“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah”

Jonah son of Amittai
running away from a dangerous mission
boarded a ship sailing
from Joppa to Tarshish
the well-known things happened
great wind tempest
the crew casts Jonah forth
into the deep
the sea ceases
from her raging the foreseen fish
comes swimming up
three days and three nights
Jonah prays in the fish’s belly
which vomits him out at last on dry land

the modern Jonah goes down like a stone
if he comes across a whale
he hasn’t time even to gasp

he behaves more cleverly
than his biblical colleague
the second time he does not take on
a dangerous mission
he grows a beard and
far from the sea
far from Nineveh
under an assumed name
deals in cattle and antiques
agents of Leviathan can be bought
they have no sense of fate
they are the functionaries of chance
in a neat hospital
Jonah dies of cancer
himself not knowing very well
who he really was

the parable applied to his head expires
and the balm of the legend does not take to his flesh

Text: Zbigniew Herbert translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter
Image: Pieter Lastman, Jonas en de walvis, 1621, Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf

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