Poetry Project Newsletter

Issue No. 164

Feb./Mar. '97

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

Review by Bill Luoma


You must read Vincent Katz's new translation of the ancient Roman poet Propertius.  Handsomely printed by Sun & Moon, this volume contains 22 beautifully rendered poems from Propertius's first book of elegies.  Mr. Katz has titled the book Charm (Latin:  decus) and explains this choice in his introduction to the text:

I initially fixed on decus as the deciding quality of Propertius' world....  This word can sometimes be translated 'grace,' sometimes 'charm'....  It seemed to embody the appropriate way a lover is meant to approach the beloved....  It is an attitude of respect, combined with understanding & passionate involvement.

Charm works in Propertius, Mr. Katz goes on to argue, in terms of magical seduction, passion and obsession, terms that on first glance might seem incompatible with the notion of grace or charm.  However, Katz argues that obsession is a "necessary corollary of involvement, and Propertius would rather die in the name of involvement than live a life of indifference.  A life without passion is a living death. "Such a life is also devoid of poetry.  Or perhaps we should say, along with Propertius and Mr. Katz, that passion is the necessary condition for writing good poetry, or at least good erotic poetry.

Sextus Propertius lived in Rome from approximately 50-10 BC.  Little is known about his life other than, like Virgil & Horace, he was patronized by Maecenas and was liked by Ovid.  Of Propertius' work we have four books of elegies that contain the names of various roman personae and eschew more traditional myths & epic modes.  We might call the work of Propertius people poems in the tradition of Catallus, or Personism as Mr. Katz mentions in his introduction.  For both Catallus and Propertius write wild and humorous erotic lyrics addressed to friends and lovers, and both riff on the Greek poet of Lesbos, Sappho.  The lover of Catallus is named Lesbia; the lover of Propertius, Cynthia.

In the context of the erotic lyric, one should think of Sappho and her boast directed against epic poetry.  I would venture that the following lines from her poem "hot men hippeon straton" are the first definition of such a poetics:


Most men take strategic knights, while others

claim armymen.  The rest hold up battleships

as the greatest show on earth.  But I declaim

it's  you do you love.


Catullus and Propertius both follow Sappho's lyric very closely.  In Elegy 6 we read Propertius addressing Tullus, his soldier friend:


You go ahead and try to surpass your uncle's power,

restore ancient rights our allies have let slide.

You never had time for love even in your youth:

an armed nation was always your concern.


Erotic boasting is not epic.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say tat epic boasting is concerned mostly with armymen and history.  Lyric boasting goes like Propertius Elegy 7, presented here in its entirety in Mr. Katz' elegant, biting, and hilarious English; the poem's narrator addresses Ponticus, an epic poet:


While you tell of Thebes and Cadmus, Pinticus,

and the tragedy of fraternal warfare,

            and, if I may say, you contend with Homer himself

            (may the fates go easy on your songs),

            I pursue my loves, as is my wont,

            and look for something against my hard mistress.


            I am a slave not so much to genius as to suffering,

            complaining the hard times of my youth.

            This is how my life's used up, this my fame,

            this is what I want my poetry known for.

            Let them praise me, Ponticus, for being

            the only one to have pleased that

            sophisticated girl, and for having often borne her unjust                     threats.

            May the neglected lover of the future read me carefully,

            the knowledge of my ills may give him foresight.


If the Boy should also strike you with his dead eye bow,

            (though I wouldn't wish my gods to violate you),

            then you'll cry that your camps, your seven squadrons,

            lie far, far, away, silent in eternal inactivity.

            In vain you'll try to compose a subtle verse,

            and laggard Love will throw down no songs to you.


            Then you will not marvel so often at this 'insignificant'                       poet.

            Then I may be preferred to the other Roman talents.

            Youths won't be able to keep silent at my tomb:

            'There you lie, great poet of our ardor.'

            So beware when you trash my poems with contempt:

            Lazy Love often charges a huge interest.


This is a gem few translators ever get the pleasure of polishing.  Mr. Katz has put on a nice coat.

As for the details of the translation, Mr. Katz has done an admirable job.  One technical choice is interesting to discuss.  The Elegies have been separated into stanzas in service to what Mr. Katz calls 'the period.'


I have included stanzas because I feel they are relevant to the rhetorical concept of 'period,' which can be thought of as the breath necessary to express a given thought....


Also in service to this 'period,' and dependent upon Mr. Katz' fine ear  his commitment to rendering English speech, his translations expand and contract certain of college' lines so that the word count and line length of the Latin sometimes do not match those of the English.  In other words, Mr. Katz's fluxing feet and use of stanzas do not keep a strict harmony with the quantitative, visual shape of the Latin words.  Taking the quantitative as a point of departure, the translator would be forced to privilege the energy, sound and disjunction of the inflected Latin more than the 'period.'  Always this is the nightmare of the classical translator.  Either tack is justified and the best translations flip back & forth between these two poles, as Mr. Katz' renderings consistently do.

In summary, I'll say Sappho invented the lyric boast.  The boast is the lyric adopted by Catullus and Propertius, deals with vocatives, is against the epic, & springs from passion.  Vincent Katz has done a good thing.  His Charm captures the energy of the original so that an English reader feels the pleasures and pains of the Latin words.


Footnote:  I acknowledge the work of Page duBois for some of these ideas and recommend reading her new book Sappho is Burning published by Chicago University Press.