While reading Raby’s A History of Secular poetry in the Middle Ages, I came across this poem by Petronius. Petronius is of course not a mediaeval poet, but Raby starts with examples from classical poetry. Petronius is most known for his Satyricon, but there are also some scattered poems not related to this work. In this poem the poet – well, his persona – is urged by Cupid to leave his bed and look for girls: `You alone can love a thousand girls!’ Yes, but the only thing he finds outside is silence.
Raby remarks that it is tempting to translate this 14 line poem as a sonnet. Any volunteers?
Petronius, poem 26
Lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
“Tu famulus meus,” inquit, “ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?”
Exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter ingredior, nullum iter expedio.
Nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
Ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus fidaque turba canum;
solus ego ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum.
lecto compositus: nestled in my bed
somno lumina victa: the eyes are both conquered by sleep and given to sleep
dabam: tried to give (imperfectum de conatu)
prenso (prehenso) (-are): to grasp
lacer lacera lacerum: mangled, lacerated
pervigilo: to stay up all night
exsilio exsilui: to jump out
tunica soluta: with untied tunica
ingredior ingressus: to enter
nullum iter expedio: I finished no way (the idea is that the poets can’t make up his mind where to go – and finds himself alone)
propero…piget…paenitet…pudor: note the alliteration
propero (-are): to hasten
piget: it grieves, irks
paenitet: it displeases
(in) via media
strepitus –us (m.): noise, rattle
volucris –is (f.): bird
ex cunctis (hominibus)
torum: cushion, bed
paveo pavi: to be afraid
Translation by Michael Heseltine (1913)
At rest in bed, I had scarce begun to enjoy the first silence of night, and to give up my conquered eyes to sleep, when fierce Love took hold of me and drew me up by the hair, and tore me, bidding me watch till day. “Ah, my slave,” he said, “thou lover of a thousand girls, canst thou lie alone here, alone, oh hard of heart?” I leaped up, and with bare feet and disordered raiment started on every path and found a way by none. Now I run, now to move is weariness: I repent of turning back, and am ashamed to halt in the midst of the road. Lo, the voices of men and the roar of the streets, the singing of birds and the faithful company of watchdogs are all silent. I alone of all men dread both sleep and my bed, and follow thy command, great Lord of desire.