Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Sextus Propertius

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Sextus Propertius

Article excerpt

Very little is known about Sextus Propertius except that he was born circa 54 B.C. at Assisi in Umbria and died, most likely in Rome, circa 16 B.C. That adds up to too many circas for anyone's liking. Nevertheless, from this uncertain chronology we learn that Propertius was a few years younger than Virgil and Horace and a bit older than Tibullus and Ovid. Whether he was personally acquainted with them is of little import. Presumably he was, since he lived most of his life in Rome and shared with some of those poets the patronage of Maecenas. It has also been argued that Propertius's work prefigures Ovid's love poetry.

The little that is known about Propertius is gleaned chiefly from his own verses, that is, from the one book of his which is extant. The book is called Cynthia Monobiblos. All in all, it contains 92 poems called "elegies," partly because of their subject matter and tonality and partly because of their form, the so-called elegiac couplet, a combination of hexametric and pentametric lines that was the main poetic medium of the time.

The book owes its title to the addressee and heroine of some of these elegies. "Cynthia" was what you might call a society girl who apparently belonged to a social group inferior to our poet's own equestrian class. This class difference decisively colored the character of their interplay by ruling out the possibility of marital union. She was red-haired and slightly older than Propertius, of delicate constitution, in fact quite sickly, like the poet himself. She also had a number of admirers (the Illyrian praetor is not the poet's invention), was well read, and led a life that could be characterized as financially and emotionally independent. The same could be said of the poet himself.

Cynthia Monobiblos is essentially a book of love poetry. By the time Propertius was writing, this genre was highly developed, and the love lyric had become practically a conceit. Every poet worth his salt would produce a sequence of love elegies offering a description of the sentiment itself as well as of jealousy, rejection, regret, remorse, and so forth, accompanied by the necessary admixture of pastoral imagery and highly erudite classical exempla. It is the latter--rather than the emotional investment in the subject--that furnished the criteria by which love poetry of the period was judged.

Propertius's elegies are extraordinary because they modify the pastoral element by intermixing urban imagery. However, what truly sets Propertius apart from his far better-known contemporaries is the intensity of his actual sentiment for his heroine. His is genuine love poetry: The story it tells is not so much that of passion as that of pure obsession. The Cynthia of these elegies is not a point of departure for an eloquent journey, as was the customary heroine in the Roman poetry of that period, but both the destination and the very means of transportation. She is the raw nerve of this poet's verses, as well as his own neurosis and its panacea. Toward the end of Part One, one develops a sense that, for all her and his numerous side shows, Cynthia was the one to show him the light.

Propertius openly acknowledges his indebtedness to the Greek poetry of the Hellenistic period and to Callimachus in particular: The anxiety of influence apparently did not cloud his agenda. But more interesting than his usage of Alexandrian tropes and mythological references is the fact that each of the elegies treating the subject of love invariably winds up in a discourse on death. Speak of Eros and Thanatos--Propertius could be used as a case study of their mutual affinity as well as of their affinity with the art of poetry. You may put this affinity down to the state of the poet's health or to his awareness of his medium's essential morbidity; you may also consider the possibility that the grip of one of these deities may suggest--by its strength--the other. Tradition, of course, calls the postcoital condition petite mort, but petit amour for the postmortem won't do. …

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