Immiti Consumptus Morte Tibullus

By Whiteman, Bruce | The Hudson Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Immiti Consumptus Morte Tibullus


Whiteman, Bruce, The Hudson Review


Immiti Consumptus Morte Tibullus

By comparison with English translations of the other great Latin elegiac poets, Propertius and Ovid, versions of the poems of Albius Tibullus (born between 55 and 48 BCE, died 19 or 18 BCE) have been rather few and far between. So the almost simultaneous appearance of two new translations is a noteworthy occurrence.1 The modern view of Tibullus as a second-rate poet-the reason usually cited for the paucity of English renderings of his poems-differs markedly from the opinion of his contemporaries in antiquity. Horace and Ovid thought him a poet of the first rank, and Quintilian, a rhetorician and critic of the first century CE, called him tersus atque elegans (concise and suave) and placed him above Ovid and Propertius as an elegist. One of Horace's Epistles is addressed to Tibullus, and while his compliment to his friend about writing poems that are much better than those of Cassius Parmensis might be a backhanded one (Cassius was among the cabal who murdered Julius Caesar, but as his poetry does not survive, the exact nature of the compliment must remain obscure), the poem's overall tone is genial. Ovid called him cultus (urbane), and his wellknown elegy for Tibullus in the Amores is full of fellow feeling and undiluted praise. Si tarnen e nobis aliquid nisi nomen et umbra / restât, in Elysia valle Tibullus erit, he writes: "If anything survives of us beyond a name and mere shadows, / Tibullus will inhabit some vale of Elysium." Two early English translators coincidentally called him "sweet," first Charles Hopkins in a book of poems published in 1694 as Epistolary Poems, On Several Occasions ("so sweet and excellent a poet") and, almost two centuries later, James Cranstoun in his 1872 full translation of the elegies ("a sweet old author"). It is a word that no more recent critic would have invoked, as Francis Cairns's allusion in 1979 to "the old characterization of him as an anaemic dilettante" bears out.2 Latterly some scholars, propped up by critical theory, have defended Tibullus' putative formal inelegance by seeing it as an early instance of deliberate fragmentation in the manner of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.3

Although the earliest surviving manuscript of Tibullus is late (c. 1375), over a hundred Renaissance manuscripts are extant. The early printed editions tended to lump Tibullus together with Catullus and Propertius. Ovid, who unlike Propertius and Tibullus wrote many other works beyond his elegiac poems, usually received separate editions, and it is striking how even during the first fifty years of printing, Ovid was overwhelmingly the most popular Latin elegist. There are nineteen fifteenth-century editions recorded for Tibullus, beginning in 1472, and fourteen for Propertius, but 271 for Ovid. (For comparison's sake, Cicero has 348, Virgil 187, and Horace 82.) Full translations into English of all sixteen elegies have been relatively uncommon although some writers included a poem or two in anthological collections. Byron's school friend John Cam Hobhouse, for example, included a translation of the second elegy from Book I in his Imitations and Translations from the Ancient and Modern Classics, which was published in 1809. Pound seems never to have referred to Tibullus despite his encyclopedic knowledge of Latin poetry, although he does quote a beautiful line in Canto XXV from "Sulpicia's Garland," a group of poems that was often printed as part of Book III of Tibullus' works and indeed is still associated with him. The line, conventional enough in classical epigram, is still heartbreaking: pone metum, Cerinthe; deus non laedit amantes. "Don't be afraid, Cerinthus; God does not harm lovers." Of these two new translations, Juster's does not include anything from Book III, but the Dennis-Putnam version includes the poems from Book III by Sulpicia, including "Sulpicia's Garland," and the poems of an otherwise unknown poet, Lygdamus.

By a strange coincidence, each of these books bears a Pre-Raphaelite image on the front cover, both being preparatory drawings for major paintings. …

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