A Poem Inspired by the Classics
“Perhaps, one day, it will help to remember even these things. Endure, and save yourselves for better times.” Of all the lines of the Aeneid I translated as a high-school Latin student, I did not expect these two from Aeneas’ second speech to resonate with me so strongly. To this day, I recite these two lines in the original Latin to myself as I face the challenges in my life. “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis.” It is so awe-inspiring how these words and their context in a speech from an ancient piece can not only acknowledge painful pasts, but also reframe harrowing experiences as motivation to persevere in the present: people who can triumph over past challenges can still overcome their obstacles today. This is what inspires me to study the Classics: I see a potential for healing and self-betterment from the lessons we adopt from the ancient world.
Just as Aeneas reflects on his journey in the Aeneid, I had a chance to reflect on my own journey, the path that lead me here today. I found that as I progress further in my study of the Classics today, I am starting to understand the themes of other ancient epics more deeply than I could before. I started to see challenges we face in the modern world through the same lens I view scenes in the Iliad and Odyssey. I learned to expand my perspective beyond individual words on a page. I realized that the epic heroes’ struggles portrayed through ancient texts could be analogies to our struggles today. I see Classical epics as sources of specific metaphors describing broader, possibly undefinable concepts in our lives.
I thought about how my identity shaped my experiences in the past, and how my past struggles shaped who I am today. I empathize with those who are left out because they are “different” and seen as “outsiders.” I empathize with those who question whether or not they belong because they could be “alone” in what they do. I empathize with those who face hostility because of their circumstances and because of who they are. I realize from my own experience that working through these challenges can be a chaotic, grueling struggle, like the battles in the Iliad. Furthermore, the path to progress very often comes with its own perils, much like the dangerous foes and obstacles in the Odyssey.
I, like Aeneas, believe in acknowledging the challenges of the past as triumphs to celebrate in the present and future. I am glad I have gotten to a point in my life where I can look back at my past struggles as accomplishments to celebrate. I have always been inspired by this mentality: I feel more confident that if we have gotten this far in our journey, we can go even further and take on the challenges in our paths. I find solace in the Classics, and I am grateful for the motivation and chance to express what I find so powerful about the field. I hope that my poem, inspired by Classical epic poetry, brings the same sense of hope and empowerment that inspired me to write it.
Sing in us, Muse –not just yet: let us sing to you, first! –
Of our tale: who we were, who we are, and who we will be
As we wander this ever-changing maze of paths
In this vast field not-so trodden by feet like ours.
Yes, Muse, let us sing to you our epic story,
Our journey laden with the highest highs, the lowest lows
Of our struggles, of our obstacles and setbacks
And of our hard-earned victories and successes
That lead us to where we stand today: here.
We have endured clashes with those who wish us ill.
We heard their insults, their taunts, all their attempts
To scoff at our viewpoints, to make us feel “less-than,”
To keep our presence unseen, our stories unheard, ourselves unknown.
Each blow soaring like sharp spears, flying like feathered arrows
That rain upon our ships as we disembark for home,
Dry land, a relief from these stormy waters,
A place where our wounds and minds may finally heal.
Yes, for so long we have been adrift at sea,
Some of us clinging to rafts alone, others holding on together
On battered ships that have withstood great rocks
Hurled by hateful Cyclopes, giants whose cruel hands
We hardly escaped, like the Clashing Rocks we barely slipped past.
Between Scylla and Charybdis we sailed, enduring more and more.
But we emerged from the ordeal to carry on our journey.
We have seen grim Hades and its tormented souls within.
Sisyphus – poor Sisyphus! – forever pushing his stone
To the peak, only for it to tumble back down again,
Undoing his progress, his work done in vain,
Forced to start over in his toils, his stone heavy as ever.
We pushed the burden with him, fighting the downward pull
Of our battles, of the mental doubt inflicted there:
Do we really belong here? Can we really do this?
Memories, thoughts that circle and spin through our minds,
Like Ixion, bound his wheel, in the distance.
We have gotten so close to home, its bright shores in sight!
But the shock – the shock! – of seeing it vanish before our eyes
As the winds turned against us and blew us back
Great distances to harsh memories, to the painful past
Of not belonging. Back to the swift rocks at sea,
Back to Sisyphus’ stone in Hades, rolling back down,
Our labors and progress undone, with what we so desire –
what we worked so hard toward– just out of reach,
Like the fruit and water in front of Tantalus, so starved and parched,
With sustenance – sweet relief! – so close to his fingertips!
But no, Muse: we will not give up on our journey – never!
While we keep our past struggles in mind for the present,
We will always remember the kindness of others
Whose shores we washed up on. Strangers who welcomed us
With hospitality, strangers who treat us like guest-friends.
Let us remember those who tread this road before us,
Those who persevered in the past, those who inspire us
To carry on in our journey today. Let us then inspire
Those yet to come, those who march in the Underworld
On their epic journeys in the same field we trod today.
Even as we recount our ordeals and carry the pain in our hearts,
We know that perhaps even these things will help us one day
And give us the strength to carry on: we endured tough times then,
And will do the same with our struggles today.
Let us endure, now, and there will be better times ahead.
This, Muse, is what we strive for! Let this story be known:
We, who have faced great challenges in the past,
Endured harm from others, fought our doubts and burdens,
Gotten so close to home before suffering setbacks,
Will continue to stand tall in our journey.
We will not stop trying to find our place in this field
Vast enough for all to explore and discover new roads
Yet to be travelled, this field rich enough to contribute
To our collective understanding of this wide world.
We have sung to you, Muse, of our epic story,
Of what we experienced, of who and where we are today,
And of what we bring to this field big enough for all of us.
Surely, Muse, there are others who have their epic stories to tell,
Stories that are not so different from our epic journey here.
May our song resonate with you and with the others as well.
And let everyone know our words, Muse: you are never alone.