Research & Studies

Encore! – Alberto Roque Santana: Threnos, de morte Barbarae matris – Oratorio based on a poem by Janus Pannonius


Janus Pannonius – Threnody on the death of his mother Barbara (1463)

Why should I weep? Would it ease my new-found sorrow?

    Today I weep for my mother, the tears are all hers.

This day will be marked by bitterness for the rest of my life,

    Yet though it is bitter, with tears I rejoice in her

And whether the day finds me on the hot sands of Libya

    Or on the terrifying ice-sheets of the North Pole

Makes no difference as the brief year turns on its axle,

    Since the sun is bound to open my wounds up again

And bring you to mind, awakening my sense of your grace

    As I pay respects at your tomb in filial devotion.

My day of mourning, alas, is the Tenth of December.

   How leaden and sad now the marks of your noble bearing

For though in life you shone like the sun, its beams ever spotless,

   The vision of you in funereal pomp has darkened the sky.

My heart is a night bound in fog but aching for light.

    Your complexion too is dusky like a day fit for mourning.

Impenetrable cloud obscures the topmost roofs of the sky

   And earth below cowers under a thick layer of mist.

There’s no point in denying it’s a day made for funerals,

   No point having a catafalque in gorgeous summer weather,

And it’s not the wet wind from the south that brings us such things

   The very air mourns as I mourn and keeps me company.

And you, December, are now my very worst enemy.

   Why do you beat me so hard and cause me such suffering?

Was it not enough for you to rob me of my dear Guarino?

  See! You have struck me again, piling wound upon wound!

Oh, you! Of all the year’s twelve yelping children you are the last,

  And how the Earth hates you, how Heaven too despises you!

For you have damaged the light by opening day to the darkness

   And have driven the Sun’s chariot through a narrower arc.

Your sluggish frosts are a bruise on a planet grown sombre,

   Destroying both crops below and the boughs high above us.

No flock now is nurtured in the rich depths of the meadow,

   No cheerful twittering spreads delight in the cool of the branches.

Nor does it help that wild Turkish horsemen have destroyed the pasture,

   Trampled the frozen rivers and broken the ice-paths.

Once upon a time fools thought you a guardian angel.

    Far from it! You’re the idol of the dead, a creature from Hades.

But why should I weep so forlornly when it’s not the month’s fault!

    The earth careers onward, driving fleet-footed time before it.

Perhaps astronomers’ charts are to blame. It must be their fault

    Since fate and my grieving are both governed by the stars.

It is the heavenly powers that dominate life and death equally,

    While we, the mere mortals, wait for the grave to swallow us,

And for the spark of life to vanish, deserting the body.

    If the bright stars above us serve only for our grieving

Surely it is better for us to go without stars.

    Nor is there any point in offering consolation.

Don’t even try, dear friends. There’ll be time for that later.

    Words won’t suffice to heal a grief still so raw.

Wounds that still bleed escape the hand that would heal them.

    The agony is so fierce I can’t see an end to it,

It feels far beyond me, however long the mourning

    And should someone reprove me, and tell me it’s unbecoming,

That it’s only for faint-hearted women and mothers,

     It would show they don’t understand the fearsome power of nature

And are ignorant of how the ancients often did the same.

   There stood proud Marcius at the limits of graceless Rome

His mighty voice silent in mourning for his mother.

    Sertorius fled to the furthest west, harried from home,

But his greatest anxiety was for his well-beloved parent.

   When monstrous Etna erupted, spewing fire in every direction

The Siculus twins carried their mother’s sacred weight on their shoulders.

    The youth of Argos outdid even the Spartan twins,

Pulling their parents by chariot with themselves in harness.

    Nor was it just mothers our forebears treated in this fashion,

Their tender care extended even to their nurses.

    The Phrygian hero rescued Bajeta from the fury of battle,

And a stretch of the Latium bank still bears his name.

   Romulus rewarded Accius with an annual festival

(People believed that the name recalled his wolf mother)

   The goat that fed him became the star Capella, by grace

Of Jupiter and still burns bright as a crystal in the night sky.

   And this is how Bacchus too rewarded the work of the Hyades.

There they are glittering in the Bull’s mouth each spring.

    No-one has claimed that death in old age, should the Lord

Delay his unavoidable harvest, is any less painful.

   A man of deep feeling does not count years when he mourns,

But believes that love will never grow feeble in age.

   And should I not mourn you, dear mother, just because you were

Over the age of sixty at death? Should I not weep for you?

    You carried me in your womb for fully ten circuits of the moon.

The heavy labour might even have wrought internal damage

    Had not Juno intervened by hurrying to your bedside.

And then you raised your tiny son gently to your warm breast

    And you pressed your nipple to his tender mouth.

You were always hugging and dandling me in your lap

    As if I were your one child and you hadn’t had two other sons.

Nor did they ever blame me for being your favourite.

    Can children be omens, do mothers have visionary powers?

Or is it that late children are held in special affection?

   Once I was steady on my feet and started to walk

And to put a few words together, constructing sentences,

    You quickly grasped that I was a natural learner

And should not waste my days in merely childish pursuits.

    So you took wool, knitted it and sold it to pay for my tuition

And, little as I then was, I gave it as fee to my teachers.

   I had hardly begun to savour the fruits of knowledge

When I first showed promise and justified your sacrifice.

   Your brother then sent me abroad to Italy so I might

Extend my education – it was all he desired for me.

   I lived on his allowance and had opportunity to explore

The entire Veneto and become a faithful follower of the Muses.

   A whole eleven years I spent there! Such a long time!

How you’ll have pined for me in the years that I was away!

   How often you feared for me and how your heart must have ached!

And then, once Italy had returned your son to your side,

   And I, still in my youth, was raised to a bishop’s throne,

Was any life as gracious and simple as the home-life

   You enjoyed at the house I provided for you in old age?

Even there your chief concern was always our happiness,

   So when your trembling hands had grasped the ball of flex

Clotho had woven for you, having measured its length,

   Knowing at what precise point she would  finally cut it,

Our friends and relations came flocking to your bedside,

   Great gatherings of women to fill your narrow room,

And young girls wept, remembering how you had helped them,

   And how you had mothered them all. And then, when your daughter

Still sobbing, closed your dying eyes, and I tried to avoid

   The women’s wailing and looked to maintain a calm demeanour

Knowing my own woes would only increase your own,

   Not wanting my sighs to trouble yours in your dying

Even then you did not forget you were my mother.

   I’m not in pain, you whispered, not when my son is beside me.

Your eyes, though clouded still searching, settled on mine

   And right to the last my name was on your lips,

To the moment your soul, like a bird from its nest, thrust into the air,

   Leaving your body to grow cold in its still-warm bed.

But why leave me now, mother, just as my star is rising,

    And your own peace and calm look to be assured!

Don’t go at the moment your child’s career reaches its zenith

    And when you are free of care in the twilight of your years!

The virgin sisters you sheltered are now effectively orphans,

   For who will brighten their lives and lead them to safe pastures,

And who will enrich their tender minds in the way you would?

   Is anyone else as fitted to nurture their maidenly virtues?

And see this monument, evidence of our great sense of loss:

   It’s not some vainglorious artefact, the engraver’s masterpiece,

Nor an ostentatious mausoleum full of vaulting ambition,

    Nor a marble obelisk whose apex might pierce the clouds.

The clouds are merely of incense, the sound that of a chorus

    Lamenting, the song full of sadness and high trembling voices.

A magnificent procession precedes the coffin that bears you,

   The church-bells rang clear and loud in their tall towers.

Candles in hundreds on hundreds flicker on countless altars

   And every church in the city resounds with its own form of requiem.

I have donned the priestly vestments in which I am to perform

   The mystical rites by my mother’s sepulchre.

If heaven is indeed for the meek I am perfectly certain that you

   Have already entered the domain of the blessed.

You lived without sin, you went about your work and completed it.

   Fulfilling your obligations both to man and to God.

You faithfully kept your late husband’s memory, the proof

    Of which is the veil you have worn ever since his death

Twenty-three rainy autumns ago, each autumn seeing you shrouded

    In widow’s weeds, meditating on his passing.

In the land of the ancient Romans you exemplified the widow’s life

   And would have deserved that rare crown: the laurel of virtue,

The dignity of your exemplary life crowned by exemplary death.

   No death can be counted bad when the life has been humane.

You have perfectly performed all that holy writ can demand:

   The prison gates fly open, the starry skies await you.

The sky is yours, mother, blessed among women, heaven’s citizen!

   May your prayers continue to protect your errant son.

We will see each other again when heaven sees fit to arrange it.

   Heaven and earth resound with the high fanfares of angels.

Sleep on then, mother, untroubled in your grave, till that time,

   Let the stones of the crypt not weigh heavy on your bones.

(Translation by George Szirtes)