or the phantoms there.
Had she lived six more days of winter cold,
she'd have prided herself on being six years old.
With such familiar protectors, let her trick and play
and still lisp my name, as she used to do.
May mellow sod veil her brittle bones --- and weigh
Lightly on her, kind earth; she was light on you.

(my translation)

Martial 5:34

Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
     oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
parvula ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
     oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
Impletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae,
     vixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
Inter tam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
     et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa nec illi,
     terra, gravis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.



  1. so much happens in Martial's poem, and then in your translation. while Martial enlivens Erotion through his grief, he also entombs her in a linguistic stone, a language of a time we no longer quite understand or thoroughly feel. your translation frees her (and Martial!) to walk with us again.

    i come upon this today and immediately think of what you (and Martial) have succeeded in doing.

    To The Stone-Cutters
    Robinson Jeffers

    Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
    Challengers of oblivion
    Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
    The square-limbed Roman letters
    Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
    Builds his monument mockingly;
    For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
    Die blind and blacken to the heart:
    Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
    The honey of peace in old poems.

    1. Yes, "pained thoughts found / The honey of peace in old poems." This is the real work, this inevitably small gesture of making something, and then recovery, placed against the vast dark, the work of writing and of reading. There is another epigram where Martial pleads with whatever unknown persons will own his farm after Martial's death, asking them, please, to maintain Erotion's grave, so that her memory lasts a little longer, though he knows the "square-limbed Roman letters / Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain" and cannot be forever. I wonder if he would be surprised that his poems have preserved her memory much longer than her grave marker was able to do?