There's no drug, Nicias, to cure desire: no
Hot compress, powder, ointment, or suspension
Except for song: a sweet alleviation,
But not so easy, sometimes. You should know.
You're a doctor; and, what's more, the nine
Muses love you, better than they love most.
So it was that back in Sicily long ago
The Cyclops Polyphemus made the best of it
When he began to desire Galatea,
When the first soft-sprouting hair began to grow
Along his jaw and above his upper lip.
His desire eclipsed convention; there was no
Sending apples, or roses, or exchanging locks
Of hair, none of the usual things. He was
Truly insane, could think of nothing else.
He often sat alone, awake at dawn
Among the piles of seaweed by the shore;
Melting with desire he sang to her,
Leaving his sheep to find their own way home.
Wounded deep, the barb beneath his heart
Of Aphrodite's arrow, he found this balm;
From the high cliffs staring out to sea
He sang this song:
"White Galatea, whiter than cottage cheese,
Why cast away the one who loves you?
Softer than lamb's wool, springier than the knees
Of a newborn calf, bright as an unripe grape,
Why come near when sweet sleep holds me still
Then disappear when sweet sleep lets me go?
I wake to see you bolting up the hill
Like the sheep who saw the gray wolf.
I loved you instantly, the day you came
With my mother to gather hyacinths on the mountain.
I led you along the path. It's been the same
Ever since: I saw you, I can't stop.
But you don't care. I don't mean a thing to you.
Delightful girl, I know why you run away.
My looks are frightening. I know it's true,
One long shaggy eyebrow runs from ear to ear
With one huge eye below. My nose is flat
And wide. Yet, as I am, I keep a thousand head
Of cattle, and from them I fill a vat
Of the best milk to drink. All year round
I never run out of cheese, not even in
The coldest winter. My baskets are always full.
I play the pipe as no other Cyclops can,
And sing, sweet apple, of you and of myself,
Often late at night. For you I raise
Eleven gentle fawns, and four bear-cubs.
Come to me, and you will spend your days
No worse off than before. Leave the sea,
The gray-green sea, to pound against the sand.
Come spend the pleasant nights curled up beside me
In my cave, where there is laurel and
Slender cypress, sweet ripe grapes, and ivy
Dark black-green, and from the cold bright snow
Of Aetna's forests, fresh cold water, a drink
Good enough for any goddess. Who
Would trade these things for seaweed and salt surf?
But if I am too shaggy, look: I have
Oak logs, and, unquenched by covering ash,
The spark of never-wearying fire within my cave.
I could endure being singed to the quick by you-
My only eye, the sweetest thing to me,
I'd let you burn it.
Mother! Why was I born
Without gills? I would dive into the sea,
Galatea, and kiss your hand—since you
Would never let me kiss your mouth—and bring
Small white crocuses to you, or tender red
Poppies with broad petals, blossoming
In summertime. I could not bring you both
(Since crocus blooms when snow is on the pasture)
Together at the same time. Galatea, sweet girl,
I'll learn to swim right now, if only a stranger
Will come here in a ship and show me how.
I'll know then why you love to live in the brine.
Come out, Galatea, come out, and you'll forget,
As I do now, to go back home again.
Come be my shepherdess, and help me milk
The sheep and cows, come help me set the cheese.
I blame my mother. She never says a word
To you on my behalf; she lets you tease
Me constantly, she lets me waste away.
I'll tell her that my head hurts, so she'll worry.
I'll tell her both my feet are swollen up.
I want her to feel sorry, since I'm sorry.
Cyclops, Cyclops, have you lost your mind?
Go weave your baskets, go and milk the ewe
That's here, don't chase the one that runs away.
Figure out the sensible thing to do,
And do it. That's always the best way.
You'll find another Galatea, maybe,
A prettier one. Many girls seek me out,
Calling in the night, "come play with me"—
Giggling when I answer. Here on dry land
It's clear that I am someone of importance."
And so the Cyclops shepherded the ills
Of his desire with song, the Muses' salve,
More surely than he could with doctor's bills.
An earlier version of this translation appeared in Arion 5.1 (Spring/Summer) 1997, pp. 161-63.
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