Antony and Cleopatra


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          Anthony and Cleopatra

 

 

Side by side they stand, surveying from on high

All Egypt slumbering in the stifling heat;

Far off, at Saïs, the black marshes meet

The sinuous Nile, meandering sleekly by;

 

He is from Rome, whom no one may defy,

She like a captive helpless at his feet,

Through his breast-plate he feels her faint heart-beat,

This siren child he seeks to pacify;

 

She looks at him, white cheeks and jet-black hair,

Subtle, all-conquering perfumes fill the air,

With eyes wide open, offers him her lips;

 

And, bending down, Mark Anthony descries,

Mirrored in those gold-fringed dark-blue eyes

The sea at Actium, covered with fleeing ships. 

 

 

 


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  This is a translation of a poem by José-Maria de Heredia, a nineteenth century French poet (18421905)  highly regarded at the time but not much read today.

     The Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 BC) was the decisive encounter between Mark Antony and Octavian, better known by his subsequent honorific title, Augustus. One might be forgiven for thinking Actium was near Alexandria, if one based one’s history on Shakespeare, but it was actually situated in the Peloponnese directly facing the eastern seaboard of Italy which Antony originally planned to invade with his vast armada of ships, five hundred strong of which some sixty or more were Egyptian. Instead of this, Mark Antony, who, whatever his personal prowess on the field, seems to have been an extremely incompetent strategist, found himself bottled up in the gulf with winter coming on and his supply lines with Egypt cut.

            His own general, Canidius Crassus, advised Antony to abandon the vast but unwieldy and undermanned fleet and withdraw his legions by land. Cleopatra, who was present at the Council of War, naturally preferred withdrawal by sea : not only was there the question of her personal safety but she was paymaster with her vast fortune and had a ship laden with treasure. As it happened, whether by intent or design, Cleopatra and the Egyptian contingent seized an opportunity which arose during the sea-battle the following day to pass through a gap in Octavian’s line and fled with Antony following fast after her. The result was that most of Antony’s remaining  seamen and linfantry changed sides — and who could blame them?   (At any rate, this is the version given in Richard Holland’s persuasive book, Augustus, Godfather of Europe.)

            The original French poem is as below

    



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             Antoine et Cléopatre

 

Tous deux ils regardaient, de la haute terrasse,

L’Égypte s’endormir sous un ciel étouffant,

Et le fleuve, à travers le Delta noir qu’il fend

Vers Bubaste ou Saïs rouler son onde grasse.

 

Et le Romain sentait sous la lourde cuirasse,

Soldat captif berçant le sommeil d’un enfant,

Ployer et défaillir sur son cœur triomphant

Le corps voluptueux que son étreinte embrasse.

 

Tournant sa tête pale entre ses cheveux bruns

Vers celui qui s’enivraient d’invincibles parfums,

Elle tendit sa bouche et ses prunelles claires ;

 

Et sur elle courbé, l’ardent Imperator

Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d’or

Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.

 

                                                José-Maria de Heredia

 

 

 


 

 


  

 

 

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