Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > Greek, Roman & Oriental
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vol. XV: Greek—Roman—Oriental
 
The New City
By Aristophanes (c. 448–c. 388 B.C.)
 
From “The Birds”

CHORUS OF BIRDS.
    YE children of man, whose life is a span,
    Protracted with sorrow from day to day,
    Naked and featherless, feeble and querulous,
    Sickly, calamitous creatures of clay!
    Attend to the words of the sovereign birds—        5
    Immortal, illustrious, lords of the air—
    Who survey from on high, with a merciful eye,
    Your struggles of misery, labor, and care.
    Whence you may learn and clearly discern
    Such truths as attract your inquisitive turn;        10
    Which is busied of late, with a mighty debate,
    A profound speculation about the Creation,
    And organical life, and chaotical strife,
    With various notions of heavenly motions,
    And rivers and oceans, and valleys and mountains,        15
    And sources of fountains, and meteors on high,
    And stars in the sky. We propose by and by—
    If you’ll listen and hear—to make it all clear.
    And Prodicus henceforth shall pass for a dunce,
    When his doubts are explained and expounded at once.        20
 
      Before the creation of ether and light,
    Chaos and night together were plight,
    In the dungeon of Erebus foully bedight.
    Nor ocean or air or substance was there,
    Or solid or rare, or figure or form,        25
    But horrible Tartarus ruled in the storm.
      At length, in the dreary, chaotical closet
    Of Erebus old, was a privy deposit,
    By night the primeval in secrecy laid;
    A mystical egg, that in silence and shade        30
    Was brooded and hatched; till time came about,
    And love, the delightful, in glory flew out,
    In rapture and light, exulting and bright,
    Sparkling and florid, with stars in his forehead,
    His forehead and hair, and a flutter and flare,        35
    As he rose in the air, triumphantly furnished
    To range his dominions on glittering pinions,
    All golden and azure, and blooming and burnished.
      He soon, in the murky Tartarean recesses,
    With a hurricane’s might, in his fiery caresses        40
    Impregnated chaos; and hastily snatched
    To being and life, begotten and hatched,
    The primitive birds; but the deities all,
    The celestial lights, the terrestrial ball,
    Were later of birth, with the dwellers on earth,        45
    More tamely combined, of a temperate kind;
    When chaotical mixture approached to a fixture.
      Our antiquity proved, it remains to be shown
    That love is our author and master alone;
    Like him, we can ramble and gambol, and fly        50
    O’er ocean and earth, and aloft to the sky;
    And all the world over we’re friends to the lover,
    And when other means fail, we are found to prevail
    When a peacock or pheasant is sent as a present.
      All lessons of primary daily concern        55
    You have learned from the birds, and continue to learn,
    Your best benefactors and early instructors;
    We give you the warning of seasons returning.
      When the cranes are arranged, and muster afloat
    In the middle air, with a creaking note,        60
    Steering away to the Libyan sands,
    Then careful farmers sow their lands;
    The crazy vessel is hauled ashore,
    The sail, the ropes, the rudder and oar
    Are all unshipped, and housed in store.        65
      The shepherd is warned, by the kite reappearing,
    To muster his flock and be ready for shearing.
      You quit your old cloak at the swallow’s behest,
    In assurance of summer, and purchase a vest.
      For Delphi, for Ammon, Dodona—in fine,        70
    For every oracular temple and shrine—
    The birds are a substitute equal and fair,
    For on us you depend, and to us you repair
    For counsel and aid when a marriage is made,
    A purchase, a bargain, a venture in trade.        75
    Unlucky or lucky, whatever has struck ye,
    An ox or an ass, that may happen to pass,
    A voice in the street, or a slave that you meet,
    A name or a word by chance overheard,
    If you deem it an omen, you call it a bird;        80
    And if birds are your omens, it clearly will follow
    That birds are a proper prophetic Apollo.
 
      Then take us as gods, and you’ll soon find the odds;
    We’ll serve for all uses, as prophets and muses;
    We’ll give ye fine weather, we’ll live here together;        85
    We’ll not keep away, scornful and proud, atop of a cloud,
    In Jupiter’s way, but attend every day,
    To prosper and bless all you possess,
    And all your affairs, for yourselves and your heirs.
    And as long as you live we shall give        90
    You wealth and health, and pleasure and treasure,
    In ample measure;
    And never bilk you of pigeon’s milk,
    Or potable gold. You shall live to grow old,
    In laughter and mirth, on the face of the earth,        95
    Laughing, quaffing, carousing, bousing;
      Your only distress shall be the excess
      Of ease and abundance and happiness.
*        *        *        *        *
Enter PEISTHETAIRUS, EUELPIDES, EPOPS, and PRIEST.
  Peis.  Well, there it is! Such a comical set-out,
By Jove, I never saw!
  Euel.            Why, what’s the matter?
        100
What are you laughing at?
  Peis.                At your pen-feathers.
I’ll tell ye exactly, now, the thing you’re like:
You’re just the perfect image of a goose,
Drawn with a pen in a writing-master’s flourish.
  Euel.  And you’re like a plucked blackbird to a tittle.        105
  Peis.  Well, then, according to the line in Æschylus,
“It’s our own fault; the feathers are our own.”
  Euel.  Come, what’s to be done?
  Epops.                First we must choose a name,
Some grand, sonorous name, for our new city;
Then we must sacrifice.
  Euel.            I think so too.
        110
  Peis.  Let’s see—let’s think of a name; what shall it be?
What say ye to the Lacedæmonian name?
Sparta sounds well. Suppose we call it Sparta?
  Euel.  Sparta! What Sparto—rushes? No, not I;
I’d not put up with Sparto for a mattress,        115
Much less for a city. We’re not come to that.
  Peis.  Come, then, what name shall it be?
  Euel.                Something appropriate,
Something that sounds majestic, striking, and grand,
Alluding to the clouds and the upper regions.
  Peis.  What think ye of clouds and cuckoos? Cuckoo-cloudlands,        120
Or Nephelococcugia?
  Epops.            That will do;
A truly noble and sonorous name.
  Euel.  I wonder if that Nephelococcugia
Is the same place I’ve heard of? People tell me
That all Theagenes’s rich possessions        125
Lie there, and Æschines’s whole estate.
  Peis.  Yes, and a better country it is by far
Than all that land in Thrace, the fabulous plain
Of Phlegra, where those earth-born landed giants
Were bullied and outvapored by the gods.        130
  Euel.  It will be a genteelish, smart concern, I reckon,
This city of ours. Which of the deities
Shall we have for a patron? We must weave our mantle,
Our sacred mantle, of course, the yearly mantle,
To one or other of ’em.
  Peis.                Well, Minerva?
        135
Why should not we have Minerva? She’s established,
Let her continue; she’ll do mighty well.
  Euel.  No; there I object; for a well-ordered city
The example would be scandalous—to see
The goddess, a female born, in complete armor        140
From head to foot; and Cleisthenes with a distaff!
  Peis.  What warden will ye appoint for the Eagle tower,
Your citadel, the fort upon the rock?
  Epops.  That charge will rest with a chief of our own choice,
Of Persian race, a chicken of the game,        145
An eminent warrior.
  Euel.            Oh, my chicky-biddy,
My little master! I should like to see him,
Strutting about and roosting on the rock.
  Peis.  Come you, now! Please to step to the atmosphere,
And give a look to the work, and help the workmen,        150
And between whiles fetch brick and tiles, and such like;
Draw water, stamp the mortar—do it barefoot;
Climb up the ladders; tumble down again;
Keep constant watch and ward; conceal your watch-lights;
Then go the rounds and give the countersign,        155
Till you fall fast asleep. Send heralds off,
A brace of them—one to the gods above,
And another, down below there to mankind.
Bid them, when they return, inquire for me.
  Euel.  For me! For me! You may be hanged for me.        160
  Peis.  Come, friend, go where I bid you; never mind;
The business can’t go on without you, anyhow.
It’s just a sacrifice to these new deities,
That I must wait for; and the priest that’s coming.
Hullo, you boy there! Bring the basin and ewer.        165
  Chor.    We urge, we exhort you, and advise,
            To ordain a mighty sacrifice,
            And before the gods to bring
            A stupendous offering;
            Either a sheep, or some such thing,        170
            To please the critics of the age,
            Sacrificed upon the stage.
            Sound amain the Pythian strain!
        Let Chœris be brought here to sing.
  Peis.  Have done there with your puffing! Heaven and earth,        175
What’s here! I’ve seen a many curious things,
But never saw the like of this before—
A crow with a flute and a mouthpiece. Priest, your office:
Perform it! Sacrifice to the new deities!
  Priest.  I will. But where’s the boy gone with the basket?        180
          Let us pray to the holy flame,
        And the holy hawk that guards the same;
          To the sovereign deities,
          All and each, of all degrees,
            Female and male!        185
  Chor.    Hail, thou hawk of Sunium, hail!
  Priest.    To the Delian and the Pythian swan,
          And to the Latonian quail,
                  All hail!
  Chor.    To the bird of awful stature,        190
          Mother of gods, mother of man;
          Great Cybele, nurse of nature!
          Glorious ostrich, hear our cry!
          Fearful and enormous creature,
          Hugest of all things that fly,        195
          Oh, preserve and prosper us,
          Thou mother of Cleocritus!
          Grant the blessings that we seek
          For us, and for the Chians’ eke!
  Peis.  That’s right, the Chians—don’t forget the Chians!        200
  Priest.    To the heroes, birds, and heroes’ sons,
          We call at once, we call and cry;
          To the woodpecker, the jay, the pie,
          To the mallard and the widgeon,
          To the ring-dove and the pigeon,        205
          To the petrel and sea-mew,
          To the dotterel and curlew,
          To the vultures and the hawks,
          To the cormorants and storks,
          To the rail, to the quail,        210
          To the pewit, to the tomtit.
  Peis.  Have done there! Call no more of ’em! Are you mad?
Inviting all the cormorants and vultures,
For a victim such as this! Why, don’t you see,
A kite at a single swoop would carry it off?        215
Get out of my way there, with your crowns and fillets;
I’ll do it myself! I’ll make the sacrifice!
  Priest.    Then must I commence again,
          In a simple, humble strain,
          And invite the gods anew        220
          To visit us—but very few,
          Or only just a single one,
                All alone,
          In a quiet, easy way;
        Wishing you may find enough,        225
          If you dine with us to-day.
            Our victim is so poor and thin,
            Merely bones, in fact, and skin.
  Peis.  We sacrifice and pray to the winged deities.
 
Enter POET.
  Poet.      “For the festive, happy day,
        230
            Muse, prepare an early lay
            To Nephelococcugia.”
  Peis.  What’s here to do? What are you? Where do you come from?
  Poet.  An humble menial of the Muse’s train,
As Homer expresses it.
  Peis.                A menial, are you?
        235
With your long hair? A menial?
  Poet.                    ’Tis not that.
No! But professors of the poetical art
Are simply styled the “Menials of the Muses,”
As Homer expresses it.
  Peis.            Aye, the Muse has given you
A ragged livery. Well, but, friend, I say—        240
Friend, poet, what the plague has brought you here?
  Poet.  I’ve made an ode upon your new-built city,
And a charming composition for a chorus,
And another in Simonides’s manner.
  Peis.  When were they made? What time? How long ago?        245
  Poet.  From early date I celebrate in song
The noble Nephelococcugian state.
  Peis.  That’s strange, when I’m just sacrificing here,
For the first time, to give the town a name.
  Poet.    Intimations, swift as air,        250
            To the Muse’s ear are carried,
            Swifter than the speed and force
            Of the fiery-footed horse;
            Hence, the tidings never tarried
            Father, patron, mighty lord,        255
            Founder of the rising state,
          What thy bounty can afford,
            Be it little, be it great,
          With a quick resolve, incline
          To bestow on me and mine.        260
  Peis.  This fellow will breed a bustle, and make mischief,
If we don’t give him a trifle, and get rid of him.—
You there, you’ve a spare waistcoat; pull it off
And give it this same clever, ingenious poet!—
There, take the waistcoat, friend! Ye seem to want it.        265
  Poet.      Freely, with a thankful heart,
            What a bounteous hand bestows,
          Is received in friendly part;
            But amid the Thracian snows,
          Or the chilly Scythian plain,        270
            He, the wanderer cold and lonely,
            With an under-waistcoat only,
          Must a further wish retain;
            Which the Muse, averse to mention,
            To your gentle comprehension        275
          Trusts her enigmatic strain.
  Peis.  I comprehend it enough; you want a jerkin.—
Here, give him yours; one ought to encourage genius.—
There, take it, and good-by to ye!
  Poet.                    Well, I’m going;
And as soon as I get to the town I’ll set to work,        280
And finish something, in this kind of way:
 
          “Seated on your golden throne,
          Muse, prepare a solemn ditty,
              To the mighty,
              To the flighty,        285
          To the cloudy, quivering, shivering,
          To the lofty-seated city.”
 
  Peis.  Well, I should have thought that jerkin might have cured him
Of his “quiverings and shiverings.” How the plague
Did the fellow find us out? I should not have thought it.        290
Come, once again, go round with the basin and ewer.
Peace! Silence! Silence!

Enter SOOTHSAYER.
  Sooth.                Stop the sacrifice!
  Peis.  What are you?
  Sooth.                A soothsayer, that’s what I am.
  Peis.  The worse luck for ye.
  Sooth.                Friend, are you in your senses?
Don’t trifle absurdly with religious matters.        295
Here’s a prophecy of Bakis, which expressly
Alludes to Nephelococcugia.
  Peis.  How came it, then, you never prophesied
Your prophecies before the town was built?
  Sooth.  The spirit withheld me.
  Peis.                    And is it allowable now
        300
To give us a communication of them?
  Sooth.                    Hm!
        “Moreover, when the crows and daws unite
        To build and settle in the midway, right
        Between tall Corinth and fair Sicyon’s height,
        Then to Pandora let a milk-white goat        305
        Be slain, and offered, and a comely coat
        Given to the soothsayer, and shoes a pair,
        When he to you this oracle shall bear—”
  Peis.  Are the shoes mentioned?
  Sooth.  (pretending to feel for his papers).  Look at the book, and see:        310
        “—And let him have the entrails for his share.”
  Peis.  Are the entrails mentioned?
  Sooth.  (as before).    Look at the book, and see:
        “If you, predestined youth, shall do these things,
        Then you shall soar aloft on eagle’s wings;
        But if you do not, you shall never be        315
        An eagle, nor a hawk, nor bird of high degree.”
  Peis.  Is all this there?
  Sooth.  (as before).    Look at the book, and see:
  Peis.  This oracle differs most remarkably
From that which I transcribed in Apollo’s temple:
        “If at the sacrifice which you prepare,        320
        An uninvited vagabond should dare
        To interrupt you, and demand a share,
        Let cuffs and buffets be the varlet’s lot.
        Smite him between the ribs, and spare him not.”
  Sooth.  What nonsense you’re talking!        325
  Peis.  (with the same action as the SOOTHSAYER, as if he were feeling for papers).  Look at the book, and see:
        “Thou shalt in no wise heed them, or forbear
        To lash and smite those eagles of the air,
        Neither regard their names, for it is written,
        Lampon and Diopithes shall be smitten.”        330
  Sooth.  Is all this there?
  Peis.  (producing a horsewhip).    Look at the book, and see!
Get out, with a plague and a vengeance!
  Sooth.                        Oh, dear! Oh!
  Peis.  Go soothsay somewhere else, you rascal—run!  (Exit SOOTHSAYER.)
 
Enter METON the Astronomer
  Met.  I’m come, you see, to join you.
  Peis.  (aside).                  Another plague!
For what? What’s your design—your plan—your notion—        335
Your scheme—your apparatus—your equipment—
Your outfit? What’s the meaning of it all?
  Met.  I mean to take a geometrical plan
Of your atmosphere—to allot it, and survey it
In a scientific form.
  Peis.            In the name of Heaven,
        340
Who are ye, and what? What name? What manner of man?
  Met.  Who am I, and what! Meton’s my name, well known
In Greece, and in the village of Colonos.
  Peis.  But tell me, pray: these implements, these articles,
What are they meant for?
  Met.                These are instruments
        345
An atmospherical geometrical scale.
First, you must understand that the atmosphere
Is formed—in a manner—altogether—partly,
In the fashion of a furnace, or a funnel.
I take this circular arc with the movable arm,        350
And so, by shifting it round till it coincides
At the angle— You understand me?
  Peis.                      Not in the least.
  Met.  I obtain a true division, with the quadrature
Of the equilateral circle. Here, I trace
Your market-place, in the center, with the streets        355
Converging inward—and the roads diverging
From the circular wall, without—like solar rays
From the circular circumference of the sun.
  Peis.  (in a pretended soliloquy; then calling to him with a tone of mystery and alarm).
Another Thales! Absolutely, a Thales!—
Meton!
  Met.  (startled).    Why, what’s the matter?
  Peis.                            You’re aware
        360
That I’ve a regard for you. Take my advice:
Don’t be seen here; withdraw yourself—abscond!
  Met.  Is there any alarm or risk?
  Peis.                        Why, much the same
As it might be in Laceæmon. There’s a bustle
Of expelling aliens; people are dragged out        365
From the inns and lodgings, with a deal of uproar,
And blows and abuse in plenty to be met with
In the public street.
  Met.            A popular tumult, eh?
  Peis.  Oh, fie! No, nothing of that kind!
  Met.                How do you mean, then?
  Peis.  We’re carrying into effect a resolution,        370
Adopted lately, to discard and cudgel
Coxcombs and mountebanks of every kind.
  Met.  Perhaps, then, I had best withdraw.
  Peis.                        Why, yes, perhaps;
But yet, I would not answer for it neither;
Perhaps you may be too late; the blows I mentioned        375
Are coming—close upon you. There they come!
  Met.  Oh, bless me!
  Peis.        Did not I tell you, and give you warning?
Get out, you coxcomb! find out by your geometry
The road you came, and measure it back. You’d best.  (Exit METON.)
 
Enter a COMMISSIONER from Athens.
  Com.  Is nobody here?—none of the proxeni, To receive and attend upon me?
  Peis.                    What’s all this?
        380
Sardanapalus in person come among us!
  Com.  I come, appointed as commissioner
To Nephelococcugia.
  Peis.            A commissioner!
What brings you here?
  Com.                A paltry scrap of paper,
A trifling, silly decree, that sent me away        385
Here to this place of yours.
  Peis.                Well, now, suppose,
To make things easy on both sides, could not you
Just take your salary at once, and so return
Without any further trouble?
  Com.                    Truly, yes;
I’ve other affairs at home: a speech, and a motion,        390
That I meant to have made in the general Assembly,
About a business that I took in hand
On the part of my friend Pharnaces, the satrap.
  Peis.  Agreed, then, and farewell. Here, take your salary.
  Com.  What’s here?
  (PEISTHETAIRUS has held out his left hand, as if with an offer of money; he grasps the right hand of the COMMISSIONER, and with this advantage proceeds to buffet him.)
  Peis.            A motion on the part of Pharnaces!
        395
  Com.  Bear witness here! I’m beaten and abused
In my character of commissioner!  (Exit COMMISSIONER.)
  Peis.                    Get out,
With your balloting-box and all! It’s quite a shame,
Quite scandalous! They send commissioners here
Before we’ve finished our first sacrifice.        400
 
Enter HAWKER.
  Haw.  “Moreover, if a Nephelococcugian Should assault or smite an Athenian citizen—”
  Peis.  What’s this? What’s all this trumpery paper here?
  Haw.  I’ve brought you the new laws and ordinances,
And copies of the last decrees to sell.
  Peis.  Let’s hear ’em.
  Haw.                “It is enacted and ordained
        405
That the Nephelococcugians shall use
Such standard weights and measures—”
  Peis.                    Friend, you’ll find
Hard measure here, and a heavy weight, I promise you.
Upon your shoulders shortly.
  Haw.                What’s the matter?
What’s come to you?
  Peis.            Get out with your decrees!
        410
I’ve bloody decrees against you, dire decrees.  (Drives him off.)
  Com.  (returning).  I summon Peisthetairus to his answer
In an action of assault and battery,
For the first day of the month Munichion.
  Peis.  Ha, say you so? You’re there again! Have at you.  (Drives him off.)        415
  Haw.  (returning).  “And in case of any assault or violence
Against the person of the magistrate—”
  Peis.  Bless me! What, you! You’re there again?  (Drives him off.)
  Com.  (returning again).            I’ll ruin you;
I’ll lay my damages at ten thousand drachmas.
  Peis.  In the meantime I’ll smash your balloting-boxes.        420
  Com.  Remember how you effaced the public monument
On the pillar, and defiled it late last night.
  Peis.  Pah! Stuff! There, seize him, somebody! What, you’re off too?
Come, let’s remove, and get away from hence,
And sacrifice our goat to the gods within doors.        425
 
 
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