Two Overlooked Poems of Propertius



There is no question that the last two poems of Propertius' Monobiblos are very different from the rest of that book, in fact very different from Propertius' normal style and subject material. They are tough poems from the wars, expressed in terse and hard wording, quite different from the poet as eternal mythologizer, habitual lover in distress, longwinded and nervously twitching literary wimp. This is no criticicism of Propertius, in fact these are the very things which make him so interesting, even if nowadays we refuse to take a post-Freudian look at his open "case-history" of female control (I, 1), fear of woman's magical curse (I,5), his clear manic-depressive personality (I, 8 with both parts joined as they obviously should be) and his sexual voyeurism (I,10). It is not fashionable these days to look into an ancient person with modern tools of psychology, this was overdone many years ago with poor results. But in the case of Propertius there is yet more to be said. Some years ago I had a friend who is a psychiatrist read the translation of the Monobiblos, right through, and I asked his opinion. He had no hesitation about saying there were clear indicators of a typical personality class, one which was not comfortable with himself and remarkably similar to some of his patients. That is a matter for future discussion elsewhere, however.

What I am concerned with here is the disparity between these last two poems of the Monobiblos and Propertius' work generally. The manuscribers copied these short poems in continuous writing after the previous one, apparently unsure where they came from or what they meant. I have long suspected that they were tacked-on as scraps of left- over poems from the poet's unpublished dossier, or even from some other poet's work, and I have the same suspicions about the last poem of Book IV, the Funeral Elegy, which is also remarkably different from Propertius' general style and taste.

But another approach to the problem of these two short poems is found in several critical discussions, a suggestion that they are a sort of "sphragis" or Seal of Authentication, as found on some ancient poems at start or end of a collection. The introductory lines to Vergil's Aeneid, with their introduction of the author as " Ille ego qui quondam..." with a list of his previous writing, is a prime example, whether Vergil's idea or a later addition. The question here is whether Poems 21 and 22 can be seen as serving that purpose in any way.

I believe not. I think we have here a thin piece of critical fabrication, which does not suit these poems at all. It is not reasonable to conclude a volume of love-poems and sign your name to them --- with a couple of gruff war-poems. Stylistically and in content they are from an entirely different world, a different frame of consciousness. Second, there is nothing which identified Propertius with the locales mentioned. Propertius mentions in IV, 1.125 that he came from Assizi, but now he talks about an origin connected with Perusia and that area. I think that is enough to break the "seal-theory" by itself. And recounting, rather surprisingly, episodes from the Wars doesn't confirm Propertius' identity as the poet who wrote the book about Cynthia. So I go back to my original suggestion that these two pieces were added on to the Monobiblos, probably by people who didn't read them with care or even understand their meaning.

The last poem of the Monobiblos has elicited the most peculiar assortment of remarks from generations of critic-scholars. Housman wanted to graft two lines on the end of it "to conclude it properly", F.W. Hall thought that since it came at the end of the book, something might have been torn off. Butler-Barber, useful but always middle-of-the-road, calls the ending "vague although not really absurd", while Margaret Hubbard 1975 speaks of "the troubled close" of the Monobiblos. Perhaps the strangest interpretation is the quasi-environmental approach of Hodge and Buttimore in l977: "....this last image implies healing, reconciliation, the natural fertility of the land rasserting itself". These approaches don's just miss the mark, they don't even hit the side of the barn, as we will see later.

But on the other hand, these are wonderful little poems, full of feeling and sadness and written with a tightly concerted choice of tough words. I consider them undiscovered gems, and will now offer some commentary to make clear their thrust and their worth as poems.




Let us look at Propertius, I, 21:first, since it is the simpler poem for discussion and commentary:

The poem is as if spoken by a man lying in a ditch, fatally wounded, and addressing another wounded soldier who is staggering down from the ramparts, recoiling now in shock from seeing his friend's ghastly wounds. "I am on your side, not enemy." "Don't stop, get out and save youself! "(I take this "servato" as an imperative not Abl. Abs. although this is possible.)

Now shift to the relayed scene, when the wounded companion has returned safely home after the war, with his joyful parents (as advised) welcoming him back alive. But now an abrupt change of scene, to the Sister weeping as she hears about his story --- how he managed to get through the enemy lines almost to safety, but was murdered by the "unknown hands", unidentified rebels of the guerilla striking him down in the night.

And now an even more abrupt shift to the present scene, where the meadows are still strewn with bleached bones left there from those most terrible of wars, the Civil Wars. "Those bones you step over walking on the Etruscan hills, know well that these are.... MINE."

Romans favored cremation, but otherwise expected decent earth-burial. The idea of bones lying uncovered was not only frightening, it was a permanent disfigurment of the essential idea of the funeral ritual. This stays with us still, after long years we bring back from Vietnam the bones of our war dead for proper ritual burial in a military rite and cemetery..........one must not forget the dead.

Tu, qui consortem properas euadere casum,
    miles ab Etruscis saucius aggeribus,
quid nostro gemitu turgentia lumina torques?
    pars ego sum uestrae proxima militiae.
sic te seruato, ut possint gaudere parentes,
    haec soror acta tuis sentiat e lacrimis:
Gallum per medios ereptum Caesaris enses
    effugere ignotas non potuisse manus;
et quaecumque super dispersa inuenerit ossa
    montibus Etruscis, haec sciat esse mea.




Next we come to the complex and highly interleaved poem: Propertius I, 22, (which we can forget as a "seal" concluding the Monobiblos.) Some critics have found it a strangely inconclusive piece to end a book of poems, one even questioned whether it has any meaning or relevance at all. Worst of all is the misunderstanding and mistranslation of the last line, which is the very point to which the whole poem is directed.

This poem seem to revolve about the same theme of unburied bones from the Civil Wars as the previous piece, but it is really quite different. It is constructed with abrupt switches from point to point, which indicate the nervousness of the person in whose persona the poem is framed. He is talking with someone who seem to be a dull friend, certainly no kindred spirit, who clearly annoys him by his repeated questioning: "Who ARE you...? (tell me as a friend, you know!)"

Qualis et unde genus, qui sint mihi, Tulle, Penates,
     quaeris pro nostra semper amicitia.




Now we abruptly change to querying him on his knowledge of those insane times of the Civil Wars, those terrible times. Do you remember...?

si Perusina tibi patriae sunt nota sepulcra,
     Italiae duris funera temporibus,
cum Romana suos egit discordia ciues,




Now turning with an interjected but protracted angry "aside" for three harsh lines. "My special bitch is with you, Etruria, which hadn't the decency for a handful of dirt on his bones......my countryman just dumped there...."

     (sic mihi praecipue, puluis Etrusca, dolor,
tu proiecta mei perpessa es membra propinqui,
     tu nullo miseri contegis ossa solo)




Now a calmer change of tone and meaning: "I suppose you know that land down there....(as a geography lesson of sorts), well....."

proxima supposito contingens Vmbria campo




Going back to the first line, who are my people (genus)? Well, that LAND down over there, that is my background (genuit me), a land fertile with its.........




1) We have to pause for a moment for some necessary linguistic detail. The word "uber" has a diversity of meanings, the authoritative OLD lists it as a noun with the meaning "breast, udder, (and also)rich farmland." But it is also listed separately as an adjective, with meaning "rich, fertile, productive, luxuriant". Both obviously come from the same Indo-- European source, witness Gr. outhar 'udder", Skt. udharas "udder", but in Latin there is a regular use of both noun anbd adjective for richness of the soil.

2) Back in the days of the old Arion in l965, this last line was translated as "a land of milk and honey", no doubt remembrance of a visit to Vermont. But as recently as l992 Guy Lee in the translation from Oxford Press says: "a fertile land, deep-breasted, bore me". But since "terris...uberibus" stands together as ablative, this "uber" is the adjectival use, with meaning "rich, productive (as farmland), luxuriant". So if you attend to the grammar, the "deep-breasted" goes out first, as a misused allusion to Homer's bathykolpos which is deep-breasted but not here at all! And the milk which flows from the udders which are not being milked, is another gaffe, while the honey is nowhere to be found dripping anywhere.




Back to the poem! Then what is the real meaning, why all this roundabout argumentation, and what do I have in mind? It is no secret that blueberries and other plants grow luxuriantly in old cemeteries, bodies provide the nutrients for bacteria and then plants and then boys stumbling into the berry patch. Where unburied bodies deteriorate and leach into the earth, that blood and flesh drenched earth will indeed be fertile. And it is precisely that blood soaked battlefield scene which Propertius is brutally calling to mind, and then adding, surprisingly for a lineage-conscious Roman:

     "That land is in fact my background, that is where I come from!"

It is not his family, his forebears, but the experience of that terrible war with its now "rich farmed fields" which made me who I am. This was your original question, friend, wasn't it:
    "What sort of man are you, from what background...?"

Now we have the answer, and the acerbic point of the poem:

     me genuit terris fertilis uberibus.
"That land produced me, land rich with its "fertilized" soil!"




Now best put the dissected poem together again so you can see it as it means to be read:

Qualis et unde genus, qui sint mihi, Tulle, Penates,
     quaeris pro nostra semper amicitia.
si Perusina tibi patriae sunt nota sepulcra,
     Italiae duris funera temporibus,
cum Romana suos egit discordia ciues,
     (sic mihi praecipue, puluis Etrusca, dolor,
tu proiecta mei perpessa es membra propinqui,
     tu nullo miseri contegis ossa solo).
proxima supposito contingens Vmbria campo
     me genuit terris fertilis uberibus.




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