SHEFFIELD CLASSICAL ASSOCIATION
Sheffield Classical Association
George Herbert, from Memoriae Matris Sacrum:
Κύματ᾽ ἐπαφριοῶντα θαμήσεος, αἴκε σελήνης
Φωτὸς ἀπαυραμένης ὄγκου ἐφεῖσθε πλέον,
Νῦν θέμις ὀρφναίῃ μεγάλης ἐπὶ γείτονος αἴσῃ
Οὐλυμπόνδε βιβᾶν ὔμμιν ἀνισταμένοις.
Ἀλλὰ μενεῖτ᾽, οὐ γὰρ τάραχος ποτὶ μητέρα βαίνῃ,
Καὶ πρέπον ὧδε παρὰ δακρυόεσσι, ῥέειν
If, white-topped waves of the Thames, you should claim a greater share
Of the moon's high station for yourself, her light already stolen,
This one time it is right for you, topping the banks into the night-black
Share of your great neighbour, to climb towards Olympus.
But stop, for chaos shall not approach my mother,
And it is fitting to flow so excessively alongside those who weep.
I’m particularly taken with this poem. It shows off George Herbert’s virtuosity as a composer of what, one might term, ‘Neo-Greek’. His talents as a writer of Latin verse are evident from the rest of this collection. A preliminary investigation of the language reveals that he was influenced by a whole range of Ancient Greek literature. There’s a hint of the bucolic with his use of the Doric αἴκε (had he got the Idylls of Theocritus in mind)? He may have read the late author Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. The verb ἐπαφριάω doesn’t appear anywhere else except in him ( and then only just as a varia lectio ). He certainly seems to have known Moschus’ Bucolic poems and maybe also the echo in the Epistle of Jude. Considering his status as a ‘divine’, this seems almost certain. The infinitive βιβᾶν is his own invention, maybe based on the verb βιβάζω or the language of the Iliad which he would, undoubtedly have known very well.
There may be another Classical reminiscence in line 2, or did he write originally ὁλκοῦ, ‘the path’ of the moon rather than its ‘mass’, or ‘station’. It would be very easy to misread. Just as the moon follows an orbit in the heavens, so does the Thames follow a path beside those weeping for the fate of Herbert’s, beloved mother.
For now it’s best to leave it there. All in all, a rich text.
αἴκε: poet. and Dor. for ἐάν
ἐπαφριάω: foam against, Ep. part. -όωσα Nonn. D. 43.318 (v.l. ὑπαφριάω)
Moschus Bucol. fr. 1. 5 ἀλλ’ ὅταν ἀχήσῃ πολιὸς βυθὸς ἁ δὲ θάλασσα /
κυρτὸν ἐπαφρίζῃ τὰ δὲ κύματα μακρὰ μεμήνῃ, ‘But when the gray deep roars and the foaming sea swells and the waves grow long and wild’.
Novum testamentum Epistula Juda 13.1 δένδρα φθινοπωρινὰ ἄκαρπα δὶς ἀποθανόντα ἐκριζωθέντα, κύματα ἄγρια θαλάσσης ἐπαφρίζοντα τὰς ἑαυτῶν αἰσχύνας, ‘autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame’.
βιβᾶν >βιβάζω: cf. Homeric ὕψι βιβάντα (Il. 13.371)
ὄγκου ἐφεῖσθε πλέον : cf. Soph. OC 1162 οὐκ ὄγκου πλέων, ‘of no great moment, or mass’.
Thanks are due to Mr. Nigel Coulton for alerting me to Herbert's Classical poems. It isn't the first time he's taught me something!