Christopher Childers – Translations from Propertius
Why step out, love, with labyrinthine hair,
swishing your Coan silks, light as the air,
or oil yourself with Syrian spice and lotion,
and flaunt your wares, tricked out in foreign fashion,
spoiling your gorgeousness with style from stores, 5
dulling the luster naturally yours?
No doctoring can do your beauty good;
Love has no love for gimmicks—he goes nude.
Look at the colors Nature’s hand has sown,
how ivy spreads more lushly on its own, 10
how in the wild the finest shade trees grow,
and rivers, though untaught, know where to flow.
Mosaics fleck the beach by no design,
and no art can make birdsong more divine.
Phoebe did not win Castor’s love like this, 15
no frills won Hilaira Pollux’s;
Phoebus and Idas, by Evenus’ shore,
did not fight for his daughter’s haute couture,
and Hippodamia’s powdered cheeks aren’t what
earned her a place in Pelops’ chariot. 20
By gems and jewels their looks were never tainted,
pure as the colors that Apelles painted.
They didn’t look for love just anywhere;
virtue, for them, was loveliness to spare.
I know you love me better than the rest; 25
with one man’s love, a woman’s richly dressed;
the more, since Phoebus taught you music, too,
and the Muse gladly gave her lyre to you,
and you have special grace in all your speech,
and all that Venus and Minerva teach. 30
You’ll always be a love and joy to me,
if you give up this gaudy luxury.
You ask why love, love, love, is all I sing,
with melodies so softly murmuring?
It’s no thanks to the Muses, or Apollo;
no, my love leads and makes my genius follow.
Let’s say her Coan silks gleam as she goes; 5
I’ll make a whole book from those silken clothes.
Or say a few locks tumble down untied;
I’ll praise her hair until she glows with pride.
If her white fingers pluck a lyre string,
I’m awestruck at the easy fingering; 10
or if her fluttering lids succumb to dreams,
I hatch a thousand new poetic themes;
or if she fights and wrestles me unclad,
I reel off Iliad on Iliad.
Whatever she does or mumbles, an immense 15
epic is born out of such non-events.
If only fate had given me the genius
to trumpet heroes, arms and war, Maecenas,
I’d skip the Titans piling Ossa on
Olympus, and on Ossa, Pelion, 20
and ancient Thebes, and Troy, which Homer vaunted,
and the canal through Athos Xerxes wanted,
the reign of Remus, Carthage furious,
the Cimbrian threat, the feats of Marius:
instead I’d sing your Caesar’s deeds and wars, 25
and after Caesar’s greatness, I’d sing yours.
Yet if I praised him for Mutina, or
men killed at Philippi in civil war,
or the fleet that fled off the Sicilian shore,
Perugia sacked, her households overthrown, 30
the harbor seized where Ptolemy’s lighthouse shone,
or Egypt and the Nile, which he brought home
with seven bloodied mouths, a slave to Rome,
or kings that down the Sacred Way have come
in gilded chains, with prows from Actium— 35
in each campaign, Maecenas, I’d add you,
steadfast in peace and war, heart always true—
true as Patroclus and Pirithous
(so Theseus and Achilles testify,
one underground, the other in the sky). 40
Callimachus, with his voice fine and small,
couldn’t go thundering the Giants’ fall;
neither can I, in strident martial verse,
place Caesar with his Trojan ancestors.
Farmers talk bulls; and sailors, winds and seas; 45
shepherds count sheep, and soldiers, injuries;
my narrow bed’s the field where I wage war:
let’s all just ply the trade we’re fitted for.
It’s fine to die in love; it’s fine, moreover,
to love just one—may I be her one lover. 50
Doesn’t she say loose women make her mad,
that Helen’s conduct mars the Iliad?
If I drink Phaedra’s magic broth, the one
that never did bewitch her husband’s son;
if Circe’s herbs unman me, or Medea 55
cooks me in cauldrons as a ‘panacea:’
because there’s just one woman stole my heart,
it’s from her house that my cortege will start.
Doctors have healed most ailments that have wracked us;
but love alone eludes the doctors’ practice. 60
Machaon cured gimpy Philoctetes’ pain,
and Chiron made blind Phoenix see again;
Aesclepius brought back King Minos’ son
from death with Cretan herbs—Androgeon;
and Telephus restored his wounded limb 65
with rust from the same spear that wounded him.
But anybody who could cure me could
manage to smuggle Tantalus some food;
or he could seal and fill each leaky cask,
save the Danaids from their endless task; 70
or he could climb the Caucasus, uncuff
Prometheus, and drive the great bird off.
When fate reclaims this life I have on loan
and I’m a brief name etched on a little stone,
Maecenas, friend my boyhood longed for most, 75
rightly in life and death my only boast,
if someday chance should lead you to my plot,
there briefly halt your sculptured chariot,
address the answerless ash, and shed a tear,
saying, “A woman’s coldness drove him here.” 80
That painter first to make Love a small boy—
what skill and insight his art could deploy!
He first saw lovers’ silliness, revealing
how they let greatness go to follow feeling.
He added wings as well—and that was smart!— 5
and made the god flutter inside our heart,
since there waves buffet us through a whole ocean,
and the wind whipping them is in constant motion.
And then he made his arrows barbed (how clever!)
and from his shoulders hung a Cretan quiver: 10
he shoots right when we least suspect a foe,
when we feel safe—and no one slips the blow.
I agree about Love’s barbs and baby face,
but swear he’s lost his wings in my own case,
since he won’t fly away, but stays for good, 15
and wages constant war within my blood.
Do my sapped veins make lodging you enjoy?
Oh, show some self-respect; aim elsewhere, boy!
Go wound some neophytes, free of your toxin;
it’s just a ghost of me you’re putting knocks in. 20
Who’d sing your praise, if you destroy that too?
(My slight Muse is no slight prestige for you.)
And who’d sing of her face, and her dark eyes,
slim fingers, and her footfalls soft as sighs?
Last night, love, as I wandered drunkenly
without a group of slaves escorting me,
a gang of babies—how many’s hard to say,
I was too scared to count—got in my way,
and some had arrows, some had tiny brands, 5
and some had handcuffs ready for my hands,
but all were nude. One, the cheekiest,
blurted out, “Grab him, boys! We’ve got him sussed,
the creep his angry girl sent us to find!”
And like that I was collared from behind. 10
One shoves me in the middle; another prods
and cries, “Kill him! He doesn’t think we’re gods!
She’s waited hours for you, while you, all boozy—
you don’t deserve her!—find yourself a floozy.
When, in her Tyrian bonnet, she unties 15
its strings at night and flutters her heavy eyes,
it’s not Arabian spices that pervade
your sense, but scents that Love’s own hands have made.
Brothers, lay off—he swears that he’ll be true.
And look—this is the house she sent us to.” 20
And so they threw my cloak back on and said,
“Stop wandering off at nights; stay home instead.”
Now it was morning. I went by to discover
if Cynthia slept alone, or with a lover.
She was alone. My jaw dropped: she was more 25
beautiful than I’d ever seen before,
even more beautiful than when she wore
her crimson dress to learn from Vesta’s shrine
whether her dreams forecast her harm or mine.
That’s how she looked, so dewy-fresh from rest: 30
beauty is irresistible undressed!
“So, spying on me bright and early, then?”
she cried. “You think that I’m just like you men?
I’m not so easy, though; one man will do—
you, or a lover more sincere than you. 35
Look, see: no imprints pressed in the duvet,
no signs that I’ve been rolling in the hay,
or of me breathing hard or overheating,
no smell of sex, no evidence of cheating.”
She blocked my kisses, leapt from bed, threw on 40
her sandals, then ran off with them undone.
That’s how my spying made a fool of me,
and since then, every night’s been misery.
Who sees you, wants you. But what they don’t see,
they won’t desire: sight is adultery.
Why trek to Palestrina for some crumb
of prophecy, or head to Tusculum?
Why all these trips to Tibur, or why flee 5
down to Lanuvium repeatedly?
Cynthia, when you’re free, you should stay here!
Those crowds of men fill me with jealous fear,
watching you hurry down with your lit torch,
fulfilling vows before Diana’s porch. 10
I guess that Pompey’s fancy colonnade
just isn’t nice enough, there in the shade
of columns, walls all hung with gold brocade;
those walks of level plane-trees, and the water
that bubbles lushly from the sleeping satyr, 15
where Triton’s conch exhales quick clouds of spray,
and in the basin plashing waters play.
You can’t fool me. These trips are trysts, all right.
You’re running not from Rome, but from my sight!
It’s no use; all your nets will miss their aim. 20
Your tricks have no effect—I know this game!
It’s not my problem. Your indifference
to fame comes—justly!—at your own expense.
Just now I heard—and I swear they weren’t pretty—
whispers about you; so has the whole city. 25
But you, don’t trust the nasty things they say.
You’re gorgeous—gossip’s just the price you pay.
No charge of poison’s tarnishing your name;
your hands are clean—Phoebus would swear the same.
So if you’ve spent an evening here or there 30
playing around, well, that’s a small affair.
Helen left home, in love with a foreign man,
and then, unpunished, came back home again.
Venus, ensnared by lust for Mars, they say,
is no less honored by the gods today, 35
though Ida saw her, an immortal, sleep
with a mortal shepherd, in among his sheep,
and the whole crowd of Hamadryads knew,
and the old satyrs, and Silenus too,
and Naiads roaming Ida’s apple-stands, 40
ripe apples dropping in their outstretched hands.
But who would ask, in all of rutting Rome,
“Why’s she so rich? Where’d her cash come from?”
Oh, in these days how happy Rome would be
if only one girl lacked morality! 45
Lesbia did it first, and no one fined her;
even less blame should stick to those behind her!
If you still think Rome’s home to the severe
Sabines, and ancient Tatius, you’re new here.
You’ll turn the salt sea waves into dry land, 50
and pluck the stars down with a mortal hand,
before you’ll get our girls to change their ways:
we’ve lost the innocence of Saturn’s days.
But when flood-waters swamped Deucalion,
and when that legendary flood was gone, 55
oh, who then kept a bed untouched by fraud?
What single goddess loved what single god?
They say great Minos’ wife had an affair
with a white bull, all hot for his bull’s stare,
and Danae, with bronze walls round her bed, 60
could not stop Jove and keep her maidenhead.
If these girls’ lifestyles are what stimulate you,
live at your pleasure. Here: I liberate you.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
In Plato’s Greek, as everyone has heard, “beautiful” and “good” were the same word. (In English, “good” slant rhymes with “pulchritude.”) But is Good beautiful, or Beauty good? Propertius loathed makeup and silky stuff; beauty for him was strictly in the buff — the world’s body, stripped of appearance, nude. He thought that good, maybe the only good. Yet a desire for makeup might obsess us if the face underneath it is Duessa’s. Strike through the mask! — a waste, perhaps of shame, demurs to prove the candle worth the flame. Soon, though, I’m off again, led by the nose, trying to touch the world without its clothes.
Christopher Childers is working on a translation of Greek and Latin Lyric Poetry from Archilochus to Martial for Penguin Classics. He has poems, essays, and translations published or forthcoming from the Yale Review, the Kenyon Review, Agni, Parnassus, and elsewhere.