Sextus Propertius wrote in the poetic genre known as the Roman love elegy, a form first developed and made famous by Gallus (of whose work only one line survives), Tibullus, Ovid, and Propertius himself. The love elegy was written in alternating hexameter and pentameter lines; the pentameter was actually a hexameter shortened by the removal of syllable in the middle and another at the end of the line. The tone of this genre was always personal and passionate, and it was characterized by the first-person lament of the frustrated or grieving lover alternating with erotic joy. It is from the unhappy aspect of the Roman love elegy that our understanding of the word “elegiac” has developed.
Each of the three more or less contemporary early elegists whose work has, at least in part, survived has a distinctive effect. Tibullus is a man of great sensibility who suffers tenderly. Ovid is an erotic cynic who treats love as a game. Propertius is a passionate and tempestuous lover who both loudly complains and exalts in his love. His style, while generally smooth, vivid, and rapid, is sometimes freighted with a heavy load of learning. Love is not the unique subject of Propertius’ four surviving books of elegies—the elegiac form was capable of other subjects than love—but it is his love poems that are the most interesting. Making up the greater part of the work, they are what concerns the modern reader.
Propertius was born in the province of Umbria, Italy; his family was of equestrian rank. His father died when he was a boy and the family suffered serious financial reverses. Propertius began to study the law in his youth, but soon left it for poetry. From its beginning the essential subject of his poetry was his grand passion for Cynthia—her real name was Hostia. Cynthia was a loose woman; she was not exactly a prostitute, but a courtesan who made her living by pleasing wealthy men. Propertius’ affair with her was marked by frequent infidelities on Cynthia’s part and much anger and lament on Propertius’ part. But Propertius had a mind of his own and was, if blindly in love, still capable of dealing with the equally strong-minded Cynthia.
Book One contains twenty-three poems. The first is an introduction to his love affair and the last is a brief biographical sketch, though more important biographical information is found in the first poem of Book Four. The remaining poems in the first book are concerned with various aspects of the poet’s passion.
The first poem, which gives us the basic outline and describes the specific nature of the poet’s relationship to Cynthia, states that she first taught Propertius what it was to love, though he had formerly been involved with one Lycinna. For a year he has suffered an agony of love and has been wholly drawn away from the decent life and any interest in honest women, all this despite the fact that Cynthia has refused to love him and to make his life less painful. Finally, however, Cynthia gave in. In the second poem we find a description of Cynthia’s charms. Pointing out that she is wholly beautiful, Propertius tells Cynthia to forget useless adornments and go naked, as does love himself. In the third elegy we get our first really close look at the woman. The poet, home late from a party, speaks over his sleeping mistress. She awakes and petulantly chides him for keeping her awake with worry. Four, five, and six are thematically related in that all have to do with attempts to separate the poet from Cynthia. First he argues with a friend who wants him to break with her. Then he warns another friend to stop making overtures to her. Later he regretfully tells another friend that Cynthia will not let him travel abroad with the friend. Here we see another dimension of this love affair. Propertius, full of passion, is nevertheless irritated by Cynthia’s possessiveness. This and similar paradoxes have much to do with the interest of Propertius’ love poetry. The very perversity of the two strong-minded lovers attracts us.
In the seventh poem, Propertius warns the epic poet Ponticus that he will be less satisfied with himself and the epic style if he should ever fall in love. In the eighth a crisis arises. Cynthia has decided that she will go abroad, and with a rival of the poet. Propertius prays for a storm to hold her back, but he wishes her a safe trip if she does go. Then in eight-A, he ecstatically informs us that Cynthia has decided not to go. In...
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