The Observer, 25 March 2012

Tibullus Review

Tibullus is hardly the best known of the Latin love poets. An heir to the work of Catullus and a friend and inspiration to Ovid, he has somehow been overlooked where they have not. Perhaps it’s because his work falls between them: he’s neither as melodramatic as Catullus nor as arch as Ovid.

While Catullus burns with love for the fickle Lesbia, and Ovid advises the naughty people of Rome on the best place to cop a feel in public (at the theatre, where brushing up against someone is bound to happen…), Tibullus does neither. Sure, he fulfils the dramatic conventions of the lover: he is sickened by love, like a seasick sailor, burned and beaten by it, like a brutalised slave.

He’s also locked out by love, or at least by a lover. Of his surviving 16 poems (the new Oxford World’s Classics edition sensibly dismisses a third book once attributed to Tibullus as the work of another writer), three are paraklausithyra: songs at a locked door.

But his love isn’t pure for Delia, the passion of his first book. He also has feelings for an urban courtesan, Nemesis, who inspires poems in the second book. In addition, he’s infatuated with a handsome boy, Marathus, and all these relationships are coloured by further entanglements. As Robert Maltby’s excellent notes for this new translation explain, Tibullus was a man with a very complicated love-life.

AM Juster’s translation is terrifically easy to read: he has captured plenty of Tibullus’ Latin in his English. If we sometimes lose a pungent phrase (for me, the Latin ‘Who could bear arms against a god?’ is rather punchier than ‘and who can fight a god?’), it is a small price to pay for a translation that tries and succeeds to recreate the confident style of a complex poet.