Elegia Autumni


Permalink 04:26:06 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 691 words, 679 views   English (US)
Categories: My Own Latin

Elegia Autumni

I’ve been working on an elegiac poem over lunch hours this past week which I hope to post soon. Part of it plays on an “autumnal season” theme, and since I made a point of analyzing another writer’s efforts on an elegiac translation, I thought it only fair to share a problem I had with my own.


Take a look at the following couplet:

Labitur ignifero paulatim Phoebus ab orbe
   Ut tenebras citius lustret honesta soror.

Not all that great IMO. The description–the sun is lower in the sky so that night and moonlight can come sooner–is rather pedestrian, almost scientific. In the first line paulatim - “little by little” is a good example of a “fill-in” word that adds little to the image (labitur already contains the notion of a gradual descent). I’m also not too thrilled with the triple-"b” assonance in Phoebus ab orbe; say it three times fast and you sound like a percolating coffee pot. The pentamenter is no better; it’s rather obvious the moon (soror; Diana, goddess of the moon, was Apollo’s sister) illuminates darkness, citius is another fill-in adverb, and calling the goddess honesta seems a little desperate.

For the opening line I like leading off with labitur with its onomatopoeic cadence/fall. The striking ignifero is another word I’d like to keep, and since Phoebus stands unmodified it seems like a no-brainer to change this adjective to a nominative. But I still have praesertim to puzzle over; how am I going to replace it, and how will that affect the rest of the image?

I have to go back to some basic questions: What thought exactly is the whole image to convey? It seems to me the change of season is what should be emphasized here, a passage into a new phase of nature; the once blazing sun of June is fading as a cooler September comes–ah, there it is:

Labitur ignifero frigescens culmine Phoebus

Much better; the oxymoron straddling the caesura is exactly the change-effect I want. The only remaining dilemma is to find a noun for ignifero; culmine is as technically accurate as orbe, but culmen has an echo of more nature-related words like culmus and calamus plus an assocaition with “height” as compared to the “round” of orbe. Dropping the ab is a little unusual, but justified with a verb like labitur–you naturally slip “away from” something, don’t you?

Now for the pentameter. Fall makes me think of harvests, so it seems natural to tie in the “harvest moon” used (in ancient times) as extra light for the task of reaping. One of the problems with the line now is that it’s too generic; its lacking in the details that give pictures their reality. There’s also that terrible adjective honesta to deal with.

So, keeping the basic idea that the moon should be used for illumination in autumn, I revise:

Falcibus ut lassis luminet alba soror.

Much better; falx - “scythe” is exactly the detail I was looking for. Moreover, I like using lassis as a descriptor to indicate this harvest has been going on all day and into the moonlit night. Finally, describing Diana as alba–the moon is quite pale and gleaming on a cool autumn night–gives the scene a certain purity, that vague feeling I was trying to capture with honesta.

So, for completeness sake:

Labitur ignifero frigescens culmine Phoebus
   Falcibus ut lassis luminet alba soror.

One final note. For me, one of the real joys of classical poetry is the easy personification of nature and emotion. Whether the ancients truly believed them or not, an animist mythology colored their world-view and provided a meta-language for ideas we would more naturally use science or psychology to explain; when Horace tells us about a land with hot weather, he says malus Iuppiter urget (Ode I.22.19-20). To capture that same sense, Phoebus Apollo and his soror Diana are much better here IMO than Sol and Luna could ever be.

Whew, a little long and perhaps self-indulgent, but if you can’t talk about your passions on a blog, where can you?


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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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