Sunday, September 16, 2012

Castles Built on Air

—Illustration by Howard Pyle

I'D BUY YOU, WISDOM (from The Laments)
—Jan Kochanowski, 1530-1584

I'd buy you, Wisdom, with all of the world's gold
But is there any truth in what we're told
About your power to purge our human thought
Of want and worry, elevate distraught
Spirits to heaven, up to the highest sphere
Where angels dwell beyond distress and fear?
You see mere trifles in all human things;
Mourning and mirth are two extended wings
On which you bring us equanimity,
Yourself unmoved by Death, calm, changeless, free.
For you, the rich man is the one who owns
No more than what's enough—no precious stones,
Or land, or rents; your piercing eyes behold
Misery lodged beneath the roof of gold.
But if poor people heed your sober voice,
You do not grudge the poor their simple joys.
To think that I have spent my life in one
Long climb towards your threshold!  All delusion!
My Wisdom was a castle built on air;
Like all the rest, I'm flung from its top stair.

(trans. from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney)