Elegies, Book 1.16

The lover’s complaint to the door

by Propertius

A lover’s complaint to a door separating him from the object of his desire was an established theme in the poetry of Propertius’s time and earlier Greek writers. Whether the lover is meant to be the same character who speaks in Propertius’s Cynthia poems is not clear: the lady of this house sounds like someone further up the social scale than her. The door keeper is not specifically mentioned, though we can feel him not far away when the lover mentions attempts at bribery towards the end.

The text we have of Propertius has been more obscured than some by copying errors on its way to us from the ancient world, which makes him harder, but also more interesting as we sometimes have to speculate about what he meant. For more about how Latin poetry came down to us, see this blog post.

To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

“Quae fueram magnis olim patefacta triumphis,
ianua Tarpeiae nota Pudicitiae,
cuius inaurati celebrarunt limina currus,
captorum lacrimis umida supplicibus,
nunc ego, nocturnis potorum saucia rixis,
pulsata indignis saepe queror manibus,
et mihi non desunt turpes pendere corollae
semper et exclusi signa iacere faces.
nec possum infamis dominae defendere voces,
nobilis obscenis tradita carminibus;
(nec tamen illa suae revocatur parcere famae,
turpior et saecli vivere luxuria).
has inter gravibus cogor deflere querelis,
supplicis a longis tristior excubiis.
ille meos numquam patitur requiescere postis,
arguta referens carmina blanditia:
‘ianua vel domina penitus crudelior ipsa,
quid mihi tam duris clausa taces foribus?
cur numquam reserata meos admittis amores,
nescia furtivas reddere mota preces?
nullane finis erit nostro concessa dolori,
turpis et in tepido limine somnus erit?
me mediae noctes, me sidera plena iacentem,
frigidaque Eoo me dolet aura gelu:
tu sola humanos numquam miserata dolores
respondes tacitis mutua cardinibus.
o utinam traiecta cava mea vocula rima
percussas dominae vertat in auriculas!
sit licet et saxo patientior illa Sicano,
sit licet et ferro durior et chalybe,
non tamen illa suos poterit compescere ocellos,
surget et invitis spiritus in lacrimis.
nunc iacet alterius felici nixa lacerto,
at mea nocturno verba cadunt Zephyro.
sed tu sola mei tu maxima causa doloris,
victa meis numquam, ianua, muneribus.
te non ulla meae laesit petulantia linguae;
quae solet irato dicere tanta ioco,
ut me tam longa raucum patiare querela
sollicitas trivio pervigilare moras.
at tibi saepe novo deduxi carmina versu,
osculaque innixus pressa dedi gradibus.
ante tuos quotiens verti me, perfida, postis,
debitaque occultis vota tuli manibus!’
haec ille et si quae miseri novistis amantes,
et matutinis obstrepit alitibus.
sic ego nunc dominae vitiis et semper amantis
fletibus aeterna differor invidia.

“I was the door that opened once upon great triumphs,
famous for Tarpeian virtue. Gilded chariots
were often at my threshold, which was wet with
the beseeching tears of captives. But now I have scars
to complain of from drunks’ night-brawls,
I am always being hammered by unworthy hands,
I am never free of tacky garlands hanging off me,
and torches lie about, the mark that someone’s been
excluded. Nor can I ward off scandalous attacks on
the mistress, noble, but now a butt of vile lampoons
(nor is she deterred by concern for her good name,
from a lifestyle worse than usual even nowadays).
All night I must tolerate a boring, whingeing
suitor, the worse for long nights spent outside.
He never allows my doorposts any rest, bangs out the
same old serenade, wheedling and loud: ‘Door,
are you crueller even than your mistress? Why else
say nothing to me, here on this hard, hard doorstep?
Why, unmoved and unresponsive to my discreet prayer,
do you never unbolt and let in my love?
Is no end to be given to my pain, must I bed down
as warmly as I can on the doorstep? The midnight hours
and stars, the wind cold with the nip of dawn
are agony, lying here: only you,
impervious to human pain, never respond in kind
on your silent hinges. If only my whisper could
get through a hollow crack to strike
my lady’s little ears! Even if she’s impervious as
Sicilian rock, harder than iron or steel,
she still won’t be able to control her eyes,
her emotions will rise up and find their outlet
in reluctant tears! Now she reclines in the happy arms
of another man, while what I say
is gone with the wind of the night. But you, o door,
the main, the only cause of my misery, are never
won over by the presents I bring.
I have not wronged you, spat out any insult,
such as are said in bitter jest, that should make you
condemn me to spend ages in the street, hoarse with long
complaining. I’ve often brought you poems in the latest
rhyme, lain flat, pressed fervent kisses on your steps.
How many times, betrayer, have I come back to your posts
and with furtive hands fulfilled the promises I’d made!’
This I must put up with, and whatever else you sad lovers
have thought up, while he makes
the dawn birds’ life a misery. Now, between
my lady’s antics and his endless vapouring,
I get no rest at all from their ill-will.”