Alcman 26

No more, you honey-voiced maidens whose songs have a holy power,
can my frame bear my weight. I wish, I wish that I were
a kingfisher aloft with you halcyons over the sea-foam in flower,
holy, the color of ocean, light in my heart, and sure.

οὔ μ᾿ ἔτι, παρσενικαὶ μελιγάρυες ἱαρόφωνοι,
γυῖα φέρην δύναται· βάλε δὴ βάλε κηρύλος εἴην,
ὅς τ᾿ ἐπὶ κύματος ἄνθος ἅμ᾿ ἀλκυόνεσσι ποτήται
νηλεὲς ἦτορ ἔχων, ἁλιπόρφυρος ἱαρὸς ὄρνις.

 

Note: In this poem Alcman wishes he were a kerylos, an obscure word which Antigonus of Carystus, who quotes the poem, defines as a male halcyon, a mythical bird that borrows many of its traits from kingfishers. Antigonus adds: “When they become weak from old age and are no longer able to fly, the females carry them, taking them on their wings.” Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence for this charming story and the poem expresses a wish to fly with the halcyons, not on their backs. Some commentators think the fragment may be a prelude to a “maiden-song” (partheneion—Alcman’s main genre) that explains why the poet can’t join the choral dance; others go further and picture the chorus dressed as birds, while one even imagines them leaping into the sea, like Sappho from the Cape of Leucas. Such picturesque speculations don’t contribute much to our enjoyment of Alcman’s Greek, which lilts hypnotically along in a lyric dactylic hexameter full of evocative compound nouns and wistful repetitions. The contrast between the poet’s earthbound infirmity and his dreamy flight of lyric virtuosity makes this fragment Alcman’s loveliest and most poignant poem.

Chris Childers

Chris Childers

Christopher Childers has poems, essays, and translations published or forthcoming at Kenyon Review, Yale Review, Parnassus, and elsewhere. He is at work on a translation of Latin and Greek Lyric Poetry from Archilochus to Martial for Penguin Classics.
Chris Childers

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Author: Chris Childers

Christopher Childers has poems, essays, and translations published or forthcoming at Kenyon Review, Yale Review, Parnassus, and elsewhere. He is at work on a translation of Latin and Greek Lyric Poetry from Archilochus to Martial for Penguin Classics.