And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good, / And do not, on the other hand, be bad;

I’ve been reading Luis de Gongora‘s The Solitudes (Las Soledades) the last couple of days and, without intending mockery, can’t shake treating the whole thing in the vein of A.E. Housman’s parodic sendup of ancient tragedy, Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.

The setup here is that Alcmaeon has been ordered by his father Amphiarus to kill his mother Eriphyle. Amphiarus had earlier discovered that Eriphyle had accepted a bribe to urge him into the campaign against Thebes (of Seven Against Thebes fame) where he, being a prophet, knew he was doomed to die.

Most of the lines are either borrowed from or heavily modeled on surviving tragedy. My title is, I think, a pained reflection of Housman’s dealing with how students insist on translating μέν … δέ constructions.

Chorus. O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed are you come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in enquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Alcmaeion. I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
Cho. Sailing on horseback or with feet for oars?
Alc. Plying by turns my partnership of legs.
Cho. Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
Alc. Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my legs.
Cho. To learn your name would not displease me much.
Alc. Not all that men desire do they obtain.
Cho. Might I then hear at what your presence shoots?
Alc. A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that –
Cho. What? for I know not yet what you will say.
Alc. Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
Cho. Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
Alc. – this house was Eriphyla’s, no one’s else.
Cho. Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
Alc. Might I then enter, passing through the door?
Cho. Go, chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is very much the safest plan.
Alc. I go into the house with heels and speed.


In speculation
I would not willingly acquire a name
For ill-digested thought,
But, after pondering much,
To this conclusion I at last have come:
Life is uncertain.
This truth I have written deep
In my reflective midriff,
On tablets not of wax.
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there
For many reasons: Life, I say, is not
A stranger to uncertainty.
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
This fact did I discover,
Nor did the Delphic tripod bark it out,
Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingenuity sufficed
My self-taught diaphragm.

Why should I mention
The Inachian daughter, loved of Zeus,
Her whom of old the gods,
More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
A gift not asked for:
And sent her forth to learn
The unfamiliar science
Of how to chew the cud?
She, therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
Nor did they disagree with her.
Yet, howso’er nutritious, such repasts,
I do not hanker after.
Never may Cypris for her seat select
My dappled liver!
Why should I mention lo? Why indeed?
I have no notion why.

But now does my boding heart
Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
A strain not meet for the dance.
Yea, even the palace appears
To my yoke of circular eyes
(The right, nor omit I the left)
Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
Garnished with woolly deaths
And many shipwrecks of cows.

I therefore in a Cissian strain lament,
And to the rapid,
Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.

Eriphyla (within). O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.
Cho. I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
Erip. He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
Cho. I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.
Erip. O! O! another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
Cho. If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

And malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man

Quoted misleadingly out of context from From A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad:

LXII – Terence, this is stupid stuff

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, 5
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow. 10
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be, 15
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse, 20
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot 25
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where, 30
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain, 35
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet, 40
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure 45
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale: 50
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head 55
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast, 60
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more, 65
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat; 70
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told. 75
Mithridates, he died old.

The reference is to Milton’s proem and invocation in Book 1 of Paradise Lost

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.