Ovid to his Wife by Anna Laetitia Barbauld
In this imaginative farewell poem from Roman poet Ovid to his wife, English poet Anna Laetitia Barbauld writes of aging.
OVID to his WIFE:
Imitated from different Parts of his Tristia.
Jam mea cygneas imitantur tempora plumas,
Inficit & nigras alba senecta comas:
Trist. Lib. iv. Eleg. 8.
MY aged head now stoops its honours low,
Bow’d with the load of fifty winters’ snow;
And for the raven’s glossy black assumes
The downy whiteness of the cygnet’s plumes:
Loose scatter’d hairs around my temples stray,
And spread the mournful shade of sickly grey:
I bend beneath the weight of broken years,
Averse to change, and chill’d with causeless fears.
The season now invites me to retire
To the dear lares of my household fire;
To homely scenes of calm domestic peace,
A poet’s leisure, and an old man’s ease;
To wear the remnant of uncertain life
In the fond bosom of a faithful wife;
In safe repose my last few hours to spend,
Nor fearful nor impatient of their end.
Thus a safe port the wave-worn vessels gain,
Nor tempt again the dangers of the main;
Thus the proud steed, when youthful glory fades,
And creeping age his stiffening limbs invades,
Lies stretch’d at ease on the luxuriant plain,
And dreams his morning triumphs o’er again.
The hardy veteran from the camp retires,
His joints unstrung, and feeds his household fires;
Satiate with fame enjoys well-earn’d repose,
And sees his stormy day serenely close.
Not such my lot! Severer fates decree
My shatter’d bark must plough an unknown sea.
Forc’d from my native seats and sacred home,
Friendless, alone, thro’ Scythian wilds to roam;
With trembling knees o’er unknown hills I go,
Stiff with blue ice and heap’d with drifted snow.
Pale suns there strike their feeble rays in vain,
Which faintly glance against the marble plain:
Red Ister there, which madly lash’d the shore,
His idle urn seal’d up, forgets to roar:
Stern winter in eternal triumph reigns,
Shuts up the bounteous year and starves the plains.
My failing eyes the weary waste explore,
The savage mountains and the dreary shore,
And vainly look for scenes of old delight;
No lov’d familiar objects meet my sight;
No long remember’d streams or conscious bowers,
‘Wake the gay memory of youthful hours.
I fondly hop’d, content with learned ease,
To walk amidst cotemporary trees;
In every scene some fav’rite spot to trace,
And meet in all some kind domestic sace;
To stretch my limbs upon my native soil,
With long vacation from unquiet toil;
Resign my breath where first that breath I drew,
And sink into the spot from whence I grew.
But if my feeble age is doom’d to try
Unusual seafons and a foreign sky,
To some more genial clime let me repair,
And taste the healing balm of milder air;
Near to the glowing sun’s directer ray,
And pitch my tent beneath the eye of day.
Could not the winter in my veins suffice,
Without the added rage of Scythian skies?
The snow of time my vital heat exhaust,
And hoary age, without Sarmatian frost?
Yet storm and tempest are of ills the least
Which this inhospitable land infest:
Society than solitude is worse,
And man to man is still the greatest curse.
A savage race my fearful steps surround,
Practis’d in blood and disciplin’d to wound;
Unknown alike to pity as to fear,
Hard as their soil, and as their skies severe.
Skill’d in each mystery of direst art,
They arm with double death the poison’d dart.
Uncomb’d and horrid grows their spiky hair;
Uncouth their vesture, terrible their air.
The lurking dagger at their side hung low,
Leaps in quick vengeance on the hapless foe.
No stedfast faith is here, no sure repose;
An armed truce is all this nation knows:
The rage of battle works, when battles cease;
And wars are brooding in the lap of peace.
Since Cæsar wills, and I a wretch must be,
Let me be safe at least in misery!
To my sad grave in calm oblivion steal,
Nor add the woes I fear to all I feel!
Ye tuneful maids! who once, in happier days,
Beneath the myrtle grove inspir’d my lays,
How shall I now your wonted aid implore;
Where seek your footsteps on this savage shore,
Whose ruder echoes ne’er were taught to bear
The poet’s numbers or the lover’s care?
Yet here, forever here, your bard must dwell,
Who sung of sports and tender loves so well.
Here must he live: but when he yields his breath
O let him not be exil’d even in death!
Lest mix’d with Scythian shades, a Roman ghost
Wander on this inhospitable coast.
Cæsar no more shall urge a wretch’s doom;
The bolt of Jove pursues not in the tomb.
To thee, dear wife, some friend with pious care
All that of Ovid then remains shall bear;
Then will thou weep to see me so return,
And with fond passion clasp my silent urn.
O check thy grief, that tender bosom spare,
Hurt not thy cheeks, nor soil thy flowing hair.
Press the pale marble with thy lips, and give
One precious tear, and bid my memory live.
The silent dust shall glow at thy command,
And the warm ashes feel thy pious hand.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743 – 1825) was a well-respected English “woman of letters” known as a poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and author of children’s literature. She was also a noted teacher at the Palgrave Academy, a “dissenting academy” begun in order to provide an alternative to traditional boys’ schools. Her innovative children’s primers were considered a model for more than a century.
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