American Book Review

Vol. 17 No. 5
June-July '96

Sextus Propertius translated by Vincent Katz
(Sun & Moon Press, 1995)

Review by Marshall Hurwitz

"The Hippest Roman of Them All"


Elegiac verse as we know it had its origins in the 7th Century Greek word.  At first it was a vehicle for patriotic warsongs Kallinos and Tyrtaeos), poking fun at institutions (Archilochos), or moralizing about ethics and politics (Solon).  Mimnermos of Colophon (late 7th century) is the earliest extant poet who used elegiac verse for love poems addressed to a girlfriend, Nanno.  Sextus Propertius, six centuries later, says: "Mimnermos's poetry is worth more in love than Homer's:/ mild love seeks soft songs."  But it is rather to the more elegant later 3rd century Hellenistic poets such as Callimachus and (now mostly lost) Philitas that Propertius owes his greatest debt.  Propertius begins his third book by calling on "the shades of Callimachus and Coan Philitas to allow me to enter the sacred groves."

The writing of elegies flourished in Rome in the late 1st century BC and into the early 1st century AD.  Catullus was the forerunner; Ovid first alludes to the four elegists who were to become the canonical elegiac poets when he says: "Vergil I only saw; and a greedy fate allowed Tibullus no time for my friendship.  It was Tibullus who succeeded you, Gallus, and Propertius succeeded Tibullus:  I myself was fourth in order of time."  Gallus's poetry was lost, Ovid had a long continuous tradition of popularity, but Tibullus and Propertius's poems had a very spotty history of transmission.  Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius, a very free elaboration of the text, rediscovered this poet for the twentieth century as a poet with modern sensibilities.  There have been several modern poets who have since made memorable renderings of Propertius's poetry, such as Robert Lowell in "The Ghost."

Of the four books of elegies of Propertius's collection, the first three are predominantly love poems mostly concerned with "Cynthia"; the last book moves to more serious concerns.  The first book, the Monobiblos, made Propertius famous, and is one of the more accessible sections of his creations.  It is this book that Vincent Katz translates and publishes in a bilingual edition with the title of Charm.

If there is any one epithet that can be associated with the poet Propertius it is the Latin adjective blandus; he uses this word and its derivatives more than a dozen times in his poetry.  His friend and fellow poet Ovid applies it to him.  Unlike its English derivative, it is a word of approbation meaning "smooth, caressing, or even charming."  So it is not a surprise to see this edition of the first book of Propertius's elegies -- the lightest book -- entitled Charm.  The surprise, however, is to find that the author in his introduction takes it as a translation of the heavier word decusDecus, which is "beauty" or "that which adorns," has more to do with the Roman sense of propriety (decet meaning "it is fitting"); it is one of the favorite words of the sober and prosaic Cicero.  This debatable reading sets the stage for the rest of the translation -- a work that is quite acceptable as to spirit, but occasionally questionable as to details.

Katz has no problem finding his "voice":  it might be described as aggressively contemporary.  He begins his book with an imaginative and vivid prose introduction, written in a very breezy style.  About the world of Augustus:  "It is into this world that the young Sextus Propertius, fresh from Perugia, finds himself thrust.  At first, it's a blast..."; about Hellenistic poetry:  "the heavy hitters were Kallimachos and Theokritos"; about the imagined enthusiasm of Horace for the young Propertius:  "Horace, hogwild on the high of this new genius, begins taking Sextus and his poems everywhere."  In the poetry this propensity for colloquialisms leads occasionally to a felicitous phrase, but it also steps beyond the spirit of the author.  Is it really necessary to translate invide as "invidious creep," or improbe as "asshole"?  Or are these other examples of the trendiness that was manifested in the introduction when Katz drew a tenuous comparison between Propertius and Antonioni films or Propertius and the Beatles?

This book should never have been published as a bilingual edition; the facing text invites a closer scrutiny than the translation deserves.  The very first poem velocem....puellam becomes "brilliant girl," when the whole point of the myth of Atalanta that Propertius is employing is her swiftness in running.  Much of the difficulty for a modern reader is Propertius's propensity to cite mythological stories as parallels to his present emotions.  Fortunately, in the back of this translation there is a useful set of succinct notes on the mythological and geographical references.

Perhaps, if Mr. Katz completes the other three books and publishes the complete elegies of Propertius, making some careful revisions of his text, and adding to his notes a few sentences on the content of each of the poems, it could prove a valuable tool for making the poet Propertius accessible to "hip" readers.