By John Milton (1608–1674).
Translated from Latin by Scott Williams.
[This article was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]
John Milton is best known for his Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem of battles in Heaven and Hell and the Fall of Man, composed when Milton was in exile for his support of Cromwell's republican government, twice-widowed, and blind. In this poem, probably written around 1637, Milton thanks his father (a financial broker, but also an accomplished musician) for his education, and explains why he became poet.
Ad Patrem ("Dear Father")
Now would I desire the fountain of the muses To wind its watery way all through my soul; And on my lips to taste the stream that rolls On down from shining cliffs and Delphic heights. Then would the Muse rise up on daring wings, Despite my meagre melodies, to aid My worthy task: a parent’s due respect. I know not how this trifling song will be Received by you, beloved father; yet What better way can I repay your gifts Than this? Although what’s said in worthless words Will never be enough, this page presents My riches; all that I have of worldly wealth Is here and on this paper; nothing save What golden Clio gave me, or what dreams Have brought me from the far-off caves of sleep, Or from the shades of Mount Parnassus and The laurels of Apollo’s sacred grove.
Do not, dear father, scorn the poet’s song, A task divine. For nothing does so well Proclaim the ethereal source of mankind, The human spirit and Promethean fire Within. The gods above are fond of song; And song can shake the hellish deep below. The trembling Sibyl, deathly pale, reveals In arcane verse the secrets still to come. The priest before the solemn altar sings A holy verse to slay a bull or search Out fate among the warm entrails.
And when at last eternal time stands still, Together we will go with golden crowns, Uniting song to the smooth-speaking lyre, To our paternal home, Olympus, where The stars and vaulted Heaven will resound. And then my fiery spirit flies around The rapid orbs and joins the starry choir: Immortal music, song defying words. The bloody snake withholds his dreadful hiss, Orion drops his sword—the hunter tamed— And even Atlas for a moment does Not feel the weight of stars upon his back.
At regal banquets song was ever there, Before the decadence and gluttony, When loos’ning Bacchus flowed with some restraint, The poet sat in his accustomed place, His hair uncut, entwined with oaken leaves, And sang of heroes and their deeds, Or of the Golden Age, or Chaos that Preceded it, before great Jove acquired His thunderbolts from Etna’s scorching cave.
For in the end, tell me, what good will serve The empty modulation of the voice, Without expressive meter, words, and sense? Such sounds befit the woodland chorus, not The music with which Orpheus held in check The river-flow and to the trees gave ears. With verse and not the lyre he moved the dead To tears and thereby won his lasting praise.
Do not, I pray, condemn the sacred muse; Nor should you think her vain and destitute, Dear father — you who have received her gift, Setting a thousand sounds to fitting rhythms, With skill to modulate a thousand tunes Of your melodious voice, so that you are A worthy heir of Arion’s name. So what Surprise that you should sire a poet for A son? That we, who are so closely joined In loving blood, pursue related arts? Apollo, wishing to divide himself In two, to me he gave one gift, to you He gave another; both the father and The son possess a divided deity. Though you pretend to hate the tender Muse, Dear father, I doubt that this is true. You did not bid me take the open way, The easy field of wealth, where certain hope Of making money shines. You didn’t force Me to the bar, the laws so badly kept, And there condemn my ears to clamour crude. Preferring to enrich my cultured mind, You have permitted me my deep retreats, Far from the city’s noise, to pass My joyful leisure by the banks Of the Aonian stream, a happy friend At Phoebus’ side. The common kindness of A loving parent I omit. A theme Far greater calls: Dear father, at your expense, I found an eloquence in Roman speech,
The beauties of the Latin language and Those of the Greeks, their lofty words Befit the lips of Jove himself. To these I add those flowers of which Gallia boasts, And the new speech that the Italian pours Forth from his mouth degenerate, in voice A witness of turmoil in ages past; The tongue in which the secret prophet of Palestine speaks, that too, I have acquired. Through you, it is permitted me to know (Should I desire) whatever heaven holds, Or earth below and flowing air between. The secrets in the moving marble sea, Beneath the waves, are now revealed. The cloud has cleared from Science: I behold Her naked form as she inclines to kiss; Unless I wish to flee, unless the taste be not so sweet — at least I can find out.
Go now, whoever madly would prefer The wealth of Austria or the kingdoms of Peru: what greater gift can a father give Than education? Even Jove, if he Gave all — or Helios, who gave up the reigns Of day and his crown radiating light— Could not surpass my father’s kingly gift. Among the victors wreathed in ivy I Will sit; no longer shall I mingle with The dull rabble — my footsteps shun the gaze Of eyes profane. Away, ye wakeful cares! Away, complaints and twisted, leering looks Of goatish envy! Savage Slander, keep Away those snarling jaws that spew up snakes! The whole disgusting pack can do no harm, For I am not subject to your law; I walk in safety, with my heart at ease, My step is far above your viperous bite And so, my father, since my tribute won’t Repay your deeds, I hope it is enough That I recall with praise your many gifts And treasure them always within my heart.
And you, my merry trifles, youthful songs, If only you dare hope for endless years, If only you outlast your master’s pyre, Lest black oblivion drag you to the void, If only you should look upon the light, Perhaps my thanks, set down here on this page, May as example serve a distant age.
About the author: Scott Williams wrote an Honours thesis at UQ on Milton's Latin poems.