Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Hercules and Atlas
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illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes

HERCULES -- Father Atlas, Jove's compliments, and incase you should be weary of your burden, I was to relieve you for a few hours, as I did I don't know how many centuries ago, so that you may take breath, and rest a little.

ATLAS -- Thanks, dear Hercules, and I am very much obliged to Jove. But the world has become so light, that this cloak which I wear as a protection against the snow, incommodes me more. Indeed, were it not Jove's will that I should continue to stand here, supporting this ball on my back, I would put it under my arm, or in my pocket, or suspend it from a hair of my beard, and go about my own affairs.

HERCULES -- How has it become so light? I can easily see it has changed shape, and has become a sort of roll, instead of being round as when I studied cosmography in preparation for that wonderful voyage with the Argonauts. But still I cannot see why its weight should have diminished.

ATLAS -- I am as ignorant of the reason as you are. But take the thing for a moment in your hand, and satisfy yourself of the truth of my assertion.

HERCULES -- Upon my word, without this test, I would not have believed it. But what is this other novelty that I discover? The last time I bore it, I felt a strong pulsation on my back, like the beat of an animal's heart; and I heard a continuous buzzing like a wasp's nest. But now, it throbs more like a watch with a broken spring, and as for the buzzing, I don't hear a sound of it.

ATLAS -- I know nothing of this either, except that long ago, the world ceased making any motion, or sensible noise. I even had very great suspicions that it was dead, and expecting daily to be troubled by its corruption, I considered how and where I should bury it, and what epitaph I should place on its tomb. But when I saw that it did not decompose, I came to the conclusion that it had changed from an animal into a plant, like Daphne and others; and this explained its silence and immobility. I began to fear lest it should soon wind its roots round my shoulders, or bury them in my body.

HERCULES -- I am rather inclined to think it is asleep, and that its repose is like that of Epimenides (1), which lasted more than half a century. Or perhaps it is like Hermotimus (2), whose soul used to leave his body when it pleased, and stay away many years, disporting itself in foreign lands. To put an end to this game, the friends 'of Hermotimus burned the body; so that the spirit returning, found its home destroyed, and was obliged to seek shelter in another body, or an inn. So, to prevent the world from sleeping for ever, or lest some friend, thinking it were dead, should set it on fire, let us try to arouse it.

ATLAS -- I am willing. But how shall we do it? Hercules. I would give it a good blow with this club, if I were not afraid of smashing it, and were I not sure that it would crack under the stroke like an egg. Besides, I fear lest the men, who in my time used to wrestle with lions, but are now only a match for fleas, should faint from so sudden a shock. Suppose I lay aside my club, and you your cloak, and we have a game at ball with the poor little sphere. I wish I had brought the rackets that Mercury and I use in the celestial courts, but we can do without them.

ATLAS -- A likely thing indeed! So that your father seeing our game, may make a third, and with his thunderbolt precipitate us both I do not know where, as he did Phaeton into the Po! Hercules. That might be, if, like Phaeton, I were the son of a poet, and not his own son; and if there were not this difference between us, that whereas poets formerly peopled cities by the melody of their art, I could depopulate heaven and earth by the power of my club. And as for Jove's bolt, I would kick it hence to the farthest quarter of the empyrean. Be assured that even if I wished to appropriate five or six stars for the sake of a game, or to make a sling of a comet, taking it by the tail, or even to play at ball with the sun, my father would make no objection. Besides, our intention is to do good to the world, whereas Phaeton simply wished to show off his fleetness before the Hours, who held the steps for him when he mounted his chariot. He also wanted to gain reputation as a skilful coachman, in the eyes of Andromeda, Callisto, and the other beautiful constellations, to whom, it is said, he threw, in passing, lustre bonbons, and comfits of light; and to make a fine parade of himself before the celestial gods during his journey that day, which chanced to be a festival. In short, don't give a thought to the possibility of my father's wrath. In any case, I will bear all the blame; so throw off your cloak, and send me the ball.

ATLAS -- Willingly or not, I must do as you wish; since you are strong and armed, whereas I am old and defenceless. But do take care lest it fall, in which case it will have fresh swellings, or some new fracture, like that which separated Sicily from Italy, and Africa from Spain. And if it should get chipped in any way, there, might be a war about what men would call the detachment of a province or kingdom, Hercules. Eely on me.

ATLAS -- Then here goes. See how it quivers on account of its altered shape! Hercules. Hit a little harder; your strokes scarcely reach me.

ATLAS -- It is the fault of the ball. The south-west wind catches it, because of its lightness.

HERCULES -- It is its old failing to go with the wind.

ATLAS -- Suppose we were to inflate the ball, since it has no more notion of a bounce than a melon.

HERCULES -- A new shortcoming! Formerly it used to leap and dance like a young goat.

ATLAS -- Look out! Run quickly after that. For Jove's sake, take care lest it fall! Alas! it was an evil hour when you came here.

HERCULES -- You sent me such a bad stroke that I could not possibly have caught it in time, even at the risk of breaking my neck. Alas, poor little one!... How are you? Do you feel bad anywhere? I don't hear a sigh, nor does a soul move. They are all still asleep.

ATLAS -- Give it back to me, by all the horns of the Styx, and let me settle it again on my shoulders. And you, take your club, and hasten to heaven to excuse me with Jove for this accident, which is entirely owing to you.

HERCULES -- I will do so. For many centuries there has been in my father's house a certain poet, named Horace. He was made court poet at the suggestion of Augustus, who has been deified by Jove for his augmentation of the Eoman power. In one of his songs, this poet says that the just man would stir not, though the world fell. Since the world has now fallen, and no one has moved, it follows that all men are just.

ATLAS -- Who doubts the justice of men? But do not lose time; run and exculpate me with your father, else I shall momentarily expect a thunderbolt to transform me from Atlas into Etna.


(1) See Pliny, Diogenes Laertius, Apollonius, Varro, &c.

(2) See Apollonius, Pliny, Tertullian, &c.

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