“Cynthia: The Love Elegies”

On The Music Box: Parachute Woman~The Rolling Stones…

So, I survived the changes wrought on the old birthday, and had a great time to boot! Good friends came over, and we ate and drank together until late in the evening. I heard from several friends as well, with an especially kind note from Will Penna.

Friends are the jewels in our life, I swear, I swear. A big thank you to all!

Rowan headed off to school today, the summer has come to a crashing close. He is just 1/2 inch shorter than me, and looks like he will pass me this year coming. His hair comes down to the bottom of his back when wet, but being so curly, it sits just below his shoulders. This was a good summer for him, he learned a lot, and grew in so many directions.

Todays Entry is an interesting one, ancient poetry (actually it was translated as prose) by Sextus Propertius. Take your time, and enjoy. He was very influencial, and his work is worth going over again and again. It still sings after 20+ centuries….

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“Cynthia: The Love Elegies”

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Cynthia: The Love Elegies – Sextus Propertius

After A Night’s Drinking

Just as Ariadne, the girl of Cnossus, lay on the naked shore, fainting, while Theseus’s ship vanished; or as Andromeda, Cepheus’s child, lay recumbent in her first sleep free now of the harsh rock; or like one fallen on the grass by Apidanus, exhausted by the endless Thracian dance; Cynthia seemed like that to me, breathing the tender silence, her head resting on unquiet hands, when I came, deep in wine, dragging my drunken feet, and the boys were shaking the late night torches.

My senses not totally dazed yet, I tried to approach her, pressing gently against the bed: and though seized by a twin passion, here Amor and there Bacchus, both cruel gods, urging me on, to attempt to slip my arm under her as she lay there, and lifting my hand snatch eager kisses, I was still not brave enough to trouble my mistress’s rest, fearing her proven fierceness in quarreling, but, frozen there, clung to her, gazing intently, like Argus on Io’s newly horned brow.

Now I freed the garlands from my forehead, and set them on your temples: now I delighted in playing with your loose hair, furtively slipping apples into your open hands, bestowing every gift on your ungrateful sleep, repeated gifts breathed from my bowed body. And whenever you, stirring, gave an infrequent sigh, I was transfixed, believing false omens, some vision bringing you strange fears, or another forced you to be his, against your will.

At last the moon, gliding by distant windows, the busy moon with lingering light, opened her closed eyes, with its tender rays. Raised on one elbow on the soft bed, she cried: ‘Has another’s severity driven you out, closing her doors, bringing you back to my bed at last? Alas for me, where have you spent the long hours of this night, that was mine, you, worn out now, as the stars are put away? O you, cruel to me in my misery, I wish you the same long-drawn out nights as those you endlessly offer to me. Till a moment ago, I staved off sleep, weaving the purple threads, and again, wearied, with the sound of Orpheus’s lyre. Until Sleep impelled me to sink down under his delightful wing I was moaning gently to myself, alone, all the while, for you, delayed so long, so often, by a stranger’s love. That was my last care, amongst my tears.’

Cynthia’s Infidelities

Cynthia I’ve often feared great pain from your fickleness, yet I still did not expect treachery. See with what trials Fortune drags me down! Yet you still respond slowly to my anxiety, and can lift your hands to last night’s tresses, and examine your looks in endless idleness, and go on decking out your breast with Eastern jewels, like a beautiful woman preparing to meet a new lover.

Calypso didn’t feel like that when Odysseus, the Ithacan, left her, when she wept long ago to the empty waves: she sat mourning for many days with unkempt hair, pouring out speech to the cruel brine, and though she would never see him again, she still grieved, thinking of their long happiness. Hypsipyle, troubled, didn’t stand like that in the empty bedroom when the winds snatched Jason away: Hypsipyle never felt pleasure again after that, melting, once and for all, for her Haemonian stranger. Alphesiboea was revenged on her own brothers for her husband Alcmaeon, and passion broke the bonds of loving blood. Evadne, famous for Argive chastity, died in the pitiful flames, raised high on her husband’s pyre.

Yet none of these alters your existence, that you might also be known in story. Cynthia, stop now revoking your words by lying, and refrain from provoking forgotten gods. O reckless girl, there’ll be more than enough grief at my misfortune if it chances that anything dark happens to you! Long before the love for you changes in my heart, rivers will flow out of the vast ocean, and the year reverse its seasons: be whatever you wish, except another’s.

Don’t let those eyes appear so worthless to you through which your treachery was so often believed by me! You swore by them, if you’d been false in anything, they’d vanish away when your fingers touched them. And can you raise them to the vast sun, and not tremble, aware of your guilty sins? Who forced your pallor of shifting complexion, and drew tears from unwilling eyes? Those are the eyes I now die for, to warn lovers like me: ‘No charms can ever be safely trusted!’

His Mistress’s Harshness

First you must grieve, many times, at your mistress’s wrongs towards you, often requesting something, often being rejected. And often chew your innocent fingernails in your teeth, and tap the ground nervously with your foot, in anger!

My hair was drenched with scent: no use: nor my departing feet, delaying, with measured step. Magic plants are worth nothing here, nor a Colchian witch of night, nor herbs distilled by Perimede’s hand, since we see no cause or visible blow from anywhere: still, it’s a dark path so many evils come by.

The patient doesn’t need a doctor, or a soft bed: it’s not the wind or weather hurts him. He walks about – and suddenly his funeral startles his friends. Whatever love is it’s unforeseen like this. What deceitful fortune-teller have I not been victim of, what old woman has not pondered my dreams ten times?

If anyone wants to be my enemy, let him desire girls: and delight in boys if he wants to be my friend. You go down the tranquil stream in a boat in safety: how can such tiny waves from the bank hurt you? Often his mood alters with a single word: she will scarcely be satisfied with your blood.


Sinful Cynthia

Is it true all Rome talks about you, Cynthia, and you live in unveiled wantonness? Did I expect to deserve this? I’ll deal punishment, faithless girl, and my breeze will blow somewhere else. I’ll find one of all the deceitful women who wishes to be made famous by my song, who won’t taunt me with such harsh ways: she’ll insult you: ah, so long loved, you’ll weep too late.

Now my anger’s fresh: now’s the time to go: if pain returns, believe me, love will be back. The Carpathian waves don’t change in the northerlies as fast, or the black storm cloud, in a shifting southwest gale, as lovers’ anger alters at a word. While you can take your neck from the unjust yoke. Then you won’t grieve at all, except for the very first night: all love’s evils are slight, if you are patient.

But, by the gentle laws of our lady Juno, mea vita, stop hurting yourself on purpose. It’s not just the bull that hits out with a curving horn at its aggressor, even a sheep, it’s true, opposes an enemy. I won’t rip the clothes off your lying flesh, or break open your shut doors, or tear at your plaited hair in anger, or dare to bruise you with my hard fists. Let some ignoramus look for quarrels as shabby as these, a man whose head no ivy ever encircled. I’ll go write: what your lifetime won’t rub out: ‘Cynthia, strong in beauty: Cynthia light of word.’ Trust me, though you defy scandal’s murmur, this verse, Cynthia, will make you pale.


The Spartan Girls

I admire many of the rules of your training, Sparta, but most of all at the great blessings derived from the girls’ gymnasia, where a girl can exercise her body, naked, without blame, among wrestling men, when the swift-thrown ball eludes the grasp, and the curved rod sounds against the ring, and the woman is left panting at the furthest goal, and suffers bruises in the hard wrestling.

Now she fastens near the glove the thongs that her wrists delight in, now whirls the discuss’s flying weight in a circle, and now her hair sprinkled with hoar frost, she follows her father’s dogs over the long ridges of Taygetus, beats the ring with her horses, binds the sword to her white flank, and shields the virgin head with hollow bronze, like the crowd of warlike Amazons who bathe bare-breasted in Thermodon’s stream; or as Helen, on the sands of Eurotas, between Castor and Pollux, one to be victor in boxing, the other with horses: with naked breasts she carried weapons, they say, and did not blush with her divine brothers there.

So Sparta’s law forbids lovers to keep apart, and lets each man walk by her side in the crossways, and there is no fear for her, no guardians for captive girls, no dread of bitter punishment from a stern husband. You yourself can speak about things without a go-between: no long waiting rebuffs you. No Tyrian garments beguile roving eyes, no affected toying with perfumed hair.

But my love goes surrounded by a great crowd, without the slimmest chance of getting an oar in: and you can’t come upon how to act, or what words to ask with: the lover is in a blind alley.

Rome, if you’d only follow the rules and wrestling of Sparta, you’d be dearer to me for that blessing.


Sextus Propertius (50—16 B.C.), the greatest of the elegiac poets of Rome, was born of a well-to-do Umbrian family at or near Asisium (Assisi), the birthplace also of the famous St. Francis. We learn from Ovid that Propertius was his senior, but also his friend and companion; and that he was third in the sequence of elegiac poets, following Gallus, who was born in 69 B.C., and Tibullus, and immediately preceding Ovid himself, who was born in 43 B.C. We shall not then be far wrong in supposing that he was born about 50 B.C. His early life was full of misfortune. He lost his father prematurely; and after the battle of Philippi and the return of Octavian to Rome, Propertius, like Virgil and Horace, was deprived of his estate to provide land for the veterans, but, unlike them, he had no patrons at court, and he was reduced from opulence to comparative indigence. The widespread discontent which the confiscations caused provoked the insurrection generally known as the bellum frerusinum from its only important incident, the fierce and fatal resistance of Perugia, which deprived the poet of another of his relations, who was killed by brigands while making his escape from the lines of Octavian. The loss of his patrimony, however, thanks no doubt to his mother’s providence, did not prevent Propertius from receiving a superior education. After, or it may be, during its completion he and she left Umbria for Rome; and there, about the year 34 B.C., he assumed the garb of manly freedom. He was urged to take up a pleader’s profession; but, like Ovid, he found in letters and gallantry a more congenial pursuit. Soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of Lycinna, about whom we know little beyond the fact that she subsequently excited the jealousy of Cynthia, and was subjected to all her powers of persecution (vexandi). This passing fancy was succeeded by a serious attachment, the object of which was the famous ” Cynthia.” Her real name was Hostia, and she was a native of Tibur. She was a courtesan of the superior class, somewhat older than Propertius, but, as it seems, a woman of singular beauty and varied accomplishments. Her own predilections led her to literature; and in her society Propertius found the intellectual sympathy and encouragement which were essential for the development of his powers. Her character, as depicted in the poems, is not an attractive one; but she seems to have entertained a genuine affection for her lover. The intimacy began in 28 and lasted till 23 B.C. These six years must not, however, be supposed to have been a period of unbroken felicity. Apart from minor disagreements an infidelity on Propertius’s part excited the deepest resentment in Cynthia; and he was banished for a year. The quarrel was made up about the beginning of 25 B.C.; and soon after Propertius published his first book of poems and inscribed it with the name of his mistress. Its publication placed him in the first rank of contemporary poets, and amongst other things procured him admission to the literary circle of Maecenas. The intimacy was renewed; but the old enchantment was lost. Neither Cynthia nor Propertius was faithful to the other. The mutual ardour gradually cooled; motives of prudence and decorum urged the discontinuance of the connexion; and disillusion changed insensibly to disgust. Although this separation might have been expected to be final, it is not certain that it was so. It is true that Cynthia, whose health appears to have been weak, does not seem to have survived the separation long. But a careful study of the seventh poem of the last book, in which Propertius gives an account of a dream of her which he had after her death, leads us to the belief that they were once more reconciled, and that in her last illness Cynthia left to her former lover the duty of carrying out her wishes with regard to the disposal of her effects and the arrangements of her funeral. Almost nothing is known of the subsequent history of the poet. He was alive in 16 B.C., as some allusions in the last book testify. And two passages in the letters of the younger Pliny mention a descendant of the poet, one Passennus Paullus. Now in 18 B.C. Augustus carried the Leges Juliae, which offered inducements to marriage and imposed disabilities upon the celibate. Propertius then may have been one of the first to comply with the new enactments. He would thus have married and had at least one child, from whom the contemporary of Pliny was descended.

Propertius had a large number of friends and acquaintances, chiefly literary, belonging to the circle of Maecenas. Amongst these may be mentioned Virgil, the epic poet Ponticus, Bassus (probably the iambic poet of the name), and at a later period Ovid. We hear nothing of Tibullus, nor of Horace, who also never mentions Propertius. This reciprocal silence is probably significant. In person Propertius was pale and thin, as was to be expected in one of a delicate and even sickly constitution. He was very careful about his personal appearance, and paid an almost foppish attention to dress and gait. He was of a somewhat voluptuous and self-indulgent temperament, which shrank from danger and active exertion. He was anxiously sensitive about the opinion of others, eager for their sympathy and regard, and, in general, impressionable to their influence. His over-emotional nature passed rapidly from one phase of feeling to another; but the more melancholy moods predominated. A vein of sadness runs through his poems, sometimes breaking out into querulous exclamation, but more frequently venting itself in gloomy reflections and prognostications. He had fits of superstition which in healthier moments he despised.

The poems of Propertius, as they have come down to us, consist of four books containing 4046 lines of elegiac verse. The first book, or Cynthia, was published separately and early in the poet’s literary life. It may be assigned to 25 B.C. The dates of the publication of the rest are uncertain, but none of them was published before 24 B.C., and the last not before 16 B.C. The unusual length of the second one (1402 lines) has led Lachmann and other critics to suppose that it originally consisted of two books, and they have placed the beginning of the third book at ii. 10, a poem addressed to Augustus, thus making five books, and this arrangement has been accepted by several editors.

The subjects of the poems are threefold: (I) amatory and personal, mostly regarding Cynthia—seventy-two (sixty Cynthia elegies), of which the last book contains three; (2) political and social, on events of the day—thirteen, including three in the last book; (3) historical and antiquarian—six, of which five are in the last book.

The writings of Propertius are noted for their difficulty and their disorder. The workmanship is unequal, curtness alternating with redundance, and carelessness with elaboration. A desultory sequence of ideas, an excessive vagueness and indirectness of expression, a peculiar and abnormal latinity, a constant tendency to exaggeration, and an immoderate indulgence in learned and literary allusions—all these are obstacles lying in the way of a study of Propertius. But ‘those who have the will and the patience to surmount them will find their trouble well repaid. For power and range of imagination, for freshness and vividness of conception, for truth and originality of presentation, few Roman poets can compare with him when he is at his best. And this is when he is carried out of himself, when the discordant qualities of his genius are, so to say, fused together by the electric spark of an immediate inspiration. His vanity and egotism are undeniable, but they are redeemed by his fancy and his humour.

Two of his merits seem to have impressed the ancients themselves. The first is most obvious in the scenes of quiet description and emotion. in whose presentation he particularly excels. Softness of outline, warmth of colouring, a fine and almost voluptuous feeling for beauty of every kind, and a pleading and melancholy tenderness—such were the elements of the spell which he threw round the sympathies of his reader, and which his compatriots expressed by the vague but expressive word bland itia. His poetic facundia, or command of striking and appropriate language, is noticeable still. Not only is his vocabulary very extensive, but his employment of it extraordinarily bold and unconventional. New settings of use, idiom and construction continually surprise us, and, in spite of occasional harshness, secure for his style an unusual freshness and freedom. His handling of the elegiac couplet, and especially of its second line, deserves especial recognition. It is vigorous, varied and even picturesque. In the matter of the rhythms, caesuras and elisions which it allows, the metrical treatment is much more severe than that of Catullus, whose elegiacs are comparatively rude and barbarous; but it is not bound hand and foot, like the Ovidian distich, in a formal and conventional system. An elaborate symmetry is observable in the construction of many of his elegies, and this has tempted critics to divide a number of them into strophes.

Propertius’s poems bear evident marks of the study of his predecessors, both Greek and Latin, and of the influence of his contemporaries. He tells us himself that Callimachus and Philetas were his masters (iii. I, seq.), and that it was his ambition to be the Roman Callimachus (iv. I, 64). But, as Teuffel has said, his debt to these writers is chiefly a formal one. Even into his mythological learning he breathes a life to which these dry scholars are strangers. We can trace obligations to Meleager, Theocritus, Apollonius Rhodius and other Alexandrines, and amongst earlier writers to Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus and others. Propertius’s influence upon his successors was considerable. There is hardly a page of Ovid which does not show obligations to his poems, while other writers made a more sparing use of his stories.

A just appreciation of the genius and the writings of Propertius is made sensibly more difficult by the condition in which his works have come down to us. Some poems have been lost; others are fragmentary; and many are more or less disfigured by corruption and disarrangement. The manuscripts on which we have to rely are both late and deeply interpolated. Thus the restoration and interpretation of the poems is one of peculiar delicacy and difficulty.