Only the Classics
Only the Classics

"The Poems" by Propertius

by Annie Kapur 2 months ago in celebrities

First Impressions (Pt.17)

"The Poems" by Propertius

The poet Propertius was an Latin Elegiac of the Augustan Period and his only surviving works are those of his four books of “Elegies”. This totals around 92 surviving poems and his more romantic side of poetry is dominated by a character named “Cynthia”. The romantic affair between Propertius and Cynthia takes wild turns and often turns either violent and turbulent or graphic and passionate. Common themes in the poems include: passion, romance, jealousy, violence, standards of love and courtship, lament, death and the afterlife, mythology, religion and ghosts. Propertius’s unconventional use of the Latin language have often made his texts and allusions within texts difficult to translate and edit. The surviving manuscripts of his poetry have led translators to often alter the texts and therefore corrupting them before the editing stage. Propertius’s boldness has often been said to exacerbate the problem of translation due to the way in which the syntax of the poetry is often incorrect. Be that as it may, themes, symbols and motifs are still clearly visible throughout the anthology. Propertius, being popular within his own lifetime but also a poet considered to be a scandal was also not really enjoyed by the other poets of his time and period. Horace had once stated a veiled attack on him and Callimachus as did Quintilian who states that the poet was not as popular as he made himself out to be.

Propertius fell out of popularity around the times of the Middle Ages and then was resurrected during the Renaissance. It has been discovered that other, latter poets show signs of being influenced by his writings including the Italian Poet Petrarch and the writers Ben Jonson and Joseph Brodsky. Ezra Pound did a modern writing of Propertius as a satirist and added in his own imagist theories to the poem he wrote. Highet attributed some of his poetry to Propertius’s use of myth and even Tom Stoppard has written about Propertius in a way which makes him responsible for the Western observations of love and passion. The love and passion in Propertius’s poetry is often shadowed by death and destruction, two emotions that humans struggle to comprehend fully and therefore, the language of the sublime cannot only be invoked, it can be blamed for much of Propertius’s bold, intense and often unconventional language uses.

When analysing the poetry, the character of Cynthia is suggested to be the catalyst for the thrust of strong emotion whether it be negative or positive and, as the anthology progresses, it is clear that Propertius uses Cynthia as to depict the differences between the genders of male and female when it comes to being in love, experiencing love, reacting to love and understanding love. Cynthia’s often slower approach makes his statement about women somewhat problematic, but he often fixes it with poetry concerning how women make men feel. Be that as it may, it is also very apparent that Propertius’s approach to love is littered and disorganised, this could in fact be a reflection of the feeling itself and how humans both react to it structurally instead of linguistically.

It is clear that Propertius’s language of love is often passionate with a physical edge. The language of power and powerlessness is used to show how control is often impossible in the experience - especially for the speaker. This disorganisation of language more than most, leads to destruction of some kind to some degree:

“Your eyes once caught, Love won’t allow you to withdraw them/Or lie awake for someone else’s sake./He does not show until his hand touches the bone./Run, whoever you are, from his temptations./Stocks and stones are powerless to resist them,/Much less your poor, lightweight soul./So for goodness sake, confess your error now. In love/It’s often a relief to name one’s ruin.” (“She Changes Her Mind” - ll.27-34)

There is no argument about whether Propertius writes about love in a violent and often turbulent manner. His language is filled with symbolism of not only death but graphic fatality, suicide and even murder. These are not just elegies for people, but they are poems which join violent death with reason. The reason is love. This is first observed in his existential questions during the “Cynthia” poems in which he questions his life’s worth without love. This builds to a climax of negative turbulence and the poet confesses that he must put blame on Cynthia for it:

“While growing famous for female deception/And cooly looking for short-term love,/You’ve fallen for someone and turned pale with ill-timed passion/The first slippery step to ruin./She’ll be the punishment for those despised unfortunates,/The one to avenge the wrongs of many,/She’ll put a stop to your promiscuous affairs;/You’ll cease to enjoy the search for novelty…But as you’re doomed to die this time for love, enjoy it/No other door was good enough for you./You’ve had a strange lapse. May it bring you luck/And she be the one for all your wishes.” (“Further to I” ll.5-36)

Thus it shows clearly that Propertius’s language of love not only climaxes violently in the pursuit of passion but also, as love is known to do, cools down in emotion and presents the wild extremes of both sides in the same situation. It presents the nature of love being never smooth and easy, but a road that is endured with extremes at either side and happening all at the same time. Thus, the structure and the language heighten the passionate feeling that is gained from the poem and the cooler, less extreme ending makes only the violent passion look even more extreme than it actually is via its mellowing to a satisfying halt of positivity.

Love and death are more than often interlinked throughout the poetry of Propertius and also, there is a clear bond between the act of suicide and the want for eternal love. The eternal aspect of love seems unattainable and thus, this thought leads the narrator to suicidal thoughts. The language is graphic and filled with dark and violent atmospheres and often include the survival of the loved one for the sake of presenting them as deceptive in their love. Thus, the eternal aspect of love is even unattainable in death and this makes the poet conflicted about their position. It is a question of whether suicide or murder is more reliable as attaining the eternal love he is searching for:

“Well, Propertius, will you die like this in your first youth?/Die then. Let her revel in your ruin./Let her torment my spirit, persecute my shade,/Jump on my pyre and trample my bones…” (“He Contemplates Suicide and Murder” ll.17-20)

To conclude, it is very clear that not only love is linked to the emotion of violence, but so is the language of death. In fact, it is violence itself that interlinks love and death, presenting both as an emotion that requires both question in the heights of violent outbursts and philosophy in the cooling stages that make the heightened emotions look even more extreme than they are. It is the pinnacle of love that is often thought of as unattainable and when the poet recalls this, they are flung into an open space filled with turbulence, extremities, graphic details and are without control over themselves, their emotions and more than often, their actions towards their loved one. The abusive nature of the relationship was never really hidden from the reader.

Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
Read next: Poem: New Life
Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Focus in Film: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Author of: "The Filmmaker's Guide" series

Email: [email protected]

Interests: Film, Literature and Bob Dylan

See all posts by Annie Kapur