On a springtime morning under a saffron-colored sky,
night’s biting chill was just giving way to a hint
of the warmth that was yet to come. I was walking a country path
between well-tended plots and enjoying the crisp
tonic of fresh air. On the blades of grass I could see
the white hoar-frost still clinging. On cabbage leaves
it had melted to crystal drops that agglomerated together.
There were bushes with budding roses of the kind one finds at Paestum,
dewy and gleaming in early morning light.
Here and there were those droplets, newborn but already drying
in the first light of the sun. One supposed that the pink
touch of Aurora’s progress stole its hue from these
blushing rosebuds, although the converse seemed
plausible too—that the sky’s tender tinge informed
these opening buds and gave them their fresh color.
Venus, after all, is the queen of the morning and rules
over these flowers as well, the tint, the moistness
clearly her own. Let her therefore take all the credit
for the sky and the buds too, the freshness and fragrance
they share coming from her, the queen goddess of Paphos.
It was just that critical moment when the buds were about
to split into equal segments their outer green containers.
One’s green calyx was closed; another’s sepals
were about to separate and display the corolla’s ruddy
hints of what the blossom would soon be.
The next was already showing the spread of petals, within
the cup of which were the saffron-yellow seeds.
But not far away on the same branch were overblown
roses, the petals’ array already going
or gone, and down on the grass their delicacy was fading.
How swift is the ruin of beauty like this, how brusque,
budding, blooming, and dying all at once in a blur
of being! I say the words that float on the air
and I watch as another petal lets go its hold and falls
to carpet the green below with flashes of crimson.
I breathe the scent of the flowers, but every breath I take
is all at once a birth and growth and death.
This is what Nature does, giving us mere glimpses
she then snatches away, perhaps to mock us,
or is it to concentrate our ill-focused attention?
In the case of a rose, a day is a whole lifetime
so that youth and age go hand in hand. The Morning Star
sees a blossom born that, on her return
as the Evening Star, is already withered and dying.
In a stern frame of mind I tell myself
that the blossom may die, but life springs back and renews
the healthy bush. Is this enough to cheer me?
O maidens, gather your roses when you find them fresh,
for they—and I fear you too—are already dying.
translated from the Latin by David R. Slavitt
The Gnat and Other Minor Poems of Virgil
University of California Press
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