Hard shell, soft core

The late antique poet Claudian wrote a series of seven short epigrams on a fluid inclusion (or ‘enhydro’); these poems form part of a collection of Carmina minora (‘Shorter poems’), where they feature under the title De crystallo cui aqua inerat (‘On a crystal that contained water’; my translations):


Possedit glacies naturae signa prioris
et fit parte lapis, frigora parte negat.
sollers lusit hiems, imperfectoque rigore
nobilior vivis gemma tumescit aquis.

A piece of ice retains signs of its one-time nature
partly becoming stone, partly rejecting the cold.
Expertly plays the winter, and with rigidity incomplete
the gemstone swells more noble still with living drops of water.


Lymphae, quae tegitis cognato carcere lymphas,
et quae nunc estis quaeque fuistis aquae,
quod vos ingenium iunxit? qua frigoris arte
torpuit et maduit prodigiosa silex?
quis tepor inclusus securas vindicat undas?
interior glacies quo liquefacta Noto?
gemma quibus causis arcano mobilis aestu
vel concreta fuit vel resoluta gelu?

Waters, covering waters in kindred prison-cell,
both you that still are, and you that once were, liquid:
what genius united you? By what trick of freezing
is the marvellous stone both hard and wet?
Which gentle heat, locked in, governs the protected welters?
What southern breeze turned a frosty core liquid again?
What caused the gemstone, moving by some hidden surge,
to be solid or free from frost?


Solibus indomitum glacies Alpina rigorem
sumebat nimio iam pretiosa gelu
nec potuit toto mentiri corpore gemmam,
 sed medio mansit proditor orbe latex.
auctus honor; liquidi crescunt miracula saxi,
   et conservatae plus meruistis aquae.

Alpine ice grasped a firmness indomitable by the sun,
precious already with its excessive frost,
and yet it could not pretend to be a gemstone in its entirety,
for treacherous liquid remained in the middle of its sphere.
Enhanced esteem: the rock’s miraculousness grows as it is liquid,
and you, waters, became more precious still being preserved.


Adspice porrectam splendenti fragmine venam,
qua trahitur limes lucidiore gelu.
hic nullum Borean nec brumam sentit opacus
umor, sed varias itque reditque vias.
non illum constrinxit hiems, non Sirius axis,
aetatis spatium non tenuavit edax.

Behold this vein that extends itself through a shining piece of rock
where a path stretches of even more gleaming frost.
Here the hidden liquid cannot feel the North or the freezing winter,
but it runs, and runs again, on ever changing paths.
No winter impinged on it, nor did the Scorcher’s rise,
nor was it reduced as voracious time goes by.


Clauditur inmunis convexo tegmine rivus,
duratisque vagus fons operitur aquis.
nonne vides, propriis ut spumet gemma lacunis
et refluos ducant pocula viva sinus
udaque pingatur radiis obstantibus Iris
secretas hiemes sollicitante die?
mira silex mirusque latex. et flumina vincit
 et lapides merito, quod fluit et lapis est.

A watercourse is untouchably locked under a vaulted cover,
and a shifting spring is covered by hardened water.
Can’t you see how the gemstone gets frothy in its clefts,
how vessels full of life lead bays that ebb and flow,
how a  moist rainbow is painted by reflecting beams of light
when the daylight challenges the hidden frost?
Wondrous stone and wondrous liquid! It humbles rivers
and rocks, and rightly so, as it flows and still remains a stone.


Dum crystalla puer contingere lubrica gaudet
et gelidum tenero pollice versat onus,
vidit perspicuo deprensas marmore lymphas,
dura quibus solis parcere novit hiems,
et siccum relegens labris sitientibus orbem
inrita quaesitis oscula fixit aquis.

As a boy enjoys touching the gliding crystal
and turns the frosty mass with a tender thumb,
he sees, caught in clear rock, water
which alone a harsh winter chose to spare,
and placing the dry sphere on their thirsty lip
he places kisses on the desired water: in vain.


Marmoreum ne sperne globum: spectacula transit
regia nec Rubro vilior iste mari.
informis glacies, saxum rude, nulla figurae
gratia, sed raras inter habetur opes.

Do not despise this sphere made of rock: it surpasses royal
spectacles and this very thing is not of lesser value than the Red Sea’s pearl.
Shapeless ice, raw rock, no grace in its appearance,
yet one must keep it in the cabinet of curiosities.

Claudian clearly was taken by, and fascinated with, this particular curio.

He playfully (re-)imagines the fluid inclusion as a simultaneous presence of two phases of water: solid and liquid, dry and wet, cold and hot – all rolled into one precious, magical stone, in which what lies underneath the surface is in plain sight, and yet remains out of reach for those who desire to get hold of it.

Claudian, a courtier of Emperor Honorius, is not suspected of political subversion.

And yet, in times of harsh rhetorics and tough political fights, this cycle of poems, read in this sequence, appears in a different light and lends itself without much interpretative force to a political (re-)reading:

(I) The peculiar, rare, and precious gemstone, with its tough surface and its liquid core, formed by outside forces, managed to retain its original nature – and it is its soft, fluid core – the part that managed to preserve life against rigidity – that makes it extra special and precious.

(II) The precious part of the gemstone may be seen as incarcerated in its hard shell, and yet the hard shell may be seen as a mere layer of protection. What miraculous forces were, what miraculous forces continue to be, at play?

(III) Seemingly a contradiction in itself, the precious, rock solid (not quite) gemstone seemingly is betrayed by its gentle, fluid core – a core that seems to betray the object’s very nature. It the very preservation of its soft core, however, that makes the gem so special and extra precious.

(IV) Neither excessive heat nor excessive cold, nor, in fact, condensation, can now harm the water, preserved for eternity. It remains mobile, runs as it pleases, protected from outside harm.

(V) Protected from a damaging, harmful outside, the core remains visible, full of life and radiant, capable of providing the most extraordinary effects to those who witness it, especially when a light shines on it, being a wondrous thing throughout.

(VI) The gemstone’s wondrous nature attracts the curious, even those who may misinterpret what they see. Those may try to fathom the real nature, or try to latch on to it, hoping to quench their thirst – in vain!

(VII) It is the hard shell that provides protection, perhaps not the most pretty sight. And yet its complex, intriguing nature is what makes it so precious, worthy of being put on display for others to behold and to admire.

Will we be able to preserve our nature? Will we be able to protect our (quite literally:) core values with a protective layer that is consistent with what we are made of? Will we continue to be able to let them shine whenever there is a ray of light?

It would be a most precious thing.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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3 Responses to Hard shell, soft core

  1. Thank you for the poem, the phenomenon, translation and careful interpretation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lady of Shalott says:

    Et latet et lucet Phaethontide condita gutta,
    ut videatur apis nectare clusa suo.
    dignum tantorum pretium tulit illa laborum:
    credibile est ipsam sic voluisse mori.

    Shut in Phaethon’s drop, a bee both hides and shines,
    so that she seems imprisoned in her own nectar.
    She has a worthy reward for all her sufferings.
    One might believe that she herself willed so to die.

    Martial, IV, 32.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ha, I had completely forgotten about this one. Thanks for sharing – a beautiful piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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