Sulpiciae Elegidae

The poems of Sulpicia are the only extant female literary text from the Augustan period (1st century BCE) of ancient Rome. They offer unique insight into a woman's life and mind at a time when most women remained not only illiterate but, in the male-dominated world of elegiac poetry, also silent. More than for these semi-postured, proto-feminist, torch-like conjectures, I'm drawn to Sulpicia for entirely personal reasons. I like her. Or rather, I like who I imagine she might have been – a smart, coquettish, young literary brat.

Sulpicia's poems are found at the end of Book 3 of Tibullus' manuscript, and total no more than forty lines. They follow the conventions of elegiac poetry, exploring desire and the unattainable through the alternating hexameter and pentameter lines of the elegiac dystich. Sulpicia's pithy, mercurial emotions are inheritors of Catullus' epigrams, but her use of language is of its own idiosyncratic cast. For example, poem 3.16 opens with convoluted, circumlocutory syntax, which translates literally, “Love comes at last, of which kind it would be a greater rumour of shame to me to conceal than to reveal,” while elegiac catchwords like pudor (shame), cura (concern, anxiety, girlfriend), and gaudia (pleasure), words that have established particular connotations when expressed by the male lover/poet, tailspin onto their heads when Sulpicia uses them to speak about herself: Is it a moral shame, or is she blushing? Does she think of herself as cause for anxiety, or is she paying homage to the topos? Poem 3.18 runs amok in fits and starts with its single rambling six-line sentence, rushing past the limit of the traditional end-stopped couplet.

Situated after the dozens of Sulpicia translations that have appeared over centuries, my approach to these elegies is first that of a poet. I aim for Sulpicia's sense with contemporary, at times syntactically erratic, language and sensibility, questioning the conventions and traditions of Latin translation into English, and writing our Latin poet as if she were writing here and, perhaps most importantly, now.


III.xiii 3.13 I Love You and I Didn't Do Anything

Tandem uenit amor, qualem texisse pudori
quam nudasse alicui mihi fama magis.
exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis
attulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum.
exoluit promissa Venus: mea gaudia narret,

dicetur si quis non habuisse sua,
non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis,
me legat ut nemo quam meus ante, uelim,
sed peccasse iuuat, uultus componere famae
taedet: cum digno digna fuisse ferar.

Next thing you know there'll be talk.
Look who's finally in love, anyone could tell on the spot.
Venus did the work, but the poems were mine;
she piled my lap so full of love
that even the lonely feel a sympathetic flutter.
My postcards blab the news.
They're here for you to read
and for everyone else's gossip.
But I don't care, this reputation chatter makes me sick—
and why should I, now that there's a match.

III.xiv 3.14 O Cosmopolis

Inuisus natalis adest, qui rure molesto
et sine Cerintho tristis agendus erit.
dulcius urbe quid est? an uilla sit apta puella
atque Arrentino frigidus amnis agro?
iam, nimium Messalla mei studiose, quiescas;
non tempestiuae saepe, propinque, uiae.
his animum sensusque meos abducta relinquo,
arbitrio quam uis non sinit esse meo.

Illness, like sleep, is a mild form of death,
your last ex just a pinch of disaster.
In small dashes no thing's tough, or a test:
suck it up, dear, and get dinner started.
The countryside, like death, is just smelly
liquamen1 to wait out in the meantime.
Don't get worked up, no need to be fussy.
Replace your stock it's burning! with it's fine.

What is sweeter than the city? You know.
Bumpkins, frocked and bonneted, are lucky
plain and simple – they call the country home.
Away from you and Rome just sucks for me.

O what I'd give, some vetch or lovage canned,
to leave this vile, miser arable land.

III.xv 3.15 Blindspot

Scis iter ex animo sublatum triste puellae?
natali Romae iam licet esse tuo.
omnibus ille dies nobis natalis agatur,
qui nec opinanti nunc tibi forte uenit.

Late breaking news: I'm coming after all,
so leave the door unlocked, or bette
set ajar
but don't wait up.
The hall should be just dim enough to make out the shapes.

[...] [...]
III.xvii 3.17 Hot Flash

Estne tibi, Cerinthe, tuae pia cura puellae,
quod mea nunc uexat corpora fessa calor?
a ego non aliter tristes euincere morbos
optarim, quam te si quoque uelle putem.
at mihi quid prosit morbos euincere, sit tu
nostra potes lento pectore ferre mala?

Heat wracks my body. No, not that kind.
If it were, you'd be here already.
But listen to me, I'm on the brink of death here, just a little.
Do you care?
If not, neither will I.
I'll just keep on these meds and menthols
until something happens. You won't even notice.

III.xviii 3.18 In a Minute there is Time for a Hundred Indecisions

Ne tibi sim, mea lux, aeque iam feruida cura
ac videor paucos ante fuisse dies,
si quicquam tota commisi stulta iuuenta
cuius me fatear paenituisse magis,
hesterna quam te solum quod nocte reliqui,
ardorem cupiens dissimulare meum.

Yesterday I might've seemed perhaps a little

less than usual, lest I be to you, my light, a feverish care

as a few days before I appeared

maudlin, slashed, unsolicited, a dear

and so I left last night alone and you

alone last night were so and left,

that little light, that perhaps word ardor, how seen.

Adrienne Ho is an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in Canada and the US, and is forthcoming in Burnside Review, Circumference, Denver Quarterly, and Ninth Letter.

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After Katrina

4.2 Winter 2006

  1. Editorial

  2. Paul Merchant translates

  3. Adrienne Ho translates

  4. Prose Poetry by Mani Rao

  5. Nathalie Stephens

    • Poems
      Introduced by Cole Swensen
  6. Suzana Abspoel Djodjo

    • From Snajper
      Translated from the Croatian by Tomislav Kuzmanovic
  7. On Institutions of Creative Writing

  8. Postcard From New Orleans