Saturday, 15 March 2014

Sulpicia 1: I am in love!

Voices of women are but rarely heard in classical literature. Yes, there is Sappho, of whom just a few poems have survived intact, many fragmented and dozens must have been lost. In her poems she has achieved an unsurpassed quality, but who else do we have? Well, there is Sulpicia of whom 6 elegies have survived in the Corpus Tibullianum, the manuscripts containing the elegies of Tibullus, but also poems from other poets. Little is known about her (see the link below.)
She is quite frank in expressing her erotic feelings, that is to say for a woman of that period.  For this reason it has been claimed that behind Sulpicia is a male poet, using the persona of a woman. But why should he use the name of a woman who could easily be identified with an existing person?
From her poems it seems that she had an affair with a certain Cerinthus – almost certainly a pseudonym. I say seems, because it is not certain that these poems reflect a real situation: it could well have been an exercise in writing love elegies within a circle of friends. However, romantic as I am, I am ready to believe it is real.
This poem has some problems: the syntax in 1-2 is constrained, but more problematic are lines 7-8 for which see the notes.

Sulpicia 1 (= Tibullus 4.7 or 3.13 in another arrangement of the books).

Tandem venit amor, qualem texisse pudori
    quam nudasse alicui sit mihi fama magis.
Exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis
    adtulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum.                     
Exsolvit promissa Venus: mea gaudia narret,
    dicetur siquis non habuisse sua.                                                       
Non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis,
    ne legat ut nemo quam meus ante, velim,
sed peccasse iuvat, vultus conponere famae
    taedet: cum digno digna fuisse ferar.

qualem texisse pudori /  quam nudasse alicui sit mihi fama magis. Construct: mihi fama magis pudori sit: for me my reputation would be more till shame = it would be more shameful for my reputation    to etc.
tego texi tectum: to cover, hide
nudo: to expose, uncover
exorata meis Camenis: persuaded by my Muses (i.e. (probably) previous poems.)
illum: her lover Cerinthus    
Cytherea: Venus          
sinus –us (m.): bosom                
exsolvo exsolvi exsolitum: to unbind, fulfil        
sua (gaudia)
Non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis  /  me legat ut nemo quam meus ante, velim. Another reading is:
Non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis, / ne legat id nemo quam meus ante, velim.
This reading is adopted by many editors and translators and will be found on the Perseus and Latin Library sites.  However it has problems: non with velim or mandare? Ne nemo as a strong negation (absolutely no one) or are the negations cancelling each other out (everybody). Many go for non with mandare and ne nemo as a strong negation. The meaning is then: `I would wish that I had not to entrust anything to sealed letters (signatis tabellis), so that absolutely no one could read them before my love.’ But isn’t the point that she wants to cry out her love to the whole world – secret of not? The reading I have adopted (from the Ambrosianus Ms and found in the OCT edition by Postgate) states the opposite: `I won’t want to entrust anything to sealed letters, so that no one can read them before my love.’ This also would go better with the next lines.
(Could it be that the reading ne legat id nemo was adopted to make Sulpicia more harmless?)
sed peccasse(= peccavisse) iuvat: So Sulpicia is proud of her `sin’.
vultus conponere famae: to put a face on, keep the appearance for the sake of reputation (famae: dative.)
cum digno digna fuisse ferar: I might be said to have been an equal with an equal (In sinning and in love.)

Two renditions of this poem in English:

C.W.Conrad (with me legat ut.)

At last has come a love I'd blush to hide
more than I'd fear the fame of secret bared.
The one I prayed to Venus for in verse
she brought me, laid him down upon my breast.
Venus has done her part; my joys proclaim,
if girl there be that's never had her own!
I'm not for sealing any secret in a note
to let my lover be the first to read!
My sin's my joy! To care what others think
annoys me; let them bruit my grand amour.

Anne Mahoney (with the reading ne legat id nemo.)

 At last the love I've waited for has come.
(No shame to say so: more to cover up).
My Camenae called on her in prayer,
and Cytherea brought him to my heart.
5Venus kept her promise: now she can tell
my tale of joy to those who don't believe.
I hardly want to give this letter up
so no one else sees it before he does.
I'm glad I did it — why wear a prudish mask,
as if he wasn't good enough for me!       


  1. Venit _has_ to be perfect in order to scan, Leo. No doubt here.

  2. There is a typo in the third line from the end - the crucial ne legat ut nemo ...

    you accidentally hit the 'm' and wrote 'me legat'