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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Tibullus (c. 55–19 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Meason Whicher (1860–1937)
 
THE ELEGIAC couplet, which Horace pronounced suitable for laments and votive inscriptions, had been used by the early Greek poets for a wide range of subjects. The political reflections of Solon, the warlike strains of Tyrtæus, the gnomic wisdom of Theognis, had all seemed to them as appropriately written in this metre, as the famous dirges of Simonides, or Mimnermus’s complaints over the swift passing of life and love. More personal in tone than the epic, while less strenuous than lyric measures, elegy was used apparently to embody all slighter themes and emotions less exalted than were demanded by the grander styles.  1
  Naturally, therefore, the age which saw the final decay of the literature that began with Homer and Sappho found this form of verse congenial to its taste. In the hands of Alexandrian writers,—Callimachus, Philetas, Hermesianax, and their imitators,—it was a favorite form of erudite versifying. They identified the elegy chiefly with erotic themes; and it was with traditions due to them that it passed to the younger poets of the Augustan age,—Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. These writers, if less learned than their teachers, had a more ardent temperament, fresher and more vivid sensibilities. Accordingly, this last form of literature which the Romans appropriated from the Greeks was one of the very few in which they could flatter themselves that they had surpassed their models.  2
  If not the greatest genius among Roman elegiac poets,—as many ancient critics were inclined to rate him,—Tibullus was at least the most typical. His art was the most consistent and symmetrically developed, quite in keeping with his amiable and yet singularly independent character. It was his aim to be an elegiast pure and simple. His love, or rather its reflection in his poetry, was to him all in all; and no other subject could long divert his attention. Even Propertius sometimes forgets his Cynthia, and repeats a legend of early Rome, or recounts the exploits of Augustus. And Ovid could neglect the art of love to narrate the adventures of gods and heroes. But to the end Tibullus is found, as Horace pictures him in the well-known ode, chanting his “miserabiles elegos” and bewailing the harshness of his mistress. 1  3
  This entire devotion to his one chosen theme not only distinguishes him from these his immediate rivals, but is in marked contrast with the attitude of the greater poets of the Augustan age. Horace and Virgil, though provincials of low birth, possibly of alien race, and writing in the very shadow of the imperial power, are yet impressed by a sense of Rome’s greatness. Though freedom had perished, they believe that there is still a mission for the noble qualities that had made the nation great: to conserve, to stimulate, to direct these loftier impulses, are the aims which lend dignity to their art. But Tibullus, who was by birth and breeding a Roman of the Romans, seemingly cares for none of these things. His family was of equestrian rank, and he still owned part of the ancestral estate at Pedum, almost within sight of the Capitol. His patron and intimate friend was Messala,—one of the noblest figures of the age, and not less conspicuous for his services to the State than for the dauntless independence which even Augustus acknowledged and respected. Yet nothing can be more un-Roman than the manner in which Tibullus shrinks from public life, and sings the supreme blessings of peace and retirement. He celebrates his patron’s Aquitanian campaign, in which the poet himself was present, B.C. 30; but it is his friend, and not the commonwealth, that is uppermost in his thoughts. Messala bore a gallant part at Actium; but Tibullus, alone of the poets of the day, has nothing to say of the significance of that struggle. Once he does indeed speak of the glorious destiny of Rome, the “name fatal to nations”; but his interest even here is roused by the induction of Messalinus, his friend’s son, into a priesthood!  4
  This apparent incivism may be explained in part by the fact that Messala and his entire circle held themselves aloof from the policy of the empire. And in part it may be only the artist’s pose, not the attitude of the man. We know little of him save the narrow range of feelings which he considered appropriate to his poetry. Horace in his epistles has sketched another picture of his friend, living upon his small estate, with riches, health, fame, and beauty to make him happy,—a picture which many find it difficult to reconcile with the melancholy and pensive Tibullus of the elegies. Yet there is no good reason to doubt their identity. Tibullus has chosen to limit himself to a narrow range, and his art gains by the restrictions imposed upon it. His loves, his friendships, his longing for the serene and peaceful life of the country, his regard for the simple deities and religious rites of his forefathers,—these are the materials of which with fine skill he constructs his poems. The tasteless learning of his Alexandrian predecessors he never imitates; nor does he degenerate into that sensuality which is the reproach of ancient erotic poetry. If he never startles, as Propertius occasionally does, by some powerful line, some striking image, he lacks too the frequent obscurity and the harshness of phrase which mar that poet’s work. Ovid’s more fluent style and more romantic themes have won for him a wider circle of readers; he has wit and brilliancy, and the charm of his work is apparent on the surface. But Tibullus, while equally smooth and polished in his versification, possesses a grace and a refinement of sentiment that are his alone.  5
  As his art is the most harmonious, so his personality is by far the most attractive of the three. Especially does he reveal a delicacy of feeling which is all too rare among ancient writers when dealing with the sentiment of love. Delia and Nemesis may have found their portraits shadowy beside the vivid figures of Clodia, Cynthia, and the other charmers who rejoiced to “flourish more illustrious than Roman Ilia”; but there was at least a unique generosity, an unwonted self-abnegation, in the artist whom they inspired. It is easy to believe that there were many traits in his gentle and winning character which recalled the greatest and purest of his contemporaries; and it was more than the chance coincidence of their death in the same year which led a later poet to associate Tibullus, in the Elysian fields, with the mightier shade of Virgil.  6
  Under the name of Tibullus, four books of elegies are extant; but the greater number of scholars now believe that the last two are the work of Lygdamus, Sulpicia, and perhaps other writers of Messala’s coterie. Their characteristics are not essentially different from those ascribed to the undoubted work of Tibullus.  7
  Among the complete editions with critical notes are those of Lachman (Berlin, 1829), Hiller (Leipzig, 1885), and Dissen (Göttingen, 1835). Recent English editions are by Postgate (1906) and K. F. Smith (1913). Sellar’s ‘Roman Poets of the Augustan Age’ contains an admirable survey of the Latin elegiac school, though the chapter on Ovid is but a fragment. The best verse translations are by Cranstoun (London, 1872) and T. C. Williams (1905).  8
 
Note 1. The sixteen poems which are undoubtedly his workmanship tell us little save the vicissitudes of his passion for Delia, Nemesis, and even less worthy objects of affection. [back]
 
 
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