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  • Death Becomes Her:Women's Speech Haunting Propertian Elegy
  • Melanie Racette-Campbell (bio)

In her speech in Propertius 4.7, the ghostly Cynthia portrays herself as the elegiac hero: she is faithful and long-suffering while the lover-poet is faithless and cruel. Cynthia's claims and complaints raise the question of why Propertius would create a character who undermines the elegiac worldview and overturns the roles of lover and mistress.1 Furthermore, the other speaking women of Book 4, Acanthis in 4.5 and Cornelia in 4.11, join with Cynthia in disrupting the elegiac world and also the larger one of Augustan Rome. The three women are united in their role as ghosts who present speeches from beyond the grave,2 and they insist that the reader take them and their concerns seriously. I argue here that Propertius uses these female characters' speeches to question and destabilize cultural and literary codes and conventions, thereby using their words to support the lover-poet's resistance to strict identification with either an upstanding and responsible Roman male citizen,3 or an effeminate and ineffectual elegiac lover.4

One of the most recent interpretations of the ghostly women in Propertius's Book 4 is Barbara Gold's 2007 article "The Natural and Unnatural Silence of Women in the Elegies of Propertius." Gold considers the presence of silence and silencing in literature and the power structures enmeshed in silence, arguing that elegiac women are often silenced by the poet and the genre, even when they are speaking. Yet she also acknowledges that Propertius creates spaces of uneasiness around gender, where marginalized voices appear to be trying to speak and to speak against the text: "He destabilises the traditional roles and qualities assigned to women by casting both Cynthia and himself in many different and conflicting roles and by problematizing his representation of her" (2007, 66). To this, I add that Propertius also destabilizes the male roles in the text, since, as Maria Wyke (2002, 46–77) has shown, the elegiac mistress is completely bound up in defining the male. In this paper I build on this earlier scholarship and argue that any destabilization of the gender role of the mistress must have an equivalent effect on that of the lover-poet and so when he destabilizes the female, he causes [End Page 109] an equal destabilization of the male. Cynthia is indeed a fiction and a foil for the lover-poet's needs, but her presence in the poetry is not purely as an Other to be silenced and controlled. Gold (2007, 66) posits that the dead women of Propertius 4 have more powerful voices than the living, and that Propertius gives power to the dead but fears living words. But Cynthia's speech in 4.7 is not her only speech and Propertius writes a living Cynthia who expresses the same concerns and criticisms as her ghost. Propertius consistently places serious criticisms of the characters and tropes of his genre in her mouth, and in Book 4 he adds other women who also critique the lover-poet, elegy, and Roman society. I consider here how the ghosts of these women are meaningful to the loverpoet, and how their demands relate to him. Throughout his corpus, Propertius attempts to forge a new kind of masculine identity that avoids exclusive identification with traditional elite masculinity or the effeminized role of the elegiac lover. Propertius uses the figure of Cynthia, and particularly her direct speech, to weaken the boundaries between male and female, Roman and non-Roman, and lover and beloved; in Book 4 Acanthis and Cornelia join her and add their support to her critique.

One of the defining features of women like Cynthia is their lack of permanent relationships to men: they exist outside the bounds of social legitimacy (Wyke 2002, 184–85). As I argue, Cynthia's status as a member of an out-group allows Propertius to use her to voice criticism of social and literary conventions, although ultimately a male poet is still using a female character as a tool. Propertius was himself a writer in a privileged position, and did not share in the particular kinds of gendered...


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pp. 109-131
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