Tibullus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Tibullus c. 55 B.C.-l9 B.C.

(Full name Albius Tibullus.) Roman poet.

Tibullus is famous as a poet of love; although he also wrote of the countryside, of war, and of his patron, Messalla, it is his passionate elegies to Delia and Nemesis for which he is best remembered. His direct and simple style, never too intrusive or challenging, made him a favorite with readers of his time. Along with Gallus, Propertius, and Ovid, Tibullus is considered a master of the elegy. Tibullus wrote two books comprised of a total of sixteen relatively lengthy elegies. His contribution to a third volume, referred to as the Corpus Tibullianum, is disputed by some scholars.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Tibullus's life and most of what is thought to be true is based on interences drawn from his poetry. Because the elegy of his time was not meant to be strictly autobiographical, it is incautious to accept too much of the information contained therein as factual. Scholars generally agree, however, that Tibullus's family was aristocratic and that he likely was born at his family's estate about twenty miles from Rome, in the district of Pedum, and that this is where he would have grown up. Although his family was wealthy, much of their property had been diminished, probably seized by the government to pay war veterans. His father died while Tibullus was very young and thus he was raised by his mother and his sister before being sent to Rome for his education. In Rome he found himself in the literary circle of M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus, who became his patron. Messalla and his circle were not particularly concerned with political eulogies and Tibullus, with his fondness for the elegy, fit well into the group. Messalla and Tibullus became friends and Tibullus traveled with and shared the tent of his patron during his Aquitanian campaign in Gaul about 30 B.C., serving with distinction. Around 27 B.C. Tibullus wrote a poem celebrating Messalla's victory. It was after Tibullus's return from the campaign that he met and fell in love with a woman, possibly named plania, called Delia in Book 1 (27 or 26 B.C.). A short letter published by Horace describes Tibullus as handsome and wealthy, walking in silence through the woods; this image of a brooding man walking near his country has predominates among Tibullus's biographers. Tibullus died soon after Vergil, in 19 B.C.

Major Works

In ancient Greece the elegy was not so limited as in modern times, being defined as any poem written in couplets of a dactylic line followed by a pentameter line; its subjects were many and various. By the time of Tibullus, however, the elegy was becoming the preferred means expressing intimate love, superseding the previous vehicles of choice such as the lyric and the epigram. Tibullus is credited with having perfected the form of the erotic elegy. Although Tibullus wrote poems concerning military victory and the winning of a job by Messalla's son, his most notable poems are those inspired by passion for two women he referred to as Delia and Nemesis. Fully half of the ten elegies that comprise his Book I are written to Delia, and three of the six elegies that form Book II are devoted to Nemesis; the poems reveal that Tibullus was fascinated with and dominated by beautiful women. The elegies to Delia (a married woman) indicate that Tibullus lost his desire for foreign service and for fame; all he wanted was to love Delia and tend his flocks in the country. His mood fluctuates quickly and wildly from joy to despair. Tibullus's second elegy laments that he and Delia are separated. His third elegy concerns a bout with a very dangerous illness that he developed on a campaign with Messalla and his longing to be back with Delia. His fifth elegy finds Tibullus back in Rome, but Delia has taken on a rich lover. Tibullus has tried to forget her, but in vain, by taking on another lover himself, a boy named Marathus. He prepares himself for death because he cannot have Delia's love, but dreams that one day they will reunite in the Elysian fields where lovers live eternally. The next elegy treats the return of Delia's husband and Tibullus's acceptance of reality. Although Tibullus is hurt by Delia's infidelity he does not scorn her or deny their past love. Some years may have passed before he wrote the elegies of Book II; they appear to be the work of his last years and at least one may be unfinished. The book may have been published after his death. The focus of Book II is a woman Tibullus calls Nemesis, a woman apparently sought as an act of revenge against Diana. Nemesis is a tough, wretched, and greedy prostitute with insatiable desires. Tibullus is tortured by her and her faithlessness. He cares nothing for fame or wealth, except as far as this wealth can be used in buying Nemesis's affection, for all he desires is her love. For that he will do anything, even sell his country estates, even die for her if she will but grant him one kind look. Tibullus thoroughly degrades himself but cannot get out from under her spell. The elegies to Nemesis are imbued with intense, reckless despair. His other poems, if indeed he wrote them at all, are found in a third book and are concerned with Messalla and his circle. The majority of the poems in this third book are definitely not by Tibullus, but there is still critical debate surrounding attributing some of them to Tibullus. The third book itself is sometimes divided into two books, an arrangement first made in the fifteenth century.

Critical Reception

Tibullus's poems were very popular while he was alive and continued to be read for many years after his death. Eventually his popularity diminished with more attention being paid to Ovid. During the Renaissance Tibullus was rediscovered and numerous editions of his elegies were published. The earliest surviving manuscript of Tibullus is of medieval origin, a collection of three volumes with Tibullus's name on the top. It is apparent that some of the poems are not in Tibullus's style and thus there has always been controversy as to exactly what poems were written by Tibullus himself and which were the product of others in his literary circle imitating him. Scholars now generally accept that the first two books are Tibullus's own, but that at best no more than three of the poems in the third volume are his. J. Wight Duff writes that the "charm of Tibullus lies in the winning simplicity, lucidity, and smoothness of verse which he weds to the warm outpourings of his passion and to his joy in the country." Julia Haig Gaisser asserts that, to many, Tibullus's poetry seems atypical of Latin and Augustan poetry, but that actually Tibullus does not ignore conventional elements as much as he assimilates them and expresses them in literary allusion. Most modern criticism of Tibullus concerns itself with analyzing his style and identifying subtleties and nuances in his work.