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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

18-and-under, commended

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Henry Edwards

Elegies 1.3
by Propertius

Just as Ariadne lay on that empty shore,
while that Knossan keel slowly fell away;
Just as Cepheus’ Andromeda dozed on the
ground, at last free from that comfortless rock;
As anyone would collapse onto a lush bank,
no less spent from those long Thracian dances:
Like this Cynthia seemed, peaceful with soft breathing,
her tired head resting on her entwined hands,
As I dragged my drunken steps, steeped in wine, in the
dead of night, while the boys brandished torches.
Sensation not yet wholly lost, I tried to ap-
-proach gently, using the bed as support;
And though gripped by the fire of a dual passion, lust
and fervour, both harsh masters, bidding me
to try to slide my arm under her and to raise
her up and to steal feverish kisses,
I still did not dare to disturb my bed mate’s rest,
fearing those quarrels of proven rancour;
Instead, I held on there, stuck, with my eyes affixed
like Argus’ on Io’s peculiar horns.
And then I untied the garlands on my forehead
And put them ’round your temples, Cynthia;
And then I was playing gaily with your loose curls,
now I put cautious gifts in your cupped hands;

And each time a breath was drawn with abrupt motion,
I was shocked into believing false signs,
That some vision brought you unusual terror
or someone forced you, averse, to be his:
Until the moon glided through each of those windows,
a restless moon with a lingering light,
It opened her closed eyes with its gentle lustre.
This she said, her elbow in the soft bed:
‘Has someone’s insults ousted you out of closed doors,
and, at last, brought you back here to our bed?
And where did you spend these long hours of our night,
you now worn out, lord, the stars now dimming ?
Oh, if only you could have one night, bastard, like
the ones you have often forced me to have!
For, just now, I resisted sleep with my weaving,
and, then, tired, with the music of a lyre.
I would sometimes softly lament my solitude,
the long stretches of my lover’s absence
as sleep brushed me, exhausted, with its fair wings.
That was my very last fear as I wept.’

Translated from the Latin by Henry Edwards

Propertius I.3

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina
    languida desertis Cnosia litoribus;
qualis et accubuit primo Cepheia somno
    libera iam duris cotibus Andromede;
nec minus assiduis Edonis fessa choreis                 
    qualis in herboso concidit Apidano:
talis visa mihi mollem spirare quietem
    Cynthia consertis nixa caput manibus,
ebria cum multo traherem vestigia Baccho,
    et quaterent sera nocte facem pueri.               
hanc ego, nondum etiam sensus deperditus omnis,
    molliter impresso conor adire toro;
et quamvis duplici correptum ardore iuberent
    hac Amor hac Liber, durus uterque deus,
subiecto leviter positam temptare lacerto                 
    osculaque admota sumere tarda manu,
non tamen ausus eram dominae turbare quietem,
    expertae metuens iurgia saevitiae;
sed sic intentis haerebam fixus ocellis,
    Argus ut ignotis cornibus Inachidos.                
et modo solvebam nostra de fronte corollas
    ponebamque tuis, Cynthia, temporibus;
et modo gaudebam lapsos formare capillos;
    nunc furtiva cavis poma dabam manibus:
omnia quae ingrato largibar munera somno,                
    munera de prono saepe voluta sinu;
et quotiens raro duxti suspiria motu,
    obstupui vano credulus auspicio,
ne qua tibi insolitos portarent visa timores,
    neve quis invitam cogeret esse suam:                 
donec diversas praecurrens luna fenestras,
    luna moraturis sedula luminibus,
compositos levibus radiis patefecit ocellos.
    sic ait in molli fixa toro cubitum:
'tandem te nostro referens iniuria lecto 
    alterius clausis expulit e foribus?
namque ubi longa meae consumpsti tempora noctis,
    languidus exactis, ei mihi, sideribus?
o utinam talis perducas, improbe, noctes,
    me miseram qualis semper habere iubes!
 nam modo purpureo fallebam stamine somnum,
    rursus et Orpheae carmine, fessa, lyrae;
interdum leviter mecum deserta querebar
    externo longas saepe in amore moras:
dum me iucundis lassam Sopor impulit alis.      
 illa fuit lacrimis ultima cura meis.'


Translation commentary

Of all the poems I considered translating for this competition, Propertius’ struck me as the most sincere. In this, his third elegy, his candid account of his own debauchery and selfish treatment of his lover, Cynthia, is unmitigated by any sense of embarrassment. I believe that even the hardest of modern hearts could here be swayed to sympathy for Propertius, in spite of his reprehensible behaviour.

Latin elegies like this were written in elegiac couplets, alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter. This creates an internal rhythm of alternate rises and falls, like the rise and fall of Cynthia’s breath or Propertius’ fevered heartbeat in the poem. Unfortunately, this effect is difficult to create in English: dactylic metres sound unnatural in English and are consequently never used by English poets. My solution was to simulate the effect of the original couplets through alternating iambic hexameter and pentameter. The same rhythmic vacillation at the heart of this elegy is felt in this new metre through the shortening of every second line.

Another notable feature of the poem was the use of Alexandrian allusion. This practice involves referring to a mythological character or place in the most oblique manner possible, as in the patronymic ‘Cepheia’ in line 3 of the Latin. To an extent, I was obliged to reduce the obscurity of these references to make this poem accessible for a modern audience but I made an effort to keep their exotic flavour with words like ‘Knossan’ and ‘Thracian’.

As an inflected language, Latin’s syntax is easy to dislocate and distort. Propertius takes advantage of this between lines 11 and 16 to suggest awkward drunken motion and warped judgement. The disorientating enjambment, present in my translation of those lines, mirrors this.

I had to omit one couplet (lines 25–6) from the original Latin in my translation. Many Latin poets use the word sinus to refer by synecdoche to a curved object. Unfortunately, what Propertius refers to with sinu is obscured by the passing of time and any attempt to make sense out of this couplet would be an academic exercise. I have decided that it would be best for someone who approaches this poem for the first time to leave this couplet out.

Henry Edwards