Alexandria, A.D. 641


Since the first Adam who beheld the night
And the day and the shape of his own hand,
Men have made up stories and have fixed
In stone, in metal, or on parchment
Whatever the world includes or dreams create.
Here is the fruit of their labor: the Library.
They say the wealth of volumes it contains
Outnumbers the stars or the grains
Of sand in the desert. The man
Who tried to read them all would lose
His mind and the use of his reckless eyes.
Here the great memory of the centuries
That were, the swords and the heroes,
The concise symbols of algebra,
The knowledge that fathoms the planets
Which govern destiny, the powers
Of herbs and talismanic carvings,
The verse in which love's caress endures,
The science that deciphers the solitary
Labyrinth of God, theology,
Alchemy which seeks to turn clay into gold
And all the symbols of idolatry.
The faithless say that if it were to burn,
History would burn with it. They are wrong.
Unceasing human work gave birth to this
Infinity of books. If of them all
Not even one remained, man would again
Beget each page and every line,
Each work and every love of Hercules,
And every teaching of every manuscript.
In the first century of the Muslim era,
I, that Omar who subdued the Persians
And who imposes Islam on the Earth,
Order my soldiers to destroy
By fire the abundant Library,
Which will not perish. All praise is due
To God who never sleeps and to Muhammed, His Apostle.


                                    Spanish; trans. Stephen Kessler


Jorge Luis Borges, Spanish, trans. Stephen Kessler, Selected Poems, ed. Alexander Coleman, Viking Penguin, 1999.