Ursula, my sweet girl, where did you go?
Is it a place or country that we know?
Or were you borne above the highest sphere
To dwell and sing among the cherub choir?
Have you flown into Paradise? Or soared
To the Islands of the Blest? Are you aboard
With Charon, scooping water while he steers,
And does that drink inure you to my tears?
Clad in gray feathers of a nightingale,
No longer human, do you fill some vale
With plaintive song? Or must you still remain
In Purgatory, as if the slightest stain
Of sin could have defiled your soul? Did it return
To where you were (my woe) before being born?
Wherever you may be - if you exist -
Take pity on my grief. O presence missed,
Comfort me, haunt me; you whom I have lost,
Come back again, be shadow, dream, or ghost.
Jan Kochanowski, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney
Jan Kochanowski (1530 - 1584) was the major pre-Romantic Polish poet, one of those whose adopted forms and use of the vernacular (as opposed to the humanists' universal language, Latin) paved the way for those who followed him. His beloved youngest daughter Ursula died before she was three years old; he responded with a series of nineteen elegies. Here is number ten, in which the poet emphasizes our uncertainty about what happens after death by rapidly shifting among the many post-life possible alternatives: is she in Heaven? Limbo? the classical realm of the Underworld? reincarnated? in Catholic Purgatory? Just . . . gone? His ache for his lost darling is so strong that he doesn't really care what the truth is, as long as she abides with him in some form.
This is from the 1995 translation of Laments by Baranczak and Heaney.