I am back from a well-deserved holiday in Belgrade and am now back home, which is as disorganized as I left it. Fortunately I am still able to find the books I need – mostly that is.
Fear of what might happen to those we love can haunt us in our dreams. In the following poem Propertius has a dream about his mistress Cynthia drowning. She was completely helpless and in her final hour she confessed all her lies towards him.
Reading this poem, a poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1888) came to my mind:
Mir träumt', ich komm ans Himmelstor
und finde dich, die Süße!
Du saßest bei dem Quell davor
und wuschest dir die Füße.
Du wuschest, wuschest ohne Rast
den blendend weißen Schimmer,
begannst mit wunderlicher Hast
dein Werk von neuem immer.
Ich frug: "Was badest du dich hier
mit tränennassen Wangen?"
Du sprachts: "Weil ich im Staub mit dir,
so tief im Staub gegangen."
I dreamt I came at heaven’s gate
and found you there, my darling!
You were sitting at the well in front
and was washing your feet.
You were washing, washing without rest
the blinding white glow,
starting with a strange hurry
your work every time anew .
I asked: `What are you bathing here
with your cheeks wet from tears?’
You spoke: `Because through dust with you,
through dust so deep I have gone.’
In this poem the attitude is reversed: the poet realizes in his dream what wrong he has done towards his girlfriend. Propertius dreams that Cynthia is confessing her sins. I don’t claim that these poems reflect real dreams – of course not, but that makes the difference in attitude even more interesting: I wonder whether a Roman poet could be so self-critical in his poems and so fully aware of his failure towards his love. As far as I remember it is always the woman who is to blame for failure in a relationship.
I cannot help thinking that though Propertius fears for the life of Cynthia, there is more than a touch of satisfaction in her confessing. Indeed the comparison with Helle and the references to all kinds of sea-deities gives this poem a false pathos – at least for me, through which we may question the seriousness of the whole poem. Not to speak of Cynthia calling Propertius’ name with her fingers barely above the waters. Yes indeed, Propertius, you wish! Keep dreaming! Oh wait, you did…
VIDI te in somnis fracta, mea vita, carina
Ionio lassas ducere rore manus,
et, quaecumque in me fueras mentita, fateri,
nec iam umore gravis tollere posse comas,
qualem purpureis agitatam fluctibus Hellen,
aurea quam molli tergore vexit ovis.
quam timui, ne forte tuum mare nomen haberet,
atque tua labens navita fleret aqua!
quae tum ego Neptuno, quae tum cum Castore fratri,
quaeque tibi excepi, iam dea, Leucothoe!
at tu vix primas extollens gurgite palmas
saepe meum nomen iam peritura vocas.
quod si forte tuos vidisset Glaucus ocellos,
esses Ionii facta puella maris,
et tibi ob invidiam Nereides increpitarent,
candida Nesaee, caerula Cymothoe.
sed tibi subsidio delphinum currere vidi,
qui, puto, Arioniam vexerat ante lyram.
iamque ego conabar summo me mittere saxo,
cum mihi discussit talia visa metus.
Vidi: the dependent infinitives are ducere, fateri, posse
fracta carina: abl. abs. carina (keel) is pars pro toto for ship
Ionio rore: in the foam of the Ionian Sea. ros roris (m.) means primarily `dew’, but also `foam’.
in me: towards me
manus ducere: spreading out the arms (for swimming) – note the melodramatic lassas `tired’.
mentior mentitus sum: to lie cheat
fateor fassus sum: to confess
comas (hair) heavy (gravis = graves) by the water
qualem …Hellen instead of vidi te talem ducere manus, qualis erat Helle, quem
Helle: she tried to escape from Ino on the golden ram, who carried her on his soft back, but fell into the water which is now called Hellespont and moved forward by the purple waves (purpureis agitatam fluctibus) she drowned
ovis: note that the word is feminine, but in the myth it is a ram
quam: how much!
forte: by chance
navita = nauta
(in) tua aqua
labens: labi is also used for `to sail’
quae excipi + dat. : what things I have vowed to
Neptunus, the brothers Castor and Pollux and Leucothoe are all connected with the sea. Leucothoe is another name for Ino, who in a moment of madness jumped into the sea and was turned into a goddess.
primas palmas: finger tips
(ex) gurgite: out of the gulf
peritura: about to die
esses puella facta: you would have been made a mermaid
increpito: to harass
Nereides: the 50 mermaids sisters to whom white Nesaee and bleu Cymothoe belong.
subsidio: for rescue, aid
Arioniam lyram: referring to the well-known story of the rescue of the singer Arion by a dolphin
conabar me mittere: I was about throw myself
(de) summon saxo (but why do that when there is already a dolphin?)
discuto discussi discussum: to shatter
cum mihi discussit talia visa metus: we all have the experience of waking up from a bad dream at the moment danger is most imminent…
Book II.26:1-20 A dream of shipwreck
Translated by A. S. Kline © 2002, 2008
I saw you, in my dreams, mea vita, shipwrecked, striking out, with weary hands, at Ionian waters, confessing the many ways you lied to me, unable to lift your head, hair heavy with brine, like Helle, whom once the golden ram carried on his soft back, driven through the dark waves.
How frightened I was, that perhaps that sea would bear your name, and the sailors would weep for you, as they sailed your waters! What gifts I entertained for Neptune, for Castor and his brother, what gifts for you Leucothoe, now a goddess! At least, like one about to die, you called my name, often, barely lifting your fingertips above the deep.
Yet if Glaucus had seen your eyes, by chance, you’d have become a mermaid among Ionian seas, and the Nereids would have chided you, from envy, white Nesaee and sea-green Cymothoe. But I saw a dolphin leap to aid you, who once before, I think, bore Arion’s lyre. And already I was about to dive myself from a high rock, when fear woke me from such visions.