Thursday, March 22, 2007


We're reading Propertius' Elegies (his love poems) this week and next in my Roman Lit class. Really, really enjoying it! Propertius seems to me to have been the coolest Roman guy I've ever heard of... A sampling of his poetry (dedicated to his girlfriend, Cynthia) so you may see why, excerpted from "Propertius in Love: The Elegies" by Sextus Propertius, translated by David R. Slavitt, published by the University of California Press, Berkley, CA. 2002.:


What good is it, promenading that way, your coiffure amazing,
your couture an impressive shimmer of Cos
silk as your skirts swing this way and that? What good
are expensive Syrian attars you splash on yourself?
Fabrics, finery, foreign frippery, gold gewgaws...
they only distract from your own real beauty. Naked,
Love admires nakedness, beauty that's unembellished.
See how the untilled meadow sends forth its floral
displays, how ivy is richest when it runs wild in the woods;
look at arbutus that's splendid out in the lonely
hollows where nobody prunes it; and water runs purer and sweeter
in brooks without the contraints of dams and dikes.
The prettiest shores are those where the beaches are unimproved
and the wet pebbles gleam like so many jewels,
just as the finest song is what the untutored birds,
who need no training or artifice, warble and trill.
Think of Leucippus' daughters, Phoebe, whom Castor loved,
and her sister, Hilaira, whom Pollux adored:
do you think they titivated, accessorized, or used makeup?
Did Marpessa, Evenus' daughter, resort to the wiles
of fashion to fan her husband Idas' ardor and Phoebus
Apollo's, and have them fight, competing to win her favor?
Did Hippodamia primp and improve on her looks to win
her Phygrian husband? The only aid these beauties
wanted or needed was what their chaste and modest sould
projected in those delicate hues a painter
as refined as Apelles would claim were those of his portraits.
And you are in every way their equal, believe me.
For a girl to be adored by a man, as I adore you,
is a rich adornment - and Phoebus bestows upon you
the beauty of his songs, and Calliope lends her lyre.
A charm that is all your own enhances your words,
your looks and gestures, and Venus approves and her sister goddess
Minerva. Love of my life, you are wholly splendid-
or would be if you believed me and yourself and abandoned
these wretched fashion tips and beauty tricks.


Death isn't what I fear, or the grim underworld. That debt
the flesh owes to the pyre I'm willing to pay.
Still, Cynthia, dearest, I fret at the dismal thought
that you might not be one of my grieving mourners-
which is worse than death itself, for Cupid's grip on my soul
is such that even my dust will long for your love.
In that region of endless darkness, Protesilaus' shade
remembered his love for his wife Laodamia, yearned
for the joy of touching the warmth of her body once more with his ghostly
hands, and that brave soldier, the first to fall
at Troy, contrived a visit to Greece, his home, and her.
Like him, I shall be a shade that still feels passion
and, even having crossed the shores of death, will be yours.
Whatever women may flock to greet me there
of the famous daughters of Troy who died in their city's ruin,
not one, I think, will compare to you in beauty,
Cynthia dearest, or please me so well as you always do.
You will, I hope, remain behind me on earth
for many years, but to me your gracefully aging body
will always be dear and the cause of my longing tears.
And if you could then be aware that these ashes of mine can feel
and long, still, for one of the living, death
would not be so bitter a thing. But I fear that you may ignore me,
spurning my grave, or even that heartless Amor
may come to dry your tears and distract you with someone else,
for even a faithful girl may yield to persistence.
But let us not be morbid. Instead, let's love and be happy
for the time we have - that we know is never enough.

What's not to love about this guy? I could go on and on about these poems, but I won't because the reasons I love them are fairly self-evident. And these two poems aren't the half of it! This guy... well, it's as if the traditional roles of Roman men and women are reversed in his poetry. To hear him tell it, Cynthia is a lady about town. She dresses to the nines, has affairs with other men, and travels all over the place. While Propertius stays at home, pines when she's gone, begs her to stay, and adores every second of her existence. He's jealous of his rivals for her affection, can't understand what they might have that he doesn't, but he doesn't try to make her stop her affairs by force, but rather with words, tears and begging. Does that sound like a Roman man to you? 'Cause it doesn't to me... And I like it quite a bit. Of course, this is what he says in his poetry, who knows what reality was for the two of them.

I'm also quite amused by the following:


To reciprocate for your constant love, Gallus, I offer
this poem as gift - a cautionary tale
I urge you to read and remember. It tells of the perils of lovers
and how, where you least expect it, disaster lurks,
for this is the story of Hylas, the Argonaut, and the sorry
turn of events at the River Ascanius. You
have a friend, I think, who is equal to Hylas in looks and bearing.
You two can go for a sail or stroll by the bank
of an Umbrian stream or stop to bathe your feet or admire
that woods and recount to each other the local legends,
but you must be on your guard for the dangerous Nymphs and Dryads
who may at any moment emerge from the water
or appear from the woods to reach out with lustful hands to grab
and carry your boyfriend away... Poof! And he's gone,
and you're running from brook to brook in an endless and useless quet
as Hercules once did, heartbroken, searching
for Hylas: he never found him and there on Ascanius' cold
and desolate bank, the hero wept bitter tears.
But first, let us set the scene: the Argo they built at the dockyards
at Pagasa put out to sea on its way to the Phasis;
it has passed the Hellespont and the Mysian cliffs and is beached
on a peaceful and welcoming shore where the ground is soft
with a carpet of leaves; and Hylas, Hercules' great and good friend,
has gone inland in search of the fresh spring water
the ship will need. Now, two of his crewmates, the brothers, Zetes
and Calais, in a sporting way, pursue him,
playing a rough-and-tumble game of woodland grab-ass
that's half in fun. And Hylas feinting, dodging,
and darting this way and tat escapes them again and again.
They grab him and kiss him, but once again he slips free,
and at last Pandion's sons, the Northwind's noble descendants,
give up, let Hylas go, and he climbs the slope
of Mount Arganthus to find the shaded spring-fed pool -
the Pege they call it - dear to the Bythnian nymphs
who love its pristine beauty, the silence, the sweet smells
of the apple trees no humans have touched and the flowers,
the vistas of crimson poppies with clumps of white of the lilies
that grow here and there by the bank, and Hylas, enchanted,
defers his chore for a time to pick himself a bouquet.
Then at the edge of the water, he kneels and sees
in the surface beneath his face the reflected boughs of the trees,
and patches of sky, and it's gorgeous. He's poised for a moment,
about to scoop up water to fill his skins, when the Dryads,
stricken, in love with the boy whom they think delicious,
forget the steps of their ritual dance and turn to him
and grab, and he slips and the ground gives way, and he falls
into the yielding water. He tried to shout but he sinks
in an instant under the water's surface. His friend
Hercules hears the splash and calls out, "Hylas!" again
and again, but only an empty echo answers,
fainter and fainter, and that, too, dies away. The lesson,
Gallus, is clear. At Tivoli, Baiae, at all
those posh resorts you like to go to together, be careful,
trust no one, and watch your ass, and his.

First of all, I love that Propertius would write such a thing for a friend. While understanding and fully aware of ancient perspectives, as a twenty-first century American reader, in a country that is as prudish as ours, it strikes me as something quite special that a guy so obviously in love with the ladies, and one lady in particular, would write this for a friend currently engaging in a homosexual relationship out of concern for the safety and continued happiness of his friend (whether the Romans would have seen it as special in the same way or not, is something I'm not caring about at this second - I'm thinking not, but c'est la vie).

Second, his language amuses me... At least, the language of the translator amuses me. Ever since my prof read it out loud in class and we all burst out in blushes and hysterical giggles, I wanted to know what the Latin phrase for "woodland grab-ass" was, so I looked up this one poem in Latin (thank goodness it's online)... It would have to be somewhere in these lines:

hunc duo sectati fratres, Aquilonia proles 25
(nunc superat Zetes, nunc superat Calais),
oscula suspensis instabant carpere plantis,
oscula et alterna ferre supina fuga.
ille sed extrema pendentes ludit in ala
et volucris ramo summovet insidias. 30
iam Pandioniae cessit genus Orithyiae:
ah dolor! ibat Hylas, ibat Hamadryasin.
-Propertius I.20

"Carpere" means "to pluck, to seize, to lay hold of, to grab." I wish I had access to a better Latin-to-English dictionary than the ones I can find online because if "ass" or "woodland" are in there, I can't find 'em, nor anything that would necessarily strongly imply them... But there are quite a few words that I can't seem to find, even after taking off anything that could possibly be a suffix. However, after looking up most of the words that I didn't already know, I can tell you that the translator definitely didn't translate anything approaching word-for-word... so I'm thinking it's creativity on the part of the translator. But I'm still amused. If you know Latin and can explain the above better than I just did, please post a comment and let me know.

Third, I'm glad he wrote this because according to my prof, it's pretty much the only place in classical literature where the story of Hylas is recorded. Older versions, which must have existed at one time, have not survived evidently.

Fourth (and it's most definitely because I watched Queer As Folk), when he says "At Tivoli, Baiae... posh resorts" et cetera, I think Ibiza, South Beach, and Fire Island... Looks like not all that much has changed in gay culture in the last 2100 years. ::is being cheeky::

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