Good Friday

What happened to Barabbas? I asked no one knows
Let off his chain he stepped on to the white street
he could turn right go forward turn left
spin in circles crow with joy like a cock
He the Emperor of own arms and head
He the Potentate of his own breath

I ask because I was somewhat involved in the matter
Lured by the crowd in front of the palace of Pilate I shouted
like the others free Barabbas Barabbas
All chanted were I alone to stay silent
all would be exactly as it was to be

Now Barabbas perhaps rejoined his gang
In the hills he kills cleanly robs quickly
Or he set up a pottery shop
and crime-stained hands
he purifies in works of clay
or he’s a water carrier mule driver loan shark
or a ship owner — on one of them sailed Paul to the Corinthians
or — this cannot be ruled out —
he became a valuable spy in the pay of the Romans

Behold and admire the capricious game of fate
of possibility potencies of fortune’s smile

And a Nazarene
was alone
with no options
up a steep
path
of blood

— Zbigniew Herbert (1990)


The above is my translation of Herbert’s “Speculation about Barabbas.” Original title: “Domysły na temat Barabasza.”

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14 thoughts on “Good Friday

  1. Pingback: Good Friday | Reaction Times

  2. I remember something Sam Dixon said at one of the Conferences Duke held in N’Awlins a decade or so ago.

    Talking about liberals who thought they were heroes.

    He gave an example of a really important traitor to Britain that was key to the American War of Independence, whose name I forget. Nobody knew who he was.

    “History doesn’t remember traitors.”

  3. Interesting exploration of fate and faith. The exoneration of the sinner Barabbas was integral to the fulfillment of the prophecy. I’m assuming you translated this yourself? Curious about your take on this story and your reason for posting this today.

  4. I tried reworking it a little bit to read better. Too some liberties with a word or two. Wasn’t sure about the second to last stanza so took a guess.

    What happened to Barabbas? I asked, and no one knows.
    Let off his chain he stepped on to the white street.
    He could turn right, go forward, turn left,
    Spin in circles and crow with joy like a cock!
    He, the Emperor of his own arms and head.
    He, the Potentate of his own breath.

    I ask because I was loosely involved in the matter.
    Lured by the crowd in front of the palace of Pilate, I shouted,
    Along with the others, “Free Barabbas! Barabbas!”
    All chanted.
    Were I alone to stay silent
    All would be exactly as it was to be.

    Now Barabbas, perhaps, rejoined his gang in the hills.
    He kills cleanly, robs quickly.
    Or he set up a pottery shop and his crime-stained hands
    Are purified in works of clay.
    Or he’s a water carrier, mule driver, loan shark, ship owner —
    On one of them sailed Paul to the Corinthians
    Or — and this cannot be ruled out —
    He became a valuable spy in the pay of the Romans.

    Behold! and admire the capricious game of fate,
    Of possibility,
    Potencies of fortune’s smile

    And a Nazarene
    was alone
    with no options
    up a steep
    path
    of blood

  5. PS — I don’t mean to be presumptuous! Your translation was quite good. But I have a knack for this sort of thing, and everyone needs an editor.

  6. The tone is modern and metaphysical.

    My Bible history is weak; was Barabbas let off the cross, or is that hypothetical for the poem.

    Potencies is an interesting word. It is awkward, but less so than potentialities. What other word might fit.

    ***********
    I ask because I was loosely involved in the matter.

    That is the contemporary metaphysical tone that i mean. It is familiar and appealing. We ARE all loosely involved, in this thing called fate, an important and pretentious affair, from which you can not un-relate.

  7. Peterike – I was also tempted to give the poem conventional punctuation but ultimately kept true to the original. Not sure why Herbert took that approach; this style of Modernism isn’t something I am fluent in. Maybe there is a “pencil sketch” effect to the form, where your mind fills in the gaps, and it’s meant to be sparse. What your edits do, is make it easier to read at skimming-speed, but what strikes me as a trade-off is that the poem then becomes a breezy story broken into lines and something is lost. Herbert’s language was simple (as is my translation) so there appears to be a purpose to his form, since his better-known poems like “Elegy of Fortinbras” are longer and have a heavier, denser language.

  8. MGE: as to my take, I’ll just note the last verse is made of those very short truncated lines (unlike the lines about Barabbas) which read as though a beaten prisoner is gruelingly making one halting step after another.

    Elk: as an act of good will, Pilate gave Jews a choice between freeing one of the two condemned men, Barabbas and Jesus, and the mob demanded that Barabbas be freed. He was a brigand/insurrectionist.

  9. Translation must be a whole lot easier with Polish not using the Cyrillic alphabet. There’s something with Russian translations into English that just butchers prepositions badly, I run into it a lot when trying to read chess literature.

  10. I’ve said it before, but it just blows me away to consider someone ruminating with depth and range in multiple languages; I’m humbled by the ESL kids I encounter who seem to learn, adapt and excel at English within a couple years of arriving stateside; especially, those learning a Latin-based language for the first time, as there are many Hmong, Vietnamese and Thai immigrants freshly attending school in my district.

    —————————————————————————————————————————–

    A short while back on this blog, we discussed how NAMs, relatively only two or so generations into attending college in mass are lacking in the aggregate of producing graduates steeped in STEM fields and in Humanities that pre-date modernism or any history, lit or other disciplines that consider The Renaissance on back through the various epochs of antiquity; along those lines, being a middle-class NAM typically raised in a center-left family that respects educational advancement, my background is also fairly secular with little to no religious education.

    Hence, on posts like this one I feel a bit, as i described earlier, like the proverbial kid at the grown-ups dinner table. Truth be told, I had no idea whatsoever what the translation at this post referred to —— I sensed it had to do with a fairly well-known bit of scripture, but nothing was tell-tale or even recognizable to this product of generally agnostic and 60s-formed family (though my father has reconnected with his working-class black Baptist roots in middle-age and on, while my mother has pretty much put aside her lapsing rural-white Episcopalian roots for a agnosticism that over time verges on aetheism —– the woman’s Scandinavian genetics demands SCIENTIFIC PROOF to believe in anything with real conviction.lol!)

    Anyhow, I sorta regret that fact, feeling like I missed out on a important aspect of familial folklore, though I recognize my predicament is fairly common among black bougies like me, and any other NAM outlier modernist family traditions. So I enjoy reading posts like this, even though I can’t really contribute much to them in the form of my own commentary.

  11. What your edits do, is make it easier to read at skimming-speed, but what strikes me as a trade-off is that the poem then becomes a breezy story broken into lines and something is lost.

    I completely agree with the above assessment. Both translations lend a different tone to the poem. If I could compare the two to Bible translations, I’d say PA’s resembles a King James and peterike’s aesthetic is more aligned with the New International Version. I can’t choose which one I like better.

    On a related aside, I’d like to mention I feel pretty smart in my day to day job duties and interactions, but when I come home an read stuff like this, I realize why you and peterike probably make the real big bucks!

    IMGE: as to my take, I’ll just note the last verse is made of those very short truncated lines (unlike the lines about Barabbas) which read as though a beaten prisoner is gruelingly making one halting step after another.

    Barabbas represents humanity, freed from the burden of sin by Christ’s sacrifice. Barabbas is free to be human, expressed in all its forms (a potter, a thief, a laborer, ect…) because the Christ took the “steep path of blood” for us, because he loves us.

    The fourth verse is what elevates this poem into a realm of ambiguity, perhaps an existential lament:

    Behold! and admire the capricious game of fate,
    Of possibility,
    Potencies of fortune’s smile

    Was Jesus a fool, who suffered needlessly, while Barabbas was set free to enjoy his life? As a Catholic, I have faith in the former, but it is the latter interpretation in the 4th verse that haunts me.

  12. Truth be told, I had no idea whatsoever what the translation at this post referred to —— I sensed it had to do with a fairly well-known bit of scripture

    Just read the King James Bible, it’s not that long. And the quality of the writing is still unsurpassed in English.

  13. Nikcritthough my father has reconnected with his working-class black Baptist roots

    A long time ago Camille Paglia wrote that the next great American writer will be a Black homosexual from a southern Baptist Christian background. One can read that cynically, as Paglia going for two-out-of-three on the race/gender/sexuality trifecta. However, when it comes to literature she does have an uncanny intuition.

    MGEBarabbas represents humanity, freed from the burden of sin by Christ’s sacrifice. Barabbas is free to be human, expressed in all its forms (a potter, a thief, a laborer, ect…) because the Christ took the “steep path of blood” for us

    That is profoundly insightful. Makes me see the poem in a different light now.

    CamlostJust read the King James Bible, it’s not that long. And the quality of the writing is still unsurpassed in English.

    Other than Shakespeare, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” is what I consider apex-English. Arguably though, neither reaches the standard that was set by the King James Bible.

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