PROPERTIUS


Sextus Propertius, living from about 50 BC to 16 BC, was in the heart of the Augustan literary phenomenon, but for some odd reason, he is generally ignored except by specialists, and relegated to an obscure place in the history of Latin literature. Propertius is not easy reading, he is heavily loaded with mythological references, some of a rather obscure kind, which keep the reader going back and forth to the reference books. But the same could be said of Ovid, who appears automatically in every Classics in Translation Anthology. Propertius' language is clear and pure in its vocabulary, perhaps the fact that he didn't influence modern literature heavily (except in the case of Pound), may be working against his reputation.

Behind his heavy use of myth and a feeling that he may be overly Alexandrian in spirit, we find a man who introspects and pulls off the masks of personality continuously, exposing genuine feelings about love, life and the strange ways he finds himself reacting to the people around him. We are so accustomed to this "peeling of the onion of personality", which characterizes the "Modern" movement from Rimbaud through Freud, Proust, Stein and Joyce, that it may surprise us to find a Roman going through a similar process. In a sense, Propertius is the most psychological of the Roman poets, he devoutly monitors himself and tells all in his poems, exposing things which a Vergil would never have condescended to note, or a Horace dared to mention. As a result one sees, behind the finish of the poems, an wide assortment of apprehensions, hesitations, and above all fears.

His abject despondency when Cynthia (in the Monobiblos, Poem 8) is thought to be leaving him on a ship bound for Illyria, which is instantly converted to hysterical joy when he finds that she never did really go.... these episodes show more self-revelation than most people would admit. The two phases of what is now recognized as a single poem are a perfect clinical account of the manic-depression syndrome. Then in Poem 5 of this first book he shows his fear of a powerful woman, who is in a love-hate relationship with him and also another rival, with whom he can now dare to feel close in recognition of their common problem with domineering females. The last poem of this first book is an ignored little gem, which in ten lines outlines the problem of "Who am I?" in terms of recent history and the bloodied battlefield earth, concluding with a startle: "I am of that earth!" Americans with a sense of what our Civil War meant, can understand this best.

What poet dares to tell about coming in drunk, to see his lady gently sleeping, himself stunned into silence and forbearance, at which point she wakes and berates him savagely for his bad ways? He stands still, hearing but saying nothing, because for him there is nothing to say. This kind of self-revelation is hard to come by in any age, in the un-psychological Roman world, it is virtually unique.

Then consider the last poem in the last book, Cornelia's ghost rising above the smoke of the pyre and speaking in virtually legal terms an elaborate "defense" to her husband at the funeral ceremony, validating her people, her ancestry, her life, her death. The man who wrote this magnificent and proud characterization of Roman personality knew a great deal about the Romans, and to write this, he must have known a great deal about himself.

Perhaps it is the depth of this remarkable self-perception, behind the guise of some Alexandrian poetic smartness, which has set off scholars and critics of the Latin literary scene. We must remember that seventy years ago there was a great revulsion against the appearance of the act of psychological de-vesting in the Modern movement, and a certain amount of that view lasted into the second half of the present century. Since many Classicists are basically conservative and often anti-Modern, one may wonder if Propertius' frank personal content, and the act of psychological unveiling of the self,, may be the sub rosa reason for this neglect.

Not that there hasn't been a generous dose of Classicists laying Freudian interpretation onto anyone and anything in the ancient world that seems likely, but that is a different situation, since it is the operation of modern theory on a base of ancient data. With Propertius there is no profit in applying Freudian methods to his' psyche, since none of it fits exactly. What we have is a Roman starting to examine himself, intuitively and crudely, in some of the ways in which Freud in l895 was examining himself in his own self-analysis, carefully and precisely. There may be something unsettling in this situation, especially since it seems out of joint with the historical chain of causal relations which we tout under the flag of Western Civilization. But what Propertius was doing has, so far as we know, few antecedents and no development, hence to some, accustomed to tight causal links in literary history, he may seem out of step with his time, or more specifically, with our expectations.

Reading Propertius attentively with attention to his unveiling of his "self", with, or possibly better without a Freudian background, one will come away with a feeling of having dealt with a real person who has elements of what we expect in a personality. Reading Horace one comes away with knowledge of having read a great deal of very fine poetry, behind which Horace's face is concealed by a carefully placed mask. But both men are part of the Roman social and literary scene, and both are equally representative parts of the data which points up the human condition.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris