Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetic rendition of Martial’s epigrams on Erotion

Tonbridge - post-mortem photograph
Tonbridge – post-mortem photograph

In a previous post, I presented the three epigrams by the Latin poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis) devoted to Erotion, a little slave girl who died six days before her sixth birthday, and whom he loved tenderly.

The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) is famous for his novels, such as Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but also for his travel books. He wrote some poetry, part of which was published posthumously. In particular, he adapted the three epigrams by Martial into poems, of which he kept the manuscripts; they were published more than twenty years after his death.

In New Poems, and Variant Readings (1918) (available on Wikisource and Gutenberg), on page 132 the poem “Epitaphium Erotii” is based on Martial’s Epigram 10.61:

EPITAPHIUM EROTII

Here lies Erotion, whom at six years old
Fate pilfered. Stranger (when I too am cold,
Who shall succeed me in my rural field),
To this small spirit annual honours yield!
Bright be thy hearth, hale be thy babes, I crave
And this, in thy green farm, the only grave.

Then on page 141, the poem “De Erotio Puella” adapts Martial’s Epigram 5.37:

DE EROTIO PUELLA

This girl was sweeter than the song of swans,
And daintier than the lamb upon the lawns
Or Curine oyster. She, the flower of girls,
Outshone the light of Erythræan pearls;
The teeth of India that with polish glow,
The untouched lilies or the morning snow.
Her tresses did gold-dust outshine
And fair hair of women of the Rhine.
Compared to her the peacock seemed not fair,
The squirrel lively, or the phœnix rare;
Her on whose pyre the smoke still hovering waits;
Her whom the greedy and unequal fates
On the sixth dawning of her natal day,
My child-love and my playmate—snatcht away.

Poems, hitherto unpublished (1921) (available on Wikisource) contains the poem “Here lies Erotion” dated 1884, which corresponds to Martial’s Epigram 5.34

HERE LIES EROTION

Mother and sire, to you do I commend
Tiny Erotion, who must now descend,
A child, among the shadows, and appear
Before hell’s bandog and hell’s gondolier.
Of six hoar winters she had felt the cold,
But lacked six days of being six years old.
Now she must come, all playful, to that place
Where the great ancients sit with reverend face;
Now lisping, as she used, of whence she came,
Perchance she names and stumbles at my name.
O’er these so fragile bones, let there be laid
A plaything for a turf; and for that maid
That ran so lightly footed in her mirth
Upon thy breast—lie lightly, mother earth!

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