When Pound published Homage to Sextus Propertius in 1919, a surprisingly large number of readers apparently thought that the work was intended to be a literal, or at least close, translation of classical Roman poetry. This misperception came despite the obvious clue in the title: Pound was paying tribute to Sextus Propertius and attempting to capture the spirit of his verse rather than the word-by-word meaning.
Still, a number of classical scholars attacked Pound for his many supposed mistakes and errors in translation. One of the more intemperate attacks, by William Hale of the University of Chicago, stated flatly: “If Mr. Pound were a professor of Latin, there would be nothing left for him but suicide.” Dr. Hale missed the point sublimely; Pound was not a professor of Latin but was a poet, paying homage to another poet.
Propertius was a Roman writer who lived during the first century b.c.e. He was a contemporary of poets better known today—Vergil, Ovid, and Horace—but during his time, Propertius was judged one of the finest elegiac poets in Latin. The elegy was a particular poetic genre, whose subject matter was most frequently lost love and whose tone was a mixture of wistfulness and sadness. Propertius gave the elegy a different twist, because his treatment of the form used language that was satirical, even bitter. He not only mocked the conventions of the traditional elegy but also used the form to mock the pretensions of imperial Rome. These qualities were the most congenial to Pound when he undertook his version of Propertius’s work.
Pound wrote Homage to Sextus Propertius in 1917, when the slaughter of World War I was at its greatest; he had come to detest the war for its senseless destruction of life and culture, and his re-creation of another anti-imperial poet was an expression of that disgust. There was a connection, Pound noted, because the ancient Roman poems presented “certain emotions as vital to me in 1917, faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the British Empire, as they...
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