a poem for dark nights and bright dawns

Hello my friends!

I was scrolling through Facebook the other day when I saw a cool idea – a sort of lockdown bucket list. A family had decided that every time they wished they could do something but couldn’t, like going out for a meal or a walk or whatever else, they would write it down on a little piece of paper and put it in a jar. When we’re able to move more freely, by official guidelines, they’ll work their way through the jar of all the things they couldn’t do before.

During this period, our attention has tended to focus on all the things we can’t do. That’s natural –  this is a time of drastic and sudden restriction, so of course we’ll notice the countless ways in which it has changed the fabric of human interaction. But I find some comfort in the fact that we have so many things to miss. If we are disappointed now, to miss out on all the planned excitements of the next months, it’s only because we were lucky enough to be able to plan them. And we may not be able to recreate those plans exactly once this is all over, but we can at least look forward to some version of them.

In that spirit, I’ve included below what I think are some of the most exquisite lines in Latin poetry – with a translation, of course.

Tibullus Book 1, Elegy 3, lines 89–94

Tum veniam subito, nec quisquam nuntiet ante,
        Sed videar caelo missus adesse tibi.
Tunc mihi, qualis eris, longos turbata capillos,
        Obvia nudato, Delia, curre pede.
Hoc precor, hunc illum nobis Aurora nitentem
        Luciferum roseis candida portet equis.

Then suddenly I will arrive, unannounced,
        but you will think that I have come down from Heaven.
And then you, Delia, will come running, just as you are,
        with your feet bare and your long hair all messy.
This I pray: may pale Dawn with her rose-pink horses
        break that glowing Morning Star over us.

◊◊◊

These lines close Tibullus’ third elegy, addressed to his lover Delia. In the earlier lines, Tibullus has extensively lamented his situation: he is far from home and sick, unable to see the people he loves. He remembers Delia’s care in sending him off, her prayers for his well-being; he morbidly pictures his own death; and he begs Delia to uphold her love for him. It’s a situation that might resonate with many couples parted at the moment.

But after the poem’s earlier darkness, these closing lines bring light. In them, he imagines coming home to her. After his long absence, he comes down as unexpectedly as an angel; and she is so caught up in her delight that she comes running, just as she is, with no care for her dishevelled appearance. The final image, of the Dawn rising over the reunited lovers, is a moment of dramatic and breathtaking hope.

I hope you can take some part of Tibullus’ energy with you, and find something to look forward to whenever things feel a little bleak.

All my love,

Tanvi

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