Hard by the town of Enna was a lake,
Pergus its name; nor even Cayster's waters
Held in their echoes sweeter sounds of swans.
A forest crowned the hills on every side
Where even at sunstruck noonday the cool shores
Were green beneath a canopy of leaves,
The lawns, the purling grasses bright with flowers,
And spring the only season of the year.
This was the place were Proserpina played;
She plucked white lily and the violet
Which held her mind as in a childish game
To outmatch all the girls who played with her,
Filled her basket, then the hollow of small breasts
With new picked flowers. As if at one glance, Pluto
Had caught her up, delighted at his choice
Had ravished her, so quick was his desire,
While she in terror called to friends and mother,
A prayer to mother echoing through her cries.
Where she had ripped the neckline of her dress,
Her flowers had slipped away--and in her childish, pure
Simplicity she wept her new loss now
With bitter, deeper sorrow than her tears
For the brief loss of spent virginity.
He who had raped her lashed his horses on
To greater speed, crying the names of each,
Shaking black reins across their backs and shoulders;
He stormed his way through waterfalls and canyons
Past the Palici, where fiery thick sulfur bubbled
From split earth to the narrows where men came
(Corinthians who lived between two seas
And followed Bacchus) to set up a city
That rose between two jagged rocky harbors.
Between Cyane and the spring of Arethusa
There is a bay, a horn-shaped stretch of water
Contained by narrowing peninsulas.
Here lived Cyane, nymph of Sicily
Who gave the place a legend with her name;
Waist-high she raised herself above the waves
And at the sight of childlike Proserpina
She called to Pluto, "Sir, you shall go no farther,
Nor can you be the son-in-law of Ceres
By right of conquest and the use of force;
The child deserves a gentle courtly marriage.
If I compare a humble situation
With one of highest birth, then let me say
I once was courted by my lord Anapis,
And gave in to his prayers, but not through terror."
With this she spread her arms and barred his way--
Yet Saturn's son lashed at his furious horses
And swung his sceptre overhead, then struck
Through waves and earth as his dark chariot
Roared down that road to deepest Tartarus.
Cyane grieved at Proserpina's fate
Her own loss of prestige, her waters tainted
By the wild capture of the youthful goddess,
Nor was consoled; she held her wounds at heart.
Speechless, she flowed in tears, into those waves
Where she was known as goddess. There one saw
Her limbs grow flaccid and her bones, her nails
Turn fluid; and her slender gliding features,
Her green hair and her fingers, legs, and feet
Were first to go, nor did her graceful limbs
Seem to show change as they slipped in cool waters;
Then shoulders, breasts and sides and back were tears
Flowing in streams and then her living blood
In pale veins ran to clearest, yielding spray--
And nothing there for anyone to hold.
In all this time the anxious, frightened mother
Looked for her daughter up and down the world;
Neither Aurora with dew-wet raining hair
Nor evening Hesperus saw her stop for rest.
She lit two torches at the fires of Etna
And through the frost-cloaked night she walked abroad
Then, when good-natured day had veiled the stars,
Kept at her rounds from dawn to setting sun.
Spent with her travels and throat dry with thirst
(Nor had her lips touched either brook or fountain),
She saw a cottage roofed with straw and knocked
On its frail gate at which an ancient woman
Ambled forward, who when she learned the goddess
Wanted drink brought her a draught of sweetest
Barley water. And as the goddess drank
An impudent small boy stared up at her,
Made fun of her, and said she drank too much,
At which she took offense and threw the dregs
Of barley in his face. The boy grew spotted;
His arms were legs; between them dropped a tail;
He dwindled to a harmless size, a lizard,
And yet a lesser creature. The old woman
Marvelled at what she saw, then wept, then tried
To capture it; it fluttered under stones.
It took a name that fitted to its crime,
Since it was covered with star-shining spots.
It would take long to list the many names
Of seas and distant lands that Ceres traveled,
But when she found no other place to go,
She turned her way again through Sicily
And on this route stood where Cyane flowed.
Though she had much to say and wished to tell it--
Would have told all--Cyane had no speech
But that of water, neither tongue nor lips,
Yet she could bring sign language to the surface,
And tossed the girdle Proserpina dropped
Before her mother's eyes. When Ceres saw it,
It was as if the child had disappeared
Today or yesterday; the goddess tore
Her hair and beat her breasts--nor did she know
Where the child was, but cursed all earthly places
For lack of pity and ingratitude,
Saying they had disowned the gift of grain,
And worst of these the land of Sicily
Where she had seen the water-drifting ribbon
That Proserpina wore. With savage hands
She smashed the crooked plows that turned the soil
And brought dark ruin down on men and cattle;
She then gave orders to tilled field and lawn
To blight the seed, betray their duties, and
Unmake their reputation for rich harvest.
Crops died almost at birth, from too much sun,
Or withering rain; even the stars and wind
Unfavored them; birds ate the fallen seed,
And weeds and brambles thrived in starving wheat.
Then Alpheus' daughter, Arethusa, rose
Lifting her face from the Elean waters.
She shook her streaming hair back from her eyes.
And cried, "O mother of that lost girl, the child
That you have looked for everywhere, mother
Of fruit and field, come rest awhile with me.
Forgive this pious land that worships you--
This countryside is innocent of wrong;
It had been forced to welcome rape--nor do I,
Pleading its cause, claim it my native land.
Pisa is mine, my ancestors from Elis,
And as a stranger came to Sicily--
Yet I have learned to love this countryside,
This island more than any place I know.
Here is my home--O gracious goddess, bless
The place I live; a proper time will come
To tell you why I came to Sicily,
Steering my course beneath uncharted seas--
A time when you are smiling down at me.
Earth opened to me down to deepest dark,
And floating through its underwater channels
I raised my head as if to turn my eyes
Toward stars almost forgotten to my sight,
And as I drifted through the Styx I saw
Persephone herself; she seemed in tears,
Even then her face still held its look of terror,
Yet she was like a queen, true wife, regina
Of that dictator who rules underground."
When the mother heard this news, she stood half-dazed
And stared as if she had been turned to stone,
But when her sorrow had turned to active grief,
She stepped aboard her chariot and flew
To heaven itself; there, with dark features
And wild hair, flushed, passionate, she stepped
To Jove. She said, "I come to speak aloud,
To plead a case for your child and my own.
If you disown the mother, allow the child
In her distress to move a father's soul,
Nor think the less of her because I gave
Her birth, the long-lost daughter who has now
Been found--if one calls finding her sure proof
That she is lost, or if to find is knowing
Where she's gone; I can endure the knowing
She was raped--if he who has her shall return
Her to me. Surely any child of yours
Should never take a thief for her true husband."
Then Jupiter exclaimed, "She is our daughter,
The token of our love and ours to cherish,
But we should give the proper names to facts:
She has received the gift of love, unhurt,
Nor will he harm us as a son-in-law.
And if has no other merits, then
It's no disgrace to marry Jove's own brother,
For all he needs is your good will, my dear.
His great fault is: he does not hold my place,
His lot is to rule over lower regions.
But if your will is fixed on her divorce,
The girl shall rise to heaven on one condition--
That is, if no food touched her lips in Hades,
For this is law commanded by the Fates."
He had his say, and Ceres was determined
To claim their daughter, yet the Fates said no.
But Proserpina, guileless, innocent,
Had taken refuge in Pluto's formal gardens
And, as she strolled there, plucked a dark pomegranate,
Unwrapped its yellow skin, and swallowed seven
Of its blood-purpled seeds. The one who saw
Her eat was Ascalaphus, said to have been
The son of Orphne--she not the least known
Among the pliant ladies of Avernus,
And by her lover, Acheron, conceived him
In the grey forest of the underworld.
The boy's malicious gossip worked its ill
Preventing Proserpina's step to earth:
Then the young queen of Erebus in rage
Changed her betrayer to an obscene bird:
She splashed his face with fires of Phlegethon
Which gave him beak and wings and great round eyes;
Unlike himself he walked in yellow feathers,
Half head, half body and long crooked claws,
Yet barely stirred his heavy wings that once
Were arms and hands: he was that hated creature,
Scritch-owl of fatal omen to all men.
Surely he earned his doom through evil talk.
But why are Achelous' daughters wearing
The claws, the feathers of peculiar birds--
And yet they have the faces of young girls?
Was this because, O Sirens of sweet song,
You were among the friends of Proserpina
Who joined her in the game of plucking flowers?
However far they traveled, land or sea,
They could not find her; then they begged the gods
To give them wings to skim the waves of the ocean,
Renew the search again. The gods were kind,
And quickly Siren limbs took golden feathers,
But human, girlish faces did not change,
Nor did their voices cease to charm the air.
But Jove (with equal justice to his brother
And to her stricken sister) cut the cycle
Of the revolving year; and for their claims
Six months to each, with Proserpina goddess
For half the year on earth, the other half
Queen with her husband; then at once her face
And spirit changed, for even dark Pluto noticed
A weary sadness spreading through her veins,
Now changed to joy; who, like the sun when held
Behind gray mist and rain, now showers down
His light through clouds and shows his golden face.