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The Ring of Polycrates by Friedrich Schiller

The crucifixion of Polycrates the tyrant after his capture by the Persians

Listen to the Ring of Polycrates here

He stood on the ancient battlements, Proudly gazing from the parapets On Samos, over which he reigned. “This realm bends under my iron yoke,” He said to the Egyptian monarch. “My fortune cannot be contained.” “Truly, you’ve fared on fortunate seas; Your 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 welcomed 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 orders fall from stern gods’ 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 those gods divine.”

“All of my endeavors have been blessed By the hand of mighty gods and graced With unending fortune and fame, Although I did once father a son— He was seized from me without reason. Thus all I have I’ve rightly gained.”

“If you still wish to then be shielded From all woes, and be protected, Pray for misfortune, for your sake. For no man is endlessly showered With such luck, or like gods empowered, Without then answering to fate.”

“If the gods refuse your entreaties, Still take counsel from your faithful friend— Seek out 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, fair king.’’

As the head cook opened the fish up He marveled at what he discovered. He jumped and screamed and loudly cheered. “Your highness, this is the self-same ring In the fish, the one I saw you fling Into the seas—it has appeared!”

His anxious friend turned around 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

Originally published in New Lyre - Issue I


Sep 13, 2023

It’s funny because a little over a year ago, I actually read this story about Polycrates in Herodotus‘ writings, as I’m both a history buff and a lover of ancient Greek literature. I was thrilled when I began reading the poem and realized what it is about! I agree with Martin that it is thought provoking: how long can one person enjoy continual good fortune before disaster strikes? It also makes me think of the stories of Croesus, the famous king of Lydia.

At any rate, this poem by Schiller is wonderful, and David has produced a beautiful translation of it. From what I’ve read, translating poetry into a different language can become very complicated, with the result being…

Sep 16, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for the response, David. I also find it very surprising that the tale of Croesus has not been revisited in poetry, at least as far as we know. You would think, given the popularity of Herodotus, that the idea would have occurred to someone.

Keep up the good work with the translations! Heaven knows there is a great need for translations that can help readers appreciate the greatness of works that were originally written in a foreign tongue. A good example of this is how Mike Burch has brought Sappho to life with his translations of her work—something the academically acclaimed translations do not.

- Shannon


Sep 11, 2023

In 'The Ring of Polycrates', Schiller has condensed a huge, thought-provoking story about fate, fortune and the gods, and you've translated it so well it just flows along. Well done, David!

Sep 12, 2023
Replying to

Yes, I think 'musical education' is indeed the right phrase. I just love hearing fine poems being read aloud so that I can hear all the music in them. I personally would go so as to say that a poem is not a poem at all (or at least not a great one) if there is no music in it, because poems that sound well really can take you to a higher level - perhaps even the level of the gods.

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