The other day I was reading a bit of Yeats. I’m not quite sure why my glance fell on his “A Thought from Propertius” nor why it was held. Perhaps the name Propertius caught my eye. Although I had at one time been mentored by a scholar of Propertius, I had never read a word of the man’s poetry. For some reason I had spent my time with Catullus and Tibullus.
Here is Yeats’ little thought from Propertius:
She might, so noble from head
To great shapely knees
The long flowing line,
Have walked to the altar
Through the holy images
At Pallas Athene’s Side,
Or been fit spoil for a centaur
Drunk with the unmixed wine.
Well! I had to do some searching and find out what old W. B. had read in Propertius’ Latin to inspire that lovely celebration of a particular woman! After a bit of mucking about on the Internet, I pinned it down to the second elegy in Propertius’ second book of elegies, conveniently titled “Propertius II, ii”. As I read the Roman boy’s Latin I thought, “Wow! William Butler really distilled the thing down to its bare essence!” After spending a week or so with Propertius’ deeply mythical allusions — first while translating them into English verse while riding the LRT, then in just rolling the result around in my head — I think I can honestly say I prefer Propertius’ celebration of his lover.
Here’s what I jotted down on that rush hour train ride (Propertius’ Latin follows):
Propertius II, ii.
Free I was and was prepared
for life in an empty bed.
But now the peace I had composed
has been betrayed by Love.
Why does such a human form
loiter on this earth?
I, Jupiter, forgive you your
intrigues in ancient times.
Yellow her hair and long her hands,
her body statuesque.
When walking she is dignified
like the sister of high Jove,
or Pallas when she strides unto
her breast concealed by gorgon head
and its snake-bearing locks.
And she is like Ischomache,
the Lapith heroine,
desired spoil of Centaurs’ rape
while they were in their cups.
Like Brimo when, by sacred font
of Boebeis, laid down
her virgin body, so it’s said
beside swift Mercury.
Now yield the contest, goddesses
whom in those ancient days
the shepherd saw take tunics off
up on Mount Ida’s heights.
And oh! may old age never have
the power to change that face
although she reach the span of life
of Cumae’s prophetess.
And, in Latin:
Liber eram et vacuo meditabar vivere lecto;
at me composita pace fefellit Amor.
cur haec in terris facies humana moratur?
Iuppiter, ignosco pristina furta tua.
fulva coma est longaeque manus, et maxima toto
corpore, et incedit vel Iove digna soror,
aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras,
Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis;
qualis et Ischomache Lapithae genus heroine,
Centauris medio grata rapina mero;
Mercurio satis fertur Boebeidos undis
virgineum Brimo composuisse latus.
cedite iam, divae, quas pastor viderat olim
Idaeis tunicas ponere verticibus!
hanc utinam faciem nolit mutare senectus,
etsi Cumaeae saecula vatis aget!
My translation of Propertius II, ii is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Like I need to tell you.