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Jim Wanless reviews

The Compete Love Elegies of Sextus Propertius
Translated by Vincent Katz

467pp Princeton US$18.95 061115826 paper

This review is 3,300 words
or about 6 printed pages long

Everything is happening at once

Vincent Katz published a selection of his translations of Propertius’ love elegies in 1995 under the title Charm (Sun and Moon), so his commitment to the challenging Roman poet has been long-standing and tenacious, especially when one reflects on the number and variety of other projects he has undertaken in the meantime, most notably a 350-page catalogue he edited for a Spanish exhibition on Black Mountain College (MIT, 2003) and several highly regarded books of his own poetry (see, e.g., Jacket 16, March, 2001).

It is interesting to speculate on what drew Mr. Katz to Propertius in the first place and kept him engaged for so long, their relationship deepening one day, in danger of falling apart the next — such is the translator’s lot — throughout the New York poet’s mealtimes, errands, and sleepless hours the recondite Roman always at his side like a taunting vade mecum bristling with devilishly intractable Latin expressions. It may be that Mr. Katz saw Propertius grappling with the same questions of political engagement that urbane poets face today, in ‘the distracted dissonance of our own perilous times,’ as Robert Creeley puts it in a cover note for this collection of the complete elegies.

Though we know about Propertius’ life only what fragmentary details can be gleaned from his poems, we understand that he was an erudite, savvy cosmopolitan whose years (50-16 B. C.) encompassed the civil wars that buried the old republican laws and mores under a stifling, sumptuous layer of imperial absolutism. In what must have seemed the blink of an eye Octavian, a Roman citizen, became Augustus, a god. If the streets of New York reveal to Mr. Katz ominously analogous disproportions of wealth, power, and justice,...well, I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, Ezra Pound was reminded of Propertius by life in London after WW I, a comparison I will take up later.

Propertius was a poet, however, not a polemicist, and while his lines are sometimes directly and boldly critical of Roman excesses

I will speak out: — and hope I’ll be a true prophet for my country —
proud Rome herself is shattered by her own goods,

(3.13, 59-60)


O that no one in Rome were rich, and the leader
himself could live in a thatched hut!

(2.16, 19-20)

usually his criticisms are more oblique, intricate, and thus, to my mind, more telling. The pre-eminent virtue of these translations is that Katz has retained, recreated really, the strikingly broad emotional range of Propertius’ sensibility, which rapidly generates deep ambiguities and stark ironies, as in these lines from a lament for a fallen soldier, a very special one, Augustus’ prized nephew:

What good to him were his birth or character or his excellent mother...?
He died, and his twentieth year stood still:
so many good things the day enclosed in its meager orbit.
Go now,...contrive triumphs for yourself...
let all the jewels be present
at the great festivals: you will give these things to the fires.
But anyway we all end up there, from the first to the last row.

(3.18, 11-21)

The plain-spoken bluntness of these lines befits the poet’s uncompromising honesty, his chronic distaste for pandering — the ostentation of the ceremonies does indeed make a mockery of a brave young man’s death, an injustice Propertius dares to note publicly.

When Propertius turns his glance upon himself, he is no less candid and discerning. The tenor of the last lines of 3.21,

If I die so be it...
that day of my death will be an honest one,


is consistent with his self-presentation throughout the elegies — one who values felicities less than frankness, harmony less that the whole messy truth.

As he puts it in an early poem, “Love on one side, Liber the other, each a hard god”(1.3, 14). The unsuppressed liberty of spirit evident throughout the poems, regardless of the subject, the spontaneity (which may have helped earn him his reputation for ‘quirkiness’), is a tonic and a consolation no matter what tyrannies life imposes, perhaps especially those that are self-inflicted — one’s own foibles, desires, ambitions. Here he skewers his pursuit of fame:

It seems my clever tablets have disappeared
and with them so many witty quips!...
They [his poems] knew how to placate girls in my absence,
and uttered, without me, many persuasive phrases.

(3.23, 1-6)

Such self-deprecation, witty candor about oneself, adds resonance to the poet’s social criticism. Propertius rarely fails to indict himself in the dissipation his poems often chronicle.

Nowhere is his rigor more evident and poetically significant than in those dozens of poems centering on his tempestuous, long-term relationship with Cynthia, a provocative and indomitable courtesan who charms and frustrates the unmarried Propertius. Some readers, more fully conversant than I with the realities of Roman social life and with the dramatic conventions of the love elegy that Propertius inherited from the Alexandrian Greek Callimachus (3rd century B. C.) and the Romans Catullus, Tibullus, Gallus, and others, would doubtless advise against taking her as much more than a standard device of the genre, but given the emotional intensity of Propertius’ style, it is difficult to read these elegies addressed to her without according her full personal stature as an actual and significant figure in his life.

For the larger part of the first two of only four books he published (and in one long, stunning poem, 4.7, late in the last book) the dramatic force of their comforts and conflicts is so palpable that, notwithstanding the many virtues of the third and fourth books, one regrets Cynthia’s nearly complete absence from them, and is gladdened by her sudden reappearance. It is possible that he did, in fact, lose her somehow, rather than simply abandon her as a subject for poems later in his career. The poignancy of the last lines of 4.7, in which Cynthia’s ghost ends her speech with a promise of love phrased like a warning:

For now, let other girls possess you: I alone will hold you soon:
you’ll be with me, and I’ll rub my bones against yours, enmeshed,

is powerful testimony to the persistence of his complex need for her. And when Propertius concludes the poem with

After she finished her bitter complaint against me,
Her shade slipped away through my embrace,

(4.7, 93-96)

one can easily believe that the poet had suffered through a long-standing heartfelt deprivation.

In this comprehensive, impassioned poem written near the end of his career, Propertius yields the floor to Cynthia completely for the first time, providing her with a speech that, in its brusque shifts from the sublime to the petty, from recrimination to reconciliation, mirrors perfectly the signature rhythm, the poetic structure, that their relationship had taught him. He gives her the last word, as a tribute, in effect, because she had invented him really, the poet Propertius at least. She had been his muse, literally — without the push and pull between Cynthia his ‘love’ and Cynthia his ‘illness,’ the utterly distinctive Propertian style would not have been born.

Here are just two striking examples of his method, both from the second book, but there are many more, and in poems that make no reference to Cynthia, or to love, for that matter. In poem 2.29B, Propertius spies on Cynthia suspecting she is with another lover. Finding her alone, he is ‘stunned: never had she appeared more beautiful.’ Waking to find him standing over her, she first reproaches him for his snooping, then reassures him that he clearly has found ‘no obvious proof of adultery,’ and showers him with ‘happy kisses.’ The poem concludes,

And so I’m made a fool of — guardian of a perfect love:
from that moment on, I haven’t had a happy night.

(2.29B, 39-43)

The poem presents each rapid-fire twist of Propertius’ dawning realization that he is worse off than when he had arrived and had indeed been reassured to find her alone. In the end, he is no less suspicious, but finds her more beautiful than before, in part because she is ‘happy.’ And why would she be happy? Because she had indeed been with another lover that day and had succeeded in deceiving Propertius? Because she had not been unfaithful on this one occasion, but had been on others, when he had not checked on her? What is he to do now? Torment himself spying on her more vigilantly? Propertius’ horizon clears and darkens, clears and darkens. The rhythm is that of Ixion’s wheel — Propertius will come back around, again and again. Heaven and hell are inextricably enmeshed.

Poem 2.32 is much longer, largely due to heavier application of mythological illustrations, but the rhythm of development is quite similar. He is convinced Cynthia’s frequent trips out of the city are liaisons and reminds her that he is too ‘experienced’ to fall for such ruses, and that she’ll get a bad reputation, which, when he considers it, reminds him of how consistently unfaithful gods and goddesses have been, and thus, how unjust, really, that she be singled out by a society based on such a corrupt cultural foundation. Soon he arrives at the pleasing and self-serving lover’s rationalization that

you could more easily dry up the sea’s waves
and pluck lofty stars with mortal hand
than force our girls to abjure decadence:...
Which goddess lived alone with a single god?...
So if you decide to imitate the Greek and Latin heroines
you’ll be acquitted in my judgment!

(2.32, 49-62)

Rather than risk cutting himself off from her by his accusations, he maneuvers himself into a position as her defense attorney, judiciously calling only certain witnesses from the pantheon to testify against the loyalty he had earlier in the poem maintained he wanted from her.

Until he or she is dead, and long after, in the permanence of the poems certainly, ‘tomorrow’ is the lover’s watchword and consolation. Its prospects must be safeguarded at any cost, even humiliation and irrationality. In poem 1.1, he wrote that his love for Cynthia had forced him to ‘live without plan,’ and the dramatic structure of his poems, consistently displaying his winding, halting, but impassioned course back to yet another imperfect reconciliation with her, testifies to the integration of his vision of love and his art.

I cannot comment in detail on Mr. Katz’s accuracy as translator, because my Latin does not adequately equip me to do so. I have said, and I hope demonstrated, that to my American ear these are coherent, moving poems in English. In his ‘Acknowledgments,’ Katz thanks his 18 Greek and Latin teachers, as well as two classics professors from eminent American universities who wrote glowing cover notes characterizing his style as ‘supple, lucid, rich, and subtle,’ so sticklers for accuracy in translation should be heartened, as I am, feeling confident that reading Katz is, in essentials, reading Propertius.

It is important to remember, though, that there can be no perfect translation. In the words of A. D. Melville, who produced in 1986 an animated new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses for Oxford World’s Classics, the translator’s ‘duty is to provide a version in tune with his own time, in an idiom as welcome to his contemporaries’ as, say, Propertius’ was to his audience. So if one were to read, as I have, David Slavitt’s recent translation of these same elegies entitled Propertius in Love (UCal, 2002), one’s first impression might be that Slavitt’s Propertius is a different kind of American poet than Katz’s Propertius. That I strongly prefer Katz’s is primarily a reflection of my taste in contemporary American poetry.*

* For an object lesson in this contemporary idiom business, readers could look into After Ovid (Noonday, FSG, 1994) where dozens of poets present one- to ten-page translations of stories from Metamorphoses. Each one reads, of course, like a piece of the contemporary poet’s own work, although the stories are clearly ‘the same’ as those in Ovid.

If Katz and Slavitt had been translating, say, the same book by a nineteenth-century French poet, only poets would debate the merits of their translations, and, no doubt, the words of those poet-reviewers known to be fluent in French would carry the most weight. Readers would prefer the translation closest to their own idiom, as I do Katz’s Propertius. Case closed.

But translations of ancient poets undergo the additional scrutiny of classicists — philologists, linguists, and historians — who are not necessarily poets, (although they could be on occasion, one would think), as Ezra Pound notoriously found out when the excerpts from his 20-page ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ published in the March, 1919, issue of Poetry magazine, were ridiculed for their translation errors in the next issue by W. G. Hale, a classics professor at the University of Chicago.

More on ‘Homage’ in a moment, but in the plus ça change category, as early as November of 2004 Mr. Katz’s Propertius was savaged in a catty 3,000-word review by classics professor J. L. Butrica, not only for translation errors (which he characterizes as ‘schoolboyish’), but also for ignorance of current Propertian scholarship and his choice of a corrupted Latin text. Overall, the professor condescendingly states, Katz is aiming for the same audience today as Pound was in 1919 — ‘hip enough to care about an interesting Roman poet, too hip for fussy academic details’ — as if to suggest that Propertius properly belongs to scholars, not ‘hipsters,’ the two types never cohabiting in the same body, evidently.

So as an unregenerate hipster, I guess, I have to say that, once allowance is made for Pound’s 1919 idiom, now 80-some years old, ‘Homage’ does preserve a number of the admirable qualities of Propertius’ style and form that I have attempted to describe above, especially his range of diction, from high, or formal, to low, or vernacular, which mixture reflects his rapidly shifting emotional locus. Some of Mr. Katz’s choices on the low side are jarring to me, but overall the idea of occasional slang, even if vulgar, seems right for Propertius’ urban milieu. After all, it is impossible to know, from today’s Latin dictionaries, how certain expressions (‘impia,’ ‘perfida,’ ‘demens,’ and such, especially when used in direct address) would have sounded to Romans — what suggestions would they have heard in them, given the social realities reflected in particular poems? One must trust the educated translator in some matters, I think.

On one important score, though, ‘Homage’ and Katz’s Propertius are utterly incomparable. Whether or not Pound meant his piece to be taken as a translation (I believe he may have, despite his post-Hale backpedaling), he certainly did mean to select from Propertius only those poems and parts of poems that best reflected for him Propertius’ renunciation of imperial political and military objectives in favor of a life of art and personal love. In addition, and cleverly, Pound rearranged the order of the poems, generally placing Book 3 poems before Book 2 poems (the predominantly Cynthia ones) to bring Propertius’ critique of imperial policy to the forefront first, which then throws his love poems and their importance to art directly into the role of his ‘answer’ to Augustus’ imperial agenda.

For his purposes, of course, Katz must strictly adhere to the order of poems in the Propertius manuscript, but his complete translation of all 4,000 or so lines does corroborate Pound’s reading of Propertius as an ‘antiwar poet,’ as Katz suggests in his introduction that he may have been (xxxvii).

About this introduction, which Mr. Katz entitles ‘Translating Propertius: Preserving the Metaphor,’ I confess to having a few reservations. If he imagines his audience to be generally literary (but not exclusively hipsters) rather than academic, and I judge he does, I question the organization. The essay reads more like ‘points of interest’ than an orderly exposition of those contexts for Propertius’ poems that would be most beneficial for those largely unfamiliar with classical poetry.

More helpfully, Matthew S. Santirocco’s foreword to the Slavitt translation first discusses Propertius’ influence on more recent poets (Petrarch, Goethe, Housman, Pound) and then devotes 16 pages to a detailed explanation of the evolution of the love elegy with its characteristic couplet in elegiac meter, including many examples from the poetry of Propertius’ forebears and Ovid, who was seven years his junior and also wrote important works (e.g., Amores) in this same form. Only after this contextualizing foundation is in place does Santirocco launch his discussion of Propertius’ own poems in this genre.

In Katz’s introduction, though, Pound and the others are not even mentioned, Ovid is referred to only as a poet whom Augustus exiled and as having provided a clue as to the approximate date of Propertius’ death, and there are no verse examples from the tradition.

Also, Santirocco’s 28 pages are divided by topic into five numbered sections, whereas Katz’s 35 pages provide only four unevenly spaced, unmarked section breaks. Two of these sections cover 29 pages together, and between many of the paragraphs within each one transitions are difficult to find. So although Katz provides much useful contextualizing information, readers attempting to begin a study of matters Propertian will have a hard time refreshing their memory of introductory points while reading the poems.

It is likely that these shortcomings stem from the editorial decision to depart from the common practice of separating a ‘translator’s note,’ which presents technical material concerning prosody and style, from a usually longer piece, a ‘foreword’ or ‘introduction,’ which attempts to familiarize readers with the social and literary contexts from which an ancient text emerged. For poetry texts, the latter task is usually performed by a teacher of classical literature, someone whose daily work consists of fostering understanding of a culture fundamentally different from ours. In classrooms, such teachers provide students with reading lists, and they usually do the same for readers of their introductions. Santirocco, for example, offers over three dozen suggestions for further reading on Propertius and his world, Mr. Katz only six, although he frequently mentions ‘debates,’ presumably in scholarly sources, over Propertius’ references. If he himself found such readings interesting and useful, why wouldn’t his own readers?

I suspect few readers of these elegies will come sufficiently prepared in Greek mythology and Roman legend not to make heavy use of Mr. Katz’s 31 pages of notes. They are essential, as they are for readers of any ancient poetry text, especially those from the Hellenistic period. ‘Flaunting one’s erudition was not unique to Propertius,’ as Katz puts it (xv). Indeed, even for the most patient of modern readers, the array — not to say barrage — of proper nouns has to be daunting, and sometimes distracting.

But at some point, after hours of flipping back and forth from poem to notes to poem, one may be rewarded with a shudder of appreciation for the nobility of Propertius’ undertaking and the alien beauty of the classical mind. In the poems, one participates directly in a world imagined as a literally timeless, unbroken continuity reaching back to the passionate trysts and titanic rages of gods and goddesses who ruled over and even reconfigured the cosmos and the countryside. For the ancient poet, each new day — for Propertius each feverish embrace, each unanswered knock at Cynthia’s door — was best seen, could be seen and should be seen, as an integral step in the immutable rhythm of eternity.

For Propertius and his audience, everything, past and present, is happening at once. That’s how life feels in theses elegies, and for this rare understanding one is indebted to Mr. Katz, who must have encountered it and been awed by it repeatedly through all his long years of living with Propertius.

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