It’s been a question I have been struggling with for a few weeks. Admittedly I only have the Loeb version of J.P.Postgate and some fresher versions by Jon Corelis available on line to give me a feeling for Tibullus (55-19 BC). Accordingly, my views are naturally given in the rough and could possibly benefit from a closer reading in the future. Although it’s not an overly extensive canon, there was more poetry that I had at first imagined and as a result have spent quite a while wading through classical illusion and word play and obscure antique erudition so beloved of the time-distanced emulators of Callimachus.
There is no doubt that it’s elegant and detailed richly complex and polished elegy but for me I am not sure whether it transcends the genre in as radical a way as Catullus. There is also a lot of what I call Alexandrine puffery, which I am sure was great stuff in its day but for us less mythologically inclined, one gambolling naiad and Pieirian muse upon high, honey dript lyre and all, heavily resembles another and pops up an awful lot. Tibullus is quite influenced by the Alexandrine style and subject matter and never really pulls away from it to create any genre bending thunderclaps. But I can easily imagine that the cognoscenti outside of Maecenas’s circle of overtly pro-Augustan poetasters thought of him as the man for elegy. None other than Quintilian would have it so:-
‘Elegia quoque Graecos provocamus, cuius mihi tersus atque elegans maxime videtur auctor Tibullus; sunt qui Propertium malint; Ovidius utroque lascivior, sicut durior Gallus’.
’In Elegy too we rival the Greeks; of whom I consider the author Tibullus to be the most polished and elegant; there are those who prefer Propertius; Ovid is more wanton than both, just as Gallus is more austere." Inst. x. I, 93
I would have to be honest and say that some of the works are difficult to penetrate and properly assay due to the dense mythic and allusive verbiage. It is always redeemed (just about) by beautiful poetry resplendent with sonic glitter and excellent symmetry (a good example of the striking visual arrangement of lexis would be: Book I.IX Against War,
‘tum brevior dirae mortis aperta via est.’.
It is extremely tasteful and sparkling despite (on occasion because of) the Olympian fluffery, but often where Tibullus is dealing with matters of the heart, Delia his first clandestine romance, Marathus, his boy lover or Nemesis his oddly named last fling before his untimely death in 19 BCE, his mastery of elegy is clear and the intimate and poignant notes of the heart sound out across the chasm of millennia and strike a very deep and genuine chord with us moderns indeed.
Themes we could touch upon when we discuss Tibullus could include his boy love, whether it was an Alexandrine affectation or the real thing, his subversive use of martial imagery to be anti-war or at least not as into the Roman sport of war as his pro-Augustan chums, his use of elegy to contrast the city of Rome with the country where he seemed to locate his personal ideal world as a retreat from the nastiness of existence. Tibullus, Republican or Imperial poet?
I don’t have a particular favourite line or elegy but I am rather fond of the opening lines from Book I,II. (To Delia) so I will leave you with that until we meet again.
‘Adde merum vinoque novos compesce dolores,
occupet ut fessi lumina victa sopor;
neu quisquam multo percussum tempora baccho
excitet, infelix dum requiescit amor.
nam posita est nostrae custodia saeva puellae,
clauditur et dura ianua firma sera.’
‘More wine! Let the drink smother these unwelcome pangs
and may conqueror sleep triumph against my weary eyes
nor, when the copious waves of Bacchus have overrun my brain,
shall anyone wake this unhappy lover while he sleeps.
For a cruel guard has been set upon my darling,
and the door is shut and bolted firm against me.’
Salve atque Vale!