Saturday, 26 December 2015

Copa: Virgil's Hostess

First published on my classics blog, Memento, on 2 October 2014

The Copa is a short poem, presented as the song of a hostess at a country inn.  It is one of a number of short works attributed to the great Roman poet Virgil.  It has been much admired by critics, but it is unlikely to have been written by the great man himself.

The poem is a kind of catalogue of sensuality.  Here is a somewhat free translation:

The Syrian hostess, hair tied with a Greek headband,
     skilfully swaying to the castanets -
she dances, drunken and lustful, in the smoky inn,
     beating the tambourine with her elbow.
"Weary man, why stay away amidst the dust of summer,
     why not lie down on my drinking-couch?
Here there are gardens, arbours, drinking cups, roses, flutes, strings,
     and cool pergolas in the shade of thatched reeds.
Look - deep in a Maenalian cave a girl whispers sweetly;
     a country pipe plays out, like a shepherd's.
And there is weak wine, poured just now from the pitched cask,
     and a watery stream, gushing with hoarse murmurs.
There are garlands of violets and saffron-coloured flowers,
     and golden wreaths entwined with deep-red roses,
and lilies which Achelois has brought in wicker baskets,
     gathering them from her virgin river.
There are little cheeses, dried in baskets of rushes;
     there are plums, ripened from the days of autumn.
There are nuts, chestnuts and sweetly blushing apples.
     Lovely Ceres is here, and Love, and Bacchus.
There are blood-red mulberries and grapes in heavy bunches,
     and the greenish cucumber hangs from its stalk.
The pergola has a guard, armed with a scythe of willow;
     he isn't frightening, despite his huge groin.
Come here, into the pergola.  Your donkey's tired and sweating;
     spare him: the donkey is dear to Vesta.
Now the cicadas fill the trees with a chorus of song;
     now the lizards hide here and there in the cool.
If you're wise, lie down and drink from the summer glasses,
     or, if you like, some new-poured crystal chalices.
Come here, weary man, rest beneath the shade of the vine;
     bind your heavy head with a chain of roses,
plucking beautiful kisses from a nubile girl.
     Away with those old prudes with frowning eyebrows!
Why would you save sweet-smelling chaplets for thankless ashes?
     Or do you want to be garlanded with stone?
It's time for wine and dice.  Away with him who cares of tomorrow:
     Death catches your ear: 'Live', he says, 'I am coming.'"

The poem mostly speaks for itself, but it's worth noting that it displays two familiar themes from Latin poetry.

First, the poem presents us with a locus amoenus or "lovely place".  A locus amoenus is an imaginary scene which recurs over and over again in classical literature - a spot in the Mediterranean countryside in summer, decorated with flowers, fruit and music, where the poet can rest in the shade amidst the presence of country deities.

Second, there is the idea that life has to be taken advantage of because death might come at any moment.  In a society which didn't have either modern medicine or a strong emphasis on belief in an afterlife, this message was a powerful one.  The best-known example of this motif is the "carpe diem" line in Horace's Odes (1.11.8), a quotation made particularly famous by Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society.

One other interesting feature of the poem is that it highlights the cosmopolitanism of Roman society and literature.  The main character is a Syrian, and she is wearing a Greek headband.  The poem mentions Maenalia, a district of Arcadia in Greece, and Achelois, the nymph of the river Achelous, which was also in Greece.