Tuesday, 28 September 2010


9th century
Byzantine Greece

Selected Epigrams


You meet your friend, your face
Brightens - you have struck gold.


Wealth covers sin - the poor
Are naked as a pin.


Poverty? wealth? seek neither -
One causes swollen heads,
The other, swollen bellies.


A learned fool? God save us!
The pigs are wearing pearls.


Better unborn than fool.
If born, spare earth your tread.
Don't wait, Go straight to hell.


Ask for a taste of luck
Before you ask for beauty.


and my favourite in this group:

A half-dead, bald, one-handed,
Stuttering, pint-sized, pimply,
Pigeon-toed, cross-eyed man,
When mocked by a lying pimp,
A thieving, murderous drunk,
Of his misfortune said:

"I'm not to blame - you think
I asked to be like this?
But you! . . . the credit's yours.
Your Maker gave you nothing,
Behold! a self-made man.'


Kassia is the only woman poet of distinction in Byzantine history. Tradition says she was to be chosen as a bride by the Emperor but was rejected when she answered him with the edged wit for which she is famous. She founded a convent and was its abbess for the remainder of her life. She wrote epigrams in iambics, and a substantial number of hymns.

Epigrams translated from Byzantine Greek by Patrick Diehl

Thursday, 23 September 2010


with the Fall of Icarus
c. 1558
Pieter Bruegel the Elder

   About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W.H. Auden

Monday, 20 September 2010


And night and distant rumbling; now the army's
carrier train was moving out, to war.
He looked up from the harpsichord, and as
he went on playing, he looked across at her

almost as one might gaze into a mirror;
so deeply was her every feature filled
with his young features, which bore his pain and were
more beautiful and seductive with each sound.

Then, suddenly, the image broke apart.
She stood, as though distracted, near the window
and felt the violent drum-beats of her heart.

His playing stopped. From outside, a fresh wind blew.
And strangely alien on the mirror-table
stood the black shako with its ivory skull.

Rainer Maria Rilke
translator Stephen Mitchell

Monday, 13 September 2010


Day after day the wind carries away a rose from the garden;
and the heart of the nightingale feels a new sorrow.

The law of Time is the same for all men:
murmur not, and submit to its justice.

The falcon of death carries off in his talons,
like a pigeon, all things that are born.

O Friend!
Set not thy heart on this world:
For peace undisturbed is not possible here.

The tulip and hyacinth that blossom 
come from the earth;
perhaps from the dust of a face that was lovely,
with hyacinthlike scented hair.

Nothing has ever been built on the earth,
that time has not changed its perfection.

Yesterday the garden and its flowers felt the gladness
of the warbling of birds.

Today the thorns alone remain,
as if never a rose had bloomed in the garden.

The world is a bridge that leads to Eternity;
the wise build not their homes on the bridge.

from Ode 405

translator unknown

Friday, 10 September 2010


The Peach Blossom Spring 

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach blossom flows downstream
and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.


Translated from the Chinese
by Robert Kotewall and Norman L. Smith

Monday, 6 September 2010


Now light is less, noon skies are wide and deep;
The ravages of wind and rain are healed.
The haze of harvest drifts along the field
Until clear eyes put on the look of sleep.

The garden spider weaves a silken pear
To keep inclement weather from its young.
Straight from the oak, the gossamer is hung.
At dusk our slow breath thickens in the air.

Lost hues of birds the trees take as their own.
Long since, bronze wheat was gathered into sheaves.
The walker trudges ankle-deep in leaves;
The feather of the milkweed flutters down.

The shoots of spring have mellowed with the year.
Buds, long unsealed, obscure the narrow lane,
The blood slows trance-like in the altered vein;
Our vernal wisdom moves through ripe to sere.

Theodore Roethke

Saturday, 4 September 2010



To desire much bringeth a troubled mind;
So store within thy heart these precepts wise;

Many seeming That are not the That;
Many trees bear nought of Fruit;
All sciences are not the Wisdom true;
Much talking is of little profit
That which enricheth the heart is the Sacred Wealth;
Desirest thou Wealth, then store thou this;
The Doctrine which subdueth passion vile is the Noble Path;
Desirest thou a safe Path? then tread thou this,
Forsake the weeping sorrow-burdened world;
Make lonely caves thy home paternal,
And solitude thy paradise.
Let thought riding Thought be thy tireless steed,
And thy body thy temple filled with gods,
And ceaseless devotion thy best of drugs,

To thee, thou energetic one,
The Teaching that containeth all Wisdom I have given;
Thy Faith, the Teaching and myself are one.
And may this perfect Seed of Truth thus to my son entrusted,
Bring forth its foliage and its fruit,
Without corruption, without being scattered, without withering.


translated from the Tibetan by W.Y. Evans-Wentz

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking,
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow, like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Ted Hughes