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Dear father and dear mother: Let me crave
Your loving kindness there beyond the grave
For my Erotion, the pretty maid
Who bears these lines. Don’t let her be afraid!
She’s such a little lassie – only six –
To toddle down that pathway to the Styx
All by herself! Black shadows haunt those steeps
And Cerberus the Dread who never sleeps.
May she be comforted, and may she play
About you merry as the live long day,
And in her childish prattle often tell
Of that old master whom she loved so well.
Oh earth, bear lightly on her! ‘Tis her due;
The little girl so lightly bore on you.

Poetry in translation is always interesting.  I wish I had the original Latin to compare this to it.  I wonder if it was in sonnet for too, and if so, how many liberties the translator had to take with the text to make it fit into the sonnet form again.  As a sonnet it’s a wonderful example of the form.  It hits the turn dead on, and the heroic couplet at the end is gorgeous.

Quite a bit of the poem’s charm, however, comes from the subject matter, the charming Erotion herself.  Poetry about children can be sickeningly sentimental.  While this is definitely sentimental, it is not poisonously sweet or cloying.  This is even more remarkable because it is speaking of the child’s death.  That the poet loves her very much is clear.  His grief shines through in every line, even to the heartbreaking plea to the earth to weigh lightly upon her buried body, and his fear that she might be frightened on her long journey by the monsters that guard the underworld.  Much of the poem’s power comes from the words the poet uses to describe Erotion.  She is a “pretty maid,” a “little lassie,” who is “only six.”  She “toddles,” and the poet hopes that she may “play” and “prattle.”  She is “merry,” and she loved her master, the poet.  Through this, we can see the beautiful child whom the poet will miss dreadfully.

Another interesting aspect of this poem is that the child whom the poet so lovingly describes is the poet’s slave.  It is easy to think of slavery as uncompromisingly evil.  However, slavery in the ancient world could be more complex.  Depending on the size of the household or the traditions of the family, slaves could be something much more like family than property.  One of the ways a female slave could sometimes achieve freedom was through marriage to her master.  It is hard to imagine a 19th century American slave owner writing such a poem about a slave child.  But then, the ancients did not indulge in philosophical claptrap about inferior races (barbarians were quite another thing).  Regardless, it does make me wonder about the politics of the translator.

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Oh! Hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
  And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us,
  At rest in the hollows that rustle between.

Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
  Oh weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
  Asleep in the arms of the slow swinging seas!

When I was small (and not so small) my father read to us.  By “us” I mean all my siblings together.  He read Canticle for Liebowitz, and early Heinlein space operas, and books of Pogo cartoons.  When reading the latter my father would position himself in the middle of the living room floor, or on my parents’ big bed, and we would arrange ourselves like rays around the book, our sun.  We all wanted to be able to see the pictures, and there was not a little sibling rivalry as we vied for position.  The other, non-illustrated, books were easier.  Sometimes at night my father would sit in the hallway under the light, in front of the open doors to our bedrooms.  He would read loudly, and we would hold very still in our beds, straining to hear his voice in the dark.  There were more and more children as the years went by, eleven all told by the end.  A miscarriage, the only one my mother ever had, robbed us of the coveted twelth sibling, whom we still mourn.

One of the books my father read us was The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling, although there were some stories he skipped over, considering them too ruthlessly Darwinian for small children.  One of our favorites was “The White Seal,” the story of the albino seal messiah Kotick, who saves his kind from the slaughtering fur traders by finding them a beach completely inaccessible to man on which they could live.  The story begins with the “Seal Lullaby,” which quickly became one of my favorite poems.  In junior high, when I began to copy poems I loved into the back of my journals, it was one of the first poems I copied.

I think that part of the poem’s appeal is its strong rhythmic quality.  The lines have deep ebbs and flows that make you feel the waves of the ocean.  The words that Kipling chooses also sound like water, with lots of “s” and “st” sounds.  A good example is “slow swinging seas” in the last line.  He also uses a lot of words with “o” vowel sounds: “The moon, o’er the combers looks downward…”  This helps you to not only feel, but hear the ocean setting.

The poem has an affectionate, dreamlike quality particularly suited to a lullaby.  Kipling uses the archaic familiar “thee” throughout, a convention he often uses in his work when animals speak.  This sometimes indicated increased formality, but also implies that he is translating from another language (in this case seal language), which has retained the familiar which modern English has lost.  The use of the familiar contributes to the sweet tone of the poem, helping the reader feel the deep love and care between a mother and her baby.  All mothers are the same, Kipling seems to say, whether they rock their babies to sleep in wooden rockers or between ocean waves.  In this way the poem is reminiscent of the “Baby Mine” number in Disney’s Dumbo.  This contributes to the emotional impact of the story as we later witness through Kotick’s eyes the slaughter of those babies by the fur harvesters.

This poem is a small gem of its kind.  Although Kipling can be trite or cliched, I thinkhis poetic skills are underappreciated.  This poem is beautiful, memorable, and finely crafted.  I would not mind singing it one day to my own children.

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