To Corinth came a solitary stranger,
Whom none yet knew, a young Athenian;
He sought there to obtain a certain favour
From his father’s comrade in the town:
Long had it been planned
For his daughter’s hand
To be given to his comrade’s son.
Might perhaps his welcome there be hindered?
Might the price of it his means exceed?
He is still a pagan, like his kindred;
Baptized the others in the Christian creed.
When new faiths are born,
From the heart are torn,
Sometimes, love and troth like any weed.
All the house was hushed, to rest retiring
Father, daughters – not the mother yet;
Him she welcomed, of his state inquiring,
And to a well-appointed guest room led.
Wine and food she brought,
Ere of them he thought,
Solicitous, and “Sleep you well,” she said.
Yet he felt no hunger and unheeded
Left the wine, and eager for the rest
Which his limbs forspent with travel needed,
Down upon the bed he lay, still dressed;
Drowsing now, when lo,
Gliding forward, slow –
At the door another, wondrous guest
By his table lamp’s unsteady glowing
He sees a girl walk in the room, and stand:
Gentle, modest, veiled in white, a flowing
Snowy robe, a black and gold headband.
As she meets his eyes,
Startled, in surprise,
She has lifted up a snowy hand.
“Is a stranger here, and no-one told me?
Am I then forgotten, just a name?
Ah! Tis thus that in my cell they hold me.
Now I feel quite overcome with shame.
Do not stir,” she said,
“Now you are in bed,
I will leave as quickly as I came.”
“Do not leave me, lovely one!” and springing
Out of bed he’s quickly on his feet.
“Ceres, here, and Bacchus, gifts are bringing,
What you bring is Amor, his delight.
Why are you so pale?
Sweet, now let us hail
The joyous gods, their gifts, with appetite!”
“No, O no, young stranger, come not nigh me.
Joy is not for me, nor festive cheer.
Ah! such bliss may not be tasted by me,
Since my mother, sickened with a fear,
By long illness bowed,
Me to heaven vowed:
Youth and nature I may not come near.
They have left our household, left it lonely,
The jocund gods of old, no more they reign;
One, unseen, in heaven, is worshipped only,
And a saviour crucified and slain.
Sacrifices here –
Neither lamb nor steer,
But man himself in misery and pain.”
Weighing all her words, now he must ponder:
Can it be that in this silent spot
He beholds her – what surpassing wonder! –
The beloved bride that he had sought?
“Be mine only now,
Look, our fathers’ vow
Heaven’s blessing to us both has brought!”
“No, good heart, not me,” she cries in anguish;
Your company is my second sister’s place.
When I weep inside my cell and languish,
Think of me, though in her fond embrace.
She who pines for thee
Never shalt thou see:
Soon beneath the earth she’ll hide her face. “
“No! By this flame I swear between us burning,
Fanned by Hymen, lost thou shalt not be!
Not lost to me or joy, no, but returning
Back to my father’s house, come back with me!
Stay, my sweetheart, here,
Taste the bridal cheer,
Spread for us so unexpectedly.”
Tokens they exchange, to him she proffers
Her golden necklace now for him to wear,
But she will not touch the cup he offers,
Silver, wrought with skill exceeding rare:
“That is not for me,
All I ask of thee
Is one curly lock of thy own hair. “
Dully boomed the ghosting midnight hour;
Only now her eyes take on a shine,
Pallid lips of hers, now they devour,
Gulping it, the bloody-coloured wine,
But of wheaten bread
Offered by the lad
Not a single crumb to take would deign.
Now she gave the cup, and so he drained it,
Impetuous, in haste, he drained it dry;
Love was in his heart, desire pained it,
Till it ached for what she must deny.
Hard as he insists,
She his will resists –
On the bed he flounders with a cry.
She throws herself beside him: “Dearest, still thee!
Ah, how sad I am to see thee so.
But alas, my body would but chill thee,
Thou wouldst find a thing thou mayst not know;
Thou wouldst be afraid,
Finding then the maid
Thou has chosen, cold as ice and snow.”
Vehement strong arms the girl emprison
And muscle from the thrill of love acquire:
“Even from the grave wert thou arisen,
I would warm thee well with my desire!”
Breathless kiss on kiss!
“Dost thou burn and feel my burning fire?”
Closer still they cling and closer, mixing
Tears and cries of love, limbs interlaced,
She sucks his kisses, his with hers transfixing,
Each self aware the other it possessed.
All his passion’s flood
Warms her gelid blood –
Yet no heart is beating in her breast.
Meanwhile, down the corridor, the mother
Passes, late, on household tasks intent;
Hears a sound, and listens, then another:
Wonders at the sounds and what they meant.
Who was whispering so?
Voices soft and low,
Rapturous cries and moans of lovers blent.
Ear against the door herself she stations,
Making certain nothing is amiss;
Horrified she hears those protestations
Lovers make, avowals of their bliss:
“The cockerel! Tis light!”
“But tomorrow night
Wilt thou come again?” – and kiss on kiss.
Now she can contain her rage no longer,
Lifts the latch, flings open wide the door:
“Not in my house! Who’s this that any stranger
Can slip into his bed, who is this whore?”
Now she’s in the room,
By lamplight in the gloom –
God! This girl her daughter was before!
And the youth in terror tried to cover
With her flimsy veil the maiden’s head,
Clasped her close; but sliding from her lover,
Back the garment from her face she spread,
As by spirit power
Made longer, straighter, now her
Body slowly rises from the bed.
“Mother! Mother!” – hollow-voiced – “Deprive me
Not of pleasures I this night have known!
From this warm abode why do you drive me?
Do I waken to despair alone?
Are you not content
That in my cerement
To an early grave you forced me down?
Strange is the law that me perforce has brought now
Forth from the dark-heaped chamber where I lay;
The croonings of your priests avail but nought now,
Powerless their blessings were, I say.
Water nor salt in truth
Can cool the pulse of youth:
Love still burns, though buried under clay.
This young man, to him my troth was plighted,
While yet blithely Venus ruled the land,
Mother! – and that promise you have slighted,
Yielding to an outlandish command.
But no god will hear
If a mother swear
To deny to love her daughter’s hand.
From my grave betimes I have been driven,
I seek the good I lost, none shall me thwart,
I seek his love to whom my troth was given,
And I have sucked the lifeblood from his heart.
If he dies, I will
Find me others, still
With my fury tear young folk apart.
Fair young man, thy thread of life is broken,
Human skill can bring no help to thee.
There, thou hast my necklace as a token,
And this curl of thine I take with me.
Soon thou must decay,
Dawn will find thee gray,
In Hades only shalt thou brownhaired be.
Mother! Listen to my last entreaty!
Heap the funeral pyre for us once more;
Open then my little tomb, for pity,
And in flame our souls to peace restore.
Up the sparks will go,
When the embers glow,
To the ancient gods aloft we soar.”
Translated by Aytoun-Martin/Christopher Middleton