Ezra Pound's 1919 Homage to Sextus Propertius

Into the quiet world of Latin scholarship, and verse renderings with Romantic or Augustan echoes, burst Ezra Pound, whose Homage to Sextus Propertius {1} was and remains the most controversial of translations. It was heartily disliked at the time, and remained largely unappreciated outside Modernist circles for decades. {2}  But, if the rendering was often careless and wrong-headed, it could also be vivid and beautiful.

ezra pound's sextus propertius

Shades of Callimachus, Coan ghosts of Philetas,
It is in your grove I would walk. (Pound 1.1-2, Loeb 3.1.1-2)

No, now while it may be, let not the fruit of life cease.
Dry wreaths drop their petals, their stalks are woven in baskets,

Today we take the great breath of lovers,
tomorrow fate shuts us in. (P 8.28-32: 2.15.49-54)
The twisted rhombs ceased their clamour of accompaniment;
The scorched laurel lay in the fire-dust; (P 9.1.1-2: 2.28.35-6)

Of course there could be indifferent lines. The guying of academic language in:

Was Venus exacerbated by the existence of a comparable equal?
Is the ornamental goddess full of envy?
Have you contempted Juno's Pelagian temples,
Have you denied Pallas good eyes? (P 8.10-13: 2.28.9-12)

With the doubtful 'exacerbated', 'ornamental', 'contempted' and 'Pallas'.
Some lines are plain bad, here the repulsive imagery, not in Propertius:

How easy the moving fingers, if hair is mussed on her forehead,
If she goes in a gleam of Cos, in a slither of dyed stuff (P 5.2.7-8 2.1.5-6)

Or here with translation errors, giving hilarious results:
Io mooed the first years with averted head,
And now drinks Nile water like a god (P 8 .19-20: 2.28.17-8)

There were also irritating mannerisms: anaphora

When, when, and whenever death closes our eyelids (P 6.1: 2.13.17)

An over-Latinate humour:

The dry earth pants against the canicular heat (P 8.4: 2.28.4)

And an irony that passes into self-mockery.

But in one bed, in one bed alone, my dear Lynceus
I deprecate your attendance; (P 12.15-6: 2.34.16-7)

Yet what was abundantly achieved was a real voice, a genuine and moving affection for Cynthia, and the poet's acceptance that he will not be understood by his contemporaries, and even less by his mistress.

Great Zeus, save the woman, or she will sit before your feet in a veil,
and pour out a long list of her troubles. (P 9.10-2: 2.28.45-6)

Pound called his work 'Homage to Sextus Propertius' but the rendering contained far too much straight borrowing to be either something in the manner of Propertius, or a poem on his themes. Nor was it strictly translation. Pound introduced lines and phrases of his own, and left out mythologies he thought tedious or tending to spoil the verse flow. Indeed, the whole demeanour of the Elegies was subtly altered. Propertius's invocation at the beginning of Book Three became an attack on false standards, equating Propertius's wish to avoid writing epics for Augustus with the despair and cynicism that afflicted Europe at the close of the First World War.

Then there were slips with real names:

Polydamas incorrectly made Polydmanus in later editions. (P 1.31: 3.131)

The cheerfully appearance of the odd schoolboy howler:

Nor of Welsh mines and the profit Marus had out of them. (P 5.2.21: 2.1.24)

And scraps of fourth-form humour.

And in the meantime my songs will travel,
And the devirginated young ladies will enjoy them
   when they have got over the strangeness, (P 1.32-3: 3.2.1-2 )

It was, in short, a most unacademic translation, and one which still divides the Classics and English fraternities. {3}

But Pound, in all probability, was not aiming for fidelity to text — he was not a self-effacing man, and corrected very few of the errors pointed out to him {2} — so much as using Propertius for his own writing ends, creating a more flippant and one-sided version than the poetry warrants. Where scholars are undecided about the later elegies, Pound saw them as irony, if only subtle irony, and adopted an engaging but put-down tone. What didn't meet that interpretation, notably the sober elegy of Cornelia that closes Book Four, he happily ignored.

But if the translation infuriated scholars, far more baffled was the general reader. Part of the trouble lay with the 1892 Lucian Mueller {4} text, on which Pound based his translations, which juxtaposed lines and passages that later scholars have moved to more sensible positions, but Pound also rearranged the order of the twelve elegies he chose to translate, and removed large sections of those choices. The translations themselves could be very free, moreover, following the verse opportunities rather than translating what was on the page. Without the Latin to consult, few would guess that:

A new-fangled chariot follows the flower-hung horses;
A young Muse with young loves clustered about her
   ascends with me into the aether, . . .
And there is no high-road to the Muses. (P 1.13-6: 3.11-4)

Referred to the Roman triumph, the young loves being the kinsfolk that traditionally rode in the victor's chariot. Or that the mysterious:

"Bright tips reach up from twin towers, Anienan spring water falls into flat-spread pools." (P 3.3-4: 3.16.3-4)

Simply referred to the waterfalls at Tivoli, where Cynthia instructed Propertius to meet her.

Ezra Pound's Innovations

The saving grace was the verse, where Pound developed a style useful to him in the Cantos and to Modernism generally. {4} Because that verse is often misunderstood, allowing contemporary styles to dwindle into little more than prose, it is worth looking at the details. Pound made several innovations.

1. He ignored the elegiac form, replacing the couplets by lines or line segments of varying lengths that were meaningful and cadenced units in themselves.

Love interferes with fidelities;
The gods have brought shame on their relatives;
Each man wants the pomegranate for himself (P 12.2-4: 2.34.2-5)

2. He made units some fused evocation of meaning, tone and emotion, often by vivid images that were only loosely linked by argument or narrative.

We, in our narrow bed, turning aside from battles:
Each man where he can, wearing out the day in his manner (P 5.2. 36-7: 2.1.45-6)

3. He pruned away the unnecessary, allowing the words left to fill out with their full meaning:

Rumours of you throughout the city,
    and no good rumour among them. (P 11.18-9: 2.32.23-4

And phrases with a reverberating simplicity:

When the Syrian onyx is broken. (P 4.25: 2.13.30)

4. He used a diction that was not contemporary but a judicious mixture of the poetic (aforetime), the academic and the archly self-knowing or deprecating (young ladies): see below.

5. To give rhythmic coherence to the units, Pound adopted the cadences of his skilled contemporaries, but replaced their traditional accentual-syllabic verse by stress verse to no common base, i.e. to free verse. That allowed him to introduce snippets of conversation:

"You need, Propertius, not think
"About acquiring that sort of reputation. (P 2.19-20: 3.3.17-8)

And adjusted the tone, here ironic:
 She did not respect all the gods
Such derelictions have destroyed other young ladies aforetime. (P 8.6-7: 2.28.6-7)

And here simple and passionate:

You ask on what account I write so many love-lyrics
And whence this soft book comes into my mouth.
Neither Calliope nor Apollo sung these things into my ear,
My genius is no more than a girl. (P 5.2.1-4: 2.1.1-4)

He arranged the units with great skill, ostensibly avoiding the constraints of conventional verse, but actually playing variations on the iambic pentameter that can usually be sensed beneath.

Nor at my funeral | either |will there be| any long trail |
   bearing ancestral lares | and images ||
Nor at | my fu | neral ei | ther will | there be |
any | long trail | bearing | ances |tral la | res
and | ima ges || (P 6.13-14: 2.13.19-20)

7. He made typography, the layout on the page, important. Where Pound wanted to emphasize words or thwart expectations, he broke the line, down-setting the important items:

Seeing that long standing increases all things
                            regardless of quality. (P 1.25-6: 3.1.

Suddenly, the Elegies became challengingly different, as fresh and relevant to contemporary readers, Modernists believed, as Propertius was to his Roman audience. In fact Propertius was following in a long tradition, and his lines were startling only in the ease with which he further developed its inherent properties. By contrast, Pound's work was new, and revealed other dimensions, asking for poems to be constructed on fresh principles, and bound together by unusual devices.

The last was the great difficulty. Homage is an untidy poem, with many lines of great beauty and felicity of expression, but not cohering into a satisfying whole. Roman poetry was an extension of oratory, and therefore constructed on a complex rhetoric. The Homage was built on Pound's belief in the imaginal nature of Chinese verse. Individual scenes or vignettes are not easily integrated without some intervening narrative, however, as every film director knows, and Pound himself found in the Cantos. No doubt links could be made — indeed were made in some faltering way through the Homage by the loose association of ideas — but an organizing linkage would doubtless have entailed further departures from the Latin, adding a matrix to images that were most vivid when left to stand for themselves.

Nonetheless, the Homage does have more unity and compelling beauty than any correct and complete rendering, which, with the text now rearranged, necessarily includes many broken, trivial and unsatisfactory elegies.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Latin pages.