Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857
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 were to Propertius some centuries earlier, when faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the Roman Empire.”
Pound constructs his poem by rearranging Propertius’s verse into a twelve-part structure, sometimes combining different elegies, sometimes taking passages or even single lines from several different poems and linking them together. The twelve parts of the poem fall into two major categories: despair over the poet’s love affair with Cynthia, who is certainly unkind to him and probably unfaithful as well; and his mocking commentary on the accepted poetry of the time (heroic verse celebrating the glories of empire) contrasted to his own intense, highly personal, and ultimately more honest writing. Even the poems that supposedly have Cynthia as their theme manage to include the comparison between epic verse and love poetry, clearly favoring the latter.
In adapting Propertius, Pound retained much of the original: The references to Roman history, mythology, and literature are frequent and require the reader’s ability to catch the full range of allusions and their meanings. By contrast, however, even someone ignorant of Latin history and poetry should be able to respond to the poetic force and power that Pound retained from Propertius.
To achieve this, and to make Propertius once more a contemporary poet, Pound deliberately employed a number of anachronisms—terms or references that are after Propertius’s time. In one passage, for example, he calls the ancient Greek poet Hesiod a “respected Wordsworthian,” and in another section he parodies the style of W. B. Yeats. In his most celebrated anachronism, Pound even brings in a twentieth century kitchen appliance:
My cellar does not date from Numa Pompilius,Nor bristle with wine jars,Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent.
The impact of these jarring references is to heighten the satirical nature of the poems, and that seems to have been Pound’s major intention. What he was doing with Homage to Sextus Propertius was not only re-creating a dead poet’s work but also reanimating the dead poet himself. In a sense, Sextus Propertius, the actual poet, becomes “Sextus Propertius,” a literary mask (or persona, to use one of Pound’s favorite words) for the modern poet, Ezra Pound.
Pound was clearly fascinated by the concept of the persona. He used the Latin plural of the noun, Personae, twice as a title: in 1909, for a slender volume of his early verse, and again in 1926, for a much more extensive book, Personae: The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound. His masterwork, the Cantos, is a series of masks or personae through which Pound enters the personalities of figures from all times and places in human history. Homage to Sextus Propertius is more limited than that. In this work, Pound is concerned with linking an ancient Roman’s vision of true, personal poetry with his own and with showing that poets, no matter how separated by time or language, share essential qualities. These qualities may be, perhaps must be, in conflict with the values of emperors or empires—but in the end it is Propertius, not Caesar, who will prevail.
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