Tibullus Elegy I.3: A Chopin Nocturne on War


Translated by Steven Willett


Across Aegean waves Massalla, you'll sail without me,

    yet thinking of me, I hope, you and your staff!

Phaeacia now holds me back, sick in an unknown land

    —if only black black Death stay her greedy  hands.

Stay them, black Death, I implore you: no mother is here

    to gather my burnt bones to her sad breast,

no sister to bestow Assyrian perfumes on my ashes

    and weep before my grave with unbound hair;

nor Delia anywhere, who only let me leave the city

    after, they say, consulting all the gods.

She drew the sacred lots three times from the boy: to her

    the boy reported all of them were certain.

Each promised safe return, yet she could not be restrained

    from weeping at a voyage she viewed with terror.

I, too, her consoler, once I'd given my parting instructions,

    looked long in my unease for slow delays:

I pleaded as my excuse that inauspicious birds, dire portents

    or Saturn's sacred day detained me there.

How often I've told myself, after the journey had begun,

    that stumbling at the gate was ominous!

Let no one dare depart when Love prohibits it

    or he will learn a god opposed his going.

What help to me is your Isis now, Delia, what help to me

    the sistrum shaken by your hand so often,

what help, piously tending the rites, to bathe in pure water

    and sleep (how I recall!) in a pure bed?

Now, goddess, now fly to my aid (for the painted tablets

    filling your temples prove the power to heal)

so that my Delia, fulfilling the nights she vowed, may sit

    covered in linen by her sacred doors

and twice each day recite your praises with loosened hair

    conspicuous among the Pharian crowd.

But let it be my fortune to worship the ancestral Penates

    and give the ancient Lar his monthly incense.

How well they used to live under Saturn's reign, before

    the earth was opened into distant voyages!

The pine-hewn ship had not yet defied the azure waves

    nor offered billowing sails before the winds;

and wandering over unknown lands in search of profits,

    no sailor had packed his raft with foreign wares.

In those days no mighty bull submitted to the yoke,

    no broken horse champed at the biting bit,

no house had any door, no stone stood in the ground

    to govern cropland with fixed boundaries;

the oaks gave honey without bees, and freely the ewes

    bore milk-filled udders to meet carefree men;

there was no battle line, no wrath, no wars, and no ruthless

    craftsmen had forged the sword by cruel skill.

But now, in Jove's dominion, butchery and wounds unending,

    now the sea, now a thousand ways to sudden death.

Spare me, father: I am afraid, though no perjuries terrify me,

    no impious words against the sacred gods.

But if I have even now completed all my destined days,

    set a stone above my bones inscribed with this:



But me, because I've always been compliant to tender Love,

    Venus herself will lead to the Elysian fields.

There song and dance are blossoming, and everywhere flitting

    birds sing sweet melodies with slender throat;

the fallow fields bear cinnamon, and through all the lands

    the fertile earth abounds with fragrant roses;

ranks of young men intermingled with tender girls

    frolic as Love assiduously drives the battles.

There are all the lovers on whom rapacious death has swept,

    and each wears a myrtle garland as a sign.

But the place of iniquity lies buried deep in the night's

    abyss, around which pitch-black rivers roar,

and Tisiphone, disheveled Fury with wild snakes for hair,

    rages, and pell-mell flees the impious rabble;

then at the gate black Cerberus, head bristling with serpents,

    hisses and crouching guards the brazen doors.

There the criminal limbs of Ixion, who dared rape Juno,

    are whirled upon a swiftly spinning wheel,

and Tityos, stretched across nine acres of land, feeds

    the unremitting birds with his black liver.

Tantalus is there in a pool, but when he's about to drink,

    the water shrinks away from his fierce thirst;

and Danaus' offspring, for affronting Venus' power,

    carry Lethean waters in leaky jars.

Let anyone who's ever profaned my love dwell there,

    who's wished me lingering campaigns at war.

But you, Delia, please stay faithful, and for your honor's guard

    a vigilant old woman should always sit near.

She'll spin out tales for you, and when the lamp's set down,

    draw out long thread from her laden distaff,

while all around, absorbed in heavy toil, the weary girls

    little by little drop their work in sleep.

Then let me come suddenly, with none to announce me,

    and I'll seem heaven-sent to be with you.

Then just as you are, your long hair streaming in disorder,

    with naked feet, Delia, rush to meet me.

This I desire: thus may radiant Aurora on rose-hued

    horses bring us that shining Morning Star.



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5 Responses to Tibullus Elegy I.3: A Chopin Nocturne on War

  1. Diana L Croissant says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for posting this.

  2. fanto says:

    @ Steven Willett,
    am I mistaken to believe that your translation reminds some of the Ovid’s verses from his Metamorphoses?
    “…ver erat aeternum, placidique tepentibus auris
    mulcebant zephyri natos sine semine flores;
    mox etiam fruges tellus inarata ferebat,
    nec renovatus ager gravidis canebat aristis;
    flumina iam lactis, …”
    I am not a classic scholar, only remember scraps of my latin education in the highschool, so forgive my ignorance.

  3. Steven Willett says:

    Ovid wrote a group of erotic elegies published as Amores. It’s likely he was just playing with the form. He did, however, write a superb elegy on the death of Tibullus, Amores III.IX. There are many translations available on the Internet, several with the Latin. Take a look.

  4. Deap says:

    Compare this to the cry from the 1960’s: “Hell no, we won’t go.”
    The devolution of centuries of language and thought, but the message remains the same. Not gonna make war no more.

  5. Kilo 4/11 says:

    @ Deap: Compare this to the cry from the 1960’s: “Hell no, we won’t go.”
    And Deap, how about the echo of “Make love, not war!” in the line
    Let no one dare depart when Love prohibits it

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