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Sextus Propertius – Earth is too small a tomb

February 12, 2015

Go build curved keels,
                  weave the sails of death;
      men’s hands have wrought such ruin at sea.
Earth being too small a tomb
we add the ocean,
      by artifice we lengthen
                  the evil path of fortune.
Can an anchor hold a man
                  whose household gods cannot?
What shall a man merit
                  whose homeland is too small?
What he builds is at the wind’s mercy,
      for rarely does a hull get old and rot,
      and you can’t count on a safe harbor.
Cruel Nature put the sea
            at the disposal of avarice and ambition
                  usually unrealized.
A wild coast testifies to Agamemnon’s grief,
            where the pain of Argynnus
                  brands the waters below the mountain.
For a drowned youth
                  the Greek ships did not weigh anchor;
                  Iphigenia killed for the delay.
And rocks broke the triumphant fleet,
      Greece thus shipwrecked and sea-ravaged.
A few at a time Ulysses mourned them, his friends,
      his wit worthless against the ocean waves.

(from The Poems of Sextus Propertius, Book III [23 BCE], #7, translated by J. P. McCulloch)


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