Sunday Telegraph

July 25, 2004

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

"The Celebration of an Elegist "

Paul Cartledge welcomes this collected edition of the work of the Roman poet Sextus Propertius

"DOWN IN a deep dark dell sat an old cow munching a beanstalk./ Out of her mouth came forth yesterday's dinner and tea."  A perfect elegiac couplet -- metrically speaking, anyhow.  That was the metre in which Sextus Propertius chose to write his peculiarly impassioned love elegies and chose not to write patriotic verses at the behest of Augustus' Maecenas.

Propertius was one of the "big five" Roman elegists of the first century BC, along with Gallus, Catullus, Tibullus and Ovid.  His models were Greek, though not the martial poets of the seventh century BC who sang of arms and the men, but the ever so much more chic and sophisticated poets of the Hellenistic third century; the likes of Callimachus of Alexandria and Philetas of Cos, whom Propertius acknowledged as his mentors and models for him, all was as unfair in love as in war and, defiantly, "none from my blood will be a soldier."

Propertius hailed -- and in his verses he hailed with considerable bitterness -- from Umbria, somewhere in the vicinity of modern Perugia and Assisi.  But he was no St. Francis.  He was neither poor nor was he self-abnegating.  Instead, at least in his poetic persona, he practiced another form of penance:  self-flagellation.  He perversely celebrated his domination and humiliation at the hands, or rather nails, of his lover "Cynthia" -- a pseudonym, perhaps even a pet name, for a lady to whom he was not married but to whom he was bound by a thousand self-spun threads.

"Cynthia", as u mock-ruefully confessed, was the beginning and the end of him.  The first of his four published books of elegies was issued in perhaps 30 BC, around the time Octavian (Augustus) emerged as supreme lord of the entire Roman world following the victory at Actium over Cleopatra and Antony.

Propertius was then in his mid-twenties or thereabouts (reliable biographical data is almost non-existent); of an age to be actively involved on the battlefield but preferring to promote a life (mis)spent yet more energetically in the bedroom and even on street corners: "often Venus was committed at the crossroads", as the translator Vincent Katz's po-faced rendition aptly has it.

"Cynthia" occupies the bulk of Monobiblos, his artfully constructed and deeply meditated first book.  It acquired the Greek nickname to convey the singularity and single-mindedness of its author's headlong erotic devotion.  Three further books of poems followed, steadily, in around 23, 23 and 16 BC respectively.

Propertius' poetic genius and perhaps too his life were all done by his early forties.  Almost a decade ago, the scholarly Katz produced a version of the monobiblos under the enticing but confusing title of Charm, which in revised form is now incorporated here with translations of the other three books.

Charm came with a rousing introduction from the University of Chicago's Ralph Johnson, who here too praises Katz's "rich and subtle American style", claiming that it evokes, with appropriate delicacy and power, Propertius's variety, his shifting tones, and textures, his unique shimmers and shadows".  That is very well put.  It does not quite prepare us for the words "creep" and "asshole" or "Prizes ain't worth shit", perhaps.  But it reminds us that one very particular modern American poet was famously taken with the Umbrian's lively, pompous, eloquent, pedantic, subtle and comic qualities -- what Katz calls his "willful strangeness" and rough beauty", namely Ezra Pound.

It is a fascinating exercise to compare Katz's sturdily faithful version of, for example, the second poem of the third book to Pound's 1919 "homage" to that same poem, and then both of those to the recent translation -- or traducement -- by the classically trained Josephine Balmer (in her recent collection, Chasing Catullus).

Balmer's journey into the border territory between poetry and translation, original and interpretation, comes across more as a homage to a homage.  But that is, after all, one definition of the Classic.  For Propertius lives on.  It is not only Rome that "will praise me in generations to come".  The Graeco-Latin poetic movement within which he situated himself is still alive and well as part of an ongoing Classical tradition.

It is doubtful whether Propertius will, or can, ever provoke and inspire the kind of homage that Homer elicited from Derek Walcott or Ovid from Ted Hughes.  But a clutch of admirers that includes Donne, Goethe and Housman is no mean posterity to be working with.


Marshall Hurwitz taught religion and classical languages at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, City College of New York, and The Graduate Center of City University.  He has written articles on Hellenistic literature and Greek mythology.