Propertius: Poems

December 7, 2019

Poems
Sextus Propertius
Translated from the Latin by Guy Lee
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1994) [c.30-15 BC]
xxv + 205 p.

Propertius is one of the lesser-known poets of the Latin Golden Age. Born in about 50 BC, he was just a young lad when Caesar was assassinated, and was about 20 years old when Octavian finally defeated Marc Antony to bring the civil war to a conclusion. He was brought under the patronage of Maecenas, and so moved in the same circles as Virgil and Horace. While in his 20s he published three books of poetry that, as we’ll see, constitute something like a single artistic project, and then, in about 15 BC, he completed a fourth book of poems. We know little about his later life; a reference to him in a poem of Ovid, dated around 1 BC, implies that he had by then died.

Propertius was primarily a love poet, and his first three books all focus on his love for a particular woman, Cynthia. Who she was, or even whether she was a real person, we do not really know, but Propertius’ obsession with her gives his poems an intensity and a unity that make them very accessible and engaging. It is passionate poetry, much after the manner of Catullus’ great Lesbia poems.

Just as the course of true love never does run smooth, so also the course of ill-fated, inconstant, unhealthy, and uncertain love can be a rough ride. Propertius’ experience with Cynthia has convinced him that love is mad and painful, a “wound”:

Whoever he was who painted Love a child
Don’t you think he had marvellous hands?
First he saw that lovers live senselessly
And that light passions lose great goods.

Nor was he mistaken in adding flighty wings
And making him a god who flies from human hearts;
For we are tossed about on alternating waves
And the breeze, for us, keeps changing direction.

Rightly too is Love’s hand armed with barbed arrows
And a Cretan quiver hangs down from each shoulder:
For he strikes while we’re off guard, before we see the foe,
And after that wound no one is well. (II, 11)

He has moments when he is inspired by the glory of love, when he professes his unfailing faithfulness to Cynthia, and imagines her echoing the same to him:

There let them come in troops, the beautiful heroines
Picked by Argives from the spoils of Troy,
No beauty of theirs for me could match yours, Cynthia —
Indeed (may Mother Earth in justice grant it)
Though fate remand you to a long old age,
Yet to my tears will your bones be dear.

If only the living you could feel this for my ashes,
Then death, wherever, for me would have no sting.
Ah Cynthia, how I fear that love’s iniquity
Scorning the tomb may drag you from my dust
And force you, though loth, to dry the falling tears;
A faithful girl can be bent by constant threats.
So while we may let us delight in loving;
No love is ever long enough. (I, 19)

But it is telling that he can imagine Cynthia faithful only to his bones and ashes, for in life she gave him little enough satisfaction. The poems relate how she absconded with a rich rival suitor, went away on holiday without him, failed to visit when he was ill, tormented him with false promises, locked the door against him, and generally treated him like rubbish. His hapless love for her remains, however:

Happy the man who could weep in his girl’s presence
(Love can enjoy the sprinkling of tears)
Or who, when scorned, could redirect his ardour
(There is also joy in bondage transferred).
My fate is neither to love another nor break with her:
Cynthia was first and Cynthia shall be last. (I, 12)

He suffers fierce bouts of jealousy, issuing warnings to other men who come within her orbit:

She’ll prove no flighty girl in the encounter;
You’ll find her anger is no joke.
Even if she’s not resistant to your prayers,
She’ll still bring you troubles — by the thousand.
You’ll sleep no more. Her image will not leave you.
Her moods make proud men puppets. (I, 5)

Bereft of her affections, he comes to cherish her abuse and anger as a sign, he hopes, of concealed love:

Sweet for me was the fight by yesterday’s lamplight
And all the manic abuse you voiced
When, mad with wine, you overturned the table and flung
Full wine-cups at me in your fury.
Come on then, don’t be afraid, attack my hair
And scratch my face with those beautiful nails.
Bring fire and threaten to burn my eyes out.
Rip my tunic, strip my chest bare.
Naturally I diagnose true passion; no girl
Not deeply in love is so upset. (III, 8)

But at times when even these slender hopes desert him, his thoughts turn startlingly dark and violent:

But you shall not escape; you have to die with me.
The blood of both shall drip from this same blade.
Though such a death for me will be dishonourable,
I’ll die dishonoured to make sure you die. (II, 8)

Mercifully this dark fantasy remains only a fantasy, but the third book concludes the cycle of Cynthia poems with a vicious farewell curse:

Farewell now to the doorstep that sheds tears at my words
And the door I never smashed despite my anger.
But you — may age and the years you’ve hidden weigh you down
And wrinkles come to spoil your beauty!
May your desire then be to root out the white hairs,
While the mirror, alas, accuses you of wrinkles.
Excluded in your turn may you suffer pride’s disdain,
A crone complaining you’re done by as you did!
These curses my prophetic page has sung for you;
So learn to dread your beauty’s aftermath! (III, 25)

*

This is good stuff: high drama, wrenching passion, flights of fancy, bitter disappointment! His preoccupation with Cynthia, examining their affair from this angle and then from that, gives the whole collection a cohesiveness that makes the poems read something like a diary. I really enjoyed them.

The fourth book, in which he moves on to other subjects (although Cynthia does show up a few times, a memory and ghostly presence), was less attractive to me. The poems are on mythological or historical subjects (including one about Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony at Actium), or spoken in the voice of imagined characters rather than his own, and I found them markedly less interesting.

*

Like Horace, Propertius has a talent for personal, small scale poetry. In one amusing poem he imagines himself setting out to write an epic poem on an important subject, but just as he stoops to drink from that noble stream of inspiration he is interrupted by Apollo:

‘Idiot, what right have you to such a stream? And who
Told you to turn your hand to epic?
There’s not a hope of fame, Propertius, for you here;
Your little wheels must groove soft meadows.
Let your slim volume be displayed on bedside tables
And ready by lonely girls waiting for their lovers.
Why has your page diverged from its appointed round?
You must not overload the rowboat of your wit.
With one oar feather water, with the other sand,
And you’ll be safe. Most flounder in mid-ocean.’ (III, 3)

In other words, he knew his own limits. The introductory essay to this volume discusses the political side of his poetry, which is not entirely absent. (Anyone moving in Augustus’ circle was writing politically charged poetry whether they wanted to or not. Propertius seems to have navigated those treacherous waters adeptly.) His ambitions were not to be great, as some measure greatness, but to be a great poet who would be remembered:

Yet what the envious crowd withholds from me in life
Honour will pay me after death at double interest.
Everything after death is magnified by age:
A name beyond the grave sounds better in the mouth. (III, 1)

Poignant words, considering that he was largely forgotten for a long time, cast into the shadow of his great contemporaries. Renaissance scholars took some interest in his work after long neglect, and the poetry of Petrarch and Goethe was influenced to some modest extent by him. Ezra Pound wrote a cycle of poems in “homage” to him, and he has received a number of English translations in recent decades. Still, it is hard to think that this flagging and marginal fame was what he hoped for.

Let’s do our small part to remember him by reading one poem in its entirety, a poem in which he celebrates the immortality to be hoped for in poetry:

Let us return meanwhile to our song’s familiar round —
To touch and delight a girl with its music.

Orpheus, they say, bewitched wild animals and held
Back rushing rivers with his Thracian lyre.
Cithaeron’s rocks, hustled to Thebes by music’s art,
Of their own accord combined to bond a wall.
Yes, and below wild Etna Galatea turned
Her spray-drenched steeds toward Polyphemus’ songs.
What wonder, by the grace of Bacchus and Apollo,
If girls in plenty worship my words?

Though my house is not supported on Taenarian columns
And has no ivory room with gilded beams,
Nor do my fruit-trees match the orchards of Phaeacia
Nor artificial grot drip Marcian waters,
Still the Muses befriend me, my songs are dear to readers
And Calliope unwearied by my dances.
Lucky the girl who is celebrated in my book;
Each song will be a reminder of her beauty.

Neither the expense of Pyramids reared to the stars
Nor Jove’s Elean home copying heaven
Nor rich gold fortune of the Mausoleum
Escape the extreme necessity of death.
Or flame or rain will dispossess their honour, or
They’ll fall by thrust of years and their own weight.
But age will not destroy the name achieved by talent;
Talent’s glory stands — immortal. (III, 2)

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