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Dead Poets' Society

Jorge Luis Borges

To a minor poet of the anthology

Where are the days
that were yours on earth, that mingled
joy and sorrow and were the universe for you?

The river of years
has lost them; you’re a word in an index.

The gods gave others immortal fame:
of you, dark friend, all we know
is that one evening you heard the nightingale.

Among the asphodels of the underworld
your proud shade
might think the gods harsh.

But the days are a tangle of paltry needs
and is there a blessing richer than the ash
of which oblivion’s made?

For others the gods kindled
the relentless light of fame, which pokes in every crevice
and finds out every flaw,
fame which ends up shrivelling
the rose it treasures.

They were kinder to you, brother:
in the ecstasy of a dusk which will never darken
you listen still to Theocritus’s nightingale.

'The river of years' is a bit of a shortcut, translation by omission. The original is 'El río numerable de los años' but I couldn't think what to do with 'numerable'. W.S. Merwin, in his version of this poem, translates those lines as

The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current

which is one way. He also translates the title, which in Spanish is 'A un poeta menor de la antología' as 'To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology', which is no doubt what Borges was referring to. I left it non-specific. It might as well be The Penguin Book of Hittite or Irish Verse. Anyway, I liked the poem. Reminds me too of Wilbur's 'To the Etruscan Poets':

Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mother's milk the mother tongue,

In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind

Like still fresh tracks across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.


sean lysaght said…
one to treasure, Peter
The Cat Flap said…
Thanks, Seán. . .
Fin Keegan said…
Wonderful translation. Brings MacNiece's Elegy for Minor Poets to mind.

Borges' consolation seems all the more a propos now--given that Fame has become so much more searching than it was when Borges was writing.
Ciarán O' Rourke said…
hiya peter, I like those a lot. You might already have seen them, but I think Richard Wilbur has done a coupla his own translations of Jorge Luis Borges' poems also (pages 265-7 in R.W.'s Collected Poems, Waywiser Press)...
The Cat Flap said…
Thanks for the Wilbur tip Ciarán -- checked it out last night and liked his versions, particularly of a poem called 'Everness'.

sean lysaght said…
I was reminded, too, of Auden's poem, 'Who's Who'.

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