The new translation of Tibullus by Michael Putnam and the late Rodney Dennis is quite simply, the best translation of Latin non-narrative poetry I have ever seen. Narrative poetry is a different kettle of fish. We can argue about the poetic merits of different translations of the Aeneid, and I have always been partial to Fitzgerald, but the fact is that even prose translations can be successful in this genre, and many prefer them for their greater fidelity to the original Latin. The storyline in a good narrative poem can be sufficiently compelling as to demand and reward the reader’s attention on its own merits. But as anyone who has ever tried to teach the Odes in translation will quickly attest, non-narrative forms, for which the primary attraction is not the story but the artistry of the poetic speech act, demand not simply literal, but poetic fidelity, which is a rare commodity.
There are many ways to attempt this feat. One way is to leave literalism behind and attempt exclusively a rendering of the poetic genius of the original. This leads to such notable experiments as Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, whose success can be judged by the fact that we still discuss it today. It is very good poetry, if not exactly Propertius. Most attempts though try both to remain true to the original text and to fashion analogous forms in the target language, with many compromises along the way. This can be quite difficult, since English accentual meter and the traditions of English verse do not offer many successful analogies to ancient lyric or elegiac meters, despite notable experiments by Tennyson and others.
The elegiac couplet, as practiced by Tibullus and his fellow elegists Propertius and Ovid, was both a metrical unit— consisting of a hexameter followed by a pentameter, each marked by a strong caesura—and a closed rhetorical form, in which each couplet was a syntactical unit. The elegiac couplet puts a premium on brevity and epigrammatic point, even as its position in a larger poetic whole demands that the reader be able to progress neatly from one couplet to the next. It represents a kind of formal paradox. The fact that each couplet was its own self-contained unit made the flowing narrative of hexameter epic difficult if not impossible, even as the succession of these couplets in larger poetic wholes put a premium on rhetorical development and ironic shifts in tone. Ovid is a master of this double movement in texts like the Ars Amatoria and the Heroides, but when he turns to the extended narrative of the Metamorphoses he also turns to the hexameter.
One of the great achievements of Dennis and Putnam’s translation is to have developed an English version of the elegiac couplet that reproduces all these features. They write a couplet that features a predominantly accentual six- beat line in the hexameter followed by a five-beat line in the pentameter. Each line has a clearly marked caesura and a clear sense of syntactical and metrical closure, without ever, except in the final couplet of the poem, resorting to that most common English expedient, end-rhyme, which was not a feature of classical Latin verse and can inhibit flow from one couplet to the next. One of the most perfect examples of their craft is 1.1.3-4:
quem labor assiduous || vicino terreat hoste
Martia cui somnos || classica pulsa fugent.
Whom constant toil scares || with the enemy nearby
And Mars’s trumpets blare || his deep sleep to flight.
The faithfulness to Tibullus’s original is flawless in metrical structure, syntax, semantics, and diction. The English, like the Latin, is elegant, simple, and polished. Internal rhyme and assonance are deployed deftly, and the facing Latin aids the reader in appreciation, without ever reducing the poetry to a mere trot. If we compare Philip Dunlop’s widely used Penguin translation, the result there is singularly less successful:
Let them be terrified by the enemy at the door and by persistent hardship
Their sleep routed by the blasts of the trumpet of war.
Any attempt to preserve the tautness of Tibullus’s syntax has been lost. The nine-beat first line is flaccid at best, the second line prosaic. Even relatively successful translations of elegy often fail on this score. Peter Green in his witty and often elegant rendering of Ovid’s Erotic Poems does a better job than Dunlop of preserving a sense of the couplet as a rhetorical unit, but at times resorts to enjambment between couplets and is more inconsistent about the metrical structure of his lines. Melville in his Oxford translation of Ovid’s Love Poems uses a wide variety of forms and never settles on a single equivalent to the elegiac couplet.
Time and again, Dennis and Putnam produce remarkably apt renditions of couplets whose artistic structure would seem to elude their being fully Englished. One particularly fine example, which will allow the reader to see the way in which the couplets retain their closure and yet allow the poem to progress seamlessly from one rhetorical unit to the next, is 1.2.55-66. Here Tibullus is explaining to his beloved Delia that can she open the door to him without fearing the retribution of the man who keeps her since the poet has acquired the services of a wise woman or witch:
For she made me chants you can use to deceive
Sing them thrice and spit thrice when you have sung.
Then he cannot believe anyone talking about us, not even
If he himself has seen us on the soft bed.
But you had better forsake others. For everything else
He will have eyes. He is only blind to me.
Can I believe it? This same creature with chants and herbs
Has said she can release me from my love.
She encircled me with fire, and on a moonlit night
A dusky victim fell to the magic gods.
I did not pray to be altogether freed from love.
It should be shared. I would not live without you.
One of the wonderful things about this passage in the original is the rapidity with which the speaker changes direction, even as each individual statement seems fine on its own. It’s only when you put them altogether that the absurdity of his position becomes truly apparent. The witch has given him spells and if ritually performed they will be effective. The translators’ use the internal rhyme of “deceive” with “believe” to capture Tibullus’s use of fallere and credere in the same metrical sedes in the first two couplets. These spells are so powerful that Delia’s man will not be able to believe his own eyes, even should he catch the lovers in flagrante delicto.
The next couplet marks a quick qualification: just because Delia’s man can’t see Tibullus doesn’t mean he can’t see Delia’s other lovers. In the Latin, this couplet has a sense of rapid improvisation. There are three quick clauses, with the second spanning the turn from the hexameter to the pentameter and leading right to the caesura. The poet is trying to think on his feet. It is a bravura performance, using all the resources of the couplet while adhering to its conventions, even as it gives the impression of thought spontaneously produced and spilling over the boundaries that separate one line of the couplet from the next. Dennis and Putnam reproduce this effect to perfection.
Tibullus then asks the obvious question. How can he believe this tale and, more importantly, why on earth should Delia believe it and let him in? The answer is simple: the witch promised to make him fall out of love! A demonstration of her power, by means of a lurid description of the ceremony follows in the next couplet whose structure and rhythm mirror the original Latin with uncanny accuracy.
“But,” the poet pulls up short. There’s just one tiny little problem. He’s still in love, and indeed that’s the whole point of the poem! A quick negation and explanation follow. Of course, the poet did not pray to be released from love, but for it to be mutual and shared: and Delia can demonstrate the wise woman’s power by simply opening the door. There is a cinematic and comic quality to these lines that it is very easy to miss. Dennis and Putnam do an excellent job of showing the poet scramble as he tries to unravel the tangle of his tortured argumentative skein.
Similar examples could be multiplied. 1.5.5-8 reproduce with admirable fidelity the suave and sophisticated structure of Tibullus’s couplets, their use of assonance and alliteration, and the rapid shifting of his thought:
Scorch and wrack my wildness lest hereafter I find joy
In boastfulness: tame my threatening words.
Only please be kind! I plead by the stealthy concord of our bed,
By Venus and your head posed next to mine.
The translators are equally skilled when Tibullus turns to a more invective mode such as in 1.9.53-56:
But you who dared debase this boy with gifts, without reprisal
May your wife scoff at you with deceit upon deceit
And when she has worn out her young lover in secret mating,
May she lie with you sated, sheets now between.
The final qualification, “sheets now between,” does an admirable job of reproducing the effect of Tibullus’s interlaced word order, “Tecum interposita languida veste,” wherein the initial elision indicates a closeness that interposita comes to belie.
The book is prefaced with a clearly written and up-to-date introduction by Julia Haig Gaisser. There are clear explanatory notes, a useful glossary, and a solid basic bibliography. Dennis and Putnam have not only translated all of Tibullus, but they have also included the poems of Lygdamus and Sulpicia from the corpus Tibullianum, as well as the most important testimonia. For the last twenty years, I have by and large refrained from teaching Tibullus in translation, owing to the lack of an effective rendition. That is about to change!