miércoles, 8 de junio de 2016


Inspired by thirst
for glory, on the field of battle quaffed
instead death's bitter draught.

Thus read the words that grace this site on every 6th of November, as obituary for the Hero King of Lützen.
But where did they come from?

They actually describe the demise of the second young man in the La Fontaine fable, illustrating warfare as a bringer of death in general and of death to young people in particular. The verses applied to Gustavus are the translation of this character's fate as Englished by Paul Hookham.
The original French has:

[···] afin de monter aux grandes dignités, 
par un coup imprévu vit ses jours emportés. 

While the more famous English translation by Elizur Wright has:

In quest of dignity at court,
[···] met his country’s foe,
and perish’d by a random blow.

A third English translation has:

[···] filled with martial zeal,
bore weapons for the common weal,
and in a battle had the lot
of falling by a random shot.

The official Swedish version by has:

[···] ville uppnå den högsta värdighet,
och tjänade [···] som en av Ares' fränder,
men träffad av ett skott han snart i gräset bet.

The Italian translation:

[···] non meno ardente
d'onor, per la sua patria
pugnando, entro la mischia
d'un colpo al suol restò.

The German translation:

[···] der im Dienst des Kriegs bewährt und brav,
stolz, in der Republik ruhmreichem Heer zu stehen,
verlor das Leben, als ein Schuss ihn plötzlich traf;

And last but not least, in Spanish, my own mother tongue:

[···] deseoso de altos timbres,
sirviendo a la república en lucidos
y marciales empleos, vio sus días
terminados por un golpe imprevisto.

Long story short: all of the versions deal with the death of a young man upon the battlefield, due to a gunshot, stressing the fatality of warfare and that of firearms.
Notice how the French original stresses both of these facts as succinctly as can be, while the Italian translation stresses the young man's passion, his patriotism, and the fierceness of the combat (after all, Italians had had to give it all for their freedom during the nineteenth century). The Spanish translation stresses the high ambition and the brightness of the young warrior. The German version speaks of national pride and sense of duty: the typically Prussian attitude to warfare for both lieutenants and rankers.

But it was the Hookham English version that struck me. Not only does it low out the gun altogether, but it portrays his death as for a nobler cause, by using the metaphor of a bitter drink of poison that has to be drained to the last drop for the drinker to go down in history and eternity. Of the ambitious young man as, hot-blooded as he is, unquenchably thirsty (for renown, for excitement, for power, for conquest, for feats of derring-do), and only refreshed with that last cold draught of poison at the end of the day. Whether a drop of liquid, a stab, or a gunshot, something slight yet lethal winds up sealing the hero's fate and satisfying all of his desires (irony, considering his achievements in wartime and peacetime, which have not been able to "quench his thirst"), crowning the quest of a short lifetime and raising that person's name to posterity.
To quench his thirst for glory, he quaffed death's bitter draught. That metaphor speaks volumes. It goes beyond the national character boundaries of the Spaniard, "deseoso de altos timbres y lucido"; of the Prussian, "bewährt, brav und stolz"; of the Italian, "ardente d'onor, per la sua patria pugnando, entro la mischia"... of the Swede, who "tjänar för att uppnå den högsta värdighet"; and of the Frenchman who started it all, with a desire "de monter aux grandes dignités" slightly more pronounced and passionate than the Swede's. Not to mention the other Anglos, one "ready to meet his country's foe in quest for dignity at court"; the other, less ambitious and more passionate, "filled with martial zeal." Beyond all of these differences, Hookham's are words that could be said of any wartime martyr. And thus, I chose them as my personal obituary for Gustavus Adolphus.

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