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Monday: November 7, 2005

My Favorite Poem

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:59 PM UTC

As promised in the preceding post, here is a very literal prose translation of my favorite poem, Propertius 2.29 (Latin text here and — with vocabulary and translation notes — here). I don’t know how much will come through in translation:

Very late at night, my light, while I was wandering drunk, and no band [1] of slaves was leading me, I don’t know how many boys [2], a tiny crowd, crossed my path (fear forbade me to number them); some of whom seemed to be holding torchlets, some arrows, and part even seemed to be readying chains for me.
But [3] they were naked. One more impudent [or ‘lewder’] than the rest said: “Arrest this man: you already know him well. [4] This was he, this one the angry woman instructed us to deal with.” He spoke, and already the knot was on my neck.
Next another bids them push me into their midst, and another, “Let him go in the middle, [5] who does not think us gods! This one is waiting for undeserving you to all hours [of the night]: but you, fool, are seeking I don’t know what doors. When that one has loosened the nocturnal bonds of her Sidonian nightcap and stirred her heavy eyes, odors will waft upon you not from the Arabs’ herb, but those which Love himself has made with his own hands.
Spare him now, brothers, now he pledges true love; and look, now we have reached the house to which we were ordered to come.” And when my clothes had been thrown back on, they said: “Go now and learn to stay home nights!”
It was dawn, and I decided to visit, if she was resting alone, but Cynthia was alone in her bed. I was stunned: that one had never seemed more beautiful to me, not even when she was in her purple tunic and was on her way to tell her dreams to chaste Vesta, so that they would not harm either herself or me in any way. Thus she seemed to me, released by recent sleep. Oh how strong is the power of beauty in itself!
“What?” she said, “you are an early morning girlfriend inspector [6]. Do you think I am like your habits? [7] I am not so easy: one man known to me will be enough, either you or if someone [else] can be truer. No marks can be seen pressed into the bed, nor any indication that two have lain rolling to and fro. Look how no breath [8] rises up from my whole body, familiar when adultery has been committed.” She has spoken, and driving away my kisses with opposed right hand, leaps forth, resting her foot on a loose slipper.
Thus am I mocked as the guardian of so chaste a love: since then I have had no happy night.

A few necessary notes:

  1. manus is a pun, since it means both “hand” and “band, squad”.
  2. The boys are at the same time fugitivarii (fugitive slave-catchers), cupids, and pueri minuti (impudent children kept for the amusement of adults, like pets).
  3. sed, “but”, because nudity is appropriate only to cupids.
  4. Fugitivarii were often hired among acquaintances of the runaway. Since Propertius was a love-poet, the boys also know him well in their role as cupids.
  5. intereat is another pun, since it means both “let him go in the middle” and “let him die”.
  6. A speculator is actually a “scout”, a military reconnaissance-man, but I couldn’t use that word, since it makes the narrator sound like a Boy Scout.
  7. The “you” implied by “your habits” is plural, so she must mean “the habits of you men”.
  8. Though vague, this seems to refer to an odor, not heavy breathing.

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