The Amores is Ovid’s first published series of poems and it made him instantly famous. In this cycle of three books Ovid describes his love for Corinna, a young upper-class, married girl. This makes the relationship rather complicated and messages must be given through servants. In the following poem Ovid asks Nape, a servant of Corinna, to deliver a message written on a wax tablet to his object of love. He wants immediately an answer back as he hopes to spend the night with her. At first he wants the tablet fully written back, but then he realises that it might be to burdensome for Corinna and a simple `veni’ `come’ is enough. Certain of a positive answer he concludes by saying that he will place these tablets in the temple of Venus and dedicate these faithful servants (fidas ministras) to himself. Yes, these very tablets who were just before cheap maple-tree wood!
As the Amores is a cycle of related poems it is a bit unfair to pick out just one as if one reads just one chapter of a book without knowing what happened before or how the story will end. It reminds me of LP records or cd’s with the 100 most loved pieces of classical music: the openings choir of the Bach’s Matthew Passion is followed by the adagio of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and then an aria from Die Zauberflöte etc. These are pieces of music – though beautiful in themselves – without context. From the next poem we know that Corinna was too busy to receive Ovid… And the tablets? Use them for funereal firewood!
Ovid is very much a tongue in cheek writer with lots of self-mockery and this Corinna is in all likelihood just a poetic construct and not a reflection of a real love-affair.
Ovid, Amores book 1 XI
Colligere incertos et in ordine ponere crines
docta neque ancillas inter habenda Nape,
inque ministeriis furtivae cognita noctis
utilis et dandis ingeniosa notis
saepe venire ad me dubitantem hortata Corinnam, 5
saepe laboranti fida reperta mihi—
accipe et ad dominam peraratas mane tabellas
perfer et obstantes sedula pelle moras!
nec silicum venae nec durum in pectore ferrum,
nec tibi simplicitas ordine maior adest. 10
credibile est et te sensisse Cupidinis arcus—
in me militiae signa tuere tuae!
si quaeret quid agam, spe noctis vivere dices;
cetera fert blanda cera notata manu.
Dum loquor, hora fugit. vacuae bene redde tabellas, 15
verum continuo fac tamen illa legat.
adspicias oculos mando frontemque legentis;
et tacito vultu scire futura licet.
nec mora, perlectis rescribat multa, iubeto;
odi, cum late splendida cera vacat. 20
conprimat ordinibus versus, oculosque moretur
margine in extremo littera rasa meos.
Quid digitos opus est graphio lassare tenendo?
hoc habeat scriptum tota tabella 'veni!'
non ego victrices lauro redimire tabellas 25
nec Veneris media ponere in aede morer.
subscribam: 'VENERI FIDAS SIBI NASO MINISTRAS
DEDICAT, AT NUPER VILE FUISTIS ACER.'
1-6 is a flattering vocative: you Nape, who etc. In line 7 there is finally the verb accipe
She is docta colligere incertos crin es: skilful in binding up loose hanging hair (of Corinna) and making a beautiful coiffure.
inter habenda: to be reckoned amongst
cognitus: approved, tested
saepe venire ad me dubitantem hortata Corinnam = saepe hortata Corinnam dubitantem ad me venire
laboranti fida reperta mihi: found trustful for me being troubled
peratas tabellas: written tablets (peraro: to furrow, also to `furrow’i.e. to write a wax tablet)
mane: (this) morning (probably referring to when the tabellae were written, not to the delivery.)
sedulus : persistent
pello pepuli pulsum: to expel
mora: delay, hindrance
silicum venae: veins of flint (i.e. Nape, don’t be heartless!)
simplicitas ordine maior: i.e. for your position (ordo) you must have some intelligence to understand that it is urgent!
te sensisse Cupidinis arcus: i.e. she too must have been in love
in me: for the sake of me
tueor tuitus sum: to defend
militiae signa: love is often compared to a military campaign
(me) spe noctis vivere: that I live in the hope of spending the night with her
blanda cera: the flattering wax
vacuae: i.e. when she has a spare moment
adspicias mando: I bid you to look at
scire futura licet: it is possible to know the coming things from
perlectis (tabellis) rescribat multa, iubeto: when the tablets have been read through, order her to write many thing back (note that iubeto is a formal imperative.)
late vacat: is widely
splendida: not `splendid’ but `shining’
ordinibus versus: i.e. to write as small as possible
moretur littera rasa: let an erased letter detain (rasa can either mean `scratched, inscribed’ or `erased’(but still legible). I opt for the last interpretation .)
quid opus est: what is the use of
victrix vitricis (f.) : (female) victor (the tablets as voictors)
redimio: to crown
media in aede = in media aede: in the middle of the temple
moror moratus sum: to hesitate, delay
acer aceris (n.): (wood of the) maple-tree
Translation by Cristopher Marlowe (baptised 26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593)
In skilfull gathering ruffled haires in order,
Nape free-borne, whose cunning hath no border,
Thy service for nights scapes is knowne commodious
And to give signes dull wit to thee is odious.
Corinna clips me oft by thy perswasion,
Never to harme me made thy faith evasion.
Receive these lines, them to my Mistrisse carry,
Be sedulous, let no stay cause thee tarry.
Nor flint, nor iron, are in thy soft brest
But pure simplicity in thee doth rest.
And tis suppos'd Loves bowe hath wounded thee,
Defend the ensignes of thy warre in mee.
If, what I do, she askes, say hope for night,
The rest my hand doth in my letters write.
Time passeth while I speake, give her my writ
But see that forth-with shee peruseth it.
I charge thee marke her eyes and front in reading,
By speechiesse lookes we guesse at things succeeding.
Straight being read, will her to write much backe,
I hate faire Paper should writte matter lacke.
Let her make verses, and some blotted letter
On the last edge to stay mine eyes the better.
What neede she tyre her hand to hold the quill,
Let this word, come, alone the tables fill.
Then with triumphant laurell will I grace them
And in the midst of Venus temple place them.
Subscribing that to her I consecrate
My faithfull tables being vile maple late.
Translation by A.S. Klyne (2001) (Great that this industrious translator has put so many of his translations on line!)
Book I Elegy XI: His Note to Her
Skilled at gathering unruly hair and setting it in place
Nape’s not just an ordinary lady’s maid,
she’s known to be useful in the secret service
of night: clever at carrying messages between us:
often exhorting a hesitant Corinna to come:
often faithfully labouring to find things out for me –
here take these wax tablets by hand to my lady
and be sure to avoid obstructions and delay!
There’s no stony vein or harsh metal in your breast,
older than the others, there’s no foolishness in you.
It’s easy to believe that you’ve felt Cupid’s arrows –
see the traces of your battles in me!
If she asks how I am, say I live in hope at night:
you’ll carry the rest in your hand, flattering waxen words.
While I speak, time flies. Give her them when she’s free,
Make sure though that she reads them straight away.
Watch her eyes and brow as she chews them over:
and know that a silent face may show the future.
When she’s read it I need a long reply, and no delay:
I hate it when the clear wax is mostly empty.
Let her squeeze the lines in ranks, and hold my eyes
with letters that graze the edges of the margins.
Why should she weary her fingers holding a pen?
One word can take up the whole tablet: ‘Come!’
I won’t hesitate to wreathe the victorious tablets with laurel
and set them up in the centre of Venus’s temple.
I’ll write: ‘Naso dedicates these loyal servants to Venus,
these tabets that till now were worthless maple-wood.’
The complete translation of book 1: