Aeneid Book 5, lines 833 - 861 and 867-871

Palinurus the helmsman is lost

by Virgil

By agreement among the Gods, the price of a safe onward journey from Sicily for Aeneas and his newly-streamlined, élite band of brothers is the life of his legendarily skilled navigator and helmsman, Palinurus. Only a God, Sleep, is strong enough to force him from his duty and throw him overboard to his death. He will become the archetype of the mariner lost at sea and left without a tomb, an idea which maintains a powerful hold on the imagination of European writers to the present day.

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princeps ante omnis densum Palinurus agebat
agmen; ad hunc alii cursum contendere iussi.
iamque fere mediam caeli Nox umida metam
contigerat, placida laxabant membra quiete
sub remis fusi per dura sedilia nautae,
cum levis aetheriis delapsus Somnus ab astris
aera dimovit tenebrosum et dispulit umbras,
te, Palinure, petens, tibi somnia tristia portans
insonti; puppique deus consedit in alta
Phorbanti similis funditque has ore loquelas:
‘Iaside Palinure, ferunt ipsa aequora classem,
aequatae spirant aurae, datur hora quieti.
pone caput fessosque oculos furare labori.
ipse ego paulisper pro te tua munera inibo.’
cui vix attollens Palinurus lumina fatur:
‘mene salis placidi vultum fluctusque quietos
ignorare iubes? mene huic confidere monstro?
Aenean credam (quid enim?) fallacibus auris
et caeli totiens deceptus fraude sereni?’
talia dicta dabat, clavumque adfixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
ecce deus ramum Lethaeo rore madentem
vique soporatum Stygia super utraque quassat
tempora, cunctantique natantia lumina solvit.
vix primos inopina quies laxaverat artus,
et super incumbens cum puppis parte revulsa
cumque gubernaclo liquidas proiecit in undas
praecipitem ac socios nequiquam saepe vocantem;
ipse volans tenuis se sustulit ales ad auras.

cum pater amisso fluitantem errare magistro
sensit, et ipse ratem nocturnis rexit in undis
multa gemens casuque animum concussus amici:
‘o nimium caelo et pelago confise sereno,
nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena.’

First, ahead of others, Palinurus led the close column;
the others were told to set their course by him.
Now dewy Night had almost touched her mid-point,
the sailors stretched limbs in restful quiet,
lain under their oars across the hard benches,
when light Sleep, dropping from the stars of the sky,
parted the dark air and dispelled the shadows,
seeking you, Palinurus, bringing you sad slumber in
your innocence; the God sat on the high stern in the
form of Phorbas, and poured these words in your ear:
“Palinurus, son of Iasus, the waters bear the fleet by
themselves, winds breathe calm, a time is given for rest.
Lay down your head, steal your tired eyes from labour.
I myself will do your work instead a little while.”
Hardly raising his eyes, Palinurus replies:
“You tell me to disregard the face of a placid sea
and quiet waves? Me to trust this monster?
What, shall I trust Aeneas to treacherous winds,
who have so often been defrauded by a quiet sky?
This he said, and, clamped and clinging to the tiller,
never let go a moment, his eyes kept raised to the stars.
But see, the God shakes a branch wet with Lethe’s dew
and sleepy with the power of Styx over both his temples,
and closes the drowsing steersman’s swimming eyes.
Barely had unwelcome quiet first relaxed his limbs,
when Sleep, standing over him, threw him into the sea
with the tiller and a piece torn from the ship, head first
and repeatedly calling his shipmates in vain;
the winged God lightly bore himself aloft to the winds.

When Aeneas realised his ship was adrift, the helmsman
lost, he steered it himself on the night waters,
lamenting greatly and shaken in mind by his friend’s fate:
“Trusting too far in a peaceful sky and sea, Palinurus,
you will lie naked on unknown sands.”

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