(Recueil 3, Livre 12, Fable 26)
If any tale —well worn, banal—
Needs no retelling, it’s the one I
shall Herewith relate in my own wise.
"But why!" you ask. "Why re-create her,
That personage of more than one narrator:
The Matron that Petronius glorifies
And many an imitator, too, discusses?
What special grace can you give yours to vie,
Verily, with Petronius’s!"
Rather than face my critics in reply—
Task of duration infinite!—
Let me but try to sec if I
Can spruce his famous Matron up a bit.
Long years gone by, in Ephesus,
There lived a woman, passing virtuous,
In wifely duty chaste beyond compare:
Pride of her sex, hailed far and wide. And thus
Came many a soul to see her there,
Eager to gaze upon a sight so rare.
Each mother wished such consort for her son;
Each man wished for a mate like such a one.
(Ancestress of the clan Prudenda, she
Gave rise to long posterity ...)
Exemplar of affection sisterly,
Had failed, I fear, to think the matter through.
But soon the servant comes to realize
What such a stay must needs expose her to.
At first she lets her mistress sigh her sighs
And groan her groans; then vainly tries
10 make her mourn as other widows do,
In manlier more conventional withal.
The Matron, though—obdurate, spurning all
The usual consolations—has one thought
And one alone: what means she ought
Employ to reach unto that dismal
Valley of death, domain abysmal.
Quickest, no doubt, would be the sword.
Bur she demurs; for she would longer feast
Her eyes upon the poor deceased—
Cold in his bier, and yet no less adored.
Such being, indeed, the only nourishment
The mausoleum offers her,
Madame decides that, to pursue monsieur,
Starvation is her best expedient:
Portal direct, through which to quit
This mortal coil and be well rid of it.
One day ... Then two ... And she had fed
On naught bur her "alases" and "ah me’s":
Long song of woe; duly dispirited,
Cursing the gods, Fate’s vagaries,
And all of life’s most grave inequities.
Now, hard by where monsieur lay dead
A second corpse hung swinging in the breeze:
A proper blackguard, and for whom
Only the gibbet—no fine marble tomb
Would stand to mark his infamous demise;
Left thus, so other thieves might cast their eyes
Thereon, and be thereby deterred.
Of thus departing from amongst the living
To join monsieur in death. "Madame", she said,
"The thought occurs to me that, were you dead
And were your husband yet alive, then surely
There’s little question, entre nous,
But that he’d not be quick to follow you.
Life is so short: why leave it prematurely?
At twenty years the grave can wait, no worry!
Long will it be our host: so why the hurry?
Me? Let me live till wrinkles fill my face!
What? Would you waste your beauty and your grace
Upon the dead? What pleasures can they give them,
Imprisoned in their chill embrace?
Better to let vourself outlive them—
These charms divine of yours—and not allow
The jealous bier too soon to claim them.” Now,
The compliments, of course, have their effect:
Madame is quickened, as you might expect,
To thoughts of beauty and, perforce, of love.
At length, the impish god thereof
Looses an arrow from his quiver at her,
And at the guard as well. The latter,
Pierced to the heart, is smitten utterly—
More deeply than, at first, is she.
The more she sobs, the more those teardrops flatter
The winsome face behind the weeping mask.
(Beauty that even many a husband would
Find worth the yoke of husbandhood!)
And so the soldier, warming to the task,
Proceeds to woo the widow, doing
Everything wooers do a-wooing,
Much to the pleasure of madame the wooed.
He does so well that, soon, she tastes his food;
So well, that he seems fitter, far, to have her
Than even the most fair and lit cadaver;
So well, that there, before her dear deceased,
Widow turns wife—or so to speak, at least.
But as they lie thus consummating, lo!
A brigand steals that other corpse—the one
Our groom forgets to guard ... He’ll run ... But no,
Too late, alack! The deed is done ...
Back to the tomb, in panic, will he flee
To tell madame the fell catastrophe.
How can he save his skin? Aye, that’s the question!
For which the slave girl, full of sympathy,
Offers him an untoward suggestion:
"By madame’s leave, no one will know if we
Hang up our corpse to take your corpse’s place.”
Madame agrees ... O woman! Fickle race!
Some fair; some plain of face and feature;
But faithful? Ah, would there were such a creature!
Prudes, be advised: vaunt not your strength of will
Though your intent be to resist temptation.
For, fare we well or fare we ill,
Strong, too, is man’s determination.
Witness our famous Matron, who—
Meaning the good Petronius no offense—
Did, I must say, what many a wife would do
Under the circumstances; and who, hence,
Deserves no exemplary mention.
Her folly? Vowing in her innocence,
To die entombed: absurd intention!
Nor need she have too long repented
Hanging her dear-departed late-lamented
To save her swain. For, as she would discover,
Better to have a living lover—
Even a varlet, poor and lowly bred—
Than all your kings and emperors, rich but dead.
Would he experience as well: the best,
The worst. And if, perhaps, during his mission
(Which was to last ten years, not one day less),
He were the victim of some nastiness,
He could, by dint of artful trickery,
Save himself from whatever it might be,
But would in no wise die, or homeward wend
His way, until the mission’s very end.
So off he goes, across the space betwixt
Earth and eternal night: a passage fixed
By the gods in their wisdom; but that took
No time for such as him: a glance, a look,
And there he was, in Florence if you please!
Florence, the fabled home of Italy’s
Resplendent life; city where, he was sure,
Commerce would yield him a rich sinecure.
And so, amidst the splendid luxuries,
He settled down and settled in, secure
In the thought that for ten years he would be
A man of wealth—fine mansion, livery,
A life of case, servants galore to wait
Upon him and to please his every whim.
Thus did he live and, adding to his fame,
He assumed Roderigo as his name.
Florentines one and all considered him
With awe, and stood astounded as he led
A life of revelry. Table and bed
Witnessed the lavish multitudes around him—
The ones he bedded and the ones he fed—
Who came from everywhere, and ever found him
Eager to share his sumptuous wealth with them.
Some chose to use the well-worn stratagem
Of fulsome praise, paying vast sums to those
Who sang his virtues in their verse or prose—
Seconded by Apollo’s art, the master.
No other god was more expert, or faster
In his design: to wit, to flatter. Nor
Had devil ever been with honor more
Bedecked, nor more respected. As for love,
Before long all the arrows shot thereof
From Cupid’s bow aimed for his heart: no fair
Or beauteous dame or damosel was there
But, yearning, used the charms that she possessed
To make herself more loved than all the rest,
However timid she: for, even were
There one rebellious lass who might demur
A bit, the gifts that heaped his arms would soon
Suffice to make her gladly change her tune.
Yes, ever silver, gold, and precious gem
Have bought for men the very best of them!
And who will not admit that well-filled purse
Is the prime mover of the universe!
Meanwhile, our special demon legatee’s
Reflections on the marriages he sees
Round and about, are jotted down with care
In diaries. But much difference is there
Amongst them: some, whose spouses lived contented,
Were almost bare, and he, ashamed, lamented
Their lack of solid fact; while others were
Teeming enough for any connoisseur.
With such extremes as these, our Belphegor
Deems it is fit that he tarry no more,
And that, to form a judgment consequential
And well informed, it is, indeed, essential
For him himself to marry… Now, there dwells
In Florence one of those fair-featured belles,
Well graced with shapeliness, noble no less,
Prideful, and even haughty to excess;
Not without reason; for her virtue was
Her lofty pride’s most true and worthy cause,
But with it all, no fortune—or, that is,
Next to none. Roderigo proffers his
Proposal, plies his suit, offers to wed
Signora Honesta, whose father said
That many a beau had sought his daughter’s hand,
But that, of all the erstwhile wooing band,
He thought be might, indeed, prefer him; but
That he would need time to decide. "Tut tut",
Says Roderigo, "time we have aplenty."
Wherewith, many a serenader sent he
Cooing beneath her window; many a ball,
And fete, and gift, and fancy folderol
Did he bestow; many a sumptuous dinner,
Playing the grand seigneur, to woo and win her.
Great the expense; but no complaint! And she,
At length, did him the honor of a "si";
She would be his signora. But, before,
There was the contract, and the notary,
And all such-like details that Belphegor
Found odd indeed! "What? One buys, here below,
A wife the same way one buys a chateau?
Strange folk!" And he was right. Legalities—
Contracts, and suits, and cases—all of these
Have replaced simple faith, and in its stead
Let troubles through the door, unlimited.
The heart, not laws, makes marriage trouble-free.
Friends pardon friends their folly willingly;
Lovers find nothing wrong with one another;
But spouses, wed, cannot abide each other!
Duty annoys. Such is our nature. "Thus,
Is there no happy marriage?" one asks us.
Only one, if each spouse—staunch, resolute—
Suffers the other’s faults in silence, mute.
Enough philosophy! Now let me tell
What happened when the devil brought his belle
Home to his side and, by experience,
Learned for himself the doleful consequence
Of taking for a wife a demoness!
Arguments, fights, many a reasonless
Angry harangue she spouted! More than once
She woke the neighbors, who, more than once came
To find the causes. And she would proclaim:
“A paltry merchant! Bah! A silly dunce
Is what he should have married! Not a pure,
Virtuous, noble woman! One like me!
Too virtuous! Why better it would be
Were I even to ... “Now, who can assure
She never did? Indeed, prudes such as she
Gull and deceive us shamelessly ...Our spouses
Were ever at each other, and their house’s
Peace was disturbed at every turn—so goes
The tale—by war of every sort: the clothes
She wore, the furnishings for every season—
Spring, summer—or the money that Signor
Gambled away... Well, for whatever reason,
Life with her was a hell, and Belphegor,
Poor devil, burned for his real hell, and its
Eternal flames’ infernal benefits.
To make things worse, our said demon-turned-man
Finds he has wed the whole Honesta clan;
Bearing the costs, now of one, now another—
Mother, then father; now buying a mate
For older sister, and, for younger brother,
A tutor... Have I mentioned that the state
Of his finances, ever lessening,
Was aggravated by one grievous thing—
Creature, that is? To wit, his chamberlain.
Chamberlain? What is that? The very bane
Of one’s existence; one who profits most
From any trouble that befalls his host,
Stirring the murky waters more and more,
And making them yet murkier than before,
This animal is such that, as his master
Watches his wealth decrease, his own will faster
And faster grow! And what estate Signor
Still calls his own—alas, a meager lot!—
Well might be purchased with his own ill-got
Have no idea: history makes no mention.)
Matteo earned a gross sum, by and by,
To lend the lass bedeviled his attention
And cleanse the flesh where Roderigo hid.
(In Naples, I recall ... ) And so he did.
Whence on to Rome, to occupy another
Body—another wench. As with the other,
Matteo earned a handsome sum to rout him
From her. And yet a third. (One thing about him:
All females, they! Doubtless you noticed!) Now,
The king of Naples has a daughter fair,
The honor of her sex, and, lodging there
(In her, that is), our Belphegor will vow
Never to leave, so safe now from his wife.
The city and the countryside are rife
With talk about a peasant conjuror
Of wondrous skill. They promise him a sum—
A hundred thousand crowns—if he will come
And cleanse her. But full three times Belphegor
Has done his bidding, as had been agreed.
Though covetous, he must decline, and answers:
“Poor sinner, I possess no necromancer’s
Conjuring craft, and know not how, indeed,
Heaven has let me, with no skill, succeed
In chasing from a body—two? or three?—
Some feeble devil, powerless as me.”
Resist he will; still the insist. With threat
To hang him high, till dead, if he should yet
Refuse to use his power by day’s end, thus
Cleansing the maiden of the scurrilous
Devil within her. Forced to do his best,
Feigning an art he never once possessed,
Now he prepares, as thither everyone,
From everywhere—each blessed mother’s son
(And daughter too!)—comes running breathlessly,
Joining the Prince to watch as, in the list,
The demon faces the sham exorcist;
Our hearts! For, quite like Bacchus, it can do
Great damage to our reason! Rather, let us
Recount the woes its evil deeds beget us.”
Alcithoe fell silent, whereupon,
After her sisters’ plaudits, she went on,
Raising her voice a bit: "In Thebes, they say,
Two young and gentle souls, in bygone day,
Loved one another. Piramus was he,
And Thisbe, she, his mistress... Perfectly,
Each for the other fit: the lad, most fair,
And the lass, fair no less ... A winsome pair
If ever such there was, pleasing of mien
And manner, with love’s tenderest ties between,
Binding their hearts. But oh! No sooner these
Feelings sprang forth than their two families
Conceived a hatred that the more it grew,
The stronger still Love’s bonds that bound these two.
Well, chance it was, not choice, that had designed
To place their houses side by side, inclined
To constant discord. Thus propinquity
Favored the passion that each vis-à-vis
The other found a-borning. First, in mere
Innocent pastimes; for, so young and dear
Were they that, even when the spark was lit,
They little guessed what flames would swell from it.
And so they innocently forged their love
The while, that their fell parents knew naught of.
Now, anything forbidden will, for sure,
Charm with its spice those who fall to its lure,
And love especially! Thus did it teach
Our pair, from in their houses, each to each,
To sigh with sign and glance: back, forth they sent them...
But this slight solace could not long content them.
Both would a better secret means discover
Whereby to plight their troth, lover to lover;
To wit, and ancient wall that long had stood
Between their dwellings twain, through which they could—
Next to the shore, a bark stands ready. In it
Oarsmen await. We must not waste a minute,
Bur fly we shall while fair the wind, and while
The auguries and omens chance to smile
Upon us. For the gods’ and Destiny’s
Designs will favor us: Thisbe agrees
To everything; as proof thereof she would
Bestow two kisses had the wall not stood
Betwixt her and her Piramus. And thus
The wall it was she kissed: fortuitous,
Fortunate wall! You should have better served
These lovers, who better and more deserved
From you than pleasure’s shade... Well, the next day,
An eager Thisbe, yielding to the sway
Of rash impatience, unaccompanied,
Makes her way to the steps, as was agreed.
Nor has her lover yet arrived, as there,
Shadow and light do battle in the air,
Over the azured fields. But as she was
Waiting, a frightful lioness, with jaws
And claws bloodied from recent kill, drew near...
Thisbe takes to her heels ... Ah! But her fear
Will have most fell cruel consequences. For,
As she goes running off, the veil she wore
Blows from her body and, caught by the breeze,
Falls to the ground. The lioness will seize
It, rend it, sully it with gore, whereon
She drops it, lets it lie, turns, and is gone.
Meanwhile has Thisbe hidden in the thick
Underbrush. Thereupon, the passion-sick
Piramus comes, looks down, gapes with chagrin
Upon the remnant of what once had been
A veil... Alas! His Thisbe’s veil!... ‘Is that...
Is it...’ His veins run cold. He stares thereat,
Disconsolate, undone ... Looks roundabout…
Ah! The blood-spattered tracks leave little doubt!
“Thisbe! My Thisbe!” he cries out, dismayed,
Distraught. ‘Now is the everlasting Shade
Your dark abode! What have I wrought? Ah me!
I am the monster who this destiny
Has brought about!... Wait! Slacken, pray, your course!
For I follow behind, and would, perforce,
Join you beside the drear and brackish shore.
Bur do I dare? How might I stand before
Your face? I, source of this disaster, who
Have naught but this, my blood, to offer you,
And but one death to die!’ So saying, he takes
Dagger in hand, all breath of hope forsakes,
And cuts the thread of life. As he does thus,
Thisbe returns. She sees her Piramus
Fall to the ground... What happened then? She tell
Into a swoon, senseless and mute as well,
But soon, when she once more regains her wits,
Clotho, touched by the love she bore, permits
Piramus, then, to open—dim—his eyes.
With dying glance he looks not on the skies
Above, but on his Thisbe, He would speak,
Tries... But unstrung, alas, his tongue, too weak,
Refuses. Yet his eyes, in place thereof,
Reveal his joy at having seen his love.
As thus he dies, she takes his blade and, there,
Bares her breast, saying: ‘I shall not declare
That you have erred in your design. Ah no!
Nor that your fears were reasonless. For so,
To do would say that you loved me too well!
But can one love too much? Ah! Truth to tell,
I love you no whit less, nor jot nor tittle,
And you shall see, my heart deserves as little
As yours the agony it must endure!
Alas! I die! So be it, mon amour;
Accept my sacrifice!’ At this, the blade
Performs its deadly task... Down falls the maid—
But drapes her garments properly lest she,
Exposed, betray her virgin modesty—
My mouth uncouth, but rather think how well you
May profit from the tale I have to tell you.
"Good spouses twain—Procris and Cephalus—
Enjoyed a marriage most harmonious.
She—Procris—Ioved by him, and he, no less
By her. Each said their passion’s tenderness
Might be a model, so great was their measure
Of both love’s piquant joy and gentle pleasure.
(Why, almost did they love as much as do
A mistress and her paramour, these two!)
Heaven itself envied that harmony
Of theirs; and soon a certain deity
Caused Cephalus much grief. Young, handsome lad,
It came to pass that dawn—Aurora—had
Taken a fancy to him! For, among
The gods she found none both so fair and young.
(Her spouse especially!) Now, here below,
Our belles would not go brashly chasing beaux,
But would hide their affection, goodness knows!
Not so, young goddesses! Even less, those
With husbands long of tooth! And so our goddess
Revealed the fire that flamed beneath her bodice,
Apprising Cephalus, who, though he pled
That he was happily, faithfully wed,
Failed to convince her, and she promptly bore him
Shamelessly off, and laid her love before him.
Cephalus, loyal swain, begged her, entreated
That she temper her passion’s fire, too heated;
The which, indeed, she did: her love became
That simple sentiment that bears the name
Of ‘friendship.’ ‘Go’, she told him, ‘to your wife,
I shall not spread a pall upon your life
And hers, nor quell the ardor that you feel.
Let me out give this token of my zeal,
This gift...’ (It was a lance that never missed
Its mark.) ‘Much though Procris claim to exist
For you alone, forsooth, the day will come
When you will suffer your soul’s martyrdom,
And will, in truth, despair, distraught that you
Have loved the wench as much as now you do.’
Needless to say, an oracle’s prediction
Is never clear, and may be a mere fiction
Rather than fact. But this one caused deep doubt
In Cephalus’s soul, nor cast it out
Could he. ‘What? I shall be distraught? Despair
That I have loved so much? What foul affair
Is this? Can there be something much amiss
Betwixt my love and me? Is my Procris
Unfaithful? Can it be? Ah! Sooner would
I die than doubt her loyal wifelihood!
Nevertheless, I fancy it is best
To put her duty squarely to the test
And set what may betide.’ To soothsayers, thus,
He goes asks their advice illustrious...
Whence, feigning by his dress and air to be
A yearning youth, seeks Procris, eagerly
Plying her with most flattering phrases, sighing
Sighs for her face divine, sobbing and crying
Tears from his eyes, cajoling, begging... But
Hard though he tries, it makes no difference what
He does or says: she spurns the lover’s skill;
Whereat he must essay the means that will
Succeed (as ever!): precious gifts bestowed,
Or at least promised... Ill did it forbode,
For, so much will he straightway offer her
That soon she seems less eager to demur...
Alas! Everything has its price. At last,
Cephalus, sore distressed, downcast—aghast,
In fact—decides to take his leave; forsakes
The pleasure of the city, and betakes
Himself off to the woods, baring his breast
To tree and wind, sure that the hunt will wrest
Him from his jealous agony. It was
The season when the day’s hot gusts will cause
All those who breathe to languish for the balm
Of Zephyrs cooling breezes, wafting calm.
‘Come, come, O tender winds’, softly he cries.
‘Come, lightsome wind-sprites, render me your sighs,
You by whose breath our fields put forth their flowers.
Adored wind-goddess Aure, pray use your powers
To summon them; you, by whose gentle word
All is restored to life!’ His voice is heard.
But those who hear suppose the object is
Some creature other than that wife of his!
Zealous, they tell her so, whence promptly she
Grows jealous of her rival. Charity
Dictates that many a friend, intent to flout it,
Touched by her woe, prates on and on about it.
‘So! I must see him only in my dreams’,
She moans. ‘Now he forsakes me, so it seems,
For some perfidious wench by name of Aure!...’
‘Oh, how we pity you’, they sighed. ‘But more
And more he loves, calls her. Always her name
Springs to his lips, rings out... Always the same,
The echoes’ task: to sing throughout the wood
Aure’s name... Aure’s name... But only for your good,
Dear friend, do we inform you, and suggest
You take to heart what we have told you. Best
You think on it.’ The which, indeed, she did.
And endlessly... For lovers cannot rid
Their heads of jealous thoughts. If only they
Had enough reason to keep but a ray
Of sense and judgment to illuminate
Their way! ("Judgment"? In love? One could await
A miracle for such!) They might remain
Untouched by tongues’ reports, or even feign
That they were deaf!... Our spouse did neither!... Well,
One day, as blushing dawn laid her deep spell
Of sleep on one and all—all but a rare
Hunter or two, that is—our Procris fair
Will rise and set off for the wood to see
If Cephalus is there. Next moment, she
Spies him, hears him already crying out
To that Aure, her, the one they spoke about:
‘Come, dearest goddess! Come,’ he cries. ‘I waste
Away, I languish, die... Pray you make haste
And ease the woe that must my very life
Forthwith lay low!’ Hearing these words, his wife
Seeks not the sense that truly lies behind them,
But, heartsore, gives car, and will sooner find them
Proof of the perfidy that her suspicion
Lays clear before her. O pain! O perdition!
O bitter passion, you, vain jealousy !
Daughter of mad love, error’s progeny!
Much do your eyes refuse to see; and yet,
What they do show you makes you fuss, and fret,
And suffer without cause! Procris had gone
To hide within a thicket that a fawn
Was using for his lair. Disquieted,
The beast springs out. Whereon our spouse, misled
By the noise, takes his lance—the one that, ever
True to the mark, hits home, whithersoever—
And flings it thither... But the mark it hits
Is not, alas, the beast! A fierce cry splits
The air... Misery me! It is his own
Dear wife!... He runs to see... With many a moan
He realizes, there, before his eyes,
Losing his wits, that, in most murderous wise,
He has cut short her jealous life. Wherefore
Would he cut short his own as well. What’s more,
He tries to do so with the selfsame lance...
Aurora and the Fates look much askance
On such intent, making bold to prevent it.
But, though their intercession was well meant, it
Proved more severe than thoughtful, for he kept
Pounding his breast with woeful mien, and wept
So many a tear that he might have created
Fountains galore, abounding unabated,
Had not the goddess called on Fate to cut
His days’ dire thread: unhappy end to what
Had been a curious marriage!... Sisters mine,
I cannot say enough, ‘Best we resign
Ourselves to life unwed.’ For, if the best
Is such, judge how much worse must be the rest!
And, if we may not love save in the thrall
Of wedlock, better we not love at all!"
They agree. And, befall what may, all three
Gladly accept their loveless destiny.
To rid them of their drear thoughts they return
To task of more immediate concern:
Their tapestries. Clymene’s was near done,
Picturing on a cloth most richly spun
The famous quarrel that had raged berwixt
Two gods, to see whose name would be affixed
To a new city—one that you could see
Dimly, far off, in her embroidery:
Neptune’s? Wise Pallas’s?... Each would bestow
A gift, and that boon would decide, just so,
Whose name should win. Neptune, in warlike wise
With a blow of his trident, caused to rise
Out of the ground a charger, full of fire,
That all who saw it could not but admire.
Present most splendid! But Minerva found
A finer yet: she gave the country round
The olive tree, symbol of wisdom, whence
She chose the city’s name. In consequence
Thereof, did Athens—now thus called—present
Its homage to her, with magnificent
Tribute galore. To otter it to her,
A hundred virgins wise, and prettier
Each than the last, in bobbin-skills abounding,
Bore the gifts of all kinds, or stood surrounding
The goddess of the gray-green eyes... And she,
With a sweet gaze, smiled on their fealty.
Clymene, now concluding, folds away
Her work, falls still, so that young Iris may
Regale them next. And she commences thus:
“Sisters, I fear not very copious
In tearful subject is my repertory.
Nevertheless, you say you wish a story
And story you hall have. I tell you of
Telamon, him whose soul burned hot with love
For Cloris, who yearned for him quite as much.
Good breeding, beauty, sense, the graces... Such
Were the fine qualities that each possessed;
Everything save that one, that veriest,
Most necessary one that, here below,
Rules above all the rest: to wit, wealth! No,
Naught had they; and, although they would be wed,
For want of gold—that metal garlanded
With mankind’s homage and desire—they dare
Not share the nuptial bed, and must forswear
Fair Hymen. For, though love can do without it,
Wedlock cannot! Be there no doubt about it!
Right or wrong, such is Fate’s decree. At one’s
Own peril would one flout it. Telamon’s
Woes did not end thereat, however. For
More would he suffer when the imp of war—
Vile sprite—spread roundabout its foul intent
And fell design. Sought our, stoutly he went
To battle in a land’s defense against
Those who would conquer it. And so commenced
His feats of arms, and ended for a time
The gender exercise of love sublime.
Cloris consents, but heartsick is she. Yet,
Eager is he to show the mignonnette
That she has reason to esteem him so
And give her heart to him. Off will he go
To battle... Now, it happens that, whilst he
Is gone, a member of her family,
Citizen of that very land, in fact—
The very one that has been so attacked,
And where her beau now wars... Well, as I said,
It happens that he dies, and, lying dead,
Has bequeathed Cloris his possessions: gold,
Treasure immense, a worldly wealth untold.
Whereupon she goes straightway thither. There,
Both sides behold her, find her passing fair.
She, meanwhile, sees the battlefield whereon
Her valorous, victorious Telamon
Has won the day, honoring her with his
Rare deeds; and, seeing her, how quick he is
To hasten to her side, offering her
All the fruits of the glorious vanquisher,
In the name of their love!... Fate would decree
That they would meet beside the open sea—
That element that all good lovers should
Eschew at any cost! Gladly they would,
Without ado, have joined their loves were it
The simple Age of Gold. Alas! Unfit
Were such in this, the Age of Iron. Thus
Cloris demurred. Far more felicitous
Would be a union celebrated with
The bounteous blessing of her kin and kith.
This she preferred; and so return they will,
Unconsummated... Their journey would fill
Many a torturous day if they betook
Themselves by land. Wherefore, instead, they look
Seaward, to spare the rigors of the road
And take them, timely-wise, to their abode
With Zephyr in their wake. When, with great joy,
They near their shore, they hear a fierce ‘Ahoy!’,
And spy a privateer, sheets to the wind,
Whose pirate crew, crass and undisciplined,
Attacks our doughty hero, who, despite
Stalwartly fighting to the end, is quite
Powerless to resist their might. Oh, Ods-
Bodkins! Who could have thought he would—ye gods!—
Become a galley slave? Fate pays no mind
To race and glory, and was ill inclined
To let his hoped-for happiness deflect
Her blows upon his honor and respect.
Cloris’s piteous pleadings too remained
Unheard, and Telemon languished, enchained.
“Now, Destiny, for her, was rather less
Unkind and more restrained in her duress.
A famous wealthy merchant bought her, bore
Her off to his domain where, more and more,
Slave though she was, she would enjoy a very
Honored position, most extraordinary.
The merchant’s wife—who, as it happens, views her
With great affection—will not only choose her
To wait on her, but will select the belle
To be the mistress to her son as well.
One and all would most gladly see them wed;
But she, with long-drawn sigh, dispirited,
Would reply to their urgings. Damon—he,
The son—will ply her with sweet gallantry,
Asking her thus: ‘Milady, why oh why
Do tears bedew your cheeks? Why do you cry,
And sob, and sigh unceasing! Hide you some
Unspoken pain? Have your fair eyes become
Surfeited with the ravages their darts
Have wrought on my poor being, and with my heart’s
Undying flame? I pray you not conceal
Your woe. Here are you free: ‘Tis I the real
And suffering slave! Is it this place, madame,
That so displeases you? If so, I am
Ready to change my dwelling for a new
And fairer one. I and my parents too—
Father and mother—willingly would seek
Another to your taste. You need but speak
Your will, and your desire will surely be
Fulfilled posthaste... Or do you longingly
Yearn for the riches you have lost? If so,
All we possess is yours. But you must know
That, much though you deserve a fortune rare,
Many another one, I vow, is there
Who would Dot hesitate to be so wed.
Lo! At your feet, my love, I lie!’ So said
The son. And Cloris fair, in fondest wise,
Eyes streaming tears, most winsomely replies:
‘Good sir, your slightest qualities, and this
Delightful place, would fill with amorous bliss
Even the daughters of the gods. Believe me,
Slave though I am, I pray you not perceive me
To be ungrateful for your generous
Offers of wealth, for so discourteous
I should not be. But I must not give ear
To them, however much I might. Nor is it
Because my presence is no friendly visit
But, indeed, servitude. And though, withal,
Thanks to the gods, I suffer not the thrall
Of ignominious bondage, and am free
To live the values that society
Has bred in me, yet must I tell you—oh!
Can I, alas?—that most malapropos
It were to listen to the court you pay me.
What? Does my mournful sighing not betray me?
Another has my love: and if he be
In chains, or dead, for all eternity,
Even in hell itself I shall be his!
Could you esteem a heart, good sir, that is
Untrue? Could you love her who has no more
The charms and beauty that were hers before;
Who, twice a slave— to you and to her love—
Ill deserves and is most unworthy of
One such as you?’ Damon heard what she said,
And, though most touched and much discomfited,
Thought: ‘Let us chase her from our mind. Let us
Flee from this place. In time her copious
Tears will abate. They always do! Let be
What will be in my absence. We shall see…’
With these words he embarks, leaves shore behind.
Sailing hither and yon, soon will he find
An untamed land and, thereupon puts in.
What does he see? Many a man whose skin
Bears proof of former bondage. Galley slaves
Had they all been, escaping on the waves
To refuge here... Now, of their number, one
None other was than our own Telamon.
Damon gazes upon him, notices
His stately air, his wit. And what he says
Moves him to admiration for the swain’s
Qualities, and to pity for his pains.
Soon are they friends, and Damon will confide
His passion for a slave who ought his bride
Become if she loved not a dead man! ‘Yes,
She would prefer a corpse to me, no less!’
Cloris he then proceeds to paint, whereat ‘
Telamon, stunned, dissembles and stands pat,
Revealing not the truth. Whereupon he,
It is decided, shall accompany
His comrade back to where said beauty saves—
For him!—that perfect love... Like errant knaves
The pair arrive. In vain Telamon tries
To hide behind the unwitting disguise
That time, woe, hardship have imposed. For now
Is he not as he was. And yet, somehow,
Cloris will recognize him, even though
His traveler’s pack bows him and bends him low.
A stranger’s eyes would not have known him; hers,
However, quickly pierce the voyager’s
Unhappy state: she swoons from love and shame;
And Telamon, in turn, does quite the same.
Later, when asked the cause of her distress,
She speaks it frankly; nor does one think less
Of her therefor. So guilelessly she tells
Her tale that one and all pity the belle’s
Misfortunes all the more. Damon proclaims
His passion changed: unselfish now his aims.
And they believe him—even though desire
Yields not to honor but that, quelled the fire,
Yet will it leave its traces... Yes, they do
Believe him; and, to prove his faith, these two
Would he see wed. Nor need they wait. For there
And then, he asks his parents to declare
His rival for Cloris’s hand to be
Their heir—a mark of generosity
Unheard-of in the land. And so, beside
An oak, spreading its shade at eventide,
Young man and maid were married... But, ah woe!
A neighbor child watched as, thereon, a crow
Went perching; and, with cursed bow, he shot
His arrow at the bird. Alas, the tot
Aimed ill: it flew, rending the air, askew,
Transpiercing lover and beloved too.
Slain on the spot, our Cloris gasps her last,
As with a piteous yearning she will cast
A glance at Telamon who, harrowed, sees
Approach the crowning stroke of Destiny’s
Decree. What? Gods above, can it be? What?
Is this the way dour Atropos will cut
His thread of life? ‘Has Fate not done enough?
Must she deal death with such a rude rebuff?’
So saying, he sighs his final breath. Within
A trice, love—not the blow—has done him in.
His wound was slight, yet did he join the dead,
For he would follow whither Cloris led.
Both hasten to the Styx’s shore: man, wife,
Each at the same time will depart this life.
In one tomb lie together their remains,
And one eternal rest their souls contains.
Later, one wrote—though I cannot aver
The truth thereof—that they to statues were
Transformed, in marble: bur doubtful is this
Very unlikely metamorphosis,
And few believe it.” “Ah! More than you know,
Iris", Clymene answers. “For just so
Did a sage, seeking through our history
Models of love and virtue, tell to me
This tale. Much I admired and pitied these
Evil-starred lovers: both their destinies
Were finally to be joined. After so much
Despair abhorrent they were now to touch
The moment of the joy that had so long
Evaded them. Bur nature loves to wrong
And cheat us; such her vile perversities,
I warrant. As our hands reach out to seize
Our prize, behold! It flees our grasp. The very
Gods take delight wreaking their arbitrary
Power upon us to make sport of our
Fond hopes!” Says Iris: “Fie on woes! The hour
Grows late. The feast soon ends, thank heaven! We three
Have passed the time today most somberly,
Recounting tales that weaker souls would find
Most troubling. Let us now cleanse from our mind
Their deadly images. Best might I use
The time yet left to sing a hero whose
Humankind suffered change, but not in mien
And body: rather, one whose heart had been
Transformed by Love—indeed, a miracle
That will permit me in more lyrical,
Less tragic mode, to tell the tale, and one
That Love performs each day... Now then, Zoon
Was pleasing to the eye. But beauty can
Do little for one’s worth. Here was a man
Of unimpressive wit, of mood
Most sullen, whose glum attitude
Rendered him dull and beautiless withal.
He fled the cities, shunned the company
Of others, lived under a constant pall
Of shadowed gloom: the forest canopy
Was home to him as to the bears, He spent
His fairest days unloving, abstinent,
Indifferent utterly to love! ‘So? We
Disparage love’, you are about to say,
To which I would reply: ‘Nay, nay!
Though I condemn its evident excesses,
I have no sympathy for those who never
Yield to the lure of its sweet tendernesses.’
What? Ought one choose to banish it forever?
Are the dead—freed so long from its caresses—
Happy to be so? Bah! I doubt it.
Passion is all. How can one live without it?
If nothingness is far the worst of states,
No nothingness I know annihilates
Life quite so much as lovelessness, I vow.
Woe to the cold, unloving heart!...Well now,
Zoon loved nothing, no one, not
Even himself. But one day, as he stood,
Stunned, before sleeping Iole, his lot
Changed in a trice. For Love, who would
Not make of him a lover, nonetheless
Made him a hero in this wilderness.
Grateful he thanks the god who makes
Him tremble at the awesome sight
Of this young wonder. At length, she awakes,
Sees him, surprised, and, seized with fright,
Tries to flee, but the young man overtakes
And stops her, saying: ‘O my soul’s delight!
O object rare! Why do you flee me?
Look upon me! Do you not see me
Changed by your beauty? No more now the wild
And savage creature I once was. Beguiled
Am I, charmed by your face and feature, whose
Power has worked to free me thus from my
Old way. I pray, dearest, you not refuse
To let me use my wealth to gratify
Your merest wish! It shall be done!’
Iole, ever more unstrung, will run,
Blushing, in silence, to the town; and, there,
Will apprize everyone of the affair
Miraculous. Whereupon, one by one,
They eagerly surround her. Soon Zoon
Arrives, triumphant. He draws near
As the whole company, with gladsome cheer,
Will bid him welcome... Sisters mine, I need
Not tell you in derail, how he
Lavishly feted the fair Iole.
Suffice to say their marriage was decreed
And forthwith celebrated. But the same
Day of the wedding, an intruder came—
A neighboring satrap—who swoops down,
Most unsuspected, on the town,
Seizes the bride to bear her off. But not
Successfully, for Zoon gives him chase,
Catches him and, in combat face to face,
Makes him yield up his gain ill got.
And, though the satrap is defeated,
Nonetheless is he by his rival treated
Most generously. That generosity,
However, serves him not: for pining, he
Broods on the destiny that Fate has meted
Out: on that marriage that must seal his death.
The grave, that destination grim,
Refuge of the most woeful, welcomes him.
But just before he draws his final breath,
He names Iole as his heir. With moan
And groan she bathes his tomb with tears. What good
Does such lamenting once the soul has flown?
None! And the satrap should have understood
That love is oftentimes best left alone.”
Scarcely had the young Iris told her story
Than her two sisters, with air laudatory,
Admit that, for all that, love is the best
Pathway to glory. “Puffed up is one’s breast
With pride when one is loved, and when one sees
Oneself esteemed, with wordless subtleties
Of lips charmingly eloquent, though mute...”
So said the sisters three, still resolute,
Shunning the day’s festivities... But lo!
Just then a violent storm begins to blow
Gust upon gust... Alas! They shudder, all
A-tremble lest some punishment befall
For their profane resolve... Ah! Suddenly,
Bacchus himself appears. Followed is he
By all the lengthy and chaotic queue
Of such as form his godly retinue.
“Where are those sisters?" he will say. “Egregious
Sinners who ply their labors sacrilegious
On this, my day? Let Pallas, by the bye,
Come raise her aegis, brandish it on high
To save them from my anger! Try she may!
Nothing will spare them from my fury! Nay,
Nay! They shall feel the punishment I wreak
On those who tweak my prowess! Look!... I speak
The utter truth!” There, on the ground, one sees
Three winged, hirsute, black monstrosities,
Cowering... Sisters three? One seeks them, but
Finds not a trace. Their looms are smashed, and cut
To shreds their tapestries... There, in their stead,
Rise a shrine to the high-spirited
God by whose grace was nectar born. And she,
Pallas, laments; but ineffectually:
She can do nothing for her protégées.
When one god sees his votaries betray
His boons, his wrath is terrible. Nor might
Another deity put matters right.
This is the way in which Olympus tries
To keep the peace. Best we should do likewise:
Let us not labor on gods’ days, nor falter
To proffer our respect, altar to altar.
Days offered the immortal gods of heaven
Are never lost, nor ever vainly given.
Jean de La Fontaine