Thursday, October 02, 2008


Cruel Axes

Among the Latin poems of Samuel Johnson is one with the title In Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfieldiae Diffluentem (On the Stream Flowing from Stowe Mill at Lichfield). In the poem he mentions the felling of a tree that once overshadowed the stream. Here is a prose translation by Niall Rudd:
The river, still glassy, flows through the green meadows in which as a boy I so often bathed my young limbs. Here I would vainly thrash my arms, which got nowhere with their inexpert movements, while my father with his calm voice taught me to swim. The branches made a hiding place, and an overhanging tree covered the hidden waters in darkness even by day. Now the shadows of old have fallen victim to cruel axes; and the bathing place lies exposed to distant eyes. The water, however, unwearyingly continues on its course from year to year, and where it once flowed unseen it now still flows, though in the open. You too, Nisus, continue your daily course, indifferent to what swift time may bring in from the world outside, and what it may wear away.
Here is Johnson's original Latin:
Errat adhuc vitreus per prata virentia rivus,
  Quo toties lavi membra tenella puer;
Hic delusa rudi frustrabar brachia motu,
  Dum docuit, blanda voce, natare pater.
Fecerunt rami latebras, tenebrisque diurnis
  Pendula secretas abdidit arbor aquas.
Nunc veteres duris periere securibus umbrae,
  Longinquisque oculis nuda lavacra patent.
Lympha, tamen, cursus agit indefessa perennis,
  Tectaque qua fluxit, nunc et aperta fluit.
Quid ferat externi velox, quid deterat aetas,
  Tu quoque securus res age, Nise, tuas.
Edmund Blunden made this verse translation:
It winds on still, the glassy brook
Among the meadows green, the same
Where I in young enchantment came
To bathe my tender limbs, and took
With unskilled strokes my splashing way
While with mild words my father gave
The swimming lesson, many a day.
Broad branches roofed the covert wave
In livelong shadows, then my lair;
But now the axe has slain the shade,
And far-off eyes may find the bare
And treeless bathing-pool displayed.
The waters urge their course no less,
Eternal, and where once it went
Concealed, today in openness
Goes that unwearied element.
My friend, whatever be the effect
Of outward loss or contrast brought
By hastening age, from this stream taught,
Pursue your own concerns unchecked.
Here is another version by John Wain:
Clear as glass the stream still wanders through
green fields. Here, as a boy, I bathed
my tender limbs, unskilled, while
with gentle voice my father from the bank
taught me to swim. The branches made
a hiding-place: the bending trees concealed
the water in a daytime darkness. Now
hard axes have destroyed those ancient shades:
the pool lies naked, even to distant eyes.
But the same water, never tiring, still runs on
in the same channel: once hidden, now exposed,
still flowing. Nisus, you too, what time
brings from outside, or eats away within
ignoring, do those things you have to do.
David Ferry omits Johnson's apostrophe to Nisus in this translation:
The stream still flows through the meadow grass,
As clear as it was when I used to go in swimming,
Not good at it at all, while my father's voice
Gently called out through the light of the shadowy glade,
Trying to help me learn. The branches hung down low
Over those waters made secret by their shadows.
My arms flailed in a childlike helpless way.

And now the sharp blade of the axe of time
Has utterly cut away that tangle of shadows.
The naked waters are open to the sky now
And the stream still flows through the meadow grass.
Hat tip: Patrick Kurp.

Related posts: Odi et Amo; Kentucky Chainsaw Massacre; Protection of Sacred Groves; Lex Luci Spoletina; Turullius and the Grove of Asclepius; Caesarian Section; Death of a Noble Pine; Two Yew Trees in Chilthorne, Somerset; The Fate of the Shrubbery at Weston; The Trees Are Down; Sad Ravages in the Woods; Strokes of Havoc; Maltreatment of Trees; Arboricide; An Impious Lumberjack; Erysichthon in Ovid; Erysichthon in Callimachus; Vandalism.

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