The Owl

By Giovanni Pascoli, from La Civetta in Poemi Conviviali.

Translated from the Italian by James Ackhurst and Elena Borelli.



‘You grim skulls, nothing but voices,

your backs mottled as a water-snake’s –

get outta here!’ the prison guard roared.

It was a rough place, semi-deserted,

though in the middle of holy Athens,

with its ramshackle shacks crowding the bottom

of the gray cliffs, stippled with amber

and brushed with green, here and there,

where thyme flourished, or feverfew.

The sun shone over the blue mountains,

darkened every now and again

by a crowd of swifts that circled the Rock,

circled the powerful Goddess of bronze,

making a racket. And down on the ground

another crowd was running about,

a crowd of kids, and they were making

a racket too. But then a door

opened, to the House of the Eleven, and the guard

began to speak from the dark threshold.

‘You guys still on holiday, are you?

The sacred ship got back from Delos

yesterday, and the festival

is finished. The time for catching beetles

in a net, or playing hide and seek

 is over!’ A short way off the crowd

of kids dragged their feet, silent.

Then they shouted, ‘Hey! What

do you mean “beetles,” “flies”? It’s an owl!’

It was in fact a tousled owl

that the biggest boy had on his fist –

young Gryllus (son of the shield-maker).

But it was actually the smallest boy –

Hyllus, the son of the vase-maker –

who’d caught the owl, a short time before,

in a crevice in the blue mountains.

In a crevice in a grey cliff,

underneath a clinging bush,

Hyllus saw two round gold coins,

that then disappeared; then he saw them again,

two bird’s eyes gleaming in the shadows.

An owl of the Goddess of Athens

was staring fixedly at little Hyllus –

who suddenly reached out his little hands

and grabbed the bird by its wings and held it.

Then Coccalus came along and stole it;

and Cottalus took it from Coccalus;

then Gryllus won it off Cottalus.

Cottalus cried, Coccalus smiled,

a little Hyllus went around whimpering

following Gryllus, the biggest boy.

So there he was with the owl on a string,

hopping and hovering in the summer sun.

Out of the slums more children came:

the children of immigrants, or Scythian archers.

In the midst of it all, the captive owl

drowsily blinked its big round eyes,

eyes designed for the sacred night.

The children shouted, ‘Dance or die!’

Meanwhile in the prison there was

a snub-nosed rustic Pan, an even-

tempered Silenus, with a wily mug

and eyes as big and wide as a bull’s.

He was speaking softly, and at his feet

was a beautiful young lad with flowing locks.

And others too, all listening.

Each one of them, deep inside

was a little boy afraid of the dark;

so the goodly Silenus was telling them a story.

‘You can’t see what I am,’ he was saying;

‘I’m the part of me that can’t be seen,

the invisible part. The body may falter

as if I was drunk, but that’s not me;

the part you can look at, that can be seen,

is what falters: the part that never stays

the same, that dies. What I really am

is a soul, which will live on, of its own power,

far from the world, in the sacred dark

of the senses. And if it gets free for ever

in the undying night, where it finds itself

with everything else that never falters,

will it ever die? Or will its eyes be opened?’

‘Its eyes will be opened,’ someone said;

and he replied, ‘It will not die.’

Then there was silence. Snub-nosed Pan

was like an old musician, alone with his thoughts,

invisible. The beautiful youth

was lying with his head back, with his long hair

pouring down through the air away from his neck;

he was drinking in the sound of his master’s words.

Then the shrill sound of voices came in through the window:

‘Dance or die! Dance or die!’

The guard shooed them away, made the noisy

kids scatter into the sunshine,

out of the shadow of the holy rock.

But that only made the owl light up

on Gryllus’ wrist, made him ruffle his feathers,

blink his big eyes open and closed –

and the boys all laughed, louder than ever.

So the guard called out, ‘Gryllus, Gryllus’

son, you’re the oldest: lead by example.

You know that bird is sacred to Our Lady,

to whom you sing the hymn, processing pure,

naked alongside your naked peers,

through our holy city. There is nothing Our Lady

does not see, for her eyes are grey,

so she sees through the darkness of the night.’

‘But she’s not seeing anything,’ Hyllus butt in,

‘she’s shut her eyes tight to the blazing sun!’

‘Enough from you, cuckoo. But Gryllus, you’re

not just a kid now. I know your father;

a good shield-maker and a good man.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

See if you can quieten these twittering swallows.

There’s a man in here who’s about to die!’

‘Who is it? This evening?’ ‘When the sun goes down.’

‘But why?’ ‘The ship is coming back from Delos.

He had a dream, of a woman in white

who told him, man, on the third day

you’ll go down below the ground.

He’ll drink hemlock by the end of the night.

In a little while. Let him die in peace.’

But once the murmuring inside

had stopped, one of the lads piped up,

‘Hey Hyllus, climb up on my shoulders,

and say what you can see inside!’

So Hyllus climbed up on his shoulders

and peered into the prison. ‘I see...’

‘What can you see?’ ‘A nice old Pan.’

‘What’s he saying?’ ‘That he’ll get away;

that the dead person won’t be him;

that they’ll be burying someone else.’

Meanwhile the sun was removing its rays

from the white temples of holy Athens.

Only the tip of the spear still shone

that the great bronze Athena held in her hand.

It shone for a moment, and then went out;

and the sun went down behind the mountain.

‘Hey Hyllus, what can you see?’

‘He’s drinking...’ ‘The hemlock!’ ‘The others are crying;

one of them’s covering his head with his tunic;

another one’s wailing.’ ‘And what’s he saying?’

‘He’s saying to keep silence, like in front of an altar

when they scatter barley seed, or salt.’

And then, deep silence, in which you heard

him pacing back and forth; and then

even the pacing came to an end.

‘Hyllus, what can you see?’ ‘He’s on

the bed; somebody’s holding his feet... 

they’re covering him with a sheet. He’s dying.’

‘So he’s not coming out?’ ‘He’s uncovered his face!

He’s saying: “A cock to the god of healing!”’

‘What? Is hemlock a medicine?’

‘Someone’s closing his eyes and mouth.’

‘So he’s not leaving – he’s still inside.’

‘Yes, he’s still inside. He’s dead.’

The young lads went on whispering

in the shadow of the Rock, in the blinding darkness.

the door opened. An old man came out

whimpering, and then a younger man,

and many others besides, all of them crying.

With a sudden tug, the cord slid

through Gryllus’ fingers as he stood there wondering:

and the sacred guardian of the night

lifted itself silently through the dark.

The friends of the one who had passed away,

the little kids standing there marvelling –

they all heard its sudden cry

a hoot from above the roof, kikkabau!

from over the holy Rock, kikkabau!

from higher and higher and higher still,

where the stars burn bright in the heavenly blue.

Then someone said, in answer to

the owl, ‘Go well, my friend – go well.’

Read more of James Ackhurst’s poems in Pericles at Play

In Greece 




Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Le hibou gris
Signed and dated ‘Picasso 9.2.53.’
Painted earthenware