(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Sextus Propertius c. 50 B.C.-c. 16 B.C.?

Roman poet.

Considered the finest elegiac poet of ancient Rome, Propertius wrote four books of elegies, the first of which was published in about 29 B.C.; it is known as the Cynthia, after its subject, or as the Monobiblos (or the Cynthia monobiblos), because it often circulated separately from the other elegies. Propertius wrote in a style that was radically different from that of the classical Greek poets so extolled in Rome. He took great leaps in thought, was intensely personal, and used striking visual imagery. Particularly in the first book, love is his entire, all-consuming focus; he writes that he will forgo politics, business, and military service because "love is my career." Propertius achieved fame in more recent times by virtue of Ezra Pound's "Homage to Sextus Propertius" (1917), a group of poems inspired by and loosely modeled after certain aspects of Propertius's own work.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Propertius's life beyond what he states himself in his poetry. He was born at Assisi, in Umbria, around 50 B.C., into a wealthy, equestrian family. His father, a landed proprietor, died when his son was a child. In the year 41 land was confiscated and then distributed as a form of pension to the veteran soldiers who served under the emperors Octavian and Antony; much of Propertius's inheritance was annexed at this time. Raised by his mother, who saw to it that he was well-educated (probably in Rome), he briefly read for the bar, but soon abandoned law for a literary vocation. Propertius seems to have been able to retain enough wealth that he never had to work or seek a patron. He associated with a group of young poets who used third-century Greek Alexandrian poets as their inspiration, but added strong expression of personal feelings, particularly concerning love and its ecstacies and frustrations. While in his twenties Propertius fell in love with Cynthia, a passionate woman with a fair complexion and "star-like eyes"—possibly a high-class courtesan, possibly a sophisticated married woman. The woman's true name was given as Hostia by Apuleius more than a hundred years later, and while this identification is generally accepted, it is by no means certain. Under the name of Cynthia, the woman became the main theme of Propertius's poetry, the first book of which made his reputation. Their liaison was full of passion and jealousy. Cynthia refused to be true to Propertius and while he sometimes accepted the fact, at other times he railed against it. Their relationship lasted some five years, then broke off, and Cynthia died a few years later. It is unknown when Propertius died. The last date ascertained from his poems is 16 B.C., and some scholars believe that he died shortly thereafter. Others believe that Propertius married, had descendants, and lived a number of additional years.

Major Works

Propertius wrote four books of elegies, their approximate dates of composition as follows: Book I 29-28, Book II 27-25, Book III 23-21, and Book IV 16-15. The first book, often referred to as the Cynthia monobiblos, is a highly personal account of a man overwhelmed with his love for a woman he cannot marry. The focus of the book is not her own qualities and merits, but the poet's deep obsession with her. It is carefully arranged in a symmetrical pattern. The second book is much larger and indeed some editors believe it actually should be divided into two books. It continues thematically in the same vein as the first book, although with more recognition of the impossibility of resolving the author's predicament. The third book, in which Propertius claims he is the Roman Callimachus, shows a more relaxed poet, one more accepting of the reality of his situation. He generalizes about all lovers instead of concentrating on his personal situation, until he harshly parts ways with Cynthia in the closing poem. Propertius's final volume has only two poems concerning Cynthia, one of which describes her ghost. There are also several attempts at writing in the manner of Callimachus on historical subjects. These elegies are generally considered his least successful and some critics cite them as evidence that Propertius could write at his best on only one subject; other critics disagree and assert that the book contains several poetic masterpieces.

Critical Reception

Propertius was well received in his own time, gaining a remarkable reputation at an early age for his first work. While some readers were taken aback by his break with classicism, others welcomed his fresh approach. Roman critics including Ovid, Martial, Quintilian, and Pliny praised his work. He was imitated by Italian poets including Petrarch, and later inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Pound. Pound took special pride in reintroducing readers to the then-neglected Propertius. Propertius holds an outstanding position among critics today, who praise his boldness in breaking with tradition; his daring, richly visual, and difficult language; and his practice of making abrupt changes during the course of a single poem. These abrupt changes are also the source of much debate among scholars. Propertius's texts are in poor shape: no manuscripts exist earlier than about 1200, all are incomplete, and all are plagued with copyist errors and illegible verses and gaps. The same abrupt changes praised by some critics are seen as defects to correct by others. To rectify these textual problems, scholars have proposed thousands of emendations and more than a thousand transpositions; there have been many dozens of different editions with varied arrangements. Many words are suspect, and many are the guesses as to what should be in their place. The text of Book II is particularly bad; it is seldom certain where one poem ends and the next begins, and some couplets seem totally out of context. In addition to attending to transpositions and lacunae, scholars have devoted themselves to studying the structure of Propertius's poems, particularly on questions of unity, symmetry, and how one poem corresponds to another. Also of interest is speculation concerning to what extent Propertius wrote about his own experiences, and to what extent he embellished Cynthia, presenting her in mythic terms.