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  • Propertius: Poet of Love and Leisure
  • Joan Booth (bio)
Alison Keith . Propertius: Poet of Love and Leisure. Duckworth. x, 214. £18.00

Cynthia prima? Not here. In the first comprehensive English monograph on Propertius since Margaret Hubbard's 1974 landmark appraisal (Newman [1997] is too capricious and Cairns [2006] too mono-dimensional to qualify), Keith bypasses these celebrated opening words of Propertius's oeuvre to begin with an austere, yet speculative, attempt at biography. Chapter 1 combs anew through hints in Propertius's own text, supplemented by the latest epigraphic and archaeological evidence from Assisi, to conclude that he probably came of a politically active and once well-to-do family there. The biographical approach persists in chapter 2, where Propertius's poetic techniques are examined for (1) affinities with procedures inculcated by the Roman school curriculum in rhetoric, and (2) traces of legal language and know-how - in other words, for the impact of the education and training that the Propertius constructed in chapter 1 is supposed to have had. In [End Page 348] chapter 3 Cynthia tandem. But only sporadically. Poems (or part-poems) in which she features (including 1.1) and many in which she does not (particularly in book 3) are analyzed for their illustration of Propertius's generic confrontation with and 'recuperation' of (1) Hellenistic epigram, (2) lyric (Keith canvasses an aggressive takeover bid for Horace's Odes in particular), and (3) earlier or contemporary Greek and Latin elegy. His poetic agenda is allegedly to make himself Callimachus Romanus (Prop. 4.1.64). In fact we lose sight of Callimachus during much of the discussion. Tibullus gets his only substantial attention from Keith here as first owner of the rural elegiac settings that Propertius attempts to appropriate in his second book, and the chapter ends with an impressive reappraisal of the significance of Philitas's elegy (above all, his Demeter) for Propertius's program. Chapter 4, by dint of both title and content, really does belong to the leading lady: Cynthia rara. A surprise, too, to find it offering in tandem with a bold meta-poetic reading of Propertius's puella an unfashionably serious search for a real Roman woman behind the sobriquet. Chapter 5 continues the meta-poetic line by positing a picture of literary rivalry encoded in poems addressed to individual members of a male social elite, among them a Gallus who is surely the elegist. Persuasive, but the hammering insistence on labelling this elite 'homosocial' will be misleadingly suggestive of 'homosexual' for many a reader. Chapter 6 turns abruptly to the 'leisure' of the book's title, offering nuanced insight into a culture of luxury spawned and sustained by empire. There is no general conclusion.

Undoubtedly the book meets the stated aim of the Duckworth series, 'to consider Greek and Roman literature primarily in relation to genre and theme' (though bucolic could usefully have been included in chapter 3). It achieves this without becoming bogged down in notorious textual controversies, and all discussion is supported by Keith's own translations (even if striving for closeness - and gender neutrality - sometimes has unhappy results, such as, 'Nevertheless, my poems will not lack favour with any reader, whether they're inexperienced or learned in love. Not here does the tuneful swan yield in inspiration to the unlearned song of the goose, though less in voice' [Prop. 2.34.81-84]). The overall structure outlined above refreshingly avoids the conventional trawl through four books from Cynthia prima (book 1) to Cynthia non finis (book 4; cf. Prop. 1.12.20). And yet Cynthia gets her rightful place after all: at the centre. The chapters in which she is most prominent (3 and 4) sit physically in the centre of the monograph. This clever meta-literary procedure, however, presents some problems. The same passage of individual elegies is frequently treated in several different places, and very few poems are examined holistically. This will give little trouble to Propertian aficionados, but rather more to those unfamiliar with his [End Page 349] oeuvre or his genre. The uninitiated will also need to persevere through the somewhat heavy beginning to reach the reward of Cynthia in medio, while...


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pp. 348-350
Launched on MUSE
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