Immortality (Athanasia)

Immortality, I watch you
From my balcony on high.
But you pay me no attention
And break my heart as you pass by.
Earthly kings and world poets
All proclaimed their love to you.
Yet a single sprig of sweet mint
You never tossed them as their due.
How hard you are,
A death-blow punching mean and cruel.
But there came times
When all our faith was lodged in you.
Every age longs
To win and claim you as its own,
Beautiful maid,
Whom none on earth has ever known.
Immortality, I watch you
From my balcony on high.
What strange sacrifice does life owe
To make and keep you satisfied?
Thirsty lords as rich as Croesus,
Lowly pilgrims sought you out.
And you held back all refreshment
From your garden’s flowing spout.
How hard you are . . .




Rick Newton, Kent State University, United States

Translator’s notes:

This song, punning on the woman’s name “Athanasia” (untranslatable as a readily recognizable English name; hence the alternate title in transliteration), personifies the concept of “immortality” (the same word written with lower-case alpha as αθανασία). The distinction between name and concept goes aurally undetected, giving the song a multidimensionality as an ode to a non-responsive beloved and, at the same time, as a lament on the inaccessibility of immortality to all who long for her/it, whether kings, poets, wealthy lords, or lowly pilgrims. Both the “beautiful maid” and “immortality” remain coolly indifferent and inattentive to all.

To a Greek audience, the references to “a single sprig of mint” and “your garden’s flowing spout” may evoke visions of paradise as portrayed in the Greek Orthodox Trisagion (“Thrice-Holy”) service for the dead. There, prayers are chanted for the repose of the departed “in a place of light, in a place of verdure, in a place of refreshment (ἐν τόπῳ φωτεινῷ, ἐν τόπῳ χλοερῷ, ἐν τόπῳ ἀναψύξεως). Dwelling eternally in such a lush garden, Athanasia’s/immortality’s begrudging refusal of a tiny sprig of mint and a mere sip of water is received as a cruel death-blow, described twice in the refrain. Paradise, despite its abundant immortal spring, denies entry and comfort to all, regardless of wealth (διψασμένοι Κροίσοι), world power (βασιλιάδες), piety (ταπεινοί προσκυνητές), or artistic creativity (ποιητές).

Including poets among immortality’s suitors, the song assumes a metapoetic dimension. The naming of “every age” (κάθε γενιά) striving for immortality includes Gatsos’ own “Generation of the Thirties” (Η Γενιά του 30), consisting of intellectuals, poets, and other artists who introduced modernism into Greece. The song may therefore be viewed as a poetic expression of an earlier sentiment voiced by Gatsos himself: “I am finding that poetry is a difficult undertaking and that it is meaningless to write a good poem that does not contain within itself elements of eternity (στοιχεία αιωνιότητας).” (Σταύρος Καρτσωνάκης, Νίκος Γκάτσος. Δώστε μου μια ταυτότητα να θυμηθώ ποιος είμαι. Ποίηση και στιχουργική 1931–1991 [Μετρονόμος 2022] 57).

The translator extends warm thanks to Agathi Dimitrouka, who provided invaluable textual and exegetical clarification for this translation.