"They Told Me, Heraclitus, They Told Me You Were Dead"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: William Cory, a classical scholar, was headmaster of the famous English school, Eton; besides performing his duties as head of the institution, he also taught a class in Greek. To stimulate his charges into an appreciation of what they were studying, he wrote "Heraclitus." His note to the poem is, "Written for the boys doing Farnaby (School book of easy Greek pieces). Autumn 1845"; it was published in a collection of his verse entitled Ionica, in 1858. The poem, however, is not an original composition; it is, rather, a loose paraphrase of a work in the Greek Anthology (Book VII, Epigram 80) by Callimachus. Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.) had written a poem entitled "The Nightingales." Callimachus, who lived two and a half centuries later, was so moved by the poem that he felt that its author had been his friend and that they had actually talked together. But though Heraclitus is dead, the nightingales of which he wrote still live on and are still singing. Nature, therefore, endures, while man passes away. The little poem has been translated, somewhat less sentimentally, by Lilla Cabot Perry. (1848–1931). Cory's version follows:

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.