A Plea for some Sleep: Somnus by the Roman Poet Statius

Rereading Dante has sent me down many an interesting rabbit hole, one of which includes reexamining the works of the Silver Age Roman poet Statius.  I have not translated Statius for many years because my first encounters with his epics, in particular, were not pleasant ones.  But Purgatory has inspired me to pick up Statius once again—I will read and translate sections of his epics the Thebaid and the Achilleid.  More on those two pieces of literature in a later post, but as a preview I offer here a translation of one of Statius’s poems from his collection entitled Silvae.

Silvae in Latin means either “forests” or “materials”, a fitting name for what Statius meant to be occasional poems that are written hastily or on the spur of the moment.  Divided into four books, the Silvae include poems in praise of the Emperor Domitian, consolation poems, and commentary about ordinary things like a tree or sleep.  In the preface to Book I Statius writes about his compositions (all translations of Latin are my own): mihi subito calore et quadam festinandi voluptate fluxerant cum singuli de sino meo prodiderint—“with a passion and a certain desire for haste they suddenly flowed from me and each individual one was produced from my heart.”

I offer here my translation of Silvae IV entitled “Somnus” (Sleep) which is a plea to this fickle god to cure the poet’s insomnia. I especially identified with these verses because the beginning of a new semester, the unusual heatwave and a variety of other factors have also brought me a long bout of insomnia:

Oh most peaceful of gods, youthful Sleep, what crime have I committed, what mistake have I made, to cause me to be so wretched and to lack your gifts? The entire herd is silent, the birds, the wild animals and the curved tree tops all have the appearance of weary sleep. Even the fierce rivers do not have their usual sound; the shuddering of the waves has died out and the oceans, leaning on the earth, grow quiet. The moon, returning seven times now, has looked down on my sullen face. So often have the lights of Oeta and Venus revisited me and so often has Aurora walked past my groans, sprinkling me, in pity, with her cold whip. How will I get through this? I couldn’t bear this even if, like sacred Argus, I possessed the thousand eyes which he was used for an alternating vigil and which were never awake all at once. But, ah now, alas! If any lover, during the long nighttime hours, holding his arms entwined around a girl, drives you away from him on purpose, then please come to me instead; I do not ask that you pour all the power of your wings over my eyes—only a man who is much happier would pray for this;  but touch me with the very tip of your wand—for that is enough—or tread over me lightly with your raised foot.

One interesting thing to note is Statius’s heavy use of characters and names from history and mythology.  In order to understand fully this short poem,  one must look up or know something about Oeta, Venus, Aurora, and Argus.  He uses the same heavy-handed technique in the Thebaid.  As promised, more on that later.  But I am glad that Dante has goaded me to take another look at Statius.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “A Plea for some Sleep: Somnus by the Roman Poet Statius

  1. This does capture the anguish of prolonged insomnia. I hope you’re own bout’s over, Melissa.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Teachers’ insomnia – I remember it well, reluctantly. Statius, ashamed to say, I’d never heard of, but did enjoy your translation. You revive an urge to look at Latin again, and I do like it when you occasionally include some of the original in your posts. From Gallia Narbonensis, dormez bien…

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  3. Yes, I’m another who’d never heard of him. I can certainly relate to his woe, but I can’t say that I think very erudite thoughts when I can’t sleep…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Craig

    I am not at all familiar with Statius. I hope you find relief from your insomnia soon, Melissa. It can be chronic with me. It seems to run in my family. Both my father and my brother have had their struggles. I wonder if Statius’s prayers worked.

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