As the hopefully named Celestial Express crosses the last fringes of the plains before heading up into mysterious mountains, we, passengers in the caboose, look back to bring with us into another dimension of existence, the memories of the places where we have dwelt or have visited, the men and women we have encountered, the events and happenings that exceeded our expectations. Images, memories, and personalities can flicker and fade. But a cherished book can bring a welcome renewal of its initial delight. Each time we change residence, we dispose of many books that have outlived their relevance to ourselves or to our times. As I disposed of scores of books over the years, one volume always caught my eye and was saved for another day: “Poets in a Landscape” by Gilbert Highet, Knopf, 1957, 267pp.
Highet, a Scotsman and distinguished professor at Columbia
in ancient Greek and Roman history, captures in this volume, the love he had for Italy
, its people, and poets. His prose suggests the swift, silent flow of the Mincius River
near Vergil’s birthplace and the springs of Clitumnus, where the river of that name originated, - to steal some of Highet’s words and rhythms - “not in a cascade from a rock or the overspill from a lake, but from a kind of miracle from the flat earth itself”. It is there that Propertius lived. Highet devotes five lucent pages to a description of the springs and the surrounding worlds of nature, his own reflections and those of Pliny, a contemporary of Propertius.
Seven poets and the seven landscapes, where they lived and whence they distilled their poetry from the lives, personalities, and ecologies that they encountered, are presented in bright and effortlessly read prose. Highet weaves historical and linguistic contexts into the stories and accomplishments of each poet. Propertius, a likely subject to begin with, was born around 50 BC in a small town near Assisi
. The region suffered much in the civil wars that followed the death of Julius Caesar. The people of Umbria
spoke a language different from their neighbors, neither Latin nor Etruscan but a dialect of Oscan. Although high-minded Romans tended to look down on
the people of Umbria
as on a peasant level, several of the most eminent Roman poets came from Umbria
. Highet’s comments help in understanding a poem by Propertius about his origin and the cause of his distress at the death of a kinsman.
Propertius captures the dramatic differences of character between two women featured in his poems. Cynthia was a part of the high society of Rome
, beautiful, well educated and herself a poet. She was the center of Propertius’ life, hard and cruel to each other, perhaps an embodiment of the 1940’s pop hit, “You always hurt the one you love”. Propertius had days and nights of happiness together with her that alternated with periods of doubt and anger on both sides. Cynthia would use Propertius’ intense desire mixed with genuine love as a weapon by withholding its physical expression. Cynthia’s occasional bouts of drinking and casual infidelities would torture Propertius, as she knew they would. Propertius would respond by his own infidelities. Rebuffed by Cynthia, Propertius flees being alone; he invites “Phyllis on the Aventine
– when sober, unattractive; charming drunk. Then there is Teia – lives near the Tarpeian Park
– a lovely thing but hard to satisfy.” He sets up a threesome in his garden. “A Nile
boy played the pipes, Phyllis the castanets, we scattered simple roses for our scent.” In the midst of this heady scene, Cynthia burst through the garden gate. In a torrent of wild language and physical violence, she sends the girls fleeing and reduces Propertius to an abject figure, seeking Cynthia’s forgiveness. Curiously, in this pre-Christian period, she sets up conditions “if you wish absolution for your sin…” Perhaps an intrusion by a later translator! Cynthia
savors her victory; Propertius, a melancholy defeat caused, as much by his own lack of discipline as by her passionate disposition and will to conquer. Cynthia dies and, in a more settled mood, Propertius composes an elegy that captures much of her personality and the reasons for his addiction to her.
Propertius brings his poetry to bear on other woman, Cornelia, whose character is apposite to Cynthia’s. Cornelia is the step-daughter of the emperor, Augustus and is married to Lucius Amelius Paullus, a distinguished statesman. Unlike Cynthia, she is poised and disciplined. She dies, apparently at an early age, leaving a son and two daughters. Propertius composes an elegy, spoken by Cornelia herself.
In his elegy, Propertius puts the words of Cornelia, first about herself: she is from a noble Roman family, her father’s side was associated with the Roman legions, which “conquered Africa
with its wealth and power”. Her mother’s ancestors were of the renowned Libones. “Both houses stand secure in old renown.” From pride of family, she turns to herself and her own character and declares her innocence and established reputation: “write on the stone that I was one man’s bride always, pure from the wedding torch to the torch of death. Nature gave me a code of laws drawn from my blood…However harsh the standard, I can meet its test.” Cornelia, through the poetry of Propertius, turns next to praise her husband: “You, Paullus, are my consolation. In your embrace I closed my dying eyes.” She speaks of the finality of death, but urges Paullus and their children to go on, as a family, the children sensitively to accept a stepmother. She speaks of the demeanor Paullus must have for the children she leaves behind:
“Even in my ashes breathes my love for them.
You must be both their mother and their father: all
my darlings’ weight now clings around your neck.
Kiss them when they weep, and add their mother’s kisses:
Now all our household rests upon your arms.
And if you grieve for me, they must not witness it.
When they embrace you, cheat them – dry your eyes.
Enough for you, Paullus, to wear the nights with longing,
to dream of phantoms with Cornelia’s face;
and when you talk in secret to my portrait, speak
and pause awhile, as though I might reply.”
Noble Romans, indeed; a loving family! Propertius, poet extraordinary!
How did Propertius manage to live with Cynthia at the same time that he understood and articulated the love of Cornelia?