Living amber exacts its deadly toll
Greek legend tells us that Icarus created a pair of artificial wings and attached them to his body with wax. Then up he flew, but when he got too close to the sun its heat melted the wax, the wings fell off, and Icarus came crashing down, fatally chastised for his haughtiness in wanting to rival the gods of the heavens.
Back here on earth the sunflowers have flourished all over central Texas for three months, and as veteran readers of this column know, those flowers have kept inspiring me. But I’m not the only creature drawn to them. Perhaps attracted by the aroma of the resinous drops that sunflower plants exude, the two ants shown here, like Icarus, likewise ventured too close and perished, entombed near the surface of the wax-colored drop of resin.
Those of you so inclined may continue on to read a sonnet about Icarus by the French poet Philippe Desportes, who lived from 1546 to 1606. That was late enough that he might well have seen some of the European sunflowers cultivated from plants and seeds brought back from the New World. Following the French original I’ve added a straightforward (as opposed to poetic) English translation.
* * *
Icare est chu ici, le jeune audacieux,
Qui pour voler au Ciel eut assez de courage :
Ici tomba son corps dégarni de plumage,
Laissant tous braves coeurs de sa chute envieux.
Ô bienheureux travail d’un esprit glorieux,
Qui tire un si grand gain d’un si petit dommage !
Ô bienheureux malheur, plein de tant d’avantage
Qu’il rende le vaincu des ans victorieux !
Un chemin si nouveau n’étonna sa jeunesse,
Le pouvoir lui faillit, mais non la hardiesse ;
Il eut, pour le brûler, des astres le plus beau.
Il mourut poursuivant une haute aventure,
Le ciel fut son désir, la mer sa sépulture :
Est-il plus beau dessein, ou plus riche tombeau ?
* * *
Icarus fell here, the daring young man,
Who had courage enough to fly to Heaven;
Here fell his body bereft of plumage,
Leaving all brave hearts envious of his fall.
O blessed work of a glorious spirit,
That draws such a great profit from so little a loss!
O blessed misfortune, full of so much advantage
That it may render the vanquished victorious over the years!
So new a path didn’t daunt his youth;
He lacked the power, but not the daring.
He had the most beautiful of stars to burn him.
He died pursuing a high adventure;
The sky was his desired goal, the sea his sepulcher:
Is there a lovelier purpose, or a richer tomb?
© 1573 Philippe Desportes
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman