Translator's Note: "Phoebus was gone, all gone, his journey over"
Foebus Abierat is a mystery. It was written in Latin at the end of the tenth century in northern Italy. It describes, in the voice of a woman, a meeting with a spirit-lover. By any standard, the poem is extraordinary. It is rapid, passionate; a quick arc of sounds and meaning done in a language which does not usually bend to speed. Its edges are burned by vision rather than explanation. Who wrote it? And why? We will probably never know.
The poem has barely survived. The Cambridge University scholar Peter Dronke, who wrote eloquently about it in the mid-sixties, describes the original text in the Vatican library as "mutilated." Nevertheless, he pays tribute to the work's quality "as one of the most remarkable poems in Medieval Latin . . . it achieves a beauty which is rare in a learned language." Although its authorship must be marked as anonymous, a later scholar, Jane Stevenson, in a study of medieval women poets, says that it may be "what it seems to be, a highly original poem by a woman, since its writer could perfectly well be a nun."
Foebus Abierat is a dream-vision lyric, written in what used to be called "Church Latin." It's certainly not the classical Latin I learned. The old language is present, but a skin of liturgy and sorcery has been laid over it. From the first stanza, with its moonlight and wild beasts, it's obvious that the agenda of this poem is magic rather than measure.
For that reason, and in the spirit of a poem that was of its age, I have tried to translate it to ours. I have followed its incantations tonally rather than rythmically. I have tried for a plainspoken note so as to make more contemporary this wonderful, long-ago cry of a woman finding and losing a body and soul—all in an instant. Nor have I been literal in all parts of the poem, though I've weighed any departure from the text. Some have been necessary, however, if only for the sake of idiomatic conversion.
MORE FROM THIS ISSUE
This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine