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Absent Friends: Gentle Poet

The Rome that was to be great, the Rome that underwent its traumatic breech birth from vaguely representative Republic to prototypical world-straddling Empire, treated with wanton harshness the men who would later ripen into its foremost bards. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate, his killers, like their victim, were mostly themselves men of letters. Playwrights struck down a fellow playwright; epigrammatists fatally edited one of their own. The melancholy truth of the Ides of March was how similar the killers were to their victim, how connected the discourse that, once sundered, sundered the world.

The great battle of Philippi was fought in the aftermath of that sundering – young Octavian and his forces won, the last vestiges of Republican Rome were shattered, and more to the point, thousands of unoccupied conscripts were mustered out and needed to be occupied, lest they start to get ideas in their heads about alternate uses for their swords and hobnailed boots.

You couldn’t pay them in coin – there wasn’t enough money in all of the empire. But if you were Octavian (and his immediate cohorts in crime), you had something even better with which to pay your noisy veterans: land.

Virgil lost his hereditary family lands just so. So too Propertius and Horace. Catullus, despite having lampooned Julius Caesar in a handful of bestselling ditties, survived the cataclysm of the Western world with his finances unscathed. Ovid kept his own finances equally liquid, but through adroit surfing of patronage rather than the momentum of partially inherited wealth. But most poets faced a similar dilemma: expulsion from their ancestral lands, followed by the necessity of pleading with a patron to get some portion of them back.

So Virgil and Horace to the bounty of Macaenas, and so one of Rome’s greatest elegiac poets, Albius Tibullus, to the patronage of that most illustrious Roman citizen, Marcus Valerius Messalla, whose eloquence had been praised by Cicero himself. We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely Tibullus’ family knew Messalla’s somehow in the old days – there is no record or tradition of Tibullus seeking out his help, and yet help from that quarter he almost certainly received, since in his poems he’s clearly been restored to a serviceable part – perhaps even a large part – of the landed wealth and ease he once enjoyed.

No record and no tradition … such should be the overhead motto for all poets whose lives are as fragmentary as Tibullus. His entire body of work, the so-called corpus Tibullianum, consists of three slight books of poems (20th-century classicists took to dividing this lot into four books, for reasons known only to themselves), the contents of which are a mixed bag. One poem commemorates the triumph awarded Messalla in 27 B.C., and another celebrates the naming of Messalla’s oldest boy, Messalinus, to the quindeciviri Sacrens faciundis, the order charged with the care and reading of Rome’s prophetic Sybelline Books, in 17 B.C. Were it not for these two pieces, it would scarcely be possible to date Tibullus with any accuracy at all. There is a small vita associated with the corpus (perhaps derived from a lost life by Suetonius), but it’s of very little help in pinning down and filling out a life.

An epigram by Domitius Marsus, also in the corpus, is similarly unhelpful (confirming for us that perhaps Tibullus died young). The grammarian Diomedes makes brief mention of him, as does the Horatian commentator Porphyrion. Propertius never mentions him, nor he Propertius. Even Augustus‘ name never comes up – understandable, considering Messalla’s well-known Republican sympathies. Ovid (who also enjoyed the patronage of Messalla) characterizes Tibullus as mooning about philosophically in the region of Pedum (perhaps where his family estates were), and more famously still strikes a genuinely heartfelt note when writing about Tibullus’ death and cremation:

When good men die too young, I’m sore tempted
To doubt – heresy – the gods exist at all.
A dutiful life is still snuffed in death.
The most pious god-fearing worshipper
Is hurled from his high altar to his grave.
Think creativity your charm, poet?
Look, there lies Tibullus, surely your better.
Flame-guttered to an urnful of burnt carrion.
Did flames really eat your body, your art?
Were they braver still, then, to eat your heart?

In the picture Ovid paints, Tibullus dies young enough to have his mother attend to his body, and Ovid also has in attendance two of the most prominent names from Tibullus’ poems: Delia, the mistress of his first book, and Nemesis, the mistress of his second (of his other romantic fixation, the wealthy pretty-boy Marathus, Ovid somewhat surprisingly makes no mention).

This apparent testimonial is the only thing that would ever tempt even the most gullible reader into thinking either woman really existed. In the poems themselves, they could not seem more invented, more the stock-in-trade of every Roman elegiac poet since Cornelius Gallus (lost to us but, tauntingly, for one line) laid the groundwork for the form and Catullus brought it blazingly to life. So in Book One of Tibullus we find echoes of Catullus’ loving turmoil with Lesbia; we see Tibullus employing the paraklausithyron, the excluded lover lamenting at his mistress’ door; Catullus’ boy-love Juventius we see recast as Marathus, with equally titillating results, as in these mock instructions on seduction:

Whatever he does, your boy, you do too
Trudge through all his ways, though you not want to,
Forbearance, forbearance now be your load,
However long – howe’er young! – be his road!
Rainbows, maybe, girdle the circling sky
Or rain threatens, from gravid clouds pil’d high,
It matters not – if sailing be his will
Then clumsily guide the skiff with half your skill.
He treks with endless gay unthinking miles
The rock path that yet compels your smiles.
If he seeks his sport for fox and hare
Up betimes the morning, you, with snare.
To the boar’s tusk open out your breast,
And thus he’ll see it, and know it best.
It’ll still him, that valiant gesture will,
Your lusting precepts better to instill.

Likewise five poems in Book I give us Delia, who can be imagined as Lesbia’s younger, slightly more merciful sister. She’s of good family (Apuleius says her real name was Plania, but since such a name is as unknown as Delia, not much enlightenment accrues), and she’s reasonably fond of the poet, though nowhere near as besotted as he is with her. In standard form, he upbraids her for this inconsistency while professing his devotion, but only occasionally does any of it sound particularly real, as in the sweet little scene where he pictures her reaction to his unexpected homecoming from abroad:

Then some night, after weary day has flown,
My Delia dozing with an old crone,
Will look up and see at last her lover, I,
Before her fresh, as though drop’d from the sky!

Then to me, with her hair and shift awry,
On shimmering feet, with a cry, she’ll fly!
O dream, would my every dream could be it!
O far not the day when I may see it!

In Book II’s six pieces, three deal with the poet’s new lover, Nemesis, who’s another figure from the elegist’s bag of tricks: the coarse shrew who’s not worthy of our poet’s slavish devotion but gets it anyway. Delia, for all her wayward affections, had delicacy – Nemesis just has her palm extended for more coin. After the fire and ice of Catullus, these exercises invariably strike the reader as etiolated echoes of the real thing, like flame reduced to light. This has given rise to the scholarly tradition of damning Tibullus with faint praise, as H.O. Rose does when he writes:

All these poems, though not the work of a supreme poet, have a very distinct, quiet charm … the language is perspicuous, the passion expressed is just intense enough to be interesting.

The great classical explicator Moses Hadas is, as always, more forthright:

The robust and hearty type may grow very impatient with Tibullus, might, even, call him maudlin and with some suitable expletive adjure him ‘to snap out of it.’

J. Wight Duff winks heavily at the reader over his stress on ‘distinct’ (just in case they missed the exact same implication in Rose):

The simple delicacy of Tibullus has a winsomeness of its own which is totally distinct from the bold inventions of Propertius and the sparkling vivacity of Ovid.

(W. Y. Sellar, writing his famous study at the end of the 19th century, cannot forebear a suitably Victorian comment on the Marathus poems: “They indicate at least a sympathy with that aberration of feeling which is the chief stain of ancient civilization.” So make a note, all you 21st century hostesses: if you’re inviting Mr. Sellar, for Heaven’s sake hide the Collected James Merrill! So our present age continues to seem unstained!)

Some of this is just , as far as it goes. What poet in mankind’s history can vie with Ovid, far less Catullus, and emerge looking like anything but a bungling amateur? Even the greatest of all English poets could only approximate Catullus in the more headlong passages of Romeo and Juliet, could only approximate Ovid in the best passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Dryden yearned to surpass the ancients, he swallowed his pride and translated them instead.
Tibullus at Delia’s, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)

 
But Tibullus had other poetic concerns, no less staple elegiac motifs but saved and enlivened by how much more he cares about them. For only a fraction of his poems deal with Roman city life – the rest take us to the much quieter pursuits of the countryside, and it’s in such a bucolic setting that Tibullus is almost always placed by those few contemporaries who mention him (Ovid, as we’ve seen, and Horace, if the epistle addressed to ‘Albius’ is meant for our Albius – a point on which scholars have vigorously disagreed). There we see the familiar, charming picture: the scenic Alban hills and valleys, the orchards and vineyards under a sun that’s never too hot, the pebbled laughter of shade-dappled brooks, the sheer satisfaction of supplying from your own land all your modest wants (and perhaps the self-satisfaction of not wanting more). In this setting, living simply and abhorring war and disruption, Tibullus’ verse at last transcends its strictures of form and formulated tumult. Here his chosen meter, the dactylic hexameter of Homer’s epics, finally feels at home, as when he’s writing about a local blessing of the fields called the Ambarvalia:

Come! Rejoice! Our ancient rites revealed,
For swelling grain we pregnate now the field.
Let no man work on this thrice-blessed day,
Let even throbbing earth hold virgin sway.
The pawing bullock from his yoke set free
And draped with gay garlands his horns now be.
Fall still the lathe, fall still the clacking loom,
Our chansions ensunlight ev’ry gloom!

Today from evil let all our farmers be,
Shielded by oaths that the Old Folk must see.
A ward for stalks against the digging weed,
A ward for kids against the hill-wolves’ need.
Blithe be the deer beside the valley’s mire,
And boist’rous the logs in the hearthside fire.
And wine! Wan our revels if it now flow!
Reeling is now the proper way to go!

Rejoice! Rejoice on, for night is nearing!
Day wanes, our revel-lamp disappearing.
Following fast comes all-forgiving sleep,
In which we all dream swiftly, and dream deep.

Here is a Tibullus who can stand alongside the best of his contemporaries, not even excepting Horace, whose much more famous soliloquies on the joys of a modest country estate, though possessed of more technical polish than Tibullus (or anybody else), are not one inch more sincere.

We do not know when Tibullus died, any more than we know when he was born. On the flimsiest of grounds (presuming that Ovid’s list of Rome’s great elegiac poets is in strict chronological order), we can guess that he died in his mid-thirties. The books of poetry give us something more concrete: Book I is meticulously ordered in the sequence of its pieces, whereas Book II is not (Book III is a miscellany of works almost certainly all by other hands, including some charming verses usually attributed to Sulpicia, who was perhaps Messalla’s young niece) – a death may be inferred. The vita speaks of an early death, and there’s Ovid.

And so we are left with the corpus Tibullianum, carefully preserved in Milan’s Ambrosian Library, and a total absence on bookstore shelves. No lively Penguin translation of these 16 poems and their attendant bric-a-brac appears to tempt the present ages’ neglect. There are no calls for his revival, and even spirited defenses of his work are rare in the modern age. In this regard, naturally, it’s Hadas who doesn’t let the side down:

But Tibullus’ preoccupation with love and with the bland pleasures of the countryside and with his own sensibilities is something more than a psychological introvert weeping in his beer; it is a gentle soul seeking a viable level of existence in a brutal world.

Fair, at least. That – and this – will have to suffice.


Steve Donoghue was a child actor for MGM Studios in the 1930s and had small roles in dozens of motion pictures, including Queen Christina, Chained, and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He retired once they began producing films in Technicolor (the change did not flatter him), and is now composing a scandalous tell-all memoir and hosting the literary blog Stevereads.

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