Tibullus’ First Elegy

Below is a translation of the first elegy of Tibullus I made partly in Watford, England in the summer of 1983 and partly at home some point thereafter.   The first part of the poem I translated was a passage near the end, which I scrawled that summer on the rear fly-leaf of the Loeb edition I had just bought in Cambridge:


A few days ago (October, 2013) I retouched a few youthful oversights.  I submitted the earlier version to a short-lived 1980s Edmonton literary journal which had published two other poems of mine.  Unfortunately, that journal ceased publication around the time of my submission.   So, this translation has been pretty much unseen since its creation thirty years ago, rattling about first as scraps of paper and then copied from one hard drive to another.

Recently I have returned to translating the Elegies of Tibullus as a bit of a recreational break from the ongoing labour of translating the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records.

Another man may store up gold
as comfort to himself
and he may hold some many yards
of cultivated soil:
that man is scared and labour’s hard
with enemies nearby–
and from that man all sleep will flee
when Martial horns are blown.
But may my poorness carry me
along the lazy road
while yet a bright and warming fire
glows on my humble hearth
and may I be a rustic true
and plant young vines for wine
and large fruit trees with careful hands
at just the proper time.
And may hope not abandon me
but always give to me
a heap of crops and vats of must,
aging into wine.
In fields at stumps I say my prayers
or at a flower wrapped stone;
whatever fruits the new year brings
I place for rural gods.
O Yellow Ceres, may the wreath
of grains of our farmland
which hangs before your temple’s doors
always hang for you
and may the guardian of our fruit
be placed out in the field
that he might frighten stealing birds,
Priapus with his hook.
And you, too, Lares, take your gifts,
you guardians of this field
wealthy once but now quite poor
without fertility.
Then a heifer sacrificed
a thousand bullocks paid;
a small lamb now is victim for
a narrow patch of soil.
For you a lamb is now cut down
and ’round it rustic youths
sing out “give harvests and good wine”
and bravely cheer with joy.
And now for me it I might be
content to live with less
and not to always be forced out
to labour on long roads;
t’avoid the summer rising of
the dog-star’s scorching heat
beneath the shade of leafy trees
beside a river’s flow.
And meantime it is no disgrace
to hold a two-toothed hoe
or goad the tardy mooing cows
back to their tiny pens
nor to hold up to my breast
a lamb or baby goat
forgotten and deserted by
the doe and take it home.
And spare, you wolves and crafty thieves
these thinning herds of mine;
go seek your prey from bigger herds
of richer men than I.
From this small herd and from my field
I’m used to sacrifice
and sprinkle milk once every year
to calm fair Pales’ heart.
Be with me gods and do not spurn
gifts from a table poor
nor from plain pots of earthen-ware
made in ancient time.
Of earthen-ware in ancient times
country men first made
themselves such cups of simple clay
without a wheel or kiln.
I do not need my father’s wealth
which stored-up harvest brought
to my grandsire so long ago;
a small field is enough.
Enough it is to rest my limbs
when I have got the time
upon my couch and sleep again
on my familiar cot.
How fine it is to hear the winds
as I lie in my bed
my mistress held in gentle clasp
close to my happy heart
or, when the wind from out the south
lets go the winter showers,
to seek untroubled happy sleep,
the rain my lullaby.
This be my lot.  Let him be rich
if he can bear the sea
with all it’s rage; deservedly
if he can bear the rains.
I wish that just as much of gold,
as many emeralds green
would perish, as fair maidens weep
if I should travel wide.
For you Massalla war is good,
by land as well by sea,
that you might hang some foriegn spoils
on th’front door of your home.
But I am held by a lovely girl
I’m wrapped up in her chains
and so I sit, a door keeper
outside this cruel gate.
I do not care, my Delia
to win myself some praise;
If I’m with you I would be called
a lazy sluggish man.
That I might see at my last hour
you, looking down at me
and hold you close as I sink down
in final dying clasp!
You will mourn, my Delia
When I lie on my bier
and give me kisses that are mixed
with bitter tears of grief.
You will mourn:  your breast’s not bound
with bands of iron strong
nor does cold flint lie stubbornly
within your tender heart.
Dry-eyed no youth or girl can come
home from that funeral day.
Don’t wound my ghost.  But little rip
young hair and cheeks, Delia.
Meantime, while fates let us do so
let’s join ourselves in love:
soon Death will come, take us away
his head in darkened cowl;
soon idle age will creep to us
and love will not look good,
and grey-haired talk of love
does not become a man.
Light Venus now must be pursued,
when breaking down of doors
and having fun will bring no shame
and fighting in the streets.
Thus do I well the part of duke
and that of man of war;
you trumps and standards go away
and take those wounds with you
and give them to those men of greed
and take to them riches:
I’ll be secure with harvest heaped,
Hate famine just like wealth.

Creative Commons Licence
Tibullus’ First Elegy (translation) by John Richardson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

One comment on “Tibullus’ First Elegy

  1. […] Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer […]

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