Heroic Sonnets by José-Maria de Heredia


The temple is in ruin on the promontory.
And Death has mingled, in the sallow dust,
Goddesses in marble, Heroes in bronze,
in the desolate grass, that shroud, their glory.

This oxherd walks his animals to water,
out of his conch, old tune, sighing, filling
the quiet sky, out to the sea’s horizon,
against the blue infinite, his dark figure.

The Earth, dear mother to the ancient Gods,
in the spring, with a vain eloquence, greens
that cracked capital with a living leaf;

but we, indifferent to our forebears’ dreams,
listen without a shiver, in the night’s deeps,
to the Ocean mourning, in tears, the Sirens.


Since the Tamer has gone into the timber,
following in the mud the awful tracks,
only that roar betrays their red embrace.
Silence. The sun is overcome and fades.

Across the thicket, the thorns, the fallow,
the frightened shepherd flying toward Tiryns
turns and, eyes wide with dread, looks up:
looming in the wildwood, the beast at bay.

Screaming. He sees the terror of Nemea,
in the blood spatter sky, open its jaws,
and its disheveled mane, and its foul fangs;

the shadow growing with the dusk is making,
under the horrible skin floating around
Hercules, man and animal, a monster a hero.


And everywhere, in thousands, the cranes
along the mudbank the Hero walks down,
take wing, and scatter, like a sudden gust
over the somber waters as they plash.

Others, lower, crisscrossing in a black
net skim him, kissed by the lips of Omphale,
and, fitting the winning arrow to the string,
the splendid Archer steps into the reeds.

Out of the startled cloud, which he pierces,
comes crying, shrilling, this terrible rain
the killing lightning cuts with pricks of fire.

At last the Sun catches, behind the mist,
in which his bow’s made bright holes, Hercules,
in blood, all smiles, under the big blue sky.


In the days I was living like my brothers,
like them ignorant of better and worse,
in the Thessalian hills, my vague empire,
whose icy torrents washed my sorrel coat,

and growing, fine, frisking, under the sun,
only, tingeing the air, and in my nostrils,
the scent, in heat, of the mares of Epirus,
ever unsettled my cantering or my sleep.

But since I saw the Bride, the prize, smiling
in the arms of the Archer of Stymphalus,
desire harasses me, and it bristles my hair,

because a God, I curse his name, has mingled
in my blood, like a fever, down in my loins,
with the stallion’s rut, love, commanding man.

His Mate

Once, in the groves, in the creek bottoms,
the drove of Centaurs, countless, strayed,
on their flanks, sun playing with shadow,
dark, fair, their manes mingling with ours.

The summer grasses bloom in vain, and we
trample alone. The lair is empty, in brambles;
and in the night, hot, somber, I shudder at
the neighing, in the distance, of the stallions.

Because our breed is day by day diminishing,
who are the wonderful offspring of the Cloud,
as they forsake us and madly follow Woman.

Their love has lowered us down to the beast;
the whine they tear out of us is whinnying,
and in our arms, all they desire’s the mare.


The horde hurls itself into the wedding feast,
Centaurs and warriors, drunk, crazy, fine,
and the heroic flesh, by the light of torches,
is rubbed by the hot hides of the cloud-born.

Laughs, hurly-burly…a scream: the Bride,
defiled, on a dark breast, in her violet rags,
is writhing, bronze rings to shock of hooves,
and the table’s upended in the whooping.

Now he for whom the tallest is a pygmy,
gets up. On his skull, the skin of a lion
wrinkles, in bristles of gold. It’s Hercules.

From one end of the big room to the other,
cowed by the terrible eye, the rage inside,
the herd of monsters, snorting at him, recoils.


They bolt, high on murder and rebellion,
into the sharp mountains, in their retreat,
rushing in terror, feeling death is near,
in the night catching a whiff of the lion.

They jump, trampling the snake, lizard,
cut banks, brakes, nothing stops them,
and in the sky, rising, away, the crests
of Ossa, of Olympus, and black Pelion.

At times, a runaway from the red herd
rears suddenly, and wheels, and looks,
and in one bound rejoins his brothers,

because he’s seen the moon, dazzling, full,
throwing behind him, supreme, appalling,
that long horror, the shadow of Hercules.

The Birth of Aphrodite

In the beginning, Chaos wrapped the worlds
where Time and Space rolled without limit,
until the Earth indulged her sons, the Titans,
and gave them suck at her abundant breasts.

They pitched; the Styx covered the waves.
And never, after, in the dark lightning air,
did Spring let out the splendor of the sun,
nor generous Summer ripen the pale corn.

Sullen, and ignorant of all lark or laughter,
the Immortals assemble on snowy Olympus.
But out of heaven come the seminal drops,

and the Ocean slips open, and naked, radiant,
now, and rising out of the foam’s embrace
and the Sky’s blood, she blossoms: Aphrodite.

Jason and Medea

In peace, enchanted, under the canopy
of the forest, in the cradle of old fears,
morning, that marvel, alive with tears,
flourishes, round them, rich and strange.

In the air, magic, and perfume or poison,
her word sowing the power of her charms,
and the Hero following, in his true arms,
the lightning, shaking: the golden Fleece.

Lighting the woods, a flight of bijoux,
birds, crossing under the flowering arch,
as into silver lakes the sky’s blue rains.

Now Love is smiling, but the fatal Spouse
is carrying the furies: her jealousy, her
Asian potions, her father, and her Gods.

The Thermodon

Toward Themiscyra on fire, all day trembling
with the clamor and the shock of cavalry,
in shadow, mournful, slow, the Thermodon
carries the dead, arms, armor, as it rolls.

Where are the Amazons, against Hercules,
who followed Hippolyta and burning Asteria,
and led the queen’s squadron to the slaughter?
All their bodies, scattered, sallow, lie there.

What a flowering of tall lilies cut down;
on either bank, the warriors are strewn,
and a stray horse wallows and whinnies.

By the Black Sea, at daybreak, on its far shores,
and by the river stained from source to mouth,
white stallions run, red with the blood of Virgins.


That acrid odor, the woods, all around you,
Huntress, you breathe into your open lungs,
and in your virginal, your virile power,
and whipping your hair backward, you go!

You let the leopards bellow till they’re hoarse,
till night, resounding in the isle, Ortygia,
and you dance across the out of breath orgy,
and the hounds gutted in the bare red grass.

And more, it pleases you, Goddess, when thorns
catch you, and when fangs, when claws sink into
your glorious arm, and which your steel avenges;

oh your heart has a taste for that sweet cruelty,
of mingling, in your games, immortal purple
with the black blood of the monsters you slay.

The Hunt

The chariot of the Sun, white stallions
at gallop, climbs up heaven, hot breath
and the daedal plains under, undulating,
in the immense flames of their flanks.

The trees hold up in vain a veil of leaves;
the light, through the uncertain canopy,
into shadow, the waters, whose laughter
is silver, slips, and is in play, scintillant.

It’s the hour of fire: through the thorns,
long grass, dancing, mastiffs, arrogant,
in all that tumult, death, blood, baying,

and letting go arrows from her taut bow,
her hair loose, out of breath, bewildered,
invincible, Artemis electrifies the woods.

The Nymph

The celestial surrey is at the horizon,
and as the western sands fly under him,
the God in vain is reining in the four
stallions rearing in incandescent gold.

The Sun plunges. The ocean, with a loud
sigh, fills the hollow sky, still violet,
and clear, in the blue black of the serene
Night, in silence, the Crescent silvers.

It’s the hour when the Nymph, by the fresh
springs, downs her bow and empty quiver.
All’s mute. A stag is belling by the water.

The indifferent Moon is lighting up the dark
dance, and, slacking or speeding the music,
Pan laughs to see his breath bending the reeds.


Across the brake, and down a disused trail
lost in the bottoms, in the green approaches,
the Goat God, hunter of the nymphs, nude,
steals, with a burning eye, in the high trees.

Oh sweet to hear, the sighs, the cool rumors
that come on at midday from mystery springs,
when the Sun, scintillant, vanquishes clouds,
and in the shifting dark, darts arrows of gold.

A Nymph, straying, stills, cocking her ear,
the tears of morning, falling drop by drop
on moss. Rapture fills up her early heart.

But with one jump, the God of the black grove
surges, and holds her down, brays out mocking
laughter, and disappears. . . The woods go silent.

The Swim

In a wild cut, shielded from the Black Sea,
and by a spring where a black laurel bends,
a Nymph, laughing, from a branch, dangles,
dipping her toes into the chill of the pool.

Her consorts, at the call of the conch, leap
into the tall waves, where pale flesh romps,
dives down; out of the foam comes a haunch,
bright curls, a torso, or the rose of a breast.

Divine frolic fills up the somber woods.
But two eyes suddenly light up in shadow.
The Satyr! His bark paralyzes their play,

and they surge up, as when a raven, sinister,
croaks: from the river comes, bewildered, white,
a flurry, a flight, of the swans of the Kaystros.


José-Maria de Heredia

José-Maria de Heredia was born in Cuba in 1842, but he moved to France when still a boy, and became a poet and man of letters in Paris. He was associated with a group of poets called the Parnassians, named after the poetry journal Le Parnasse contemporain. Inspired by the author Théophile Gautier, this school believed in art for art’s sake, and in reaction to the sentimentality and engagement of the Romantics, they swung back toward the Classic, with its ideals of formalism and detachment. Their leader was Leconte de Lisle, and at one time they counted Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine as members.

Heredia wrote few poems and published less, but they were much loved and were circulated in journals and in manuscript, until he collected and published them as Les Trophées. The book was well received: five thousand copies of the first edition sold on the first day and nearly two hundred reviews came out in the next few months, climaxing in the words of the English poet and critic Edmund Gosse, who, on Heredia’s election to the French Academy, called him “a craftsman who has not allowed himself to be hurried or disturbed by any pressure from without, who has not cared to move an inch from his path to please the many or the few, who has spent a lifetime in the pursuit of a splendid perfection, a faultless magnificence in concentrated and chiseled verse.” He is known in France as the single greatest master of the sonnet in the language.

Larry Beckett

Larry Beckett's poetry has been published in Zyzzyva, Field, Margie, Salamander, and the anthology Portland Lights from Nine Lights Press. His first book, Songs and Sonnets from Rainy Day Women Press, was favorably reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle. His study of the San Francisco renaissance, Beat Poetry, was published by Beatdom Books, and his book-length poem Paul Bunyan, published by Smokestack Books, has received positive reviews in Zyzzyva and elsewhere. He performed the poem at the UK’s Ledbury Poetry Festival. Beckett's Wyatt Earp, a novel in prose poetry, is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press. His work has been commended by Jack Hirschman, David Meltzer, Tom Clark, Ann Charters, David Young, and U.S. Poet Laureates W. S. Merwin and Charles Wright.

English translation copyright (c) Larry Beckett, 2017.