The Ring of Polycrates by Friedrich Schiller
He stood on the ancient battlements,
Proudly gazing from the parapets
On Samos, over which he reigned.
“This realm bends beneath my iron yoke,”
He said to the Egyptian monarch.
“My fortune cannot be contained.”
“True, you’ve fared over fortunate seas;
Yours foes have been brought down to their knees—
Enemies once beloved by Gods.
Yet there remains one who seeks revenge—
I won’t call you blessed until you’ve purged
This final foe, against all odds.”
And while he lent Egypt’s king his ear,
A herald from Miletus appeared—
With tidings for Polycrates.
“Let us rejoice with your many lords
As we listen to these welcome words
And hail your endless victories.”
“Polydore, your faithful general,
Has announced the defeat of the foe—
Their army now retreats in fear.”
The young herald then retrieved a head
From a basket. The guest watched with dread
As the enemy’s face appeared.
The king stepped back from the severed head,
“True joy and fortune are never wed;
Recall your many fleets of ships
Now sailing over the restless seas—
How quickly Fortune’s grace may cease
When ordered by a stern God’s lips.”
But before he could finish his speech
Jubilant shouts were heard from the beach
Where one saw all the fleets arrive:
The pure white sails and great treasure stores
Were seen glittering upon the shores,
With all the soldiers still alive.
The Egyptian king then spoke with fear,
“You’ve had many a fortunate year,
But one should fear luck’s fickleness.
The Cretan army is approaching,
Ready to unleash death-exacting
Strikes on your realm, and nothing less.”
But as the words issued from his lips,
A vicious gale was seen striking the ships.
A thousand voices screamed “Victory!
The Cretan legions have been vanquished
By the tempest—by the Gods punished—
They’ve sunk our final enemy!”
Egypt’s king spoke with great emotion,
“Indeed, you’ve reaped the gifts of Fortune.
“But,” said he, “It appears a sign,
And I fear the fate that waits on you.
Indeed, such fortune belies the true
Intention of such Gods divine.”
“All of my endeavors have been blessed
By the hand of mighty Gods and graced
With unending fortune and fame,
Though I did once father a sweet son—
He was seized from me without reason.
Thus all I have I’ve rightly gained.”
“If you wish still then to be shielded
From all woes, and remain protected,
Pray for misfortune, for your sake.
For no man is endlessly showered
With your luck, or like Gods empowered,
Without then answering to fate.”
“If the Gods refuse your entreaties,
Still take counsel from your faithful friend—
Seek your misfortune willingly:
What in this kingdom do you prize most?
Offer it to the immortal host.
Find it and throw it in the sea!”
Gripped by the foreboding monarch’s words
The stern tyrant said, “Within this world,
This ring is what I hold most dear.
I will pledge my ring to the Furies
And hope that it quells all my worries.”
He cast the ringlet to the sea.
But before the morning light appeared
In his royal eyes—by Fortune so endeared—
A fisherman arrived, boasting,
“My king, I have caught the rarest fish,
Beyond the wisest seaman’s wish.
I offer it to you, dear king.’’
As the head cook cut the fish open
He marveled at what he discovered.
He jumped and screamed and wildly cheered.
“Your highness, this is the self-same ring
In the fish, the one I saw you fling
Into the seas—it has appeared!”
The Egyptian king then turned and said
“Forgive me, but I can only dread
The fate that waits on you, my friend.
The Gods are keen on your destruction—
An end to your fortune is certain.”
The monarch spoke then quickly fled.
Translation © David B. Gosselin