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Sextus Propertius: Rendering the Latin Elegy

Metre

The elegy in European literature has come to mean a lament of meditative tone, but its origin is Greek, where it was used widely for epitaphs, inscriptions and epigrams, before being refined for extended compositions by Philetas and Callimachus of Alexandria.

The form was introduced into Latin by Quintus Ennius, employed a little by Catullus, at length by Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid, and became the most popular of metres for everything except the epic. Put simply, the Latin elegy is built in couplets (distiches).

A hexameter with a hardly pronounced caesura:

¯ x x ¯ x x ¯ || x x ¯ x x ¯ u u ¯ f

is followed by what is sometimes called a pentameter, though really two half-lines separated by a diaeresis (coincidence of word and metre end: no run on):

¯ x x ¯ x x ¯ | ¯ u u ¯ u u f

Where short syllables are shown as u, two short syllables that can fuse into a long syllable are shown as x, and the concluding syllable, counted as long but able to fall on what would be counted a short syllable in everyday speech, is shown as f.

The first couplet of Elegy 1 in Book Four runs:

Hoc, quod cum que vi des, ho spes, qua ma xi ma Ro mast,
¯ x x ¯ x x ¯ x x ¯ x x ¯ u u ¯ f

an te Phry gem Ae nean co llis et her ba fu it;
¯ x x ¯ x x ¯ | ¯ u u ¯ u u f

At its smoothest, as in this example, and in Tibullus and Ovid generally, the pentameter ends in a two-syllable word.

Being an inflected language, Latin allows great freedom in the word order, which poetry exploits.

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina like
Theseus laid_down leaves ship
languida desertis Cnosia litoribus;
faint abandoned she_of_Cnossus from_shore
qualis et accubuit primo Cepheïa somno
what and reclined by_chief Cepheus in_sleep
libera iam duris cotibus Andromede; (1.3.1-4)
liberates now from_hard from_stone Andromeda
Which I have rendered as:

Laid out as that deceived Cnossian girl was left
with Theseus long shipped away,
or threatened Andromeda, King Cepheus's daughter,
slept when freed from her harsh rock;

As this and many other examples illustrate, the elegy was not natural speech but an artificial style crafted with great ingenuity from Greek models by a succession of gifted poets.

Word Order

Being an inflected language, Latin allows great freedom in the word order, which poetry exploits.

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina
likeTheseus laid_down leaves ship

languida desertis Cnosia litoribus;
faint abandoned she_of_Cnossus from_shore

qualis et accubuit primo Cepheïa somno
what and reclined by_chief Cepheus in_sleep

libera iam duris cotibus Andromede; (1.3.1-4)
liberates now from_hard from_stone Andromeda

Which I have rendered as:

Laid out as that deceived Cnossian girl was left
with Theseus long shipped away,

or threatened Andromeda, King Cepheus's daughter,
slept when freed from her harsh rock;

As this and many other examples illustrate, the elegy was not natural speech but an artificial style crafted with great ingenuity from Greek models by a succession of gifted poets.

Style

The metre of Propertius is vigorous and subtle, sensitive to speech patterns, employing a diction common to the educated upper classes of Rome but heightened and given colour by Greek words and the odd colloquialism. It is a high style, clear and graceful, sometimes orotund but never maladroit or over-formal, nor sullied by any coarseness or street diction. His couplet started with the freedom of Catullus but over the course of the Elegies moved to the smoothness of Tibullus and Ovid.

Propertius was a markedly individual author, whose main departures from standard Latin use in poetry were:

1. abrupt switches to mythological examples, some of which would have been obscure to his audience (and more so to us, hence the Glossary).

2. tendency to move abruptly from third person to second without the vocative.

3. inclination to start an elegy in medias res.

4. omission of the verb 'to be' wherever sense is clear.

5. preference for the pluperfect, used as the English preterite for anything in the past now completed. Also the employment of the historical present for vividness, often extending to the subjunctive.

6. free use of elision, shown in this Latin text: famast rather than fama est. And many others, noted (with detailed references) in Professor Richardson's commentary.