Propertius I:3

The devil is in the detail. I’ve always loved Propertius, but from a distance; I’m not a good enough classicist to appreciate him fully. But Colin Burrow is — a man of many parts! For my recent post about Stanley Cavell, I looked up Burrow’s piece in the LRB online, not having the magazine itself to hand, and so I flicked through his recent appearances there. It’s to Burrow that one friend of mine owes the raunchy Catullus translation I gave him a year or two ago, and then, well, there was Propertius. I:3 is a particular personal favourite. The poet returns to Cynthia, late in the night, and puts his wreath from the party in her hair, and rolls apples (perhaps they are apples) from the banquet down her sleeping form; these drunken impertinences don’t wake her, but as the moon with its soft rays works its way round the windows to Cynthia’s eyes, she is roused, and tells him off for his carousing. Here is the central stretch of the poem, about the apples and the moonlight (translations are abundant, online and in print, though always problematic):

sed sic intentis haerebam fixus ocellis,
Argus ut ignotis cornibus Inachidos:
et modo soluebam nostro de fronte corollas
ponebamque tuis, Cynthia, temporibus;
et modo gaudebam lapsos formare capillos,
nunc furtiva cavis poma dabam manibus;
omniaque ingrato largibar munera somno,
munera de prono saepe voluta sinu.

et quotiens raro duxit suspiria motu,
obstupui vano credulus auspicio,
ne qua tibi insolitos portarent visa timores,
neve quis invitam cogeret esse suam:
donec diversas praecurrens luna fenestras,
luna moraturis sedula luminibus,
compositos levibus radiis patefecit ocellos.

ll. 19-33

Propertius is difficult because his writing is subtle and ambiguous; the problem is naturally compounded by the poor state of the text. The impulse to emend the reading to make more sense runs at cross purposes with that subtlety; a third problem is we don’t enjoy a native feel for the resonances of words, which must be argued for by examples of usage, in other texts. Between these tensions, actual literary appreciation easily gets lost, but Burrow knows how to hang on to the thread. He discusses a conjecture for line 26 (just before the line break I have inserted, following the text of Hodge and Buttimore’s edition): to replace the awkward repetition of ‘munera’ with ‘malaque’. Here is Burrow:

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.

LRB, vol. 41:5, 7.iii.2019

‘Poma’ are just fruit, while ‘mala’ are specifically apples — that’s a repetition too, though one that sharpens the focus. It may count against the emendation that a few lines below, Propertius also repeats ‘luna’ (the moon), which unlike the purloined peaches or whatever they were, wakes Cynthia up; Propertius’s manner tolerates the repetition, which by occurring twice, perhaps even affords an echo . That’s the passage that struck me as so beautiful when I first read this poem as a teenager. It too is variously interpreted (is it other people’s windows the moon hastens past in its eagerness to reach Cynthia, or does it come in at different windows in the bedroom), but the contrast between that friskiness and the assiduous lingering touch that stirs her — gently! not like her lover — is pure poetry. Burrow is an optimist about the possibilities of making sense of these poems. It’s that leap from the difficulty to the idea that that’s the point. In this passage, it provides a fruitful reading of what the poet is saying about sex. Isn’t the whole point that it is not terribly clear which bits are whose?

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