Phaethon in Ovid


PASSAGE ONE: Phoebus' Advice

translation from Mandelbaum
127 .... Avoid the lash; 
      just hold the reins hard fast. The horses need 
      no urging on to speed: your only task 
      will be to hold in check their racing feet. 
      And do not try to ride straight through the sky's 
      five zones:....That is your path: 
133 you cannot miss the tracks my wheels have left. 
134 And so that earth and heaven may receive 
      in just and equal measure their due heat, 
      don't ride too high, and do not sink too low: 
      too high- and heaven's halls will burn; descend 
      too low- and earth will meet its flaming end. 
137And  do not let our wheels veer too far right: 
      avoid the writing Serpent on that side, 
      Just as, upon the left, you are to shun 
      the stars that from the Altar. Keep your run 
      along a course between those constellations..... 
146 Hold fast the reins....but if you still can change 
      your mind, forget my chariot - accept 
      the counsel that I gave you, while there's time 
      and you're on solid ground, and not yet launched 
      in ignorance - a dilettante upon 
      the course you've chosen. 

translation from More (Perseus)
182 "If thou canst only heed thy father's voice-- 
         be sparing of the whip and use with nerve 
         the reins; for of their own accord the steeds 
185  will hasten. Difficult are they to check 
        in full career..... 
193 "Observe with care that both the earth and sky 
        have their appropriate heat--Drive not too low, 
195  nor urge the chariot through the highest plane; 
        for if thy course attain too great a height 
        thou wilt consume the mansions of the sky, 
        and if too low the land will scorch with heat. 
        "Take thou the middle plane, where all is safe; 
200  nor let the Wheel turn over to the right 
        and bear thee to the twisted Snake! nor let 
        it take thee to the Altar on the left-- 
        so close to earth--but steer the middle course.-- 
210  Take up the reins! But if thy stubborn breast 
        be capable of change use not our car, 
        but heed my counsel while the time permits, 
        and while thy feet are on a solid base, 
        but not, according to thy foolish wish, 
 215  pressing the axle. 

Garth/Dryden translation
Take this at least, this last advice, my son, 
Keep a stiff rein, and move but gently on: 
The coursers of themselves will run too fast, 
Your art must be to moderate their haste. 
Drive 'em not on directly through the skies, 
But where the Zodiac's winding circle lies, 
Along the midmost Zone; but sally forth 
Nor to the distant south, nor stormy north. 
The horses' hoofs a beaten track will show, 
But neither mount too high, nor sink too low. 
That no new fires, or Heav'n or Earth infest; 
Keep the mid way, the middle way is best. 
Nor, where in radiant folds the serpent twines, 
Direct your course, nor where the altar shines. 
Shun both extremes; the rest let Fortune guide, 
And better for thee than thy self provide!... 
Snatch up the reins; or still th' attempt forsake, 
And not my chariot, but my counsel, take, 
While yet securely on the Earth you stand; 
 Nor touch the horses with too rash a hand. 

A. E. Watts translation
Five zones there are: your course, confined to three, 
The farthest north and south must never see. 
Next, share your heat between the earth and sky; 
Press not too low, nor set your course too high. 
Heaven's halls will kindle, if too high you stray; 
Too low, the earth: your safety lies midway. 
Nor swerve, where on the right the Snake is seen, 
Nor left to the Altar: steer your course between. 
The rest is Fortune's: be her favor shown, 
And better wit to guide you than your own.... 
 Dawn breaks; and while I speak, the shades disband. 
 We are awaited: take the reins in hand. 
 Or can you still, unbending as you are, 
 Relent, and take my counsel, not my car; 
 While yet your feet a firm support can feel, 
 Not what you blindly wish, the treacherous wheel? 
 Why ask for danger? 

Humphries translation
Go easy on the whip, hard on the reins; 
The need no urging; the trouble is, to hold them. 
Do not cut straight through the five zones of Heaven: 
The course runs on a slant, a middle pathway 
Missing the north and south. Follow the wheel-tracks, 
You will see them clearly. Sky and earth both need 
Equal degrees of heat. Too low, you burn 
The one, too high, the other. The middle is safest. 
Beware on the right, the writhing of the Serpent, 
Beware on the left, the dangerous sunken Altar: 
Keep between both. The rest I leave to Fortune 
To help you, and to give you, or I hope so, 
Better direction than you give yourself..... 


PASSAGE TWO: Losing Control

from Mandelbaum
160   But now the weight those horses bear is light; 
the pressure of the yoke is far more slight 
than they are used to. Lacking proper ballast, 
Ships roll and rock among the waves - unbalanced: 
so did that chariot leap through the air, 
tossing on high, as if it had no rider. 
The team can sense the difference: those four - 
berserk- desert their customary course: 
no rule, no order governs their wild rush. 
The boy is terrified: he does not know 
how to apply the reins he took on trust; 
He does not know what is the chartered road- 
and even if he knew, he's lost control. 

from More
234 .....But Phaethon, 
so easy of their yoke, lost all control, 
and the great car was tossed,--as tapered ships 
when lightened of their ballast toss and heave 
unsteady in the surging seas: the car 
leaped lightly in the air, and in the heights 
was tossed unsteady as an empty shell. 
Soon as the steeds perceived it, with a rush 
impetuous, they left the beaten track; 
regardless of all order and control; 
and Phaethon filled with fear, knew not to guide 
with trusted reins, nor where the way might be-- 
nor, if he knew, could he control their flight... 
... so, stupefied and dazed he neither dares 
to loose the bits, nor tighten on the reins.... 

from Garth/Dryden
The youth was light, nor could he fill the seat, 
Or poise the chariot with its wonted weight: 
But as at sea th' unballass'd vessel rides, 
Cast to and fro, the sport of winds and tides; 
So in the bounding chariot toss'd on high, 
The youth is hurry'd headlong through the sky. 
Soon as the steeds perceive it, they forsake 
Their stated course, and leave the beaten track. 

The youth was in a maze, nor did he know 
Which way to turn the reins, or where to go; 
Nor would the horses, had he known, obey. 
Then the seven stars first felt Apollo's ray, 
And wished to dip in the forbidden sea. .. 
The horses' names he knew not in the fright, 
Nor would he loose the reins, nor could he hold 'em right. 

Half dead with sudden fear he dropt the reins; 
The horses felt 'em loose upon their mains, 
And, flying out through all the plains above, 
Ran uncontrol'd where-e're their fury drove; 
Rush'd on the stars, and through a pathless way 
Of unknown regions hurry'd on the day. 
And now above, and now below they flew, 
And near the Earth the burning chariot drew. 

from A.E. Watts translation
Then, tearing up the trail, wing-borne, they beat 
The air, and cleave the clouds with flying feet; 
Outrun the winds; and, feeling not their freight, 
Wonder to miss the yoke's accustomed weight; 
And as a ship, unladen, lurching rides, 
And all too light, goes tottering o'er the tides, 
The car, that lacked its customary load, 
Bounced up, as if unridered, from the road; 
And sensing this, the steeds run wild, and stray 
Clean from the course, and throw restraint away. 

Fear on the driver fell; too quick to gain, 
Too slow to learn the handling of the rein, 
He lacks besides all knowledge of the way, 
And if he knew, the team would not obey. 

Humphries translation
But the weight was light,
Not such as they were used to, and the yoke
Without  its usual pressure; so, as schooners, 
Unballasted, careen and roll and yaw
out of the proper course, so the bright chariot
Tosses and bounds, as if there were no driver. 
It did not take the horses long to know it,
To run away, beyond control; the driver,
In panic, does not know in which direction 
To turn the reins, does not know where the road is,
And even if he knew, he could do nothing
With those wild plunging animals...

......his knees 
Trembled beneath him, and the darkness came
into his eyes from too much light...But he is borne
Like a ship before a gale, unsteered, unmastered, 
Abandoned to the gods....
He is dazed and stunned and dazzled,
And neither drops the reins or really holds them.... 

Out of his senses, with cold fear upon him,
Phaeton dropped the reins. And when the horses 
Feel them across their backs, and none to check them,
Bolting, they charge the air of unknown regions, 
Wherever impulse hurls them, lawless, crashing 
Against high stars; the keep the chariot bounding
Through pathless ways..... 

Phaethon   More on Phaethon    Themis
Ovid Metamorphoses Links   Ovid Chat Transcripts
Torrey Philemon's Web Page Index