Saturday, December 18, 2004


Yeats and Propertius

William Butler Yeats, A Thought From Propertius:
She might, so noble from head
To great shapely knees
The long flowing line,
Have walked to the altar
Through the holy images
At Pallas Athene's side,
Or been fit spoil for a Centaur
Drunk with the unmixed wine.
The mythologically dense poem by Propertius that inspired Yeats is 2.2 (tr. A.S. Kline), in which the poet says that a certain pretty girl is more beautiful than any goddess he can imagine:
I was free, and thought to enjoy an empty bed: but though I arranged my peace, Amor betrayed me. Why does such human beauty linger on Earth? Jupiter I forgive you your rapes of old. Yellow is her hair, and slender are her hands, her whole figure is sublime, and her walk as noble as Jupiter's sister, or Pallas Athene, going to Dulichian altars, her breasts covered by the Gorgon's snaky locks.

She is lovely as Ischomache, the Lapith's demi-goddess, sweet plunder for the Centaurs amidst the marriage feast, or Hecate by the sacred waters of Boebeis, lying down, a virgin goddess, it is said, by Mercury's side. And you Goddesses, yield, whom shepherd Paris saw once, laying your clothes aside for him, on the slopes of Ida's mountain! I wish that the years might never touch that beauty, yet that she might live the ages of the Sibyl of Cumae.
Kline's translation is good, although what he translates as "though I arranged my peace," I would render as "despite the truce," and I would change "amidst the marriage feast" to "amidst the drunken feast." It would require too much space to explain all of Propertius' abstruse mythological references, so I'll only explain the oddest one -- "her breasts covered by the Gorgon's snaky locks." Athena didn't have living snakes crawling over her breasts, or hairy breasts. In her martial aspect she was wearing the aegis, adorned with a representation of the Gorgon Medusa, whose hair consisted of snakes.

Here is the Latin original of Propertius' poem:
Liber eram et vacuo meditabar vivere lecto;
  at me composita pace fefellit Amor.
cur haec in terris facies humana moratur?
  Iuppiter, ignosco pristina furta tua.
fulva coma est longaeque manus, et maxima toto
  corpore, et incedit vel Iove digna soror,
aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras,
  Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis;
qualis et Ischomache Lapithae genus heroine,
  Centauris medio grata rapina mero;
†Mercurio satis† fertur Boebeidos undis
  virgineum Brimo composuisse latus.
cedite iam, divae, quas pastor viderat olim
  Idaeis tunicas ponere verticibus!
hanc utinam faciem nolit mutare senectus,
  etsi Cumaeae saecula vatis aget!
You might try quoting Yeats' poem to that beautiful blonde at your office Christmas party, between sips of your unmixed wine. It would be a more original pickup line than "What's your sign, baby?"

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