Tuesday, October 11, 2005



My son, talented in so many areas, is also clever at writing light verse. Here's a birthday poem he recently wrote and sent to a friend (one month older than himself, both in the prime of life):

The sword of Damocles threatens to fall,
As life's autumn stage descends with a sigh,
The writing's on the wall, but alas,
You can barely read it with your one good eye.

Age before beauty? You're first in line!
On the bus people offer their seats.
The discount for seniors is yours at last,
Whilst your hairline rapidly retreats.

This is not a reproach!
No gloating from me!
You'll not hear one word of disdain.
For I always learned
To respect my elders:
"Sir, may I hand you your cane?"

On your birthday, let me add
That although your back is bent
You'll be pleased to know I got you
Two tubes of Poli-Dent.

And that's not all, oh no! No, I declare!
Now harken well, my friend.
Would you like me to speak a little louder?
Should I repeat that last phrase again?

An aged cheese for you, a glass o' red wine,
A trip down memory lane,
But the irritable bowels...the memory's haze...
Oh I guess you'd better abstain.

Your bones creak ominously as you struggle up the stairs,
Your breathing is labored and short,
Your friends exchange furtive glances
As hands extend offering support.

You're in your twilight years, it's true,
A venerable old mossback, a diehard,
A fusty grognard, a grand old geezer,
A doddering, dated old dotard.

But according to legend and lore and the ancient tomes,
You were once born this very day,
So please enjoy it! Best wishes, old pal!
Go treat yourself to Morrison's buffet.

The birthday poem is an ancient literary genre, known by its Greek name genethliacon. "Though there were Greek antecedents in the conception of the δαίμων, in the rhetorical handling of natalician themes, and in epigrams of the Anthology, yet the typical birthday poetry of Rome was so intimately associated with the worship of the Genius, that as a separate genre it made one of the original features in Latin literature." That quotation and most of the following list of Latin genethliaca come from J. Wight Duff's article on Genethliacon in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 461:Here are two genethliaca, one for the birthday of Cerinthus, and the other for the birthday of his beloved Sulpicia, from the Tibullan Corpus (3.11 and 3.12, tr. J.P. Postgate):

This day that made thee live for me, Cerinthus, shall be for me one to be hallowed always and set among the festivals. When thou wast born, the voices of the Fates proclaimed that now there was new slavery for woman, and bestowed proud sovereignty on thee. I burn more fiercely than them all, but joy, Cerinthus, in the burning, if within thy breast lives fires caught from mine. May love like mine be thine, I pray thee, by our stolen raptures, by thine eyes and thy Birth-spirit. Great Genius, take this incense with a will, and smile upon my prayer, if only when he thinks on me his pulse beats high. But if perchance even now he sighs for another love, then, holy one, depart from that faithless altar. And, Venus, be not thou unjust; either let both alike be bound thy slaves or lift my shackles off. But rather let us both be bound, with a strong chain that no coming day can loose. The lad desires the same as I, but conceals his longing more; he is ashamed to say the words aloud. But thou, Birth-spirit, a god and knowing all things, grant the prayer. What matter if his suit be uttered or unspoken?

Juno of the birthday, receive the holy piles of incense which the accomplished maid's soft hand now offers thee. To-day she is thine wholly; most joyfully she has decked herself for thee, to stand before thy altar a sight for all to see. 'Tis in thee, goddess, she bids us find the reason for this apparelling. Yet there is one that in secret she desires to please. Then, hallowed one, be kind, and let none pluck apart the lovers: but forge, I prithee, like fetters for the youth. Thus shalt thou match them well. To the maid he, to no man she might fitlier be thrall. And may no watchful guard surprise their wooings, but Love suggest a thousand ways for his outwitting. Bow assent and come in all the sheen of purple palla. They are making offering to thee, holy goddess, thrice with cake and thrice with wine, and the mother eagerly enjoins upon her child what she must pray for. But she, now mistress of herself, sues for another thing in the silence of her heart. She burns as the altar burns with the darting flames, nor, even though she might, would she be whole. Be grateful, Juno, so that, when the next year comes, this love, now of long standing, may be there unchanged to meet their prayers.

From both of these poems it can be seen that it was the ancient Roman custom to make a wish or prayer for oneself on one's birthday, as we do even today when blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.

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