Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Meason Whicher (1860–1937)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Meason Whicher (1860–1937)

By Propertius (c. 50–c. 16 B.C.)

LITTLE is known of Sextus Propertius beyond the scanty information to be gleaned from his own works. He was a provincial, like so many prominent literary men of the day; of a good Umbrian family. Most of his life seems to have been passed in Rome, where he came to complete his education; but scarcely an event in it can be dated with certainty. The latest allusion in his works seems to refer to events of the year 16 B.C., and it is surmised that he was born about the year 50. It is a matter of comparative indifference, however, whether these and other conjectures are correct or not. His five short books, mostly love poems, sufficiently reveal the man; and there is little in them which we could read with greater interest for knowing who walked behind lictors when it was written.

Propertius was one of that group of poets who enjoyed the friendship and patronage of Mæcenas, and who undertook to create a new school of Latin poetry by following still more closely Greek models. While Virgil meditated “something greater than the Iliad,” and Horace wedded Æolian song to Italian measures, the younger and more ardent Propertius devoted himself to erotic poetry and the perfecting of the elegy. Gallus and Catullus had already naturalized this form of poetry at Rome; Tibullus was winning great applause with it at this very time; but with characteristic ambition and self-confidence Propertius claimed it as his own especial field. The success of his first volume, devoted to the praises of his mistress Cynthia, had won him the favor of the all-powerful Mæcenas. In the three or four succeeding books,—the division is uncertain,—he feels little doubt that he has vindicated his right to be called the Roman Callimachus, the “first initiate into the rites of Philetas’s sacred grove,” as he expresses it. It was only with much doubt that so good a critic as Quintilian denied his pre-eminence; and modern readers are still more inclined to admit that with all his defects, Propertius is undoubtedly the master of the Latin elegy. It is an instrument of somewhat narrow compass at best; but Propertius, more than all his rivals, shows us its full range. Whether in the transcription of a national legend, or in celebrating the glory of Augustus, or writing the epitaph of Gallus or Marcellus, or most of all, in depicting the manifold phases of a lover’s mind, his work reveals a vigor and a sincerity of spirit, a fertility of fancy, a pathos and a passion, which are unequaled by any other elegiac poet. Some of them may excel him in certain qualities, but none has his power and his variety combined.

Even his warmest admirers must admit that his work is marred by very grave defects. To begin with, he did not choose his models wisely. Like all of his contemporaries he was fascinated by Alexandrine erudition; but he did not learn, as did the greatest poets of his age, to correct this tendency by a close study of the earlier masters. Indeed it is surmised, in the absence of the poems of Callimachus, that Propertius has gone beyond his instruction. Doctus was a favorite adjective with which to compliment a poet of that age, and Propertius strove to merit it by displaying his learning in and out of season. He delights to refer to the most abstruse of myths, or to their least familiar characters. Never poet stood more in need of Corinna’s advice; for his sack contained only the toughest nuts of the Greek legend. The obscurity created by this fondness for mythologic lore is too often increased by an abruptness of thought occasionally bordering on incoherence. Images are not always clearly conceived in his impetuous imagination; and there is not infrequently an awkwardness of phraseology, or an inexactness of expression. Sometimes one is faintly reminded of Persius and his verbal contortions, or of other poets who fancy they have made poetry when they have only written impossible prose.

All these are serious faults; and more likely to endear an author to schoolmasters and editors than to lovers of poetry. But the personality of Propertius is strong enough to dominate them all. Few writers win for themselves a more willing indulgence, or give a clearer impression of a talent greater than its best work. Sooner or later his readers come to believe that he might have done greater things had he so chosen. He chose, however, to lavish his power upon love elegies; and it is by them that he is usually judged. In intensity of passion, in utter simplicity and directness of its expression, Propertius is inferior to Catullus,—as who is not? But as a poet of love he may safely challenge comparison with any but Catullus. His Cynthia is never to be classed with the shadowy Chloes and Leuconoës of Horace’s bloodless affections. The genuineness of his love is undoubted. His delight in the charms and accomplishments of his mistress; the jealousy provoked by her infidelities; his sorrow at parting from her, even in fancy; the rapture of a reconciliation; these and many another aspect of love, and the “evil cares which it has,” are depicted with unmistakable sincerity. For Cynthia’s sake he will give up a career, and abandon his plans for travel abroad. At times he even refuses to write on any other subject: Cynthia is the first and will be the last of his songs.

The day came, however, when he could narrate his own infidelity, and picture Cynthia’s successor filching jewelry from her funeral pyre. More and more throughout his later books, it is apparent that other themes were claiming part of his attention. To most men his great passion will hardly seem a less genuine experience because he too came to feel that life is greater than love. Believers in poetical fitness may insist that he died shortly after ceasing to write on the all-absorbing theme; but the man Propertius, though not the poet, is quite as likely to have lived to found the family which Pliny expressly ascribes to him.

Some of the most pleasing of the poems are among the number not concerned with Cynthia. The “queen of elegies,” his noble epitaph on Cornelia, is deservedly famous, though marred by his characteristic faults. In the last book are found also a few poems, dealing with the legendary history of Rome. Whether we regard them as among his earliest, or as their metrical structure would seem to indicate, his latest works, they are an interesting evidence of the manner in which his intense nature responded to the appeal of national and patriotic themes. It has been surmised that they probably suggested to Ovid the plan of his ‘Fasti.’ Ovid mentions Propertius with warm admiration, and many imitations and echoes show clearly the impression made by Propertius upon the poets of the younger generation. By later Roman writers Propertius is seldom cited, and there are no selections from his works in the anthologies.

The extant manuscripts are for the most part late, and much interpolated, as might be expected in the case of a writer so often obscure. The same quality has caused the earlier editions of the elegies to be loaded with useless conjectures, and subjected to the most arbitrary re-arrangement.

It is only within recent times that the work of Propertius has received adequate attention and been brought within the reach of the ordinary classical student. The German edition of Hertzberg (1843), in four volumes with Latin notes, was the first important step in this direction.

The translations given below are from the works of Dr. James Cranstoun (Edinburgh, 1875). There are also translations of J. S. Phillimore (Oxford, 1906) and by H. E. Butler in the Loeb Classical Library (1912).