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Ovid's Metamorphoses - Book I


Though earth may not have willed catastrophe

The latest of new creatures was the serpent.

Even you, great Python of hillside and valley

Who haunt the deepest shadows in men's hearts !

Wherever the monsters turned, green darkness fell

In winding paths through sacred grove and briar.

Then bright Apollo with his sun-tipped arrows

Whose swiftness stilled the flight of goat and deer

Aimed at the beast with darts that fell in showers.

So Python perished, but not until his wounds

Were black with blood and God Apollo's quiver

Almost spent. That is the reason why

Apollo's games are called the Pythian Feast,

In memory of the serpent's golden death,

In honor of the god's swift victory ---

The Feast that brings fleet-footed, swift-riding

Youth garlands of oak leaf as they win the race.

This was before the laurel wreath became

Apollo's gift of grace in shrine and temple

Before he twined the green immortal laurel

Within the sunlight of his golden hair.

Apollo's first love was elusive Daphne,

The child of Peneus, kindly tyrant of the river,

Nor did the god pursue the girl by chance ---

The cause was Cupid's anger at Apollo:

Still heated by his conquest of the snake,

Phoebus saw Cupid wind a tight-strung bow,

"Who is this lecherous child," said he, "who plays

With weapons and is not a man? The bow

Was made for me; I am the one who kills

A worthy enemy, wild beasts --- and look at

Great Python wallowing in blood; his body

Covers half the countryside. Your business

Is not to play with arrows, but set afire

Your little torch that guides unwary lovers."

The child of Venus glanced at flush Apollo:

"Your arrows may be murder to us all,

But mine shall pierce your veins: as much

As mortals are less than the divine, so

Your poor glory is less than my poor skill."

With that he raised his wings and in quick air

He found a shaded ledge on high Parnassus;

There carefully he made a choice of arrows ---

Two darts that were of opposite persuasion,

One, like a golden spear, was sharp as fire,

And is love's fire in the flesh, the other,

Heavy as boredom, dull as lead, he plunged

At a single stroke into white Daphne's breast.

Then Cupid aimed at Phoebus, and love's arrow

With fire of lightning pierce his bones;

Apollo walked as in a tower of flames.

As Phoebus burned with love young Daphne fled

As though she feared love's name, as if she were

The wraith of virgin Phoebe, huntress and child

Who trapped small creatures of the bushband fen,

And ran with floating hair through green-deep forest;

Nor would she hear of lovers or of men,

Nor cared for promise of a wedding day,

Nor Hymen's night of love. Time and again

Old Peneuse complained, "Where is my son-in-law,

Daughter, where have you hidden my grandchildren?"

As though the wedding torch were sight of evil

Pale Daphne flushed at every thought of it,

And hid her face against her father's shoulder

And pleading with her arms around his neck

Said, "Father, make me an eternal virgin.

Do what Diana's father did for her."

Peneuse agreed, but your enchantments, Daphne,

Had greater powers than a father's will,

Nor could your prayers undo a beauty's charm.

At one look Phoebus loved her; as he gazed,

"Daphne," he thought, "is mine," but did not think

His prophecy might fail him --- his hopes, desires

Had outpaced all the Delian oracles;

Then as September fields of wheat and straw

Take fire from a careless traveller's torch

Left smouldering in the wind that wakes the dawn,

So did Apollo's heart break into flames,

The sterile fires that feed on empty hopes.

And while he gazed at Daphne's floating hair

That fell in tendrils at her throat and forehead

He thought,  "What if that fair head wore a crown?"

He looked into her eyes and saw the stars.

Though staring does not satisfy desire,

His eyes praised all they saw --- her lips, her fingers,

Her hands, her naked arms from wrist to shoulder;

And what they did not see they thought the best.

Yet she ran from him swifter than light air

That turns to nothingness as we pursue it,

Nor did she stop to hear Apollo calling:

"O daughter of the deep green-shadowed River,

Who follows you is not your enemy;

The lamb runs from the wolf, the deer from lion,

The trembling-feathered dove flies from the eagle

Whose great wings cross the sky -- such is your flight

While mine is love's pursuit. Rest where time waits

But where you vanish the way is rough; briar

And thorn and fallen rock make wounds that bleed,

And green pits open where swift unwary fall.

And I who follow am neither pain nor death;

Then walk with me and ask me who I am.

Surely my home is not in mountain passes,

Nor am I shepherd or wild-haired stable boy.

O ignorant, unknowing, thoughtless child

Who runs in darkness --- and from whom?   From me?

Jove is my father and I am lord of Delphi;

My temples stand at Claros, Patara,

And beyond the cities, glimmering Tenebros,

Enchanted island of the eastern seas.

Where caves and temples speak you hear my voices,

My lyre sounds the soul of harmony;

My arrows never fail --- and yet one arrow

More certain of its aim than mine wakes fire

Behind the chambers of an indifferent heart.

And if you wait, learn more: I am physician,

The good physician of magic in clever herbs

And artful grasses; yet herbs are feeble cures,

Unhealthy diet for one who falls in love.

Nor can physcian cure himself ---"

As Daphne ran

Phoebus had more to say, and she distracted,

In flight, in fear, wind flowing through her dress

And her wild hair --- she grew more beautiful

The more he followed her and saw wind tear

Her dress and the short tunic that she wore,

The girl a naked wraith in wilderness.

And as they ran young Phoebus saved his breath

For greater speed to close the race, to circle

The spent girl in an open field, to harry

The chase as greyhound races hare,

His teeth, his black jaws glancing at her heels.

The god by grace of hope, the girl, despair,

Still kept their increasing pace until his lips

Breathed at her shoulder; and almose spent,

The girl saw waves of a familiar river,

Her father's home, and in a trembling voice

Called, "Father, if your waters still hold charms

To save your daughter, cover with green earth

This body I wear too well,"  and as she spoke

A soaring drowsiness possessed her; growing

In earth she stood, white thighs embraced by climbing

Bark, her white arms branches, her fair head swaying

In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed

In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green

Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel.

Even no Phoebus embraced the lovely tree

Whose heart he felt still beating in its side;

He stroked its branches, kissed the sprouting bark,

And as the tree still seemed to sway, to shudder

At his touch, Apollo whispered, "Daphne,

Who cannot be my wife must be the seal,

The sign of all I own, immortal leaf

Twined in my hair as hers, and by this sign

My constant love, my honour shall be shown:

When Roman captains home from victory

Ride with the Legions of Capitoline,

Their heads will shine with laurels and wherever

The Augustus sets his gates, plain or frontier,

Or Roman city wall, the bronze oak leaf

And the green-pointed laurel shall guard the portal

And grace the Roman crown."  As Phoebus spoke,

The laurel shook her branches and seemed to bow

A timid blessing on her lover's pleasure.


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