Thursday, September 12, 2013


I Too Am Called a Felled Tree

George Herbert (1593-1633), Memoriae Matris Sacrum. To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift. A Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary. Edited by Catherine Freis, Richard Freis, and Greg Miller (Fairfield: George Herbert Journal, 2012), pp. 34-35 (Poem 11):
Dvm librata suis haeret radicibus ilex
    Nescia vulturnis cedere, firma manet.
Post vbi crudelem sentit diuisa securem,
    Quò placet oblato, mortua fertur, hero:
Arbor & ipse inuersa vocor: dúmque insitus almae        5
    Assideo Matri, robore vinco cedros.
Nunc sorti pateo, expositus sine matre procellis,
    Lubricus, & superans mobilitate salum,
Tu radix, tu petra mihi firmissima, Mater,
    Ceu Polypus, chelis saxa prehendo tenax:        10
Non tibi nunc soli filum abrupere sorores,
    Dissutus videor funere & ipse tuo.
Vnde vagans passim rectè vocer alter Vlysses,
    Alteráque haec tua mors Ilias esto mihi.

As long as, balanced, the live oak clings with its own roots
    Not knowing how to yield to the southeast winds, it stands firm.
When, later, it's split, it experiences the cruel ax, dead, it's borne
    Away to please the lord for whom it happens to be given:
As for me, I too am called a felled tree: as long as, grafted,
    I sit by my sustaining mother, I best the cedars in strength.
Now I lie open to my lot, exposed to blasts and sheers
    Without my mother, as unsteady and driven as the wide sea.
You, Mother, are the root, the firmest rock to me,
    Like a Polypus, I hold fast to the rocks with my claws:
You are not the only one whose thread the sisters have cut,
    I seem to have been unstitched myself by your death. Whence
Wandering from point to point let me be called another Ulysses,
    And let this, your death, be a second Iliad for me.
When I first read this poem, I understood Ilias in the last line as the proverbial Ilias malorum, an Iliad of troubles (Erasmus, Adagia I iii 26). The editors in their commentary, without mentioning the proverb, reject this interpretation (p. 134):
Herbert does not ask that his mother's death be another set of "sufferings at Ilium," but another "Iliad," the great poem about those grievous sufferings.
For passages in the Iliad in which Homer compares the death of men in battle with the felling of trees, see Some Homeric Similes.

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.


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