A Song from the Coptic

Last month a group of Egyptian Coptic Christians were murdered on a beach by a group claiming a link with the so-called Islamic state, or ‘ISIS’, whose English acronym, in a bizarre irony, recalls one of the gods of ancient Egypt. Christians in Egypt have suffered persecution for many generations, which has intensified in the twenty first century. These Christians are not just Egyptians who happen to be Christian, but are Copts, the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of Egypt. They have been Christian for many centuries (longer than most European countries), but for many centuries – for some millennia – before that followed the ancient religion of Egypt, of Thoth, Isis and Ra. In fact, the word ‘Copt’ is cognate with the word ‘Egypt’ – they are at least as old as our very word for Egypt… one remembers that Herodotus himself was over-awed with their country’s antiquity when he visited.There is an informative and interesting website about The Copts’ culture, and their plight here.

One of its posts is the 19th Century translation, by Irish poet James Mangan, of a poem by Goethe:

A Song from the Coptic


Quarrels have long been in vogue among sages;

Still, though in many things wranglers and rancorous,

All the philosopher-scribes of all ages

Join, una voce, on one point to anchor us.

Here is the gist of their mystified pages,

Here is the wisdom we purchase with gold –

Children of Light, leave the world to its mulishness,

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Berries were bitter in forests of old.

Hoary old Merlin,that great necromancer,

Made me, a student, a similar answer,

When I besought him for light and for lore:

Toiler in vain! Leave the world to its mulishness

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Granite was hard in the quarries of yore.

And on the ice-crested heights of Armenia,

And in the valleys of broad Abyssinia,

Still spake the Oracle just as before:

Wouldst thou have peace, leave the world to its mulishness

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;

Beetles were blind in the ages of yore.

The article in Coptic Literature looks at the history of this poem, why and when Goethe wrote it – it is well worth a read . He rightly notes that Mangan’s poem is a free translation, not a a direct one, of Goethe’s original, and I think there is more to be said about Mangan’s translation.

The poem is, of course, not from a Coptic text, but from the pen and imagination of Goethe. Goethe puts his words in the mouth of an ancient sage – creating an aura of exoticism and mystery, and paradoxically making its message seem more authentic than if we were to think it was the musings of a nineteenth century German civil servant.

Why evoke the Copts, in particular? As the Coptic Literature article explains, this is partly to do with the plot of the play that the poem was intended to be a part of. But I think, in particular, the Copts are used because they are thought to be the very oldest of all the sagacious peoples: Goethe’s original mentions Egyptians and Indians, while Mangan changes this, perhaps for poetic purposes, perhaps others to Abyssinians and Armenians, while both versions also mention a Greek and a Celtic sage (the Oracle and Merlin respectively). Egypt has a strong association with the idea of hidden wisdom, which accords with the message of the poem that it is better not to engage with the wider, foolish world. The ancient, semi-mythical figure of Hermes Trismegismus, the supposed writer of the Hermetic texts, from which so many sages and magicians took their knowledge was, of course, an Egyptian, though it later transpired that his writings were not, as had been claimed, contemporary with the time of Moses, but from early in the first millennium AD.

It is interesting to speculate what drew Mangan to this poem. Mangan is perhaps best known for his poems set in old Ireland, the brooding ‘Dark Rosaleen’, and my favourite poem of his, A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century (a poem I have been meaning to blog on for months, and may get round to one day). He was a man of many interests, translating from Arabic as well as German, and, of course, Gaelic. As an Irishman, Mangan was from a people of ancient pedigree, who had – like the Copts, the Armenians, Abyssinians, Welsh and even the Greeks (at the time of writing) – been dominated by another culture, and perhaps this is one of the things that interested Mangan in the poem.

That is speculation of course, but what we can discuss more certainly is what Mangan with his translation brought to the poem. First, it is dramatic. When it comes to high-flown, dramatic poetry, Mangan can compete with Tennyson, who was a contemporary. The fast-paced rhythmical lines almost reach the pitch of Poe, and like Poe he has a virtuoso’s skill with rhyme and alliteration.

Mangan also brings to the poem some earthy Irish humour. Compare two other translators’ rendition of the poems’ refrain (courtesy again of Coptic Literature):

Folly, to wait until fools become better !

Children of wisdom, ’tis true to the letter

Fools will be fools, as it’s best they should be !” (John Sullivan Dwight)

Smile, nod, and join in the chorus with me:
“Vain ’tis to wait till the dolt grows less silly!
Play then the fool with the fool, willy-nilly,— (Edgar Alfred Bowring)

There are, in fact, a number of translations in this vein. Now Mangan’s again:

Children of Light, leave the world to its mulishness,

Things to their natures, and fools to their foolishness;
Berries were bitter in forests of old.

How much more we feel the comical stupidity of the world with the quality ‘mulishness’. How much more we appreciate the special calling of sages and scholars with the sobriquet ‘Children of light’, which also brings to mind certain other esoteric teachings related to light – Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, or the ancient teachings of Zoroaster. Varying the last line of the refrain -as Goethe didn’t – gives the poem an extra three images to show the unchanging stupidity and nastiness of the world (hey, didn’t I do something like that in my translation of Gòngora’s Da Bienes Fortuna  a couple of years ago? Yes, I did!) It brings to mind certain passages in the Old Testament, whose authors, like Mangan, were wise enough to use concrete imagery to express their meaning. Proverbs 26:11 wouldn’t look out of place in the poem – a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.

On a political note, here’s hoping, by the way, that ISIS and their ilk are sooner or later (preferably sooner) undone by their spite and folly, and the Copts and groups like them survive and prosper in the Middle East and North Africa.



Filed under Literature, Poetry

4 responses to “A Song from the Coptic

  1. I have had a good time this afternoon reading about Coptics, Goethe, and translation. If you consult the usual suspects (like Poemhunter…is there anything worse than their new audio reading feature?), the Bowring translation is the one invariably given—and without attribution.
    I’m glad you found the Mangan translation…I like it best. (Just as I humbly like my own translations of Louise Labé best!) Any “liberties” that are taken, are not done so lightly, but in the making of a decent poem in the second language…as you certainly did with Da Bienes Fortuna. A poem from a poem, I always say. (It’s weird, isn’t it, but I do think of the Egyptian deity every time I hear a newscaster say “ISIS”).

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Cynthia. I agree with you entirely on what makes a good translation – it helps a lot if the translator is a poet, naturally. Of course, it’s a ‘take’ and no version will ever be definitive. How the modern world hates something not being definitive, but that is the nature of the art!

  2. As always, an interesting article from you. Thank you for this one.
    There are layers upon layers here, in the poem and its translations, as in your comments, and in the abhorrent current events.
    If you can license another layer, here’s one from me: I recently re-read The Walls Do Not Fall, by HD. I don’t know if it is in print now, written as it was during the London Blitz, but there are repeated references to Isis, Ra and Thoth (plus Greek gods and Jehovah) in that, and the ancient gods seem to stand in for the Divine generally.

  3. Very interesting indeed, John… I looked HD’s work up to find the Guardian featured some extracts as their poem of the month a couple of years ago. The extract quoted included the following lines:

    remember, O Sword,
    you are the younger brother, the latter-born,

    your Triumph, however exultant,
    must one day be over,

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