Rain Taxi

Vol. 10 No. 1
Spring 2005

The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius translated by Vincent Katz
(Princeton University Press, 2004)

Review by John Toren


Although his name appears only occasionally in the company of such august poets as Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, Sextus Propertius has been a darling of modernists since Ezra Pound published "Homage to Sextus Propertius" in 1919.  His persistent melancholy, his abrupt shifts from personal confession to arcane allusion (ala The Waste Land) and his rather un-Roman admission that the chains of love prevent him from generating much enthusiasm for victory in war or the duties of citizenship strike a familiar note.  Robert Lowell took pleasure in translating his work, and the playwright Tom Stoppard, in a recent play about A.E. Housman, even went so far as to suggest that Propertius "invented" romantic love.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Propertius's poetry presents unusual difficulties to the translator.  His restlessness, erudition, self-doubt, and evident love of experimentation make him, as one scholar put it, "a poet difficult to get a purchase on."  When we consider that Propertius is also well-known for his sophisticated handling of the irregular meters of the elegy form, the challenge facing any translator should be clear.  Nevertheless, there have been a number of attempts over the years to bring Propertius to life.

Though not a classicist per se, Vincent Katz -- son of painter Alex Katz and a noted poet and art curator in his own right -- would appear to be well-suited temperamentally for the undertaking.  In the introduction he expresses his intention to preserve something of the willful strangeness and compression of Propertius's imagery, rather than to forgo these thorny aspects of style in the interests of clarity.  His versions definitely possess enough edgy feelings and street-talk to retain their buoyancy, line after line, in the midst of a fluctuating tide of obscure mythological references.  For example, Katz has Propertius upbraid his friend Gallus, who seems to be taking a fancy to Propertius's girlfriend Cynthia, in the following terms:


            You jealous creep!  Shut your annoying mouth already

            and let us go our course as we are, equals!

            What do you want, idiot?  To experience my madness?

            Poor boy, you're rushing into a hellhole!

            You'll drag swollen feet through hideous fires,

            and drink all Thessaly's poisons.

            This woman cannot be compared to your tramps!

            To get angry softly is not her style.


Whether such a translation comes close to the sound and sense of the original is dubious, but if we compare Katz's work to that of his predecessors, we might come to admire the greater vividness and punch of his renderings -- qualities that he has summoned, for the most part, without undue strain or artificiality.  Consider, for example, two versions of a passage from the fifteenth elegy of Book II.  Constance Carrier, in the North Anthology of Classical Literature, has given us this:


            To lie and talk there in the lamp's dark flickering,

            and then to learn ourselves by touch, not sight --

            to have her hold me with her breasts uncovered,

            or, slipping on her tunic, balk my hands

            to have her kiss my eyes awake and murmur,

            Why must you sleep? and make her sweet demand.


The gentleness of this rendering is nowhere to be found in Katz's version:


            As many words as we shared while the lamps were on --

            once light was removed, that many bouts ensued!

            First she wrestles me with naked breasts,

            then her concealing tunic brings delay.

            She pushes open my lids, as they slip into sleep,

            and says, with her expression, "So, you like there spent?"


In short, Katz has done everything in his power to keep the verses active, and we can easily drift uncomprehendingly through Propertius's more-than-occasional references to Eriphyla, the Fabian Luperci, Thesprotus, and other such folk, confident that their adventures and mishaps merely serve to elaborate Propertius' personal situation.  Katz provides extensive notes in the back for anyone who wants to track down such references, but he has wisely refrained from applying superscripts to specific words and lines.

Is Propertius, then, a poet we ought to get to know better?  I would say yes.  His language is vivid, his descriptions of emotions are both polished and sincere, and his tortured yet fun-loving personality is strangely attractive.  There is little of Virgil's faux-rusticity or Horace's lofty wisdom to be found here, but within his range this "most fascinating of the Roman poets" strikes an authentic note repeatedly.