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Tibullus’ Elegies: an excerpt

Tibullus was one of a group of poets known as the Latin elegists, whose number included Ovid and Propertius. Living in the age of Augustus, his poems reflect Augustan ideals, but they are above all notable for their emphasis on the personal, and for their subject-matter, love. Tibullus’ elegies are addressed to two different mistresses, Delia and Nemesis, and a boy, Marathus. Anguish and betrayal characterize Tibullus’ depiction of love’s changing fortunes, in poetry that is passionate, vivid, and sometimes haunting. Here, we’ve picked one of our favourite extracts from the Oxford World’s Classics edition. Enjoy… – Nicola

Book 1, Elegy 1 – line 45 to the end.
How sweet it is while lying down to hear fierce winds
and hold a mistress with a tender grasp!
Or when cold Austral winds are spreading sleet, what joy
to slumber safely with a fire’s help!
Let this befall me: may wealth be earned by one
who bears grim rain and seas that froth and foam.
O how much better that our gold and gems be lost
than any girl be crying as we roam!
Messalla, it is right you fight on land and sea
so spoils of war may decorate your home!
Chains of a gorgeous girl restrain me, and I linger
like a doorman at her stubborn door.
I want no praise, my Delia, if I am with you,
I’m asking to be labelled weak and dull.
May I behold when my final hour comes;
as I die, let me hold you as hands fail.
Delia, when flames engulf my bier you’ll weep for me,
and then you’ll mix your kisses with sad tears.
You’ll weep, for stubborn iron doesn’t wrap your breast,
nor is there flint inside your tender heart.
Nobody, neither man nor maiden, could return
home from that funeral and be dry-eyed.
Do not do damage to my spirit! Delia, spare
your unbound hair and spare your tender cheeks.
Meanwhile, as long as fate allows, let’s join in love!
First Death will come his features cloaked in gloom,
then age will sneak up, and it won’t be right to love
or speak seductive words with snowy hair.
Lighthearted love must be indulged while there’s no shame
in breaking doors and brawling gives us pleasure.
I’m a good soldier and good leader here. You troops
and trumpets, move it! Bring harm to the greedy,
and bring their lucre! Made secure by stacks I stored,
I’ll hate starvation and I’ll hate great wealth.

This excerpt is taken from Tibullus’ Elegies: With Parallel Latin Text, with a new translation by poet and translator A. M. Juster. The edition features an introduction and notes by Robert Maltby, Emeritus Professor of Latin Philology at the University of Leeds, and was published this month in the Oxford World’s Classics series.

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