Plot: “I should always wish to be the wan lover of an angry mistress” Book III.8 That about sums up most of Propertius’ love poetry for Cynthia. He records Love’s highs and lows, his and her infidelities, and finally her death and rebukes from the grave.
My version is the Loeb Classical Library volume Elegies by Propertius, edited and translated by G. P. Goold (ISBN 067499020X)
Propertius is known only for his books of poetry, most of which consist of praise and tokens of his love for his beautiful Cynthia, equal of Helen of Troy, yet a cruel, hardhearted and tyrannical lover. Propertius is tortured with jealousy – he pictures himself shipwrecked and forced to live without her, to be on the brink of death and worried more that she will not shed tears over his grave. His love is a sickness from which he will never recover. Even when she is unfaithful, Propertius will imagine no other lover in his life. He does cure himself of his affection by the end of book 3 and manages to spell out poems on other subjects, but Cynthia returns repeatedly to his thoughts and writings : he is fated to be the “slave of a single love” (II.13). At one point he wins her interest back for one night by feigning disdain, only to worry whether his “ship” “shall safely reach the shore or founder overladen amid the shoals” (II, 14). The next poem leaves us in no doubt of his success : “a single such night might make any man a god!” (II.15)
His poetry is romantic and often anguished, with some elegant phrases, many which were later borrowed by Dante, Shakespeare and Keats amongst others. He constantly uses references to the Greek myths and legends, The Iliad and The Odyssey to describe his feelings and sufferings, such as reproaching Cynthia, as beautiful as Helen but lacking Penelope’s (Odysseus’ wife) faithfulness.
Before you feel too sorry for the poet, I might just add that the editor of the version I read was convinced Cynthia was not a real person but merely a literary phantasm for Propertius to hang his poetry on. I’m not sure : that was a lot of anguish in one small book.
“Now for very joy I can set my feet upon the stars in heaven: come day or night, she is mine!” I.8
Yet the ecstasy does not last ; from the very next poem :
“Never has Love provided anyone with easy wings without pulling him down with alternate hand” I.9
There was also a wonderful poem which depicts how a gang of cherubs (a multitude of Cupids) seek out Propertius in his drunken stumblings and force him to Cynthia’s house where she has been waiting all night for his arrival.
“Last night, my Love, as I wandered steeped in wine with no band of slaves to guide me, a crowd of tiny boys accosted me. I know not how many, since fear prevented my counting them; some, I faniced, held torches, some arrows, and others were even getting fetters ready for me. But they were naked. One more impudent than the rest cried out “Arrest him, for you know him well enough. This was the man, this the one that the angry girl set us to deal with.” Hardly had he spoken when a noose was round my neck.
Hereupon another bids them push me into their midst, and yet another “Death to whoever does not believe us gods! This girl, though you deserve it not, has been awaiting you for hours, whilst you, stupid, were looking for a woman out of doors …. Go now, and learn to stay at home of nights!” Book II, 29A (page 219-221)
But let us leave them on a happy note
“So, while we may, let us love and be happy together: never, however long, does love last long enough” I.19
Personal rating: 4/10
Kimmy’s rating: Not impressed, Kim sat beside me with soulful eyes. Let’s go for a walk and leave them to it, she seemed to say.
Next : The Heroides by Ovid