- Cynthia prima fuit, Cynthia finis eritTime and Narrative in Propertius 4
What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding V,” Four Quartets
The sense of a beginning, then, must in some important way be determined by the sense of an ending. We might say we are able to read present moments—in literature and, by extension, life—as endowed with narrative meaning only because we read them in anticipation of the structuring power of those endings that will retrospectively give them the order and significance of plot.Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot
Propertius’s book 4 is notoriously idiosyncratic. No consistent chronology, viewpoint, or narrative seems to arrange its collection of poems; its subjects and themes are characterized by fragmentation and discontinuity; and its manuscript tradition is unreliable—we cannot appeal to any manuscript authority to resolve our difficulties over the chronology and arrangement of its eleven elegies. Diverse narrative voices and perspectives tell different stories about politics, erotics, and poetics in such disorganized organization that some critics have even sought to dismiss the book as the clumsy work of a posthumous editor or a later poetaster.1 Ostensibly lacking the more obvious narrative coherence supplied by the overarching story of the poet’s love affair with Cynthia in the earlier books, book 4 is marked by confusing temporal contradictions and puzzling narrative incongruities: here we find Cynthia not only retelling a radically new version of her love affair with Propertius, but unexpectedly returning from the grave. Twice.
Such incongruities are resolved easily enough if we follow scholars like Fränkel, Boucher, and Veyne and resist the idea that Propertius’s elegies offer any kind of ‘narrative’ or ‘story.’ Indeed, Fränkel (1945, 26) insists that there is no sense of narrative continuity or chronology in any of the collections of the elegiac love poets, warning that “Scholars who have [End Page 111] tried to piece together the history of one individual affair have wasted their labor.” Following a similar line, Jean-Paul Boucher (1965, 401) also refuses to allow Propertian elegy narrative status, on the grounds that the first book “has no beginning, no ending analogous to that of a novel” and that the second “is completely independent of any novel-like chronology.” Paul Veyne (1988, 50) goes further still in his argument against the storytelling potential of Roman erotic elegy: “To believe that our elegists tell the story of their affairs, one must not have read them. . . . The poems do not present the episodes of a love affair—beginnings, declaration, seduction, a falling out. Time does not pass at all.” Indeed, Veyne (1988, 51) defines elegy precisely as a nonnarrative genre, as “a poetry without action, with no plot leading to a denouement or maintaining any tension, and this is why time has no reality in it. . . . Before and after do not exist, any more than does duration.” From such a perspective, it matters not that Cynthia should appear dead in one poem (4.7) and very much alive in the next (4.8); in this view, neither time nor narrative plays a part in Propertius’s elegies.
Yet theories of narrative show that even without action or plot, without telos or denouement, without continuity or chronology, both poets and readers can, and do, endow such poems with narrative meaning.2 This, then, is the tale (or, at least, one tale) of how the final events in the story of Propertius and Cynthia might be thus endowed and configured as narrative—namely the appearance of Acanthis (4.5) through whom Cynthia acquires a new personal history directed by an undead lena who played no part in previous stories of her past; Cynthia’s return from the grave (4.7) in which she emphatically contradicts her past as narrated by Propertius; and the final reconciliation of the lovers (4.8), in which Cynthia returns unexpectedly from a fertility rite to surprise Propertius in an act of infidelity (and to surprise the reader who thought, on the basis of elegy 4.7...