Tibullus Elegy I.2 Addresses the Door that Locks Him from Delia

Albius Tibullus Elegy I.2

Translated by Steven J. Willett

Tibullus at Delia’s Home by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Note: Tibullus Elegy I.2 is another case of paraclausithyron (παρακλαυσίθυρον), where a poet is locked outside his lover’s home. Unlike Propertius’ I.6 version of the setting, here Tibullus directly addresses the door and its guards or custodians. This elegy is one of the most complex in all the genre for its conflicting points of view, its imagery and metaphors, its rhetorical use of syntactical disjunction and its almost musical fugue of realism with subtle irony. In many cases it’s impossible to decide if an emotioanl tone is serious or playful. I have chosen to reproduce the syntactical disjunctions in English since they are quite extreme even for the Latin. Quintilian considered Tibullus the finest elegiac poet, a view I share, but in the case of I.2 he puts strong demands on the reader. The section of the elegy that describes the witch who gave Tibullus a protective spell reflects the common belief of the time, both with Greek and Roman poets, in the reality of magic.

Tibullus I.2

Break out the unmixed wine and repress your latest suffering,

so sleep may seize the infirm’s wearied eyes,

and let none his temples, broken with too much Bacchus,

arouse while barren love is settling in repose.

For a savage custodian has been assigned to our dear girl,

and sturdy door is closed on this rough night.

Door of an obstinate owner, you a rainstorm should lash,

you thunderbolts dispatched by Jove should hit.

Door, just open now for me alone, won by my complaints,

and as I stealthily hinges turn stay quiet.

And if by chance our severe dementia speaks to you,

forgive: I pray that lives in my own head.

It’s fitting to remind you, what I spouted with varied cry

of suppliant, when I set garlands on your post.

And you also, Delia, don’t be timid to dupe your guards

when daring’s needed: Venus helps the bold.

She’s favorable, if a youth puts to test some new threshold,

or if his girl unlocks the gate’s fixed teeth;

she teaches how stealthily to crawl from a soft bed,

she puts a foot to steps without a sound,

she gathers close to her husband’s face a nodding chatter

and fawning words conceals in quiet signs.

Nor teaches this to all, but those neither inertia hinders

nor fear to rise in obscure night restrains.

Look! I ramble anxious in darkness throughout the whole city

. . .

and she doesn’t let anyone bump me, who my body with knife

would hurt or seek rich booty with my clothes.

Whoever’s mastered by love, let him go secure and sacred

where he desires: it’s wrong to fear a snare.

Not for me the numbing coldness of winter night afflicts,

not for me, heavy rainstorm water falls.

This labor exerts no trouble, if only Delia unlocks the door

and calls me with her finger’s noiseless sound.

Refrain from any lights, whether man or woman makes

the meeting: Venus wants to hide her scheme.

Don’t terrify with clattering of feet or query for a name

or carry light nearby with flaming torch.

And if anyone unsuspecting ever sees you, let him hide it

and through all gods deny to recollect:

for if anyone turns talkative, he’ll find her born of blood,

he’ll see a Venus from the raging sea.

Your husband still won’t believe that, so truthful to me

promised a witch with magic ministry.

I saw her myself conducting the stars down from heaven,

her chant turns back the course of raging stream,

she cleaves apart the earth by spells and ghosts from sepulchers

entices and calls back bones from tepid pyre;

now she masters the infernal bands with magic hissing,

now sprinkled milk imposes their feet back.

When pleased, she drives away the clouds from somber sky,

when pleased, convokes the snow in summertime.

Alone she now possesses (it’s been said) Medea’s evil herbs,

alone she vanquished Hecate’s savage hounds.

For me she has composed a spell, which is able to deceive:

chant thrice, spit thrice with incantations spoken.

He’ll not be able then to believe anyone concerning us,

not himself, if he saw us in the pliant bed.

You however keep yourself away from others: he’ll perceive

all else: about me he will not sense a point.

What, do I believe? She’s clearly the same who said loves

by charms or herbs she can unbind, mine also,

and purified me by pine resin torches, and in serene night

cut up woeful victims to the sorcery gods.

Not I, that all love would pass away, but turn mutual,

I prayed, and free of you I wished no life.

Iron was that man, who, when he could possess you,

chose plunder foolishly and followed arms.

He’s free to drive the conquered Cilician troops before him,

and post his martial camp on captured soil,

all now in silver sheets wrapped about, all in gold,

he sits conspicuous on his swift horse:

if only I might, with you my darling Delia, the oxen herds

yoke and feed the cattle on the usual mount,

and you, when unrestrained, I retain within my tender arms

and soft sleep comes to me on untilled earth.

What can reclining on a Tyrian couch without love’s favors

offer, if night with sleepless wailing comes?

For then no pillows nor embroidered covers deep sleep,

no sound of placid waters, can invoke.

Have I violated the divinity of mighty Venus by a word,

and now my impious tongue atones the crime?

Am I now said to sinfully have entered the divine sanctuary

and garlands torn away from sacred hearth?

Not I, if deserving, would waver to sink down in her temples

and give my kisses to the sacred lintels,

Not I, to crawl across the earth on knees a suppliant

and beat my wretched head on sacred door.

But you, who laugh so pleased at our miseries, beware

soon for you: god rages not at one forever.

I’ve seen, one who ridiculed the miserable loves of youth,

bow down his neck in Venus’ bonds now old

and blandishments compose himself in a quivering voice

and seek by hand to dress his own white hair,

and stand unashamed before the door of his beloved girl

to check a maid in middle of the forum.

Here boys, here young men a tumult closely crowds around,

till he rejects soft girls and each embrace for him.

But spare me, Venus: always for you serves dedicated

my mind: why your own harvests harshly burn?

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4 Responses to Tibullus Elegy I.2 Addresses the Door that Locks Him from Delia

  1. Stephanie says:

    This is wonderful and I’m still unpacking it, as they say nowadays. Who is the “our” in “our severe dementia,” that belongs to two people but lives only in the head of Tibullus? Delia? No doubt I’m being dense. There’s more, but I have to read it again.

  2. Steven J. Willett says:

    The use of first-person Latin pronoun nos (we) is common in the amatory elegies. It refers to the poet himself. That tends to generalize the emotions rather than focus crudely on the speaking persona. When the poet uses Latin ego (I), there is a strong rhetorical emphasis. A good example in this elegy is lines 31-32 with mihi (to me):

    Non mihi pigra nocent hibernae frigora noctis,
    Non mihi, cum multa decidit imber aqua.

    In English,

    Not for me the numbing coldness of winter night afflicts,

    not for me, heavy rainstorm water falls.

    Hope this helps.

  3. Stephanie says:

    It does. Many thanks.

  4. FWH says:

    I got a big message in the last few lines and the earlier lines prepared me. Expect the prize to be lost or reduced to a tangled web. It happens through ambition, distraction, or even just a poorly chosen word. An all knowing God has not revealed her plan in this.

    This was a lot about love in a cerebral way; not so emotional in the way of some love poetry. It felt like he wanted to understand it, explain it, and pass along what he knew.

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