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ATALANTA

Perhaps you may have heard of a swift maid,
who ran much faster than swift-footed men
contesting in the race. What they have told
is not an idle tale.—She did excel
them all—and you could not have said
whether her swift speed or her beauty was
more worthy of your praise. When this maid once
consulted with an oracle, of her
fate after marriage, the god answered her:
“You, Atalanta, never will have need
of husband, who will only be your harm.
For your best good you should avoid the tie;
but surely you will not avoid your harm;
and while yet living you will lose yourself.”

She was so frightened by the oracle,
she lived unwedded in far shaded woods;
and with harsh terms repulsed insistent throngs
of suitors. “I will not be won,” she said,
“Till I am conquered first in speed. Contest
the race with me. A wife and couch shall both
be given to reward the swift, but death
must recompense the one who lags behind.
This must be the condition of a race.”
Indeed she was that pitiless, but such
the power of beauty, a rash multitude
agreed to her harsh terms.

Hippomenes
had come, a stranger, to the cruel race,
with condemnation in his heart against
the racing young men for their headstrong love;
and said, “Why seek a wife at such a risk?”
But when he saw her face, and perfect form
disrobed for perfect running, such a form
as mine, Adonis, or as yours—if you
were woman—he was so astonished he
raised up his hands and said, “Oh pardon me
brave men whom I was blaming, I could not
then realize the value of the prize
you strove for.” And as he is praising her,
his own heart leaping with love's fire, he hopes
no young man may outstrip her in the race;
and, full of envy, fears for the result.

“But why,” he cries, “is my chance in the race
untried? Divinity helps those who dare.”
But while the hero weighed it in his mind
the virgin flew as if her feet had wings.
Although she seemed to him in flight as swift
as any Scythian arrow, he admired
her beauty more; and her swift speed appeared
in her most beautiful. The breeze bore back
the streamers on her flying ankles, while
her hair was tossed back over her white shoulders;
the bright trimmed ribbons at her knees were fluttering,
and over her white girlish body came
a pink flush, just as when a purple awning
across a marble hall gives it a wealth
of borrowed hues. And while Hippomenes
in wonder gazed at her, the goal was reached;
and Atalanta crowned victorious
with festal wreath.—But all the vanquished youths
paid the death-penalty with sighs and groans,
according to the stipulated bond.

Not frightened by the fate of those young men,
he stood up boldly in the midst of all;
and fixing his strong eyes upon the maiden, said:
“Where is the glory in an easy victory
over such weaklings? Try your fate with me!
If fortune fail to favor you, how could
it shame you to be conquered by a man?
Megareus of Onchestus is my father,
his grandsire, Neptune, god of all the seas.
I am descendant of the King of Waves:
and add to this, my name for manly worth
has not disgraced the fame of my descent.
If you should prove victorious against
this combination, you will have achieved
a great enduring name—the only one
who ever bested great Hippomenes.”

While he was speaking, Atalanta's gaze
grew softer, in her vacillating hopes
to conquer and be conquered; till at last,
her heart, unbalanced, argued in this way:

“It must be some god envious of youth,
wishing to spoil this one prompts him to seek
wedlock with me and risk his own dear life.
I am not worth the price, if I may judge.
His beauty does not touch me—but I could
be moved by it—I must consider he
is but a boy. It is not he himself
who moves me, but his youth. Sufficient cause
for thought are his great courage and his soul
fearless of death. What of his high descent;—
great grandson of the King of all the seas?
What of his love for me that has such great
importance, he would perish if his fate
denied my marriage to him? O strange boy,
go from me while you can; abandon hope
of this alliance stained with blood—A match
with me is fatal. Other maids will not
refuse to wed you, and a wiser girl
will gladly seek your love.—But what concern
is it of mine, when I but think of those
who have already perished! Let him look
to it himself; and let him die. Since he
is not warned by his knowledge of the fate
of many other suitors, he declares
quite plainly, he is weary of his life.—

“Shall he then die, because it must be his
one hope to live with me? And suffer death
though undeserved, for me because he loves?
My victory will not ward off the hate,
the odium of the deed! But it is not
a fault of mine.—Oh fond, fond man, I would
that you had never seen me! But you are
so madly set upon it, I could wish
you may prove much the swifter! Oh how dear
how lovable is his young girlish face!—
ah, doomed Hippomenes, I only wish
mischance had never let you see me! You
are truly worthy of a life on earth.
If I had been more fortunate, and not
denied a happy marriage day; I would
not share my bed with any man but you.”

All this the virgin Atalanta said;
and knowing nothing of the power of love,
she is so ignorant of what she does,
she loves and does not know she is in love.

Meanwhile her father and the people, all
loudly demanded the accustomed race.
A suppliant, the young Hippomenes
invoked me with his anxious voice, “I pray
to you, O Venus, Queen of Love, be near
and help my daring—smile upon the love
you have inspired!” The breeze, not envious,
wafted this prayer to me; and I confess,
it was so tender it did move my heart—
I had but little time to give him aid.

There is a field there which the natives call
the Field Tamasus—the most prized of all
the fertile lands of Cyprus. This rich field,
in ancient days, was set apart for me,
by chosen elders who decreed it should
enrich my temples yearly. In this field
there grows a tree, with gleaming golden leaves,
and all its branches crackle with bright gold.
Since I was coming from there, by some chance,
I had three golden apples in my hand,
which I had plucked. With them I planned to aid
Hippomenes. While quite invisible
to all but him, I taught him how to use
those golden apples for his benefit.

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    • E. T. Merrill, Commentary on Catullus, 2
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