Astra Innumera: A Latin Poetess Explains Her Craft
Lupercal is honored to publish the following Latin poem, translation, and reflection by a contemporary Latin poetess.
by Bethany Abelseth
1. Ūnum adācta sūm duo tēmpore īnfrā
2. trēs sedēre lōnge aliēna nōctū
3. quāttuor āstra quīnque sub ōbsidēbūnt
4. quāē mediās sēx
5. mōx medūllās sēptem animāsque Pārcāē
6. bāsia ōctō dērigit āūspicātāē
7. nūmen ēmōllīt novem amānsque īgnēs
8. ārboreūs nūnc.
9. Quī decem ārdēscūnt animōs amōēnōs
10. ūndecīm prīmō forulōs secūndō
11. tērtio īnscrīptās tabulāsque quārtō
12. pāginulās quō
13. ōscula ēbibī numerāta quīntō
14. mūlta sēxtō pārvaque cōdicīllī
15. sēptimō. Lūstrāvī animōsa pāūlās
16. āst animālēs
17. fābulās. Nōnō decimo āstra lōngē
18. cōmputāveram īnnumera ālgida īn tūnc
19. cāēlitēs fīnēs apices et ālīs
20. ūndecimo ōrta ēn!
One, I have been driven, two, by time,
three, to sit low under the stars of another,
four, at a distance, five, by night, (stars)
which will besiege my inner, six,
marrow(s) and spirit(s) soon, seven, and the
power of a favorable Fate arranges kisses, eight,
and a tree-made lover, nine, softens
(Fires) which, ten, burn my pleasant thoughts,
Eleven, first, (and) bookshelves, second, third,
and inscribed book-covers, fourth,
and little pages, from which
I have drunk the book’s kisses (which I) counted,
fifth, many and small, sixth,
seventh. But I, animated, have illuminated
stories. Ninth, tenth, I had counted
the uncountable, cold stars, so far away
and then I rose on wings into heavenly ends and peaks,
eleventh – look!
This poem describes a throwback moment to when I was first learning to write Latin poetry (at the time, I was working with Ovidian elegiac couplets), and everything was counting beats and lines, and the stanzas were clumsy and not properly contained, as with fabulas enjambed onto the beginning of the stanza after the sentence it belongs to. There are also two impressions of sense running throughout the poem: first, the counting (one, two, three… and first, second, third…), and second the actual sentences and content of the poem itself. At the end, the poem feels as if there might be more to say, but gets cut off with “look!”, inviting us to pause and appreciate the progress that has already been made, even if that final sentence might not be quite complete. After all, at this point, we have only just begun.
The stars are a reference to the souls of the long-dead, and more specifically to the Classical poets whose works inspire my own. The tree-made lover is a twofold reference, one to my husband, who is a woodworker and builds extra bookshelves for me whenever I ask him to, and the other to my love of books, which are, today, made from trees. The animal stories I mention here are those of Phaedrus, the fabulist, which I am currently using in my classes with my students while I also study them as a research interest of my own. I had never heard of Phaedrus at the time that I was first learning to write poetry, so that line is a bit of an interjection of the present into the past. Wings and flight are themes that turn up in several of my poems; I love the idea of lining up quill pens and turning them into wings and flying up to the stars to meet those who wrote before us. Of course, it’s only a dream, because communication only goes one way through time, but maybe someday, several thousand years from now, some student somewhere will find themself reading these words and dreaming the same kind of dream as I am as I write these words.
A Note About the Scansion:
The Sapphic Stanza has several variations. In Horace, the fourth syllable is always long, but in Catullus, following Sappho’s example, the fourth syllable is an anceps and can be either long or short. The final syllable of each line is also, technically, an anceps. I find, personally, that I enjoy the sensation of a period at the end of the line, so I tend to keep the final syllable long, but I do like the option of using a light syllable earlier in the line, as Catullus sometimes does, and playing with that part of the rhythm for various effects. I did attempt to elide as many of the number words as I could, because I wanted to mimic the sound of mumbling the counting while going through the poem, checking for eleven beats in every line (or, perhaps, eleven kisses, as alluded to in the text).
What do the drafts of a Latin poem look like?
Bethany Abelseth (she/her) is a Latin teacher at Herndon High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, and a PhD student through the distance program at the University of Florida. She has a Master of Latin from the University of Florida and a BA in Classics from the University of Mary Washington, where she also completed her initial teaching licensure. She met Skye Shirley through Twitter by being a woman Latin poet who decided to say hello.