Wednesday, November 07, 2007

jewel of islands

I noticed that one of the horses in yesterday’s Melbourne Cup was called Sirmione, I presume after the name of the town near Lake Garda in Northern Italy. The poet Catullus owned a villa in Sirmio (as it was called then), and wrote a poem to celebrate returning home from overseas:

paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.
o quid solutis est beatius curis,
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrine
labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,
desideratoque acquiescimus lecto?
hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude
gaudente, vosque, o Lydiae lacus undae,
ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

Sirmio, jewel of islands and almost-islands,
And of all that Neptune bears in glassy pools, or on the vast sea,
How pleased, how happy I am to see you again,
Hardly believing that I have left Thynia and the Bithynian
plains behind, and found you safe.
O what could be better than to have no worries,
When the mind lays down its burden, and when,
Tired of foreign service, we have come to our hearth
And rest content upon our longed-for bed?
This on its own makes all the hardship worth it.
Greetings, delightful Sirmio. Enjoy your master’s
Joy, and you, lake of Lydian waves,
Laugh with all the laughter there is within you.

(Catullus 31)

The words which begin this poem (paene insularum) mean literally ‘almost-islands’ and give us our English word 'peninsula'.

The picture at the top shows the ruins of a large Roman villa at Sirmio, which definitely did not belong to Catullus (it's about a hundred years too late).

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