Now she’s ninety I walk through the local park
where, too cold, the usual peacocks do not screech
and neighbouring lights come on before it’s dark.
Dare I affirm to her, so agèd and so frail,
that from one pale dot of peacock’s sperm
spring forth all the colours of a peacock’s tail?
I do. But she like the sibyl says, ‘I would die’;
then complains. ‘This winter I’m half dead, son.’
And because it’s true I want to cry.
Yet must not (although only Nothing keeps)
for I inhabit a white coat not a black
even here – and am not qualified to weep.
So I speak of small approximate things,
of how I saw, in the park, four flamingoes
standing, one-legged on ice, heads beneath wings.
By Dannie Abse
from Welsh Retrospective
Interesting fact: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.
I’m certainly not a Sibyl;
my life is clear as a stream.
I just don’t feel like singing
to the rattle of prison keys.
by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)
translation by Robert Chandler
Fun fact: Here Akhmatova refutes a comparison being made of herself to an oracle when saying she is not a Sibyl. In doing so she is challenging any suggestion she speaks a bluntly stated truth about their society, as many of her close friends had in their works and suffered for it, through her poetry during the Soviet era – specifically the era this was written under Stalin’s reign. At the same time in this denial she acknowledges a certain level of cowardice, by in a way ‘going with the flow’, knowing she behaves as such to avoid imprisonment or exile – again as many of her contemporaries and loved ones were fated to suffer during this era.
The sibyls were women that the ancient Greeks believed were oracles. The earliest sibyls, according to legend, prophesied at holy sites. Their prophecies were influenced by divine inspiration from a deity; originally at Delphi and Pessinos, the deities were chthonic deities. In Late Antiquity, various writers attested to the existence of sibyls in Greece, Italy, the Levant, and Asia Minor.
The English word sibyl ( or /ˈsɪbɪl/) comes — via the Old French sibile and the Latin sibylla — from the ancient Greek Σίβυλλα (Sibulla). Varro derived the name from theobule (“divine counsel”), but modern philologists mostly propose an Old Italic or alternatively a Semitic etymology.