Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep is the nickname given to a sonnet by Petronius in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. Petronius was a poet, an author and a courtier during the reign of the emperor Nero and is widely believed to have been the author of the Satyricon during the 1st century AD. He seems to have been the author of numerous short poems, including this one. We have around 30 of hia surviving.

lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
‘tu famulus meus’, inquit, ‘ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?’
exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter impedio, nullum iter expedio.
nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus turbaque fida canum:
ego solus ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum.

“Settled on my bed, I was beginning to enjoy the first silence of the night scarcely yet begun, and was yielding my drooping eyes to sleep, when fierce Love laid hold of me, and hauled [me] up by the hair and ordered [me], shattered [as I was] to wake up. He said, ‘can you, my servant, when you love a thousand girls, lie alone – hey! – alone! [and] hard?’ I leapt up and, with bare feet and dishevelled robe, started on my journey, yet never accomplished it. Now I hurry forward, now am loathe to go; and again I regret that I have returned, and it shames [me] to stand in the middle of the street. So the voices of men and the hum of the streets and the song of birds, and the trusty crowd of watchdogs all are silent: I alone out of all [of them] dread both sleep and the couch and follow your command, great Cupid.”

Let us take a closer look at this wonderful poem in a little more detail, examining some of the sorts of stylistic features which students should be taught to look out for. (I will be examining the process of how to go about teaching them to do this in next week’s blog post).

In the first line, sibilance creates a sense of night-time and the juxtaposition of vix prima (“scarcely” and “first”) stresses that the poet is only just at the point of dozing off. In the second line, sound play of the letters m and n continues the soporific tone and we have the metaphor of lumina victa – a metaphor for the poet’s eyes becoming heavy (lumina – literally “lights” or “lamps” was often used in poetry to represent the eyes). The framing of that line with two imperfect verbs carpebamdabam completes a clear picture of the poet just easing into sleep and justifies the translation of “beginning to …”. A sudden change of pace occurs in the third line, which is packed with a greater number of syllables, creating a sense of sudden shock as if jerking awake. The sibillance this time creates a threatening tone, with the oxymoron of saevus Amor (fierce Love) emphasised by the juxtaposition.

In lines 3-4 Petronius switches into the vivid or historic present and uses a tricolon of three verbs in quick succession, adding to the sudden sense of action after the imperfect verbs and soporific tone of the previous lines. The aggresive shift in tone is notable in Petronius’ violent choice of words: saevus (“fierce” or “savage”), prensat (laid hold of me), lacerum (“shattered” or “lacerated”).

The use of the word famulus in line 5 is also deliberate. The word was used of a slave whose role was as a personal attendant, suggesting that Petronius must fulfil Cupid’s every whim. In lines 5-6 the assonance of the letter u, sibilance, and the emphatic placement of cum (usually the first word in clause), the hyperbolic mille puellas (a thousand girls) placed at the end of the line and the soundplay of the repeated -ll– which draws attention to it, the repetition of solus, the exclamation io and the humorous use of dure (hard) to describe the author and his predicament all create a tone of exasperation on the part of Cupid and craft an amusing image of the poet rudely awakened by his desires.

The use of the vivid present and the placement of exsilio at the start of line 7 show the author’s instant reaction and obedience to Cupid. The fact that he sets out pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta (with bare feet and dishevelled robe) paints a vivid and comical picture of the unkempt author roaming the streets in his night attire. In lines 7-8, three elisions in two lines add to the sense of haste and in line 8 the use of the opposites omne and nullum, the repetition of iter and the use of figura etymologica (two words which share the same root i.e. impedio and expedio) all stress that the author has explored every place and means possible of finding a girl. omne iter impedio can be interpreted as the author’s clumsy and desperate attempts to accost girls in the street, quite literally blocking their way. By the same token, nullum iter expedio (literally “I free up no route”) can also be interpreted as a double entendre referring to his lack of success.

In lines 9-10 the use of plosives and rolling r sounds add to the image of the stumbling and vacillating poet, rushing one minute to find a girl, then feeling confused, exhausted and ashamed of himself the next. The ascending tricolon of nuncnuncrursum portrays the author’s turmoil, dismay and increasing despair. The tricolon of plosive negatives in line 10 highlight his regret: piget paenitetpudor est.

At the start of line 11 the use of the emphatic imperatives ecce and tace, further emphasised by the allieration of k sounds along with voces, redirect our attention from the disordered author to his surroundings and the lateness of the hour. The jumbled word order of lines 11-12 mimics the confused sounds which they describe as being notable by their absence. In line 13 the use of the opposites solus and cunctis along with the emphatic placement of solus at the start of the line, juxtaposed with ego, all highlight the absurdity of the poet finding himself here alone in the street in the middle of the night when he should be in bed and asleep.

In line 13 we return to soporific soundplay emphasising the peonasm of somnumque torumque (sleep … bed), all of which stresses author’s insomnia, as does use of the strong verb paveo (dread). Any insominiac will understand the poet’s torturous relationship with his bed, which he both craves and fears in equal measure. The vocabulary of the last line takes us back to the imagery of the poet as the slave to Cupid’s mastery, with sequor imperium … tuum (I follow your command). The prayerlike address to magne Cupido (great Cupid) and the emphatic postponement of tuum to the end of the line again stresses the author’s complete obedience to Cupid’s command.

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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