Asterisks and Obelisks

Colin Burrow

  • Poems of Sextus Propertius edited and translated by Patrick Worsnip
    Carcanet, 253 pp, £12.99, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 78410 651 5

Not much is known about Propertius beyond what he says or implies about himself in the four books of elegies he wrote between roughly 30 BC (when he was probably in his mid to late twenties) and about 16 BC. He was born in Assisi and came from a wealthy Umbrian family which seems to have resisted Octavian – the future Emperor Augustus – in the battle of Perugia of 41 BC. Propertius chiefly wrote about a mistress – who may have been made up, or a courtesan, or a matron, or a fantasy fusion of all three – called Cynthia. Her name is the first word in the first poem of the first book, which begins ‘Cynthia prima’, ‘Cynthia first’. This may have been a mild poke in the ribs for the prudish Augustus, who was more of a Rome first kind of a guy. In 18 BC Augustus introduced the leges Iuliae which heavily penalised adultery and encouraged Roman youth to marry. Propertius appears not to have played ball.

In the course of writing his four books of elegies the world around Propertius changed and he changed too. By Book 2 (around 26 BC) he seems to have gravitated, as poets in that period did, towards the circle of Virgil’s patron Maecenas, who was a political adviser to the emperor, and was where both the literal and cultural wonga was. Being in those circles meant coming under some pressure to write about politics, or at least about the bits of politics that mattered to Augustus, which were chiefly the victories of Augustus. Propertius’ Book 3 accordingly turns the heat on Cynthia and ends by saying (oh men, men, men) that she owes everything to him and that he will give her up, and, to stick the sandal in further, curses her with grey hair and wrinkles:

May age weigh on you as imperceptible years
slide past, and lines disfigure your skin;
your turn then to endure sneers of rejection,
shut out, a crone sorry she was once so haughty.
My page has sung its fateful curse upon you.
Fear the end that is to come – even to your beauty.

To read Propertius is not exactly to see sparkle curdling into sour, but it is to see a sharply sexy writer working out ways of accommodating himself to a political and aesthetic programme that didn’t come naturally to him. He repeatedly states a preference for the fine-turned, allusive verse of the learned Alexandrian poet Callimachus rather than the shaggy old style of ancient Ennius or Homer. As he grew older Propertius even claimed to be the Roman Callimachus (for which Horace may have teased him). After about 16 BC he seems to have stopped writing, and after the sparkle died he did too.

But there was much fun on the way. Propertius can be perky, mock-solemn, solemn, self-savaging, other-savaging, swirlingly mythological, brutally bathetic, hot, cold, drunk, vicious, silly, over-learned, stone-cold sober and dazzlingly obscure. As the elegies proceed the elegant form of Cynthia, a goddess in Book 1, largely vanishes into the gloom; in the last book she appears as a ghost to scold the poet that at her funeral ‘No prayers were heard from you for winds to stoke/my flames, no fragrance sweetened up the fire.’ She concludes: ‘Have other women now, you’re theirs to take:/ you’ll soon be mine, our bones will grind as one.’ Book 4, which concludes with a monologue uttered by the spirit of a chaste and dead matron called Cornelia, seems one way or another to have marked the moment when Propertius finally gave up on erotic rebelliousness and toed (without toadying) something close to a party line.

His reputation dwindled to almost nothing until Petrarch obtained a manuscript in 1333, which was eagerly copied by later humanists. Propertius fed into the mixed-up set of things that get bundled together under the label ‘Renaissance humanism’ and into the poetry which derived from Petrarch too. Yearning for a mistress while joking and being nasty to her, subjecting oneself to her and yet wanting to be in control of her, transforming her into a figure for something else (autonomy, servitude, learning, the power of poetry, God), and making artful accommodations to the political: all are rather more than twinkles in Propertius’ eyes, and all of these aspects of his art were to become strong elements in European Petrarchanism – and indeed in the erotic poetry of Donne.

And because the text of the elegies is such a dreadful mess (the manuscript tradition of Propertius is generally regarded as the most corrupt of any canonical Latin poet), his poems also fed that other strand within humanism: its preoccupation with chastising and correcting the texts of the ancients. If you peek at a Latin text of Propertius today the chances are you’ll see a higher density of asterisks and obelisks (the traditional markers of textual defects) than is to be found anywhere outside the pages of Asterix the Gaul. And in the textual notes to those editions you may also hear the persistent yapping of Obelix’s dog, Dogmatix, as generations of scholars state with the perfect certainty that seems so often to accompany attempts to purify the textual corruption of the ancients (do dirty poems, perhaps, act as a perverse stimulant to textual dogmatism?) their thoughts about how the text should read. The radical and impressive Oxford Classical Texts edition of 2007 by Stephen Heyworth, on which Patrick Worsnip bases his new translation, is bedecked with dots, crosses in circles, lacunae, and brackets both square and pointy. Textual notes rise up the page as a great wave of scholars – Lachmann, Housman, Heinsius, Scaliger – do battle for sense against a welter of Greek-lettered manuscript sigla. People argue over which line should come where in Propertius, what the words should be, where the poems end, and how, if at all, their argument develops.

That one of the sexiest poets of the ancient world should be a war zone for the driest kind of textual scholarship is an irony with which Tom Stoppard had fun in his play on the life of A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love. The young Housman proposed dozens of emendations to the text of Propertius. An apparent lacuna in Propertius’ highly erotic description of Cynthia provoked Housman, who was not a lover of women and who was so aware of the follies of mankind that he didn’t much like men either, to claim that it ‘must have been originally occupied by two such verses as these “aut patrio qualis ponit vestigia ponto/mille Venus teneris cincta Cupidinibus” [or as Venus, girded about with a thousand tender Cupids, sets her feet on her father’s waters]’. There weren’t many poets who could squeeze the sensuousness of Botticelli from Housman. But Propertius, the textually teasing, sexually pleasing Propertius, could drag an erotic vision from the most outwardly dry of textual scholars.

Because Propertius was often just darned obscure it’s hard to tell where the obscurity ends and textual corruption begins. Some translators have felt, indeed, that obscurity is so much a part of his distinctive flavour that they have been reluctant to tidy it up. Vincent Katz in his translation from 2004 committed himself to replicating what he termed the ‘wilful strangeness’ of Propertius. One of those moments of (perhaps) wilful strangeness occurs when Propertius delivers an epigrammatic judgment on his mistress: ‘Cynthia forma potens; Cynthia verba levis’, which may mean something like ‘Cynthia: knockout beauty, but her words are featherweights.’ Katz renders this by ‘Cynthia, potent form: light word, Cynthia’. As early as 1577 Joseph Scaliger had argued that this line was not just the product of an utterly obscure poet (‘poeta obscurissima’) but was in need of emendation because the neuter plural verba (‘words’) did not make grammatical sense. He had a point. Modern editors usually emend the plural verba to the singular verna (house-born slave). This transforms Cynthia from a light speaker into a ‘flighty slut’, in the words of the Loeb translator, or, as Worsnip has it, ‘Cynthia so lovely and such an easy lay’. Thus editors can make a very harlot of the word.

Scaliger also declared in 1577 that more people love this poet than understand him; and maybe with poems as with people love and understanding don’t always walk entirely in step. Certainly the combination of textual messes with Propertius’ oblique style creates both challenges and opportunities for translators. Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius of 1919 chopped the poems up and reordered them. Pound ignored both the more straightforwardly erotic first book and the uneasily overworked poems of Book 4, and plunged straight in with the programmatic first poem in Book 3, which invokes the shades of Propertius’ literary heroes Callimachus and Philitas of Cos before going on to attack epic poets:

Shades of Callimachus, Coan ghosts of Philetas
It is in your grove I would walk,

Out-weariers of Apollo will, as we know,
continue their Martian generalities,
We have kept our erasers in order.
A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her
ascends with me into the aether …
And there is no high-road to the Muses.

Pound sounds as though he starts off pedantically trying to get things right by looking up a lot of words and using a Latinate vocabulary wherever he can, but seems after a bit to say to himself: ‘Oh sod it, I get the gist so let’s fast-forward here.’ That doesn’t generate a version which is much help in construing the Latin, but it does mean there is a powerful synergy between Pound’s Homage and the twists of tone, the textual lacunae, and the seldom entirely serious ponderosities of Propertius. In Pound the Latin pumex, the pumice stone with which readings could be erased or artefacts polished to a high sheen, becomes a schoolboy’s erasers, kept neatly in line to correct his howlers.

Patrick Worsnip’s new translation is more equable, but still energetic:

Ghosts of Callimachus and Philitas of Kos,
admit me, I request you, to your grove.

Goodbye, martial epics that hold Apollo back!
Let my verse run, honed on a fine lathe.
That is how fame will raise me from the ground
and my muse ride in triumph on garlanded horses,
the gods of love beside me in the carriage,
a host of writers trailing in my slipstream.
No use shaking your reins to overtake me –
there is no super-highway to the Muses.

Although Worsnip is clearly no woodworker, his translation is generally vivid and energetic in this way. His pumice (Pound’s erasers) becomes a lathe, which he seems to think is a kind of grinding wheel for honing verses. He’s probably misled by the fact that Propertius elsewhere associates a tornus or ‘lathe’ with the fine-worked intricacy of Callimachus, and hence with polish and smoothness. In that place too Worsnip thinks lathes are for honing (‘Get out that fine lathe now to hone your verse’). But that’s small matter. Pound’s Homage has always been hammered by pedants for getting words wrong, but its main limitation is its very strong bias towards the later more programmatic and Maecenas-influenced Propertius. This turns drunkenly loving Cynthia into a side-issue, and makes young Propertius seem too much akin to the aesthetically self-aware Pound. Worsnip is much more of an all-rounder. Rather than roughing up the translation to reflect the ragged edges of the text beneath he turns Propertius’ elegiac couplets into stanzas of different lengths and structures, sometimes unrhymed but often with a gentle hint of half-rhyme to hold things together. He’s not a poet (most of his career was spent working for Reuters), and his rhythms can sometimes seem slack. But when it’s called for he can blast in with the odd Byronic or at least Gilbert and Sullivan full rhyme: so Bacchus, god of wine, is invoked with ‘You can quell the storms of Venus,/heal our wounds with medicine vinous.’ When Propertius tries to hack out an epical-panegyrical description of Octavian’s victory over Cleopatra at Actium, Worsnip slips into a spoof version of alliterative poetry to indicate that Propertius is trying very hard to sound like a good Roman chronicler of the deeds of the divine Augustus: the flight of Cleopatra is evoked by ‘But she heads to hide in the Nile in her fugitive/felucca – she won’t die on a day that’s demanded,’ and is followed by a relieved sigh, ‘Done – my war poem.’ The monologue by the chaste matron Cornelia which concludes Book 4 is translated into heroic couplets, to indicate that by then Propertius has in Worsnip’s reckoning sold out to Augustus’ programme of moral reform. He is very good, that is, at conveying the rather sad progression of Propertius’ poetry towards the programmatic and the dutiful.

*

With the earlier poems Worsnip is happily slangy, and relishes the moments of naughty exuberance. He also benefits – though the benefits can be double-edged – from being the first English translator to work from Heyworth’s edition. The effects of using this edition are illustrated in Worsnip’s version of one of Propertius’ best early poems, 1.3, in which the poet reels back blind drunk after a night out and sees Cynthia asleep. She looks just like Ariadne or Andromeda, and oh isn’t her hand just too cute curled under her face like that? Propertius pops his garland on her head, and then he does something with apples:

Not yet incapable, I weave
towards the couch her body lightly imprints;

And, Cynthia, I put my garland on your brow,
amuse myself arranging your stray hair,
balance apples furtively on your cleavage,
only to see my largesse roll away:
sleeper’s ingratitude!

Guy Lee translated the same passage like this:

Not yet bereft of all my senses I prepared
To approach her, gently, pressing the couch.

And now I loosed the garland from my forehead
And placed it, Cynthia, on your temples,
Or pleased myself by rearranging your stray hair,
Or to cupped hands gave stolen fruit;
But all my gifts were lavished on ungrateful sleep,
Gifts rolled from my pocket often as I lent.

The clarity of Worsnip’s scene wins hands down. But the differences between the two versions show that he and Lee are in effect translating different Propertiuses. Lee has Propertius putting apples in Cynthia’s hands, where Worsnip’s are balanced on her cleavage. How do we get from the one to the other? The answer is through a clever textual emendation made by Heyworth. Manuscripts read: ‘nunc furtiva cavis poma dabam manibus,/omnia quae ingrato largibar munera somno,/munera de prono saepe voluta sinu.’ This is hard to translate even literally, since it contains two ambiguities between which it is hard to arbitrate: ‘now I was giving furtive apples [either to or with] curved hands, all which gifts I was giving to ungrateful sleep, gifts which often rolled [either from the curve of my toga as I leaned or from the prone lap or bosom].’ Heyworth emends the suspiciously repeated word for ‘gifts’, munera, to malaque (‘and apples’), and that one change shifts the entire focus of the scene. It makes the breast (sinus can refer to the fold in the toga used as a pocket or to the breast itself) from which the apples roll clearly Cynthia’s, and so that must have been where Propertius put them. That means it must have been his, not her, curved hands that held them. It’s wonderfully clear.

But editors are sober beings. Propertius here is so far from sober that he can barely stand. Isn’t it possible that part of the poetic point of the unamended text is that he’s not really sure whose hand is whose or where the apples are or who the gifts are rolling off, or whether the gifts are the apples or the bouquet or other stuff he has put in either his or her sinus or bosom? Clarity in a translation or in an edited text of a poem isn’t always simply a virtue. The hardest kind of text to translate is one like Propertius’, where you’re not only not quite sure what it means but where you might have a slight suspicion that being not quite sure what it means is part of its point.

The second hardest kind of text to translate is one where you simply can’t fix the tone of voice. And that’s Propertius too. He likes to do big voices and generate gravity, and then erotically twinkle around the gravity. Worsnip is good, indeed probably better than any other English translator so far, at the twinkling, but there are times when he struggles to hit the solemn aspect of mock-solemnity. So he translates the description of Cynthia which prompted Housman to insert his Botticellesque fantasy of Venus among the Cupidons like this (the Latin is so fragmentary that Heyworth accords it three asterisks, four pointed brackets and 52 dots, and in Scaliger’s edition its ending provides the conclusion to an entirely different poem):

Her hair’s tawny, her fingers long; she walks tall
using her whole body, a worthy sister for Jove,
or like Minerva striding to the altars of Athens,
the Gorgon’s serpentine locks upon her breastplate.
Give up, you goddesses shepherd Paris watched
Lowering your underwear on Ida’s peaks.

Now, I never saw a goddess go, and what she might or might not have on beneath her toga is not for the likes of me to guess at, but whatever a tunica is it’s not knickers, and I’d guess (though I’ve never put it to the test) it probably comes off over your head rather than being something you lower (experts on ancient underwear please write to the usual address). I don’t think Worsnip is wrong here, exactly, but the bathos of his ‘Lowering your underwear on Ida’s peaks’ (Lee has ‘Make way now, Goddesses whom once a shepherd saw/stripping on Ida’s peak!’) is symptomatic of another feature of Propertius that makes him so hard to translate. There is often in Propertius something akin to sacrilege, where a grave mode of address is used simultaneously to exploit its gravity and undercut it; and one of his great skills is to make sacrilege just about sound like mere cheekiness while showing he knows it’s more than that. That’s how he gets away with being implicitly rude about Augustus and his conquests and about Virgil’s praises of Augustus: he acknowledges it’s wrong to do so while doing it. We don’t live in an age in which either gravity or sacrilege is a viable literary effect, since irreverence can only approach sacrilegious violation when reverence is not just a possibility but an expectation, and today reverence is very hard to find. That means it’s profoundly difficult to find a suitably discomforting modern English equivalent for Propertius’ tone. Worsnip does his best, but often gets over-snappy when Propertius is playing the irreverence game: ‘Sex. In the past it led to wars.’ ‘Victory over the Parthians? Small potatoes!’

Many recent readers of Propertius are uncomfortable about the way he treats Cynthia, his ‘scripta puella’ or ‘written woman’, and with good reason. He is often horrid, and she – learned but sometimes eloquently savage, lovely but fickle – is every inch a man’s-eye view of a mistress. Sometimes Worsnip makes Propertius too nice. So 2.15 argues for naked sex. ‘It spoils the fun to cuddle in the dark,’ Worsnip says for ‘non iuvat in caeco Venerem corrumpere motu’ – screwing in the dark is no fun, or ‘Venus does not enjoy corrupting in the dark’ as Katz has it. The whole register seems a bit too genial given that later in the same poem Propertius reveals the violence that runs alongside his preference for girls who like to get their kit off. Worsnip has him say:

But if you insist on going to bed in clothes,
your dress might just get torn by my rough hand.
I might just get carried away and leave
bruises on your arms to show your mother!

There are quite a few moments at which Propertius talks about things that might happen or should happen or could happen: he might be buried all on his own, Cynthia might have been having it away with other men, he could write an epic poem about the actions of Augustus (but he won’t), he might or will be famous. He likes grammatical moments where the future tense is loaded with contingency. But in this passage about beating up Cynthia Propertius uses the future indicative and not the subjunctive. What he’s saying is that if you don’t get your clothes off I will rip them off and send you home bruised. That’s swaddled by Worsnip in protective archness (‘might just … might just’). It’s an understandable response to the potential brutality of the Latin. But it’s a missed opportunity. The most obvious way to re-create the edge of sacrilegious unease that runs through Propertius’ descriptions of sex – or indeed the best way to create a contemporary equivalent of his edgy attitudes to his emperor – would be to emphasise rather than downplay things he thought were OK which we don’t think are OK, like sexual violence. You can joke about God or emperors or presidents now but you really can’t joke about rape. Worsnip tends to soften the bits of Propertius that need trigger warnings attached to them, and that’s the wrong strategy because Propertius loved pulling triggers – and indeed what makes him a good writer about sex is that he knows it makes him not a nice guy at all. He not only likes nakedness in a woman but is naked himself about the flip-side – the violence and the possessiveness – of his own erotic urges. Ezra Pound leaves the mistress-bruising lines out of his version of 2.15 and jumps straight from ‘Paris took Helen naked coming from the bed of Menelaus,/Endymion’s naked body, bright bait for Diana’ to ‘While our fates twine together, sate we our eyes with love.’ That casts a glaze of myth and beauty over a nasty moment. But the violence in love is so central to Propertius’ view of it and to his legacy that Worsnip – who does his readers the great service of providing an English Propertius that is both genial and readable – might have encouraged us to look at it more directly.