Duncan’s Semele

September 27th, 2009

A painting by John Duncan collected in Kemplay’s The Paintings of John Duncan.

Semele, ca. 1921 (p78).

Ovid narrates the myth of Semele in his Metamorphoses (book 3), in which Hera (Iuno) avenges Semele’s conception of Dionysus (Bacchus) by Zeus (Ioue). The 1632 translation below is by George Sandys.

Now new occasions fresh displeasure moue:
For Semele was great with child by Ioue.
Then, thus shee [Iuno] scolds: O, what amends succeeds
Our lost complaints! I now will fall to deeds.
If we be more then titularly great;
If we a Scepter sway; if heauen our seat;
If Ioue‘s fear’d Wife and Sister (certainly,
His Sister) torment shall the Whore destroy.
Yet, with that theft perhaps she was content,
And quickly might the injurie repent:
But, shee conceiues, to aggrauate the blame,
And by her Belly doth her crime proclaime.
Who would by Iupiter a Mother proue,
Which, hardly once, hath hapned to our loue:
So confident is beautie! Yet shall she
Faile in that hope: nor let me Iuno be,
Vnlesse, by her owne Ioue destroy’d, shee make
A swift descent vnto the Stygian Lake.
Shee quits her throne, and in a yellow clowd
Approach’t the Palace; nor dismist that shrowd,
Till shee had wrinkled her smooth skin, and made
Her head all gray: while creeping feete conuay’d
Her crooked lims; her voice small, weake, and hoarce,
Like Beroe of Epidaure, her Nurse.
Long talking; at the mention of Ioues name,
She sigh’t, and said; Pray heauen, he proue the same!
Yet much I feare: for many oft beguile
With that pretext, and chastest beds defile.
Though Ioue; that’s not enough. Giue he a signe
Of his affection, if he be diuine:
Such, and so mighty, as when pleasure warmes
His melting bosome, in high Iuno’s armes;
With thee, such and so mighty, let him lie,
Deckt with the ensignes of his deitie.
Thus shee aduiz’d the vnsuspecting Dame;
Who beggs of Ioue a boone without a name.
To whom the God: Choose, and thy choyce possesse;
Yet, that thy diffidencie may be lesse,
Witnesse that Powre, who through obscure aboads
Spreads his dull streames: the feare, and God of Gods.
Pleas’d with her harme, of too much powre to moue!
That now must perish by obsequious loue:
Such be to me, she said, as when the Inuites
Of Iuno summon you to Venus Rites.
Her mouth he sought to stop: but, now that breath
Was mixt with ayre which sentenced her death.
Then fetch’t a sigh; as if his breast would teare
(For, she might not vnwish, nor he vnsweare)
And sadly mounts the skie; who with him tooke:
The Clouds, that imitate his mournefull looke;
Thick showrs and tempests adding to the same,
Low’d thunder and ineuitable flame.
Whose rigor yet he striueth to subdew:
Not armed with that fire which ouerthrew
The hundred-handed Giant; ’twas too wilde:
There is another lightning, far more milde,
By Cyclops forged with lesse flame and ire:
Which, deathlesse Gods doe call the Second fire.
This, to her Father’s house, he with him tooke
But (ah!) a mortall body could not Brooke
Aethereall tumults. Her successe she mournes;
And in those so desir’d imbracements burnes.
Th’ vnperfect Babe, which in her wombe did lie,
Was ta’ne by Ioue, and sew’d into his thigh,
His Mother’s time accomplishing: Whom first,
By stealth, his carefull Aunt, kinde Ino, nurst
Then, giuen to the Nyseides, and bred
In secret Caues, with milke and hony fed.
While this on earth befell by Fates decree
(The twice-borne Bacchus now from danger free)…

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