Elegies, Book 1.4

Back off, Bassus!

by Propertius

An interfering acquaintance has been trying to persuade Propertius to give Cynthia up and is told where to get off. Bassus seems to write poetry on mythological subjects, and Ovid mentions an iambic poet of that name who would fit the bill. As usual, we cannot be sure whether there is a personal element in this piece or whether Propertius is demonstrating his skills on an established literary theme. Antiope was one of Zeus/Jupiter’s mortal conquests and Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, Homer’s King of Sparta.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Quid mihi tam multas laudando, Basse, puellas
mutatum domina cogis abire mea?
quid me non pateris vitae quodcumque sequetur
hoc magis assueto dicere servitio?
tu licet Antiopae formam Nycteidos, et tu
Spartanae referas laudibus Hermionae,
et quascumque tulit formosi temporis aetas;
Cynthia non illas nomen habere sinat:
nedum, si levibus fuerit collata figuris,
inferior duro iudice turpis eat.
haec sed forma mei pars est extrema furoris;
sunt maiora, quibus, Basse, perire iuvat:
ingenuus color et multis decus artibus, et quae
gaudia sub tacita dicere veste libet.
quo magis et nostros contendis solvere amores,
hoc magis accepta fallit uterque fide.
non impune feres: sciet haec insana puella
et tibi non tacitis vocibus hostis erit;
nec tibi me post haec committet Cynthia nec te
quaeret; erit tanti criminis illa memor,
et te circum omnis alias irata puellas
differet: heu nullo limine carus eris.
nullas illa suis contemnet fletibus aras,
et quicumque sacer, qualis ubique, lapis.
non ullo gravius temptatur Cynthia damno
quam sibi cum rapto cessat amore decus:
praecipue nostri. maneat sic semper, adoro,
nec quicquam ex illa quod querar inveniam!

Why, by talking up so many girls to me, Bassus, do you pressure me to change my mind and leave my lady? Why will you not allow me to spend what remains of my life in this more accustomed servitude? I know that you hark back in your eulogies to the beauty of Nycteus’s Antiope, and Spartan Hermione, and whatever others the age of beauty bred, but Cynthia would not allow them their claim. Still less against less eminent beauties would she come off a humiliated loser, however stern the judge. But such things play the least part in my infatuation: there are more important ones, Bassus, that are to die for: her pure complexion, her charm, sustained by so many accomplishments, and those joys that I prefer to discuss in private. The more you try ways to end our affair, the more surely she and I foil them by the pledges that we have received from each other. And you won’t get away with the attempt scot-free: when Cynthia finds out, she will go crazy and be your enemy, and not a softly-spoken one. After this, she won’t let me have anything to do with you, and won’t want to see you herself. She won’t forget so serious an offence and make the round of all the other girls in her anger, running you down: I’m afraid you will not be welcome on anybody’s doorstep. No altar will be too humble for her tears, nor any consecrated stone, whatever and wherever it might be. Cynthia could not be more put out by any offence than by having her loveliness lie idle because a lover has been stolen from her – especially if it’s me. May she remain as she is for ever, is my prayer, and may I never get anything at all from her to complain of!