Saturday, June 23, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Non Amo Te

This is my fifty-third "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. In case yesterday's post left people with the impression that I was not interested at all in Roman poetry, that is not the case! The Roman poet Martial (who lived from 40 CE to c. 104 CE) is a great source for distich poetry and exerted a tremendous influence on the development of the distich genre in Latin. I have chosen one of his distichs for today - it is one that has a popular history of its own in English, too, which I've included down below. Meanwhile, here is the poem:

Non amo te, Sábidi, nec possum dícere quare;
hoc tantum possum dícere: non amo te.

Here is how it works:

Non amo. Here we have the Latin verb amare (compare the English word amatory), in the first-person singular form: amo, I love. The word non is like English not, negating the verb: non amo, I do not love.

te. This is the Latin second-person singular pronoun, tu, in the accusative case: te. That gives us a complete statement: non amo te, I do not love you.

Sábidi. This is from the Latin name Sabidius. Although people have speculated about the identity of this Sabidius and just why Martial did not like him, such speculations are just that: speculation. We do not know anything about who this Sabidius was. The form here is vocative, Sabidi, so Martial is addressing Sabidius directly in the poem (Martial's poems often have a personal addressee).

nec possum. Here we have the Latin verb posse, meaning can, be able (compare the English word possible); the form is first-person singular: possum, I can. The word nec is a negating conjunction, meaning and not, nor. Put them together and you have: nec possum, and I cannot, I am not able to … to do what? We need an infinitive to complete the verb phrase.

dícere. This is the Latin verb meaning to speak, to say (compare the English words diction, dictum). The infinitive completes the verbal phrase: nec possum dícere, and I am not able to say, I cannot say.

quare. This Latin word means why, which completes the statement: nec possum dicere quare, I cannot say why.

So, the first line lets us know that Martial does not love Sabidius, Non amo te, Sábidi, even if he cannot say why, nec possum dícere quare. The second line will simply drive that point home once again!

hoc. This is from the Latin pronoun hic, meaning this. The form is neuter singular: hoc, this thing. We cannot tell yet if the form is nominative (subject of the verb) or accusative (object); we will have to keep on reading.

tantum. This Latin adverb means only, merely.

possum dícere. Here we have the same verbs from the first line: possum, I can, dícere, say. That gives us a complete statement: hoc tantum possum dicere, I can only say this.

non amo te. The poem ends just as it began, with the words non amo te, I do not love you.

Put it all together, and you have a rejection that is both completely vague and absolutely definite:

Non amo te, Sábidi, nec possum dícere quare;
hoc tantum possum dícere: non amo te.

This epigram became famous in connection with one "Doctor Fell," i.e. John Fell, who was a 17th-century academic and teacher at Christ Church College in Oxford. Fell ordered one of his students, Tom Brown, to give a translation of this epigram by Martial, and Tom Brown supposedly replied offered this translation:

I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

While the incident may or may not have really happened, it was widely repeated and has made this Martial poem far more famous in the English tradition than it ever would have been otherwise!

For more of Martial's poems in Latin, you can visit the Martial stream in my Latin distichs blog, which includes a blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. The next essay is about another Martial poem: Ede Tua.

Meanwhile, you can read more about Doctor John Fell and about the satirist Tom Brown at Wikipedia; the portrait below is one of Doctor Fell: