Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile

i.m. Marguerite Yourcenar
(author: Memoirs of Hadrian)

My blissful boyhood in Bithynia,
the girls I never kissed,
the rough-haired mare I named Andromeda
vanished like wisps of mist.
Who could have guessed the regal visitor
at our provincial fete
would glimpse in me his beardless conqueror
that torchlit night we met?

He plucked me from my father’s field and grove,
uprooting me for life.
So long as I play Ganymede to Jove,
he’ll spurn his royal wife.
He gave me racing teams and chariot,
trophies, wreaths, and wine.
He brought me victories I never sought
and never felt were mine;

yet once I loved him more than Mithra’s flame
singeing the sacrifice,
and like Pythagoras I laughed at fame,
ignorant of its price.
A fate like this—tapped by the golden rod—
no sage could comprehend.
Mighty Isis—the Christians’ risen God—
all fail me at the end.

My master’s fever worsens every night.
No balm affords him rest,
so I resolve to leave before first light
raises the feathered crest
of Egypt’s eagle roosting on the ridge
behind this stygian quay.
Under the stars, a man is but a midge
and death a breath away.

River of Ramses, take my sacrifice.
In Hades no one wears
pomades or emerald rings. No youths entice;
no jealous Emperor glares
with eyes as shiny dark as scarab shells.
No sycophants applaud
an empty deed, or fawning poet tells
of mankind overawed.

Oh Africa, you famished crocodile,
swallow this flesh I shed.
Gorge, you greedy python, father Nile,
heave on your silted bed.
My corpse will feed the teeming needlefish;
their fry, the stalking stilt.
So Antinous at last shall have his wish;
and Hadrian, his guilt.