Somebody mentioned your fate, Heraclitus, and he brought me to a tear; and I remembered how often we both made the sun sink in conversation. But you, my guest-friend from Halicarnassus, have, I suppose, been ashes for a very long time. But your nightingales are alive, on which Hades, plunderer of all things, will not lay his hand.
This epigram of Callimachus is one of the best known poems in Classical literature, but it suffers more than most from the misfortune of having to live permanently in the shadow of its own translation. It may no longer be the case that every schoolboy knows ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’, but it is certainly true that Cory's English version is much more widely known, and much more widely quoted, than Callimachus's Greek original. One result of this has been that a good deal of attention has often been given to comparing the two poems, but little time has been spent on examining the Callimachus as a poem in itself in an effort to see what its virtues are. One may occasionally find a few remarks on the restraint or simplicity of the Greek, as opposed to the English, or a note suggesting that Heraclitus of Halicarnassus, the poet to whom the verses are addressed, wrote a volume of verse the title of which was actually Aēdones (‘Nightingales’) — hence the ‘nightingales’ of the second last line. Occasionally a commentator will go a little further. K. J. Mckay for instance remarks: ‘The high respect in which this epigram is held is fully justified. The way in which the thoughts spill over their barriers in the first four lines, the magic of katedusamen (suggestive of a communion of uncommon power), the skilful location of key thoughts (teon moron, katedusamen, aēdones), the pathos of an unknown grave and an abiding grief cannot but move us. Above all, the suggestion of unfathomable sorrow.’