Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Shades of Propertius

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Shades of Propertius

Article excerpt

EDITORS' NOTE: What follows is an incomplete first draft of an essay that Isaac Meyers was writing for us at the time of his death. The idea was his own: When David Shvitt's new transUtion ofSextus Propertius appeared, Isaac asked whether he might use it as a peg for afresh consideration of the Roman poet. In January 2008 he sent us what he'd thus far written, to give us a sense of where he was headed and to get our reaction. By the time we responded it was early March. After a spirited flurry of e-mail back and forth, we reached an understanding with Isaac about the lines along which the essay should be revised and expanded, and both sides felt confident that it would turn out handsomely; he planned to deliver a complete draft by Ute spring. Less than two weeks later he was gone.

In the aftermath, we discussed with Isaacs parents and fiancée what, if anything to do with the essay. It represented a quandary: Would Isaac, with his classicists fastidious restraint, have wanted us to publish even a portion of the rough, work-in-progress material hed casually run by us? We considered cherry-picking the most polished and convincing passages and somehow stringing them together, but that felt meddlesome and presumptuous. In the end, it was collectively decided that we should publish the draft in its entirety; while it may not be the gleaming, flawless monument that a person of Isaac's accomplishment deserves, it shows a fine mind grappling with a difficult and slippery subject, and so stands as a sort of tribute.

In his dealings with editors, or at least these editors, Isaac was exemplary: thick-skinned, good-humored, always willing to entertain suggestions but prepared to hold his ground. Our final correspondence was no exception. Though we found much in the material to admire, we demurred at certain aspects of his approach. These reservations he met with perfect equanimity, yet he aho maintained that his angle on Propertius, while perhaps pushed too far, was fundamentally apt. The main point of contention had to do with the masked elusiveness of Propertius, which we felt Isaac had somewhat fetishized instead of attempting to dispel, resulting in a sense, for the reader, of obscurum per obscurius. "I totally get what you're saying, " his response began. (How many classicists are so disarmingly colloquial?) "Now, to me, " he continued, "the most interesting thing about Propertius is how mysterious and masked he is. He left almost no footprints, at least no clean ones - until people saw the messed-up footprints and thought, 'Bigfoot!' So I think Propertius is uniquely masked. If you want him to be a full individual in the sense that a modern, living poet is one, it's no-can-do. But I can spend more time on the probabilities of his circumstances and personality. And maybe I can explain better and more concisely what a slender thread the manuscript tradition is, how much a matter of faith classical literature is. "

A secondary quibble of ours was that Isaac hadn't put enough of himself into the essay, that he'd been too cautious or modest about advancing his own opinions on Propertius. His answer: "If you let me put up big roadsigns saying CAUTION: SPECULATION, then I will put my imagination to work, give my gut reactions, and that will at least be entertaining. The irony is that, 'round these parts - my department [Isaac was working toward his Ph.D. at Harvard] - I've got this reputation as an ahistorical, head-in-the-clouds kind of guy. But it's all relative. Td certainly say that four years of heavy philology have affected my spinal curvature. But the habits I've formed are habits, not principles. Fm for imagination and gut reactions! Anyone wanting them that Tm not used to... "

In the light of sudden loss, things often take on a charged new meaning or appearance, and such, for us, is the case with this essay. Isaacs emphasis on the spectral, flickering nature of Propertius, announced in his very title, has come to reflect hauntingly back on Isaac himself. …

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