Tibullus Elegy I.4 Asks Priapus Help in Gaining Love of Boys
Translated by Steven J. Willett
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Tibullus reciting his elegies at Delia’s home. We have no Roman busts or statues of Tibullus, c55~19BC.
Note 1: Ovid wrote an elegy in Amores III.9 to memorialize his friend’s sudden and fairly youthful death. I highly recommend reading the elegy, but I can never forget the magnificent closing lines 59~68, especially the final two couplets:
his comes umbra tua est, si qua est modo corporis umbra;
auxisti numeros, culte Tibulle, pios.
ossa quieta, precor, tuta requiescite in urna,
et sit humus cineri non onerosa tuo!
Note 2: Readers should beware that this elegy is a play on reader response. The poet puts a question to Priapus, whose long answer (9~72) is a commonplace of advice in seeking love of boys. He presents his praecepta with seriousness and in the pose of a dogmatic and learned professor. His lecture also has the pomposity of a professor. Then in the final part (73~84) Tibullus takes over as an instructor and a detached, uninvolved poet. See how that comes out.
“So may the sheltering shade cloak you round, Priapus,
your head unharmed by sunny days or snows:
what is your ruse for catching handsome boys? Certainly
your beard’s not glossy nor your hair debonair;
naked you draw out the bitter cold of long winter nights,
naked the parching days of summer’s Dog Star.”
Thus I: then the rustic offspring of Bacchus, the god
armed with a curving sickle, answered thus:
“O beware trusting yourself to the tender troop of boys,
who always give some rightful cause of love.
One pleases, because he checks a horse on tight reins,
another drives calm water with snowy breast.
This one, for his brave audacity, captures you; that one
for maiden shame that guards his tender cheeks.
But do not, if he should reject you at first, let fatigue
seize you; his neck will slowly take the yoke.
The fullness of time teaches lions submission to man,
the fullness of time gnaws rock with gentle water.
The circling year ripens grapes on their sun-drenched hills;
the circling year drives radiant stars in their course.
Don’t be afraid to swear: the winds carry Venus’ perjuries
invalid over land and towering seas.
Great thanks to Jove: the Father himself has declared void
the oaths that foolish love may swear in passion;
Dictymna lets you affirm your promises by her arrows
without danger, Minerva by her hair.
But if you’re slow, you’ll go wrong. Youth will glide away
how swiftly: time stands not idle or returns.
How swiftly the earth loses all its deep-dyed flowers,
how swiftly lofty poplars their lovely leaves;
how fallen the horse, when fate brings feeble old age,
that once tore from the starting gate at Elis.
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