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Translation of a Latin love poem

February 8, 2011
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‘Levis exsurgit zephirus’, from the Cambridge Songs

Light the west wind rises,
and the warm sun steps out;
the earth unfolds her bosom,
and melts into sweetness.

Purple-clad spring emerges,
clothed in her ornaments,
strews the earth with flowers
and the branches of the wood with leaves.

Four-footed things build their dens,
and the sweet birds their nests;
between the flowering branches
they sing out their joys.

This, while I see it with my eyes
and hear it with my ears
alas! for such joys
such sighs I breathe.

When I sit alone by myself,
and, turning it over in my mind, I pale,
if by chance I should raise my head
I neither hear nor see.

At least you, o grace of spring,
hear clearly and see clearly
the fronds, the flowers, and the grass;
for my soul languishes.


(Latin text is here; the relevant poem is number XL. Translation is by me, wickedday; please ask if you wish to use it elsewhere.)

This reminds me a bit of A. E. Housman – or, more likely given that Housman was himself an eminent classicist and translator, his style deliberately recalls that of Latin poetry. (This is medieval, rather than Classical, but owes a substantial debt to its Roman forebears.) Partly that’s probably because my rendering of the first line as ‘Light the west wind rises’ is very Housemannish in its scansion and flavour; but the subject matter, too, is strikingly similar. If there were two things Housman did heartbreakingly well, they were nature and unrequited love, and this has both.

There’s hardly a shortage of poems on the general theme of being sad in beautiful weather, but I think this is quite a nice one. It doesn’t try too hard, for one thing – the relative simplicity of the English diction I’ve used mirrors that of the Latin. The original rhymes, which I have not tried to reproduce (though I may do so in the future.)

I think that, like a lot of medieval love poetry, this one is at least glancing at the tradition established by the Song of Songs. In particular that last line nam mea languet anima ‘for my soul languishes’ is I think a subtle echo of what is possibly the most famous line of the Vulgate Song of Songs – quia amore langueo ‘for I am sick from love’.

The other reason this poem piqued my interest is because it’s unusual – not unique, but a little unusual – in having a female speaker. The first line of the penultimate stanza is in Latin cum mihi sola sedeo ‘when I sit alone by myself’; in Latin, the feminine inflection of sola is enough to indicate that the speaker is female. In English that nuance is entirely lost, one of the unfortunate side-effects of having a gender-neutral first person.

We never learn what it is the speaker is turning over (revolvens) in her mind, or who her absent lover is. All we have is this tiny snapshot of a woman in a meadow or a wood, lost in thought, not seeing the spring unfold around her.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    February 9, 2011 1:08 pm

    I was a little confused by the last stanza, and the Latin’s doesn’t help much. I wonder whether it’s addressing a second person or the listener, rather than Spring itself. Then ‘gratia’ could be ablative, “by the grace of Spring” or “for Spring’s sake”.

  2. February 9, 2011 1:33 pm

    Could easily be, especially as gratia has to rhyme on the -a with considera, which might suggest it’s long and hence ablative? I think? Latin scansion is not my strong point.

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