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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Aristophanes (c. 448–c. 388 B.C.)

The New City

From “The Birds”

YE children of man, whose life is a span,

Protracted with sorrow from day to day,

Naked and featherless, feeble and querulous,

Sickly, calamitous creatures of clay!

Attend to the words of the sovereign birds—

Immortal, illustrious, lords of the air—

Who survey from on high, with a merciful eye,

Your struggles of misery, labor, and care.

Whence you may learn and clearly discern

Such truths as attract your inquisitive turn;

Which is busied of late, with a mighty debate,

A profound speculation about the Creation,

And organical life, and chaotical strife,

With various notions of heavenly motions,

And rivers and oceans, and valleys and mountains,

And sources of fountains, and meteors on high,

And stars in the sky. We propose by and by—

If you’ll listen and hear—to make it all clear.

And Prodicus henceforth shall pass for a dunce,

When his doubts are explained and expounded at once.

Before the creation of ether and light,

Chaos and night together were plight,

In the dungeon of Erebus foully bedight.

Nor ocean or air or substance was there,

Or solid or rare, or figure or form,

But horrible Tartarus ruled in the storm.

At length, in the dreary, chaotical closet

Of Erebus old, was a privy deposit,

By night the primeval in secrecy laid;

A mystical egg, that in silence and shade

Was brooded and hatched; till time came about,

And love, the delightful, in glory flew out,

In rapture and light, exulting and bright,

Sparkling and florid, with stars in his forehead,

His forehead and hair, and a flutter and flare,

As he rose in the air, triumphantly furnished

To range his dominions on glittering pinions,

All golden and azure, and blooming and burnished.

He soon, in the murky Tartarean recesses,

With a hurricane’s might, in his fiery caresses

Impregnated chaos; and hastily snatched

To being and life, begotten and hatched,

The primitive birds; but the deities all,

The celestial lights, the terrestrial ball,

Were later of birth, with the dwellers on earth,

More tamely combined, of a temperate kind;

When chaotical mixture approached to a fixture.

Our antiquity proved, it remains to be shown

That love is our author and master alone;

Like him, we can ramble and gambol, and fly

O’er ocean and earth, and aloft to the sky;

And all the world over we’re friends to the lover,

And when other means fail, we are found to prevail

When a peacock or pheasant is sent as a present.

All lessons of primary daily concern

You have learned from the birds, and continue to learn,

Your best benefactors and early instructors;

We give you the warning of seasons returning.

When the cranes are arranged, and muster afloat

In the middle air, with a creaking note,

Steering away to the Libyan sands,

Then careful farmers sow their lands;

The crazy vessel is hauled ashore,

The sail, the ropes, the rudder and oar

Are all unshipped, and housed in store.

The shepherd is warned, by the kite reappearing,

To muster his flock and be ready for shearing.

You quit your old cloak at the swallow’s behest,

In assurance of summer, and purchase a vest.

For Delphi, for Ammon, Dodona—in fine,

For every oracular temple and shrine—

The birds are a substitute equal and fair,

For on us you depend, and to us you repair

For counsel and aid when a marriage is made,

A purchase, a bargain, a venture in trade.

Unlucky or lucky, whatever has struck ye,

An ox or an ass, that may happen to pass,

A voice in the street, or a slave that you meet,

A name or a word by chance overheard,

If you deem it an omen, you call it a bird;

And if birds are your omens, it clearly will follow

That birds are a proper prophetic Apollo.

Then take us as gods, and you’ll soon find the odds;

We’ll serve for all uses, as prophets and muses;

We’ll give ye fine weather, we’ll live here together;

We’ll not keep away, scornful and proud, atop of a cloud,

In Jupiter’s way, but attend every day,

To prosper and bless all you possess,

And all your affairs, for yourselves and your heirs.

And as long as you live we shall give

You wealth and health, and pleasure and treasure,

In ample measure;

And never bilk you of pigeon’s milk,

Or potable gold. You shall live to grow old,

In laughter and mirth, on the face of the earth,

Laughing, quaffing, carousing, bousing;

Your only distress shall be the excess

Of ease and abundance and happiness.


Peis.Well, there it is! Such a comical set-out,

By Jove, I never saw!
Euel.Why, what’s the matter?

What are you laughing at?
Peis.At your pen-feathers.

I’ll tell ye exactly, now, the thing you’re like:

You’re just the perfect image of a goose,

Drawn with a pen in a writing-master’s flourish.

Euel.And you’re like a plucked blackbird to a tittle.

Peis.Well, then, according to the line in Æschylus,

“It’s our own fault; the feathers are our own.”

Euel.Come, what’s to be done?
Epops.First we must choose a name,

Some grand, sonorous name, for our new city;

Then we must sacrifice.
Euel.I think so too.

Peis.Let’s see—let’s think of a name; what shall it be?

What say ye to the Lacedæmonian name?

Sparta sounds well. Suppose we call it Sparta?

Euel.Sparta! What Sparto—rushes? No, not I;

I’d not put up with Sparto for a mattress,

Much less for a city. We’re not come to that.

Peis.Come, then, what name shall it be?
Euel.Something appropriate,

Something that sounds majestic, striking, and grand,

Alluding to the clouds and the upper regions.

Peis.What think ye of clouds and cuckoos? Cuckoo-cloudlands,

Or Nephelococcugia?
Epops.That will do;

A truly noble and sonorous name.

Euel.I wonder if that Nephelococcugia

Is the same place I’ve heard of? People tell me

That all Theagenes’s rich possessions

Lie there, and Æschines’s whole estate.

Peis.Yes, and a better country it is by far

Than all that land in Thrace, the fabulous plain

Of Phlegra, where those earth-born landed giants

Were bullied and outvapored by the gods.

Euel.It will be a genteelish, smart concern, I reckon,

This city of ours. Which of the deities

Shall we have for a patron? We must weave our mantle,

Our sacred mantle, of course, the yearly mantle,

To one or other of ’em.
Peis.Well, Minerva?

Why should not we have Minerva? She’s established,

Let her continue; she’ll do mighty well.

Euel.No; there I object; for a well-ordered city

The example would be scandalous—to see

The goddess, a female born, in complete armor

From head to foot; and Cleisthenes with a distaff!

Peis.What warden will ye appoint for the Eagle tower,

Your citadel, the fort upon the rock?

Epops.That charge will rest with a chief of our own choice,

Of Persian race, a chicken of the game,

An eminent warrior.
Euel.Oh, my chicky-biddy,

My little master! I should like to see him,

Strutting about and roosting on the rock.

Peis.Come you, now! Please to step to the atmosphere,

And give a look to the work, and help the workmen,

And between whiles fetch brick and tiles, and such like;

Draw water, stamp the mortar—do it barefoot;

Climb up the ladders; tumble down again;

Keep constant watch and ward; conceal your watch-lights;

Then go the rounds and give the countersign,

Till you fall fast asleep. Send heralds off,

A brace of them—one to the gods above,

And another, down below there to mankind.

Bid them, when they return, inquire for me.

Euel.For me! For me! You may be hanged for me.

Peis.Come, friend, go where I bid you; never mind;

The business can’t go on without you, anyhow.

It’s just a sacrifice to these new deities,

That I must wait for; and the priest that’s coming.

Hullo, you boy there! Bring the basin and ewer.

Chor.We urge, we exhort you, and advise,

To ordain a mighty sacrifice,

And before the gods to bring

A stupendous offering;

Either a sheep, or some such thing,

To please the critics of the age,

Sacrificed upon the stage.

Sound amain the Pythian strain!

Let Chœris be brought here to sing.

Peis.Have done there with your puffing! Heaven and earth,

What’s here! I’ve seen a many curious things,

But never saw the like of this before—

A crow with a flute and a mouthpiece. Priest, your office:

Perform it! Sacrifice to the new deities!

Priest.I will. But where’s the boy gone with the basket?

Let us pray to the holy flame,

And the holy hawk that guards the same;

To the sovereign deities,

All and each, of all degrees,

Female and male!

Chor.Hail, thou hawk of Sunium, hail!

Priest.To the Delian and the Pythian swan,

And to the Latonian quail,

All hail!

Chor.To the bird of awful stature,

Mother of gods, mother of man;

Great Cybele, nurse of nature!

Glorious ostrich, hear our cry!

Fearful and enormous creature,

Hugest of all things that fly,

Oh, preserve and prosper us,

Thou mother of Cleocritus!

Grant the blessings that we seek

For us, and for the Chians’ eke!

Peis.That’s right, the Chians—don’t forget the Chians!

Priest.To the heroes, birds, and heroes’ sons,

We call at once, we call and cry;

To the woodpecker, the jay, the pie,

To the mallard and the widgeon,

To the ring-dove and the pigeon,

To the petrel and sea-mew,

To the dotterel and curlew,

To the vultures and the hawks,

To the cormorants and storks,

To the rail, to the quail,

To the pewit, to the tomtit.

Peis.Have done there! Call no more of ’em! Are you mad?

Inviting all the cormorants and vultures,

For a victim such as this! Why, don’t you see,

A kite at a single swoop would carry it off?

Get out of my way there, with your crowns and fillets;

I’ll do it myself! I’ll make the sacrifice!

Priest.Then must I commence again,

In a simple, humble strain,

And invite the gods anew

To visit us—but very few,

Or only just a single one,

All alone,

In a quiet, easy way;

Wishing you may find enough,

If you dine with us to-day.

Our victim is so poor and thin,

Merely bones, in fact, and skin.

Peis.We sacrifice and pray to the winged deities.

Enter POET.
Poet.“For the festive, happy day,

Muse, prepare an early lay

To Nephelococcugia.”

Peis.What’s here to do? What are you? Where do you come from?

Poet.An humble menial of the Muse’s train,

As Homer expresses it.
Peis.A menial, are you?

With your long hair? A menial?
Poet.’Tis not that.

No! But professors of the poetical art

Are simply styled the “Menials of the Muses,”

As Homer expresses it.
Peis.Aye, the Muse has given you

A ragged livery. Well, but, friend, I say—

Friend, poet, what the plague has brought you here?

Poet.I’ve made an ode upon your new-built city,

And a charming composition for a chorus,

And another in Simonides’s manner.

Peis.When were they made? What time? How long ago?

Poet.From early date I celebrate in song

The noble Nephelococcugian state.

Peis.That’s strange, when I’m just sacrificing here,

For the first time, to give the town a name.

Poet.Intimations, swift as air,

To the Muse’s ear are carried,

Swifter than the speed and force

Of the fiery-footed horse;

Hence, the tidings never tarried

Father, patron, mighty lord,

Founder of the rising state,

What thy bounty can afford,

Be it little, be it great,

With a quick resolve, incline

To bestow on me and mine.

Peis.This fellow will breed a bustle, and make mischief,

If we don’t give him a trifle, and get rid of him.—

You there, you’ve a spare waistcoat; pull it off

And give it this same clever, ingenious poet!—

There, take the waistcoat, friend! Ye seem to want it.

Poet.Freely, with a thankful heart,

What a bounteous hand bestows,

Is received in friendly part;

But amid the Thracian snows,

Or the chilly Scythian plain,

He, the wanderer cold and lonely,

With an under-waistcoat only,

Must a further wish retain;

Which the Muse, averse to mention,

To your gentle comprehension

Trusts her enigmatic strain.

Peis.I comprehend it enough; you want a jerkin.—

Here, give him yours; one ought to encourage genius.—

There, take it, and good-by to ye!
Poet.Well, I’m going;

And as soon as I get to the town I’ll set to work,

And finish something, in this kind of way:

“Seated on your golden throne,

Muse, prepare a solemn ditty,

To the mighty,

To the flighty,

To the cloudy, quivering, shivering,

To the lofty-seated city.”

Peis.Well, I should have thought that jerkin might have cured him

Of his “quiverings and shiverings.” How the plague

Did the fellow find us out? I should not have thought it.

Come, once again, go round with the basin and ewer.

Peace! Silence! Silence!

Sooth.Stop the sacrifice!

Peis.What are you?
Sooth.A soothsayer, that’s what I am.

Peis.The worse luck for ye.
Sooth.Friend, are you in your senses?

Don’t trifle absurdly with religious matters.

Here’s a prophecy of Bakis, which expressly

Alludes to Nephelococcugia.

Peis.How came it, then, you never prophesied

Your prophecies before the town was built?

Sooth.The spirit withheld me.
Peis.And is it allowable now

To give us a communication of them?

“Moreover, when the crows and daws unite

To build and settle in the midway, right

Between tall Corinth and fair Sicyon’s height,

Then to Pandora let a milk-white goat

Be slain, and offered, and a comely coat

Given to the soothsayer, and shoes a pair,

When he to you this oracle shall bear—”

Peis.Are the shoes mentioned?

Sooth.(pretending to feel for his papers).Look at the book, and see:

“—And let him have the entrails for his share.”

Peis.Are the entrails mentioned?
Sooth.(as before).Look at the book, and see:

“If you, predestined youth, shall do these things,

Then you shall soar aloft on eagle’s wings;

But if you do not, you shall never be

An eagle, nor a hawk, nor bird of high degree.”

Peis.Is all this there?
Sooth.(as before).Look at the book, and see:

Peis.This oracle differs most remarkably

From that which I transcribed in Apollo’s temple:

“If at the sacrifice which you prepare,

An uninvited vagabond should dare

To interrupt you, and demand a share,

Let cuffs and buffets be the varlet’s lot.

Smite him between the ribs, and spare him not.”

Sooth.What nonsense you’re talking!

Peis.(with the same action as the SOOTHSAYER, as if he were feeling for papers).Look at the book, and see:

“Thou shalt in no wise heed them, or forbear

To lash and smite those eagles of the air,

Neither regard their names, for it is written,

Lampon and Diopithes shall be smitten.”

Sooth.Is all this there?
Peis.(producing a horsewhip).Look at the book, and see!

Get out, with a plague and a vengeance!
Sooth.Oh, dear! Oh!

Peis.Go soothsay somewhere else, you rascal—run!(ExitSOOTHSAYER.)

Enter METON the Astronomer
Met.I’m come, you see, to join you.
Peis.(aside).Another plague!

For what? What’s your design—your plan—your notion—

Your scheme—your apparatus—your equipment—

Your outfit? What’s the meaning of it all?

Met.I mean to take a geometrical plan

Of your atmosphere—to allot it, and survey it

In a scientific form.
Peis.In the name of Heaven,

Who are ye, and what? What name? What manner of man?

Met.Who am I, and what! Meton’s my name, well known

In Greece, and in the village of Colonos.

Peis.But tell me, pray: these implements, these articles,

What are they meant for?
Met.These are instruments

An atmospherical geometrical scale.

First, you must understand that the atmosphere

Is formed—in a manner—altogether—partly,

In the fashion of a furnace, or a funnel.

I take this circular arc with the movable arm,

And so, by shifting it round till it coincides

At the angle— You understand me?
Peis.Not in the least.

Met.I obtain a true division, with the quadrature

Of the equilateral circle. Here, I trace

Your market-place, in the center, with the streets

Converging inward—and the roads diverging

From the circular wall, without—like solar rays

From the circular circumference of the sun.

Peis.(in a pretended soliloquy; then calling to him with a tone of mystery and alarm).
Another Thales! Absolutely, a Thales!—

Met.(startled).Why, what’s the matter?
Peis.You’re aware

That I’ve a regard for you. Take my advice:

Don’t be seen here; withdraw yourself—abscond!

Met.Is there any alarm or risk?
Peis.Why, much the same

As it might be in Laceæmon. There’s a bustle

Of expelling aliens; people are dragged out

From the inns and lodgings, with a deal of uproar,

And blows and abuse in plenty to be met with

In the public street.
Met.A popular tumult, eh?

Peis.Oh, fie! No, nothing of that kind!
Met.How do you mean, then?

Peis.We’re carrying into effect a resolution,

Adopted lately, to discard and cudgel

Coxcombs and mountebanks of every kind.

Met.Perhaps, then, I had best withdraw.
Peis.Why, yes, perhaps;

But yet, I would not answer for it neither;

Perhaps you may be too late; the blows I mentioned

Are coming—close upon you. There they come!

Met.Oh, bless me!
Peis.Did not I tell you, and give you warning?

Get out, you coxcomb! find out by your geometry

The road you came, and measure it back. You’d best.(Exit METON.)

Enter a COMMISSIONER from Athens.
Com.Is nobody here?—none of the proxeni, To receive and attend upon me?
Peis.What’s all this?

Sardanapalus in person come among us!

Com.I come, appointed as commissioner

To Nephelococcugia.
Peis.A commissioner!

What brings you here?
Com.A paltry scrap of paper,

A trifling, silly decree, that sent me away

Here to this place of yours.
Peis.Well, now, suppose,

To make things easy on both sides, could not you

Just take your salary at once, and so return

Without any further trouble?
Com.Truly, yes;

I’ve other affairs at home: a speech, and a motion,

That I meant to have made in the general Assembly,

About a business that I took in hand

On the part of my friend Pharnaces, the satrap.

Peis.Agreed, then, and farewell. Here, take your salary.

Com.What’s here?
(PEISTHETAIRUS has held out his left hand, as if with an offer of money; he grasps the right hand of the COMMISSIONER, and with this advantage proceeds to buffet him.)
Peis.A motion on the part of Pharnaces!

Com.Bear witness here! I’m beaten and abused

In my character of commissioner!(Exit COMMISSIONER.)
Peis.Get out,

With your balloting-box and all! It’s quite a shame,

Quite scandalous! They send commissioners here

Before we’ve finished our first sacrifice.

Haw.“Moreover, if a Nephelococcugian Should assault or smite an Athenian citizen—”

Peis.What’s this? What’s all this trumpery paper here?

Haw.I’ve brought you the new laws and ordinances,

And copies of the last decrees to sell.

Peis.Let’s hear ’em.
Haw.“It is enacted and ordained

That the Nephelococcugians shall use

Such standard weights and measures—”
Peis.Friend, you’ll find

Hard measure here, and a heavy weight, I promise you.

Upon your shoulders shortly.
Haw.What’s the matter?

What’s come to you?
Peis.Get out with your decrees!

I’ve bloody decrees against you, dire decrees.(Drives him off.)

Com.(returning).I summon Peisthetairus to his answer

In an action of assault and battery,

For the first day of the month Munichion.

Peis.Ha, say you so? You’re there again! Have at you.(Drives him off.)

Haw.(returning).“And in case of any assault or violence

Against the person of the magistrate—”

Peis.Bless me! What, you! You’re there again?(Drives him off.)
Com.(returning again).I’ll ruin you;

I’ll lay my damages at ten thousand drachmas.

Peis.In the meantime I’ll smash your balloting-boxes.

Com.Remember how you effaced the public monument

On the pillar, and defiled it late last night.

Peis.Pah! Stuff! There, seize him, somebody! What, you’re off too?

Come, let’s remove, and get away from hence,

And sacrifice our goat to the gods within doors.