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Forever calm and fair and crystal clear
Flows life upon Olympus’ tranquil plains,
Among its changeless climes and deathless race.
Moons trace their routes and countless ages wane,
But carefree and above all vanity
Unfurls the splendid rose of youth divine.
Yet mortal man has but a choice between
Sensual joy and true serenity,
Whilst on eternal Heaven's stainless brow,
They’re wed without sorrow or strife.
If you desire to be god-like on Earth,
To finally be free from the threat of death,
Think twice before you pluck the fruit.
Your eyes can feed on their charms forever,
But joy’s desires will always quickly wane
And be consumed by endless transience.
Even Ceres' daughter could not escape
As she sailed the nine-fold rivers of Styx:
She grasped the apple and then sealed her fate
Among Orcus' eternal shades.
The Fates alone hold sway over the flesh
And every perishable thing that dwells
Below within Earth’s turbid vortexes.
But high above their reach, within fair realms
And in the company of gods, resides
Eternal Form in pure perfection.
If you wish to soar among the gods,
Cast off the fear of earth and its dark vales.
Soar from the narrow breaches of the world
Into the realm of the Ideal.
Alive and eternally young, free from
The stains and decay of indifferent Time,
Reigns the finished and archetypal man.
Like gleaming shades gliding over the dark
And soundless Stygean streams coursing below,
As fair as found among Elysium’s fields
Before immortal ones are garbed in flesh,
If earth’s vicissitudes inspire some doubt
About this life and our uncertain fates,
Victory here still reigns supreme.
Not to release you from the strife of life,
But to nurture and strengthen your resolve
Does victory wave her glorious garlands.
Although we long to lounge in soft repose,
Relentless watersheds carry us off
Into the oceans of clamoring life.
Yet, when we falter in our strength and hope
And life feels sense constricting everything,
From Beauty’s hilltops still we see the glow
Of the sublime and longed-for goal.
Life must be fought and won with true zeal:
The wrestler only claims fortune and fame
Once he has defeated the challenger;
The chariots must roll and thunder through
The blinding clouds of dust to make their course;
To prove their true nobility, heroes
Must challenge both their tribes and foes alike.
So only do the brave and strong attain
Their golden crowns; the weak must fail.
While life’s ecstatic streams have their course thrown
By rocks and crags and raging elements,
It smoothly flows as it expands to sea
Reflecting—gleaming—with its silver waves,
Mirroring Aurora and Hesper’s rays
Until it peacefully settles by night.
Dissolved in tender and mutual love,
It harmoniously rests in boundless grace,
With every stern and warring force subdued,
And the ruthless enemy fled.
To impart life into the lifeless marble,
The sculptor must persevere with fervor,
Until thought finally breaks through the stone.
So watch each nerve and aching muscle strain
Until each imperfection’s overcome
And brought under the artist's noble vision.
Only in honest labor will the Truth
Reveal its hidden charms and divine grace;
For, only after many chisel blows
Do form and matter become one.
Once broken into Beauty’s splendid spheres,
Freed from all gravity, weight disappears,
Carried away like marble dust by winds.
As if from nothingness the statue springs,
Untainted by the countless strokes and blows;
It stands serene before the gasping crowds.
Silencing every doubt and argument,
Embodying true mastery of form
—With every imperfection and flaw fled—
Until art vanquishes the world.
Though human sin confronts perfection’s law,
We find our pride and prejudice subdued,
With even the saintliest feeling guilt.
Thus, weighed against perfection’s purity,
We see how short we come to the ideal—
How mean even the greatest hero is!
But who has ever crossed the threshold then,
Between the Ideal world and our sad state?
Wider than oceans seems the gulf—one where
No anchor has been cast before.
Yet fly beyond the senses’ limitations,
And live the Ideal only thought can breed.
Behold! Suddenly the gulf disappears,
Now, magically, the soul’s impotence fades.
The high throne may be shared with the divine;
Embrace it and let it become your will.
Obey the Law and never fear its bonds,
Which may enchain the sense, but not the soul.
Thus, never fight the will of Jove—then see
How swiftly he lays down his bolt.
When you feel life’s misery wrapping round
Your soul like serpents around Laocoön,
With his innocent children crying out,
Think of his writhing limbs and wearied eyes
Until your heart breaks with pity—then hear
The helpless cries and sad despairing shouts
Of ancient Ilion’s embattled priest,
And let these witnessed woes enter your soul,
Let your cheeks become pale, and your eyes tear,
And share the human sympathy.
Then from the artist’s eye with daring gaze,
From whence true artistry is seen and born,
See how Laocoön writhes, but never groans;
See how the lofty sense feels no sharp pain;
See how a divine soul emerges from the grief,
And how the brave resolves its joys and woes;
Then, like the light that shines from gilded clouds
Or rainbows shimmering after the storm,
Through grief’s dark veil emerges the soft light
Of a sweet moral heaven.
So, bowed down in his true humility,
Under the bonds of mortal laws and wills,
Brave Heracles made his harrowing journey.
He tamed the hydra and the hungry lion;
To rescue a beloved friend from life above,
He descended to Pluto’s realm below;
And all of Juno’s punishments and spite
He bore with fortitude and iron will
Until his course was run at last—
Until a god, stripped of all earthliness,
He then was freed from his mortality,
Finally breathing the light ether’s air.
With new-found strength Heracles upward soared,
Higher and higher still, height upon height—
The earthly disappearing like day dreams.
Welcomed by choirs, hymns and the muses all,
Transfigured, he soon proudly joined the gods,
Then smiling Hebe brought his cup, pouring
The draught of immortality.
Translation © David B. Gosselin