Tibullus: Elegies

October 22, 2019

Elegies
Albius Tibullus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(Oxford, 2012) [c.26 BC, 19 BC]
xxxiii + 129 p.

In the ranks of the Augustan poets, Tibullus has a lesser reputation than his contemporaries Virgil and Ovid. In fact, until recently I’d never, to my knowledge, heard of him. Nonetheless, he was an Augustan poet, he did live and write alongside Virgil and Ovid, and he has been published by Oxford World’s Classics. The time being ripe, I took a chance on him.

He left us two books of elegies before his early death, in 18 BC, when he was not yet 40 years old. The elegy was a poetic form with a distinctive metre — lines of hexameter alternating with lines of pentameter — that the Romans had adopted from the Greeks. The greatest Roman elegist before Tibullus’ time had been Catullus, who used it in his famous Lesbia poems, but both Ovid and Propertius, another of Tibullus’ contemporaries, wrote in the form.

His books show signs of careful construction as unified artistic projects. The first book, consisting of ten poems, trace the slow dissolution of his romance with a woman, Delia, and his fruitless attempts to attract a boy, Marathus. The first poems are hopeful and idealistic, describing his affection for country life and a happy family, but things do not go well. A few poems in, we find him camped out before Delia’s door, denied entrance. By the end of the first book, he has given up hope and is being conscripted, kicking and screaming, to march to war.

The second book continues the downward spiral, though this time the object of his romantic attention is Nemesis, a woman with a reputation befitting her name. The poet is still aware of those ideals he expressed before, but now he’s willing to sacrifice them to win Nemesis’ love. But to no avail: he sells his soul and wins nothing. The book of six poems ends with this malediction:

‘Madam, I pray you’re cursed. You’ll live with ample dread
if something in my prayers affects the gods.

**

There are some interesting nooks and crannies in these poems. For instance, in Book II, the fifth elegy, written to commemorate the ordination to the priesthood of his patron’s son — even here, he finds a way to complain about Nemesis! — includes a brief recounting of the history of Rome, a passage that put me in mind of the similar (but much more extensive) passages in Virgil’s Aeneid. The notes of this edition point out that although Tibullus died before the publication of Virgil’s epic, he might well have heard those passages read aloud by Virgil himself during the poem’s composition. Speculative, but intriguing.

Tibullus’ fortunes have occasionally waxed, but mostly waned, over the centuries. He was well enough regarded by his poet-friends that Ovid wrote a poem — Amores 3.9 — in his honour when he died. Quintilian, writing about a century later, thought him the greatest Roman elegist, but references to him gradually declined, and we know of none between the fifth century and the Renaissance, when he enjoyed a revival alongside all things antique. He was known to Herrick, Montaigne, Rabelais, Ariosto, and Tasso. But he has never had a high profile in the English-speaking world — a state of affairs that this Oxford edition is meant to help remedy.

The translator is A.M. Juster, whose work I have appreciated in the past. It is always hard to judge how much of the poetry is the poet and how much the translator, but I can say that, by and large, I enjoyed Tibullus-via-Juster considerably less than I enjoyed Horace-via-Juster. Tibullus just seems flatter, less witty, more prosaic — in both the literal and the figurative senses of that word. His poetic voice never quite captured my imagination, apart from a few striking passages (appended below). I don’t want to blame Juster for this, because I know he’s a wonderfully versatile translator, so I guess I’m stuck blaming Tibullus.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I read the book. Reading a lesser poet helps us better appreciate the greater poets. And the book is not long — fewer than 100 pages if we exclude the notes, and that includes Latin on the facing page!

***

[Farms and civilization]
I praise the farm and gods of farms; with them as guides,
life meant not fending hunger off with acorns.
They first taught men to join the rafters and enclose
a humble dwelling with some leafy boughs.
They say too they first taught that bulls were made for work
and placed a wheel beneath a vehicle,
then savage foods were lost, then seeds for fruit-trees sown,
then fertile gardens drank from channelled streams,
then golden grapes released their juice to stomping feet
and sober water mixed with carefree wine.
The country yields the harvest when the scorching star
of heaven strips the earth of golden tresses.
In spring swift country bees are busy bearing flowers
to the hive to fill combs with sweet honey.
(2.1)

[The coming of night]
Play! Night yokes horses now; a lusty choir of golden
stars pursues its mother’s chariot,
and following in silence, wrapped in gloomy wings,
comes Sleep and murky Dreams on spectral feet.
(2.1)

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