Homage to Sextus Propertius Analysis

Ezra Pound

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Homage to Sextus Propertius is essentially Ezra Pound’s translation of books 2 and 3 of the Elegies by the Roman poet Sextus Propertius, who lived during the latter part of the first century c.e. Calling this poem a “translation,” however, is misleading. Although many of Pound’s lines are accurate translations of the Latin verses, other stretches of the English-language poem depart widely in sense from the Latin original. Nevertheless, the subject matter of Homage to Sextus Propertius is that of the original books of the elegies, though the ordering of the various sections is often Pound’s own.

Section I encompasses the standard elegiac introduction of classical poetry: Propertius establishes his credentials as a young poet, with a new way of saying things. He acknowledges that his fame might be some time in coming, but when it does come, he will have a better memorial than the finest, most elaborate tomb. Part of Propertius’s novel poetic manner is his subject matter: Instead of glorifying the exploits of Imperial Rome, he intends to be part of the lyric tradition of classical poetry, which emphasizes love and intense personal emotion.

In the first stanza, Propertius calls up the ghosts of past lyric poets, thereby establishing his poetic heritage. He then contrasts the lyric tradition, in the second stanza, with popular contemporary poets whose subject is war. In the third stanza, he heightens the contrast through irony, speaking with contempt of poets whose chief role seems to be publicists of the Roman state and its “celebrities.” Propertius concludes this section with the traditional prediction that those who are mentioned in his poems will enjoy eternal fame along with the poet.

In section II, Propertius extends his opening theme, explaining how he came to turn from the currently popular subjects of war and conquest to poems having to do with pining lovers, sorcery, and midnight trysts. The impetus behind his change of heart, Propertius claims, comes from two visions: one of Apollo (“Phoebus”) and one from Calliope (the Greek muse of epic poetry). These two supernatural beings, both of whom were traditionally associated with poetic inspiration, remind Propertius that his gifts do not lie in the area of public poetry.

In section III, Propertius turns, then, to what he does best—writing about love. In this section, he receives a late-night invitation from Cynthia, his lover, to visit her. Out of timidity, however, he refuses.

At midnight, Cynthia demands that Propertius come to her—the implication is that their meeting will be for lovemaking. Propertius experiences a conflict, however; on the one hand, he is eager to visit his mistress (and he knows how angry she can be if he fails her). On the other hand, he worries about muggers. The unlit streets of ancient Rome were probably no safer at midnight than those of modern New York City, and Propertius imagines his robbery and death.

He tries to bolster his courage in the third stanza by recalling that lovers are sacred. Even if he does meet violence, he tells himself, such a death is worth dying for Cynthia’s sake. Still, in the end, he decides he would rather not die on a public street.

In section IV, Propertius talks with his slave, Lygdamus, who is his go-between with Cynthia. During this conversation, he imagines how Cynthia has received his rejection of her earlier offer. Throughout this section, Propertius implies that Cynthia is little more than a prostitute and that she has been unfaithful to him with Lygdamus. Evidently, Lygdamus has described the desolation that has fallen over Cynthia’s household as news of Propertius’s rejection has reached her. Lygdamus tells him that his mistress remains in bed, copiously weeping, dressed simply, without her usual ornaments. Moreover, Cynthia accuses Propertius of unfaithfulness.

In stanzas 3 and 4, Lygdamus quotes Cynthia’s description of Propertius’s quite literal enchantment by another woman: The other woman has used potions and spells to...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like nearly all Pound’s poetry, Homage to Sextus Propertius uses free verse—poetic lines that have no set rhythm or consistent number of feet and that do not rhyme. This does not mean, however, that the poem lacks strong verse structure. Moreover, certain distinct rhythms recur, which often suggest certain classical patterns. For example, anapestic feet (two unstressed beats followed by a stress) occur frequently, as in the poem’s first stanza: “Who hath taught you so subtle a measure.” Such rhythms were used in classical poetry for a variety of purposes, especially for Latin comic drama.

Generally, however, the rhythms here are those of speech: Pound believed that Propertius’s lines were meant to mimic the rise and fall of conversation, in the same rhythmic fashion as Pound’s own verse. The result is often a rhythmic line, or sequence of lines, followed by an ironic, nonrhythmic conclusion. The generally anapestic rhythm of “And expound the distentions of Empire,” for example, is interrupted by the lack of distinct rhythm in the line immediately following: “But for something to read in normal circumstances?” In the preceding example, Pound uses structural irony—the pompous beat of the first line contrasted with the idiomatic rhythm of the second—to reinforce the thematic irony, which contrasts the windy subject matter of Imperial Rome with Propertius’s own more personal verse.

The other striking structural...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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