Sextus Propertius: Latin Elegiac Poet of Augustan Age

Also Read

      Those years of the early Empire in which the names of Virgil and Horace stand out above all the rest were a period of large fertility in Latin poetry. Great poets naturally bring small poets after them; and there was no age at Rome in which the art was more assiduously practised or more fashionable in society. The Court set a tone which was followed in other circles, and more especially among the younger men of the old aristocracy, now largely excluded from the public life which had engrossed their parents under the Republic. The influence of the Alexandrian poets, so potent in the age of Catullus, was not yet exhausted; and a wider culture had now made the educated classes familiar with the whole range of earlier Greek poetry as well. Rome was full of highly educated Greek scholars, some of whom were themselves poets of considerable merit. It was the fashion to form libraries; the public collection formed by Augustus, and housed in a sumptuous building on the Palatine, was only the largest among many others in the great houses of Rome. The earlier Latin poets had known only a small part of Greek literature, and that very imperfectly; their successors had been trammelled by too exclusive an admiration of the Greek of the decadence. Virgil and Horace, though professed students of the Alexandrians, had gone back themselves, and had recalled the attention of the public, to the poets of free Greece, and had stimulated the widely felt longing to conquer the whole field of poetry for the Latin tongue.

For this attempt, tradition and circumstance finally proved too strong; and Augustan poetry, outside of a few definite forms, is largely a chronicle of failure. This was most eminently so in the drama. Augustan tragedy seems never to have risen for a moment beyond mere academic exercises. Of the many poets who attempted it, nothing survives beyond a string of names. Lucius Varius Rufus, the intimate friend of both Virgil and Horace, and one of the two joint-editors of the Aeneid after the death of the former, wrote one tragedy, on the story of Thyestes, which was acted with applause at the games held to celebrate the victory of Actium, and obtained high praise from later critics.
Sextus Propertius: Latin Elegiac Poet

      For this attempt, tradition and circumstance finally proved too strong; and Augustan poetry, outside of a few definite forms, is largely a chronicle of failure. This was most eminently so in the drama. Augustan tragedy seems never to have risen for a moment beyond mere academic exercises. Of the many poets who attempted it, nothing survives beyond a string of names. Lucius Varius Rufus, the intimate friend of both Virgil and Horace, and one of the two joint-editors of the Aeneid after the death of the former, wrote one tragedy, on the story of Thyestes, which was acted with applause at the games held to celebrate the victory of Actium, and obtained high praise from later critics. But he does not appear to have repeated the experiment like so many other Latin poets, he turned to the common path of annalistic epic. Augustus himself began a tragedy of Ajax, but never finished it. Gaius Asinius Pollio, the first orator and critic of the period, and a magnificent patron of art and science, also composed tragedies more on the antique model of Accius and Pacuvius, in a dry and severe manner. But neither in these, nor in the work of the young men for whose benefit Horace wrote the Epistle to the Pisos, was there any real vitality; the precepts of Horace could no more create a school of tragedians than his example could create a school of lyric poets.

      The poetic forms, on the other hand, used by Virgil were so much more on the main line of tendency that he stands among a large number of others, some of whom might have had a high reputation but for his overwhelming superiority. Of the other essays made in this period in bucolic poetry we know too little to speak with any confidence. But both didactic poetry and the little epic were largely cultivated, and the greater epic itself was not without followers. The extant poems of the Culex and Ciris have already been noted as showing with what skill and grace unknown poets, almost if not absolutely contemporary with Virgil, could use the slighter epic forms. Varius, when he abandoned tragedy, wrote epics on the death of Julius Caesar, and on the achievements of Agrippa. The few fragments of the former which survive show a remarkable power and refinement; Virgil paid them the sincerest of all compliments by conveying, not once only but again and again, whole lines of Varius into his own work. Another intimate friend of Virgil, Aemilius Macer of Verona, wrote didactic poems in the Alexandrian manner on several branches of natural history, which were soon eclipsed by the fame of the Georgics, but remained a model for later imitators of Nicander. One of these, a younger contemporary of Virgil called Gratius, or Grattius, was the author of a poem on hunting, still extant in an imperfect form. In its tame and laboured correctness it is only interesting as showing the early decay of the Virgilian manner in the hands of inferior men.

      A more interesting figure, and one the loss of whose works leaves a real gap in Latin literature, is Gaius Cornelius Gallus, the earliest and one of the most brilliant of the Augustan poets. Like Varro Atacinus, he was born in Narbonese Gaul, and brought into Roman poetry a new touch of Gallic vivacity and sentiment. The year of his birth was the same as that of Virgil's, but his genius matured much earlier, and before the composition of the Eclogues he was already a celebrated poet, as well as a distinguished man of action. The story of his life, with its swift rise from the lowest fortune to the splendid viceroyalty of Egypt, and his sudden disgrace and death at the age of forty-three, is one of the most dramatic in Roman history. The translations from Euphorion, by which he first made his reputation, followed the current fashion; but about the same time he introduced a new kind of poetry, the erotic elegy, which had a swift and far-reaching success. To Gallus, more than to any other single poet, is due the naturalisation in Latin of the elegiac couplet, which, together with the lyrics of Horace and the Virgilian hexameter, makes up the threefold poetical achievement of the Augustan period, and which, after the Latin lyric had died out with Horace himself, halved the field with the hexameter. For the remaining literature of the Empire, for that of the Middle Ages so far as it followed classical models, and even for that of the Renaissance, which carries us down to within a measurable distance of the present day, the hexameter as fixed by Virgil, and the elegiac as popularised by Gallus and rapidly brought to perfection by his immediate followers, are the only two poetical forms of real importance.

      The elegiac couplet had, of course, been in use at Rome long before; Ennius himself had employed it, and in the Ciceronian age Catullus had written in it largely, and not without success. But its successful use had been hitherto mainly confined to short pieces, such as would fall within the definition of the Greek epigram. The four books of poems in which Gallus told the story of his passion for the courtesan Cytheris (the Lycoris of the tenth Eclogue) showed the capacities of the metre in a new light. The fashion they set was at once followed by a crowd of poets. The literary circles of Maecenas and Messalla had each their elegiac poet of the first eminence; and the early death of both Propertius and Tibullus was followed, amid the decline of the other forms of the earlier Augustan poetry, by the consummate brilliance of Ovid.

      Of the Augustan elegiac poets, Sextus Propertius, a native of Assisi in Umbria, and introduced at a very early age to the circle of Maecenas, is much the most striking and interesting figure, not only from the formal merit of his poetry, but as representing a type till then almost unknown in ancient literature. Of his life little is known. Like Virgil, he lost his patrimonial property in the confiscations which followed the Civil war, but he was then a mere child. He seems to have been introduced to imperial patronage by the publication of the first book of his Elegies at the age of about twenty. He died young, before he was thirty-five, if we may draw an inference from the latest allusions in his extant poems; he had then written four other books of elegiac pieces, which were probably published separately at intervals of a few years. In the last book there is a noticeable widening of range of subject, which foreshadows the further development that elegiac verse took in the hands of Ovid soon after his death.

      In striking contrast to Virgil or Horace, Propertius is a genius of great and, indeed, phenomenal precocity. His first book of Elegies, the Cynthia monobiblos of the grammarians, was a literary feat comparable to the early achievements of Keats or Byron. The boy of twenty had already mastered the secret of elegiac verse, which even Catullus had used stiffly and awkwardly, and writes it with an ease, a colour, a sumptuousness of rhythm which no later poet ever equalled. The splendid cadence of the opening couplet—

 Cynthia prima suis miserum me cepit ocellis Contactum nullis ante cupidinibus—

      Must have come on its readers with the shock of a new revelation. Nothing like it had ever been written in Latin before: itself and alone it assures a great future to the Latin elegiac. His instinct for richness of sound is equally conspicuous where it is found in purely Latin phrases, as in the opening of the sixteenth elegy—

 Quae fueram magnis olim patefacta triumphis
 Ianua Tarpeiae nota pudicitiae
 Cuius inaurati celebrarunt limina currus
 Captorum lacrimis umida supplicibus,

      And where it depends on a lavish use of Greek ornament, as in the opening of the third—

 Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina
 Languida desertis Gnosia litoribus,
 Qualis et accubuit primo Cepheia somno
 Libera iam duris cotibus Andromede,

      Even when one comes to them fresh from Virgil, lines like these open a new world of sound. The Greek elegiac, as it is known to us by the finest work of the epigrammatists, had an almost unequalled flexibility and elasticity of rhythm; this quality Propertius from the first seized, and all but made his own. By what course of reasoning he was led in his later work to suppress this large and elastic treatment, and approximate more and more closely to the fine but somewhat limited and metallic rhythm which has been perpetuated by the usage of Ovid, we cannot guess. In this first book he ends the pentameter freely with words of three, four, and five syllables; the monotony of the perpetual disyllabic termination, which afterwards became the normal usage, is hardly compensated by the increased smoothness which it gives the verse.

      But this new power of versification accompanied a new spirit even more remarkable, which is of profound import as the precursor of a whole school of modern European poetry. The Cynthia is the first appearance in literature of the neurotic young man, who reappeared last century in Rousseau's Confessions and Goethe's Werther, and who has dominated French literature so largely since Alfred de Musset. The way had been shown half a century before by that remarkable poet, Meleager of Gadara, whom Propertius had obviously studied with keen appreciation. Phrases in the Cynthia, like—

 Tum mihi constantis deiecit lumina fastus Et caput impositis pressit Amor pedibus, or—
 Qui non ante patet donec manus attigit ossa,

      Are in the essential spirit of Meleager, and, though not verbally copied from him, have the precise quality of his rhythms and turns of phrase. But the abandonment to sensibility, the absorption in self-pity and the sentiment of passion, are carried by Propertius to a far greater length. The abasement of a line like—

      Sis quodcunque voles, non aliena tamen,_ is in the strongest possible contrast to that powerful passion which fills the poetry of Catullus, or to the romantic tenderness of the Eclogues; and in the extraordinary couplet—

 Me sine, quem semper voluit fortuna iacere, Hanc animam extremae reddere nequitiae,

      "The expense of spirit in a waste of shame" reaches its culminating point. This tremulous self-absorption, rather than any defect of eye or imagination, is the reason of the extraordinary lapses which now and then he makes both in description and in sentiment. The vivid and picturesque sketches he gives of fashionable life at watering-places and country- houses in the eleventh and fourteenth elegies, or single touches, like that in the remarkable couplet—

 Me mediae noctes, me sidera prona iacentem, Frigidaque Eoo me dolet aura gelu,

      Show that where he was interested neither his eye nor his language had any weakness; but, as a rule, he is not interested either in nature or, if the truth be told, in Cynthia, but wholly in himself. He ranks among the most learned of the Augustan poets; but, for want of the rigorous training and self-criticism in which Virgil and Horace spent their lives, he made on the whole but a weak and ineffective use of a natural gift perhaps equal to either of theirs. Thus it is that his earliest work is at the same time his most fascinating and brilliant. After the Cynthia he rapidly became, in the mordant phrase used by Heine of Musset, un jeune homme d'un bien beau passé. Some premonition of early death seems to have haunted him; and the want of self-control in his poetry may reflect actual physical weakness united with his vivid imagination.

      The second and third books of the Elegies, though they show some technical advance, and are without the puerilities which here and there occur in the Cynthia, are on the whole immensely inferior to it in interest and charm. There is still an occasional line of splendid beauty, like the wonderful—

      Sunt apud infernos tot milia formosarum; an occasional passage of stately rhythm, like the lines beginning— Quandocunque igitur nostros mors clausit ocellos; but the smooth versification has now few surprises; the learning is becoming more mechanical; there is a tendency to say over again what he had said before, and not to say it quite so well.

      Through these two books Cynthia is still the main subject. But with the advance of years, and his own growing fame as a poet, his passion—if that can be called a passion which was so self-conscious and so sentimental—fell away from him, and left his desire for literary reputation the really controlling motive of his work. In the introductory poem to the fourth book there is a new and almost aggressive tone with regard to his own position among the Roman poets, which is in strong contrast to the modesty of the epilogue to the third book. The inflated invocation of the ghost of Callimachus laid him fatally open to the quietly disdainful reference by which, without even mentioning Propertius by name, Horace met it a year or two later in the second book of the Epistles. But even Horace is not infallible; and Propertius was, at all events, justified in regarding himself as the head of a new school of poetry, and one which struck its roots wide and deep.

      In the fourth and fifth books of the Elegies there is a wide range of subject; the verse is being tested for various purposes, and its flexibility answers to almost every demand. But already we feel its fatal facility. The passage beginning Atque ubi iam Venerem, in the poem where he contrasts his own life with those of the followers of riches and ambition, is a dilution into twelve couplets of eight noble lines of the Georgics, with an effect almost as feeble, if not so grotesque, as that of the later metaphrasts, who occupied themselves in turning heroic into elegiac poems by inserting a pentameter between each two lines. The sixth elegy of the same book is nothing but a cento of translations from the Anthology, strung together and fastened up at the end by an original couplet in the worst and most puerile manner of his early writing. On the other hand, these books include fresh work of great merit, and some of great beauty. The use of the elegiac metre to tell stories from Graeco- Roman mythology and legendary Roman history is begun in several poems which, though Propertius has not the story-telling gift of Ovid, showed the way to the delightful narratives of the Fasti. A few of the more personal elegies have a new and not very agreeable kind of realism, as though Musset had been touched with the spirit of Flaubert. In one, the ninth of the fourth book, the realism is in a different and pleasanter vein; only Herrick among English poets has given such imaginative charm to straightforward descriptions of the ordinary private life of the middle classes. The fifth book ends with the noble elegy on Cornelia, the wife of Paulus Aemilius Lepidus, in which all that is best in Propertius' nature at last finds splendid and memorable expression. It has some of his common failings—passages of inappropriate learning, and a little falling off towards the end. But where it rises to its height, in the lines familiar to all who know Latin, it is unsurpassed in any poetry for grace and tenderness.

 Nunc tibi commendo communia pignora natos;
 Haec cura et cineri spirat inusta meo.
 Fungere maternis vicibus pater: illa meorum
 Omnis erit collo turba fovenda tuo.
 Oscula cum dederis tua flentibus, adice matris;
 Tota domus coepit nunc onus esse tuum.
 Et siquid doliturus eris, sine testibus illis!
 Cum venient, siccis oscula falle genis:
 Sat tibi sint noctes quas de me, Paule, fatiges,
 Somniaque in faciem reddita saepe meam.

      In these lines, hardly to be read without tears, Propertius for once rises into that clear air in which art passes beyond the reach of criticism. What he might have done in this new manner had he lived longer can only be conjectured; at the same age neither Virgil nor Horace had developed their full genius. But the perpetual recurrence in the later poems of that brooding over death, which had already marked his juvenile work, indicates increasing exhaustion of power. Even the sparkling elegy on the perils of a lover's rapid night journey from Rome to Tibur passes at the end into a sombre imagination of his own grave; and the fine and remarkable poem (beginning with the famous Sunt aliquid Manes) in which the ghost of Cynthia visits him, is full of the same morbid dwelling on the world of shadows, where the "golden girl" awaits her forgetful lover. Atque hoc sollicitum vince sopore caput had become the sum of his prayers. But a little while afterwards the restless brain of the poet found the sleep that it desired.

      At a time when literary criticism was so powerful at Rome, and poetry was ruled by somewhat rigid canons of taste, it is not surprising that more stress was laid on the defects than on the merits of Propertius' poetry. It evidently annoyed Horace; and in later times Propertius remained the favourite of a minority, while general taste preferred the more faultless, if less powerfully original, elegiacs of his contemporary, Albius Tibullus. This pleasing and graceful poet was a few years older than Propertius, and, like him, died at the age of about thirty-five. He did not belong to the group of court poets who formed the circle of Maecenas, but to a smaller school under the patronage of Marcus Valerius Messalla, a distinguished member of the old aristocracy, who, though accepting the new government and loyal in his service to the Emperor, held somewhat aloof from the court, and lived in a small literary world of his own. Tibullus published in his lifetime two books of elegiac poems; after his death a third volume was published, containing a few of his posthumous pieces, together with poems by other members of the same circle. Of these, six are elegies by a young poet of the upper class, writing under the name of Lygdamus, and plausibly conjectured to have been a near relative of Tibullus. One, a panegyric on Messalla, by an unknown author, is without any poetical merit, and only interesting as an average specimen of the amateur verse of the time when, in the phrase of Horace—

 Populus calet uno
 Scribendi studio;
 pueri patresque
 severi Fronde
 comas vincti
 cenant et carmina

      The curious set of little poems going under the name of Sulpicia, and included in the volume, will be noticed later.

      Tibullus might be succinctly and perhaps not unjustly described as a Virgil without the genius. The two poets died in the same year, and a contemporary epigram speaks of them as the recognised masters of heroic and elegiac verse; while the well known tribute of Ovid, in the third book of the Amores, shows that the death of Tibullus was regarded as an overwhelming loss by the general world of letters. "Pure and fine," the well-chosen epithets of Quintilian, are in themselves no slight praise; and the poems reveal a gentleness of nature and sincerity of feeling which make us think of their author less with admiration than with a sort of quiet affection. No two poets could be more strongly contrasted than Tibullus and Propertius, even when their subject and manner of treatment approximate most closely. In Tibullus the eagerness, the audacity, the irregular brilliance of Propertius are wholly absent; as are the feverish self-consciousness and the want of good taste and good sense which are equally characteristic of the latter. Poetry is with him, not the outburst of passion, or the fruit of high imagination, but the refined expression of sincere feeling in equable and melodious verse. The delightful epistle addressed to him by Horace shows how high he stood in the esteem and affection of a severe critic, and a man whose friendship was not lightly won or lavishly expressed. He stands easily at the head of Latin poets of the second order. In delicacy, in refinement, in grace of rhythm and diction, he cannot be easily surpassed; he only wants the final and incommunicable touch of genius which separates really great artists from the rest of the world.

Previous Post Next Post