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Heraclitus -- William Johnson Cory

(Poem #380) Heraclitus
 They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
 They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed;
 I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
 Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.

 And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
 A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
 Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
 For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
-- William Johnson Cory
A poem that has 'classic' written all over it - the language, the images
capture the feel of the original perfectly. There isn't a whole lot I can
say about it - the poem and the original should both speak for themselves.


Heraclitus: Greek philosopher (ca. 540-ca. 400 BC), pre-Socratic founder
  of an Ionian school, whose principal tenet was change in all things. Cory
  translates an epigram of Callimachus, which in A. W. Mair's translation of
  the Greek is as follows: "One told me, Heracleitus, of thy death and
  brought me to tears, and I remembered how often we two in talking put the
  sun to rest. Thou, methinks, Halicarnasian friend, art ashes long and long
  ago; but thy nightingales live still, whereon Hades, snatcher of all
  things, shall not lay his hand"

Carian: of Caria, part of southwest Asia Minor.

  -- From

And from Unauthorized Versions

  Heraclitus's poems appear to have been known as 'nightingales', and
  Lempriere explains that he was 'remarkable for the elegance of his style'.

Biographical Note

  Educator (his tenure as Assistant Master of Eton College lasted from 1845
  to 1872) and author of A Guide to Modern British History (New York: Holt,
  1880-82), William Johnson became William Johnson Cory after his
  retirement. A brief biography appears in the third edition of Ionica, his
  translation of classical poems, as edited by Arthur C. Benson



Two, this time, both titled 'They Told Me, Heraclitus'. The first is a
couplet that neatly deflates the poem's slightly dramatic atmosphere:

  They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.
  But I just wondered who you were, and what it was you said.
          -- Guy Hanlon

The second is perhaps not as good overall, but it contains one of the nicest
opening couplets I've seen in a parody...

  They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.
  I never knew your proper name was Heraclitus, Fred.
  You made out you were working-class, you talked with adenoids,
  And so it was a shock to learn you were a name at Lloyd's

  And now I'm full of doubts about the others at the squat.
  Are they a load of Yuppies, or Thatcherites, or what?
  Is Special Branch among us, camoflauged with crabs and fleas?
  Is Kev a poncing Xenophon? Darren Thucydides?
          -- Brian Fore

squat: a house occupied by squatters. poncing: effeminate

I've never been able to look at a Fred in quite the same way since <g>.


54 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Christopher Martin said...

I think - indeed I'm sure - that the dead poet Heraclitus of the verse is
not Heraclitus the philosopher. (Can't get to the library to check this
right now.) There were really rather few names to go round among too many
Greeks, and they tended to overlap rather. I would guess that the date of
the poem is probably well-known or well-guessable at, probably around 200
B.C. which makes it two or three hundred years after the philosopher's
death, and it's probably also known, or well-guessed-at that it was written
in Alexandria - which hadn't even been founded until about 325 - more than a
hundred and fifty years after the philosopher's death. Even the dialect is
probably wrong. Also the philosopher was from Ephesus (now Selcuk, close to
Izmir on the Western coast of Turkey), not from Halicarnassus in Caria,
where the dead poet was from.

Also the poem or poems of Heraclitus the philosopher, which we have
fragments of, are not the sort to get called "nightingales". If you're
interested, I'll look all this up when I can. The Heraclitus epitaph is
presumably in the Greek anthology, and probably has a name attached to it.
Some of the "nightingales" of Heraclitus the dead poet may be there as well.
That said, I was very glad to see this in the Wondering Minstrels, and the
parodies were exquisite. Good luck to the whole project.

I notice that we're neighbours, more or less. There must be something in
the Houston air that encourages good taste in poetry. I'd guess that the
Rice library is stronger in Ancient Greek poetry than ours is, so you might
be able to check the reference more quickly than I can.

Christopher Martin

Edward Little said...

Yes. The Heraclitus of this poem is Heraclitus of
Halicarnassus, and Cory's excellent poem seems to be a
translation of Callimachus' epitaph for him. The editor of
the Loeb Classical Library edition and translation of
Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers, uses
Cory's translation, with proper ascription, etc. See
Diogenes Laertius, vol. 2, pages 424-25. Also info in Der
Kleine Pauly, vol. 2, p. 11048

Nick Fitzsimons said...

Another parody, from Evelyn Waugh's satire on Californian funerary customs,
"The Loved One":

They told me, Francis Hinsley, they told me you were hung
With red protruding eye-balls and black protruding tongue;
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had laughed about Los Angeles and now 'tis here you'll lie;
Here pickled in formaldehyde and painted like a whore,
Shrimp-pink incorruptible, not lost nor gone before.

Nick Fitzsimons.

Chris Lillie said...

Christopher Martin
I read your notes on Heraclitus, questioning whether it really was the
philosopher to whom the poem is addressed.
Did you unearth anything more to shed light on his identity?

Chris Lillie
Careers Adviser
Loughborough University/2

Giagni Tina said...

I have had a fragment of this poem running around in my head since I
was 16----- I'm 51 now. I could not remember the whole poem or the
author. Today I decided to look it up and I now remember how much I
liked it. Something about it touched me deeply. I am glad to have the
whole poem again. thanks

smokehill said...

I believe Ephesus, near Izmir, is still known as Ephesus, not
"Selcuk," unless they've changed it since I lived there in the 70s.

Actually, in Turkish it's called "Efes," and is so marked on highway
signs, frequently confusing tourists.

Even though the Turks hate the Greeks, for good reason, they largely
have kept the more-or-less original names for ancient Greek
settlements like Ephesus or places with well-known Greek names like
Ilium (Troy) even though the slight differences are confusing to
non-Greek speakers. I once sat in Ilya all day waiting for a broken
axle to be welded on my NATO staff car, and even though I knew I was
in Ilya it wasn't until I was leaving that it hit me: Ilya .....Ilium
....Iliad .....Holy Crap, I've been sitting in Troy all day doing
nothing. We passed Schliemann's digs and the museum on the way out
of town, too late to stop. And never did get back.

Gid L. White
Master Sergeant, US Army (Ret)

Kendall Young said...

I memorized this poem when I was in the 7th grade in 1961. Only, as
I recall, the phrase was "Still art thy joyful voices," not "Still
are thy pleasant voices,".

Keithgraham100 said...

I'm sure that many years ago I read a parody of this by Kingsley Amis which
also included the line about black protruding eyeballs and black protruding
tongue. Did he pinch it from Evelyn Waugh or what?

Anonymous said...

I read once that none of Heraclitus of
Halicarnassus's nightingale poems survive. Is this true?

Old Gunner said...

I recited part of this poem last night, while proposing the Toast to Absent Friends at the Gunners Day Dinner for the Royal New Zealand Artillery.

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Mora Ortega said...

Yeah. There is something wrong about this poem, almost everyone feel it, where did you found it anyway? I mean this version.

For me is very rare the last sentence, the one about the nightingales. Kendall Young advert: "I memorized this poem when I was in the 7th grade in 1961... I recall, the phrase was "Still art thy joyful voices," not "Still
are thy pleasant voices,".

And this is the strangest thing because recently I was reading a book about Burns, Robert Burns as he is a Scott, written by Andrew Lang, and Lang sangs this verses, without telling from where he took them:

"Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake; For Death takes everything away, but these he cannot take."

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