»  William Cory's "Heraclitus"



by William Johnson Cory, 1823-1892


•  Background

William Johnson (1823-92), who later added the name Cory on acquiring an estate, is described by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy in The Public School Phenomenon as "one of the most interesting and also tragic figures of the 19th century." I refer interested readers to Chapter 8 of Gathorne-Hardy's fine book for the details.

For 26 years, from 1845 to 1872, Cory was a schoolmaster at Eton, then as now the most prestigious of English boys' boarding schools. He was a gifted teacher, though with an unorthodox style, and possessed keen insight into the personalities of his pupils, at any rate of those he was especially interested in.

There, unfortunately, lay the problem. The evidence is good that Cory was a tad too interested in some of his pupils. In 1872 he suddenly resigned from Eton for reasons never made public. His partisans — and there were many among the 26 years' worth of pupils who had been fascinated and enlightened by him — said that lesser men at Eton, envious of his brilliance, had forced him out. The evidence presented by Gathorne-Hardy points in another direction; but no doubt the matter is still being argued.

The Heraclitus of this poem is not the pre-Socratic philosopher of that name, though the mistake is often made. (A character in one of Anthony Powell's novels makes it.) It is a poet of the third century B.C., two hundred years later than the philosopher. This Heraclitus was a friend of another poet, Callimachus of Cyrene; and when Heraclitus died, probably around 260 BC, Callimachus wrote a short epitaph for him. Cory's fine melancholy poem is a translation of that epitaph.

•  Notes

"Carian" is the adjective from Caria, ancient name of a region in southwest Anatolia, looking across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Its capital was Halicarnassus, nowadays the little Turkish town of Bodrum; and that was the home town of the Heraclitus memorialized in this poem. (It was also the location of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.)


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.