April 09, 2010


For my lit project, I read the poems of Propertius.

Ovid is my point of entrance; Ovid's Amores consists of three books of love poems written in elegiac meter (couplets alternating hexameter and pentameter). The poems, like and unlike love, are brisk and frivolous and bold and capricious and honest and desperate and sensual and charming and oh! ever so charming. Ovid is blunt yet delicate, mischievous yet discreet, shrewd yet earnest. Every line is smart, every sentiment wicked. Ovid, crafty Ovid, exhausts Lust's emotions, bounds from the thrill of a night's passion to the despair of passion rejected. The Amores introduced me to Ovid and Roman poetry. Hardly a line of it did I not take to heart.

And there is hardly a line which does not owe a great deal to Propertius.

Propertius (Ovid's elder by a few years) wrote four books of elegies. The first three are love poems dedicated (mostly) to his Cynthia. Everything to love in Ovid is here -- the energy, the honesty, the charm. The poetry is as capricious as love can be, as irrepressible. The fourth book turns from love poetry and takes the elegy in other directions, from epistles from wife to soldier-husband (perhaps inspiring Ovid's Heroides) to etiological descriptions of Rome (perhaps inspiring Ovid's Fasti (which I've just begun to read)).

What to say of Propertius? I am too sick at the moment to think clearly and give him a proper assessment. Here are some poems and passages to give you an idea of his work (though the translation I read/am quoting seems to place an emphasis on fitting Propertius' lines into properly metrical English lines, making me worry the translation is in many ways inaccurate). Enjoy.

From I.vii:
Though sometimes she may criticize me, lovers
can profit from my words if they'll but read.
The sad heart lifts a bit when it discovers
others have suffered and survived indeed.
My friend, if Cupid's arrow ever finds you--
I pray the gods may spare you such a fate--
you'll try to praise the silken net that binds you,
but these will be new skills, and learned too late.
Then you may seek my songs, and even learn them,
and sigh with lovesick youths above my dust,
His words were truth.
The following two poems illustrate how quickly Propertius can change tones. From II.xv:
No man more blest! O night, not dark for me,
beloved bed, scene of such dear delight!
To lie and talk there in the lamp's soft 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 hand;
to have her kiss my eyes awake and murmur,
Why must you sleep? and make her sweet demand.
Shifting our arms, moving to new embraces,
we kissed a thousand kisses multiplied;
then, with lamp rekindled, fed our senses
on new delights -- the eye is love's best guide.
&c. II.xvii:
If you must lie about your lovers,
beguiling me, my blood is on your head.
Each night of solitude I sing my sorrows,
lying alone -- and you in what man's bed?
Pity poor Tantalus, waist-deep in water
that shrinks whenever he would quench his thirst;
or Sisyphus who strains to push the boulder
up the long slope, and fails. Pity these cursed,
but pity even more the piteous lover--
lover with whom no wise man would change place.
I, once the king admitted and admired,
for ten days now I have not seen your face.
Bitch! I should find a rock, a cliff, to leap from,
or mix a poisonous drug and drink it down.
I cannot hurl my works at that closed doorway,
nor wander weeping through the moonlit town.

Yet I can't leave her, though I try it often.
Seeing how true I am, may she not soften?
Propertius is more melancholy than Ovid, and genuinely so. II.xxvii:
Men, alive for an hour, would know that hour's ending,
would learn the path by which their doom draws near;
on the unclouded sky they search, like the Phoenicians,
what star to trust in and what star to fear.

Whether we fight the Parthians on foot, or sail to Britain,
death may be waiting us on sea or land.
A man in civil war, caught by opposing armies,
can feel the rock he stood on turn to sand.

Fire comes in the night, swallowing and engulfing;
into the cup what poisons find their way!
Only the man in love is proof against such terrors:
he knows his doom, its source, its kind, its day.

Though he has taken his place at the oar on death's black river,
though he looks at those sails of which no man can tell,
if he hears the voice of his mistress, calling him back from that kingdom--
let heaven thunder, he'll fight his way from hell.
[Not satisfied with this translation, I sought another and found this. I do not like this one much either:
Do you mortals seek to know death’s unfixed
hour and by what path the end may arrive?
On a clear night, do you study Phoenician science, as to
which star may be favorable and which destructive?
Whether we pursue Parthians on foot or Britons by boat,
on sea and on land, the way holds hidden perils.
Our head again tossed into the tumult, we moan,
when Mavors jumbles both camps’ uncertain hands,
and what’s more, the flame and ruin to our homes,
we moan, lest the black cups approach our lips.

Only the lover knows when he will die and from what
cause, and he fears neither Boreas’ blasts nor war.
Though the oarsman already sits in the stygian reeds,
and he sees the gloomy sails of the infernal bark:
if only the whisper of his girlfriend calling would summon him,
he would make the journey back, obedient to no law.
Maybe I should learn Latin.]

Like Ovid, Propertius is sexually blunt, which is often surprising. From III.xv:
No storms henceforth, I beg you, in our loving,
nor any endless wakeful empty nights!
When I had passed beyond my boyhood shyness
and was permitted love and all its rights,
it was Lycinna brought me that first knowledge,
giving a heart that I could not repay.
Now, almost three years since then, I remember
scarcely ten words of all we had to say.
Your love has buried all; no other woman
has made me her captive, to this day.
And yet he still manages to be utterly charming.

Perhaps my favorite line; from II.xv (again):
O let us love until we are each other--
And a fitting epigram for the man; from I.vi:
Well, men have died for love, they say, and gladly.
I shall be one of that immortal band.
Reading Propertius, I almost long for love and all its agony. May Cupid spare me.

[On the subject of love poems, I also read the surviving fragments of Sappho. I have nothing to say about them so won't write a separate post.]

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