Ovid (43 B.C.-17? A.D.), The Metamorphoses, Bk II
The Story of Coronis and Birth of Esculapius
THE raven once in snowy plumes was dress'd,
White as the whitest dove's unsullied breast,
Fair as the guardian of the capitol,
Soft as the swan, a large and lovely fowl;
His tongue, his prating tongue had changed him quite
To sooty blackness from the purest white.
The story of his change shall here be told.
In Thessaly there lived a nymph of old,
Coronis named; a peerless maid she shined,
Confess'd the fairest of the fairer kind.
Apollo loved her, till her guilt he knew,
While true she was, or whilst he thought her true;
But his own bird, the raven, chanced to find
The false one with a secret rival join'd.
Coronis begg'd him to suppress the tale;
But could not with repeated prayers prevail.
His milk-white pinions to the god he plied;
The busy daw flew with him side by side,
And, by a thousand teasing questions, drew
The important secret from him as they flew.
The daw gave honest counsel, though despised,
And, tedious in her tattle, thus advised:
"Stay, silly bird, the ill-natured task refuse,
Nor be the bearer of unwelcome news.
Be warn'd by my example. You discern
What now I am, and what I was shall learn.
My foolish honesty was all my Crime.
Then hear my story. Once upon a time,
The two-shaped Ericthonius had his birth
(Without a mother) from the teeming earth
Minerva nursed him, and the infant laid
Within a chest of twining osiers made.
The daughters of king Cecrops undertook
To guard the chest, commanded not to look
On what was hid within. I stood to see
The charge obey'd, perched on a neighboring tree.
The sisters, Pandrosos and Herse, keep
The strict command; Aglauros needs would peep,
And saw the monstrous infant, in a fright,
And call'd her sisters to the hideous sight.
A boy's soft shape did to the waist prevail;
But the boy ended in a dragon's tail.
I told the stern Minerva all that pass'd;
But for my pains discarded and disgraced.
The frowning goddess drove me from her sight,
And for her favorite chose the bird of night.
Be then no tell-tale; for I think my wrong
Enough to teach a bird to hold her tongue.
"But you, perhaps, may think I was removed
As never by the heavenly maid beloved:
But I was loved; ask Pallas if I lie;
Though Pallas hate me now, she won't deny.
For I, whom in a feather'd shape you view,
Was once a maid, by heaven the story's true
A blooming maid, and a king's daughter too.
A crowd of lovers own'd my beauty's charms;
My beauty was the cause of all my harms;
Neptune, as on his shores I wont to rove,
Observed me in my walks, and fell in love.
He made his courtship, he confess'd his pain,
And offer'd force, when all his arts were vain:
Swift he pursued; I ran along the strand,
Till spent and wearied on the sinking sand,
I shriek'd aloud, with cries I fill'd the air
To gods and men, nor god nor man was there:
"A virgin goddess heard a virgin's prayer.
For, as my arms I lifted to the skies,
I saw black feathers from my fingers rise;
I strove to fling my garment on the around,
My garment turn'd to plumes, and girt me round:
My hands to beat my naked bosom try,
Nor naked bosom now nor hands had I;
Lightly I tripp'd, nor weary as before:
Sunk in the sand, but skimm'd along the shore,
Till, rising on my wings, I was preferr'd
To be the chaste Minerva's virgin bird.
Preferr'd in vain! I now am in disgrace:
Nyctimene, the owl, enjoys my place.
"On her incestuous life I need not dwell
(In Lesbos still the horrid tale they tell),
And of her dire amours you must have heard,
For which she now does penance in a bird
That, conscious of her shame, avoids the light,
And loves the gloomy covering of the night.
The birds, where'er she flutters, scare away
The hooting wretch, and drive her from the day."
The raven, urged by such impertinence,
Grew passionate, it seems, and took offence,
And cursed the harmless daw; the daw withdrew.
The raven to her injured patron flew,
And found him out, and told the fatal truth
Of false Coronis and the favor'd youth.
The god was wroth, the color left his look,
The wreath his head, the harp his hand, forsook
His silver bow and feather'd shafts he took,
And lodged an arrow in the tender breast
That had so often to his own been press'd.
Down fell the wounded nymph, and sadly groan'd,
And pull'd his arrow reeking from the wound:
And, weltering in her blood, thus faintly cried:
"Ah, cruel god ! though I have justly died,
What has, alas! my unborn infant done,
That he should fall, and two expire in one?"
This said, in agonies she fetch'd her breath.
The god dissolves in pity at her death
He hates the bird that made her falsehood known,
And hates himself for what himself had done;
The feather'd shaft that sent her to the Fates,
And his own hand that sent the shaft, he hates.
Fain would he heal the wound and ease her pain,
And tries the compass of his art in vain.
Soon as he saw the lovely nymph expire,
The pile made ready, and the kindling fire,
With sighs and groans her obsequies he kept,
And, if a god could weep, the god had wept.
Her corpse he kiss'd, and heavenly incense brought,
And solemnised the death himself had wrought.
But lest his offspring should her fate partake,
Spite of the immortal mixture in his make,
He ripp'd her womb and set the child at large,
And gave him to the centaur Chiron's charge;
Then in his fury black'd the raven o'er,
And bid him prate in his white plumes no more.
From Ovid, tr. by Dryden, Pope, Congreve, Addison, and Others, London, 1833, Vol I, pp. 56-59. Note that the line numbers refer to this edition, not to Ovid's Latin text.
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