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A Verse Narrative

Herbert Mason, Herbert Mason

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eBook - ePub


A Verse Narrative

Herbert Mason, Herbert Mason

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About This Book

National Book Award Finalist: The most widely read and enduring interpretation of this ancient Babylonian epic. One of the oldest and most universal stories known in literature, the epic of Gilgamesh presents the grand, timeless themes of love and death, loss and reparations, within the stirring tale of a hero-king and his doomed friend. A National Book Award finalist, Herbert Mason's retelling is at once a triumph of scholarship, a masterpiece of style, and a labor of love that grew out of the poet's long affinity with the original. "Mr. Mason's version is the one I would recommend to the first-time reader." —Victor Howes, The Christian Science Monitor "Like the Tolkien cycle, this poem will be read with profit and joy for generations to come." —William Alfred, Harvard University

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Gilgamesh wept bitterly for his friend.
He felt himself now singled out for loss
Apart from everyone else. The word Enkidu
Roamed through every thought
Like a hungry animal through empty lairs
In search of food. The only nourishment
He knew was grief, endless in its hidden source
Yet never ending hunger.

All that is left to one who grieves
Is convalescence. No change of heart or spiritual
Conversion, for the heart has changed
And the soul has been converted
To a thing that sees
How much it costs to lose a friend it loved.

It has grown past conversion to a world
Few enter without tasting loss
In which one spends a long time waiting
For something to move one to proceed.
It is that inner atmosphere that has
An unfamiliar gravity or none at all
Where words are flung out in the air but stay
Motionless without an answer,
Hovering about one’s lips
Or arguing back to haunt
The memory with what one failed to say,
Until one learns acceptance of the silence
Amidst the new debris
Or turns again to grief
As the only source of privacy,
Alone with someone loved.
It could go on for years and years,
And has, for centuries,
For being human holds a special grief
Of privacy within the universe
That yearns and waits to be retouched
By someone who can take away
The memory of death.

Gilgamesh wandered through the desert
Alone as he had never been alone
When he had craved but not known what he craved;
The dryness now was worse than the decay.
The bored know nothing of this agony
Waiting for diversion they have never lost.
Death had taken the direction he had gained.
He was no more a king
But just a man who now had lost his way
Yet had a greater passion to withdraw
Into a deeper isolation. Mad,
Perhaps insane, he tried
To bring Enkidu back to life
To end his bitterness,
His fear of death.
His life became a quest
To find the secret of eternal life
Which he might carry back to give his friend.

He had put on the skins of animals
And thrown himself in the dust, and now
He longed to hear the voice of one
Who still used words as revelations;
He yearned to talk to Utnapishtim,
The one who had survived the flood
And death itself, the one who knew the secret.

Before his loss, when he approached at night
The mountain passes where the lions slept
He raised his eyes to Sin, the moon god, and prayed.
Now he expected help from no one.
He tried to fall asleep despite the sounds
Of movement through the trees, his chest was tight
With needless fear Enkidu would have calmed.

When he arrived at the mountains of Mashu,
Whose peaks reach to the shores of Heaven
And whose roots descend to Hell, he saw
The Scorpion people who guard its gate,
Whose knowledge is awesome, but whose glance is death.

When he saw them, his face turned ashen with dismay,
But he bowed down to them, the only way to shield himself
Against effusions of their gaze.
The Scorpion man then recognized
In Gilgamesh the flesh of gods and told his wife:
This one is two-thirds god, one-third man
And can survive our view, then spoke to him:
Why have you come this route to us?
The way is arduous and long
And no one goes beyond.

I have come to see my father,*
Who was allowed to go beyond.
I want to ask him about life and death,
To end my loss. My friend has died.
I want to bring him back to life.

The Scorpion interrupted him and laughed,
Being impatient with such tales and fearful of sentiment:
No one is able to explain, no one has gone
Beyond these mountains. There is only death.
There is no light beyond, just darkness
And cold and at daybreak a burning heat.
You will learn nothing that we do not know.
You will only come to grief.

I have been through grief! Gilgamesh screamed.
Even if there will be more of pain,
And heat and cold, I will go on!
Open the gate to the mountains!

All right, go! the Scorpion man said,
As if in anger with a child
Who had not reached the age of reason.
The gate is open! His wife added:
Be careful of the darkness. Gilgamesh saw
His going frightened them. They only seemed secure.

He entered the Road of the Sun
Which was so shrouded in darkness
That he could see ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Gilgamesh
APA 6 Citation
Mason, H. (2003). Gilgamesh ([edition unavailable]). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Retrieved from (Original work published 2003)
Chicago Citation
Mason, Herbert. (2003) 2003. Gilgamesh. [Edition unavailable]. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Harvard Citation
Mason, H. (2003) Gilgamesh. [edition unavailable]. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mason, Herbert. Gilgamesh. [edition unavailable]. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.