BMCR 2004.02.31

Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy

Jeri Blair Debrohun, Roman Propertius and the reinvention of Elegy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. 263 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472112767 $55.00.

Propertian scholars have used much ink over the years in their attempts to decipher the difficulties of book 4. In particular, why does Propertius propose to move past the boundaries of love elegy to tackle aetiological themes? Jeri DeBrohun’s new study of Propertius’ final poetic collection offers an insightful interpretation of this complex topic, disputing critics who envision book 4 either as a Propertian about-face away from love elegy or as a book of thematic inconsistencies and incoherencies or even of poems firmly divided between aetiological and elegiac themes. Instead she argues that Propertius designed book 4 as a site of conflict between elegiac discourse and aetiological concerns, constructing a collection which is neither simple elegy nor simple aetiology. She proposes that book 4 is a “hybrid discourse” (27) that allows the poet to expand his elegiac themes, while participating in present moral and political discourses and engaging with the poetry of his contemporaries, thus defining the national character of Rome. On the whole, DeBrohun’s well-written and thoroughly researched work makes a distinctive contribution to Propertian scholarship, compelling the reader to see more than a world of binary oppositions in book 4.

In the introduction, DeBrohun presents her methodology, proposing one theoretical framework, namely “thirds,” which she applies to the whole study. “Thirds,” in DeBrohun’s work, are any significant elements present in elegiac discourse which are redefined by the “opposing value system” (29) of Propertius’ new aetiological concerns. The initial explication of the theory, via Marjorie Garber, contains some jargon, but DeBrohun quickly clarifies the term and her use of it when she begins her analysis of elegy as a “third” discourse. She describes a “third” as a point of tension “between two poles” (24) and contends that elegiac discourse in book 4 functions as such a “manipulable space” (24) between the conflicting values of love elegy and aetiology (which DeBrohun refers to as amor vs. Roma).

Chapters 1 and 2 both focus on poem 4.1, thereby devoting a substantial portion of the book to the discussion of this one poem. Surprisingly, chapter 1 begins not with the first “third,” but with an interpretation of the beginning of 4.1, considering Propertius’ representation of Rome as palimpsestic. DeBrohun contends that it is through this discussion of Rome’s rise from humble beginnings to its contemporary greatness that Propertius leads us to the first “third” of book 4, arma. She proposes that the reader is expected to see between the lines what is missing from the tales of Rome’s foundation. At first, the idea of reading between the lines was worrisome to me and I was concerned about reading into a text more than is appropriate, but DeBrohun’s solid textual evidence and analyses quickly convinced me otherwise. Her reading of 4.1 is enhanced by a comparison with a palimpsestic illustration of Rome by Freud, who desired an analogy for the preservation of memory in humans. Arma are reconsidered here in their juxtaposed epic and elegiac modes, neither one prevailing, but instead demonstrating the conflict which arises when arma‘s aetiological side is introduced into an elegiac setting. Chapter 2 furthers the reading of 4.1 and introduces the next “third,” patria. DeBrohun maintains that Propertius presents Rome as a “living entity” (86), allowing him to compare the city to the growth of elegy and his own personal history. Propertius’ attachments to Rome compel him to revalue his relationship to Umbria, his birthplace.

In chapter 3, DeBrohun argues for the limen (any type of threshold, boundary, door, gate) as the “most dynamic of elegy’s ‘thirds'” (118). She points to the limen as a cultural symbol and as a symbol of the lover-poet. A clear chart is included to help the reader visualize who is on each side of the limen (inside vs. outside) in certain passages. The limen was already manipulated by the elegists to fit their poetry but is now being revalued once more to fit Propertius’ new aetiological concerns. The chapter discusses 4.9 (Hercules and the limen) extensively, but also touches upon the limen in 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.7, 4.8, 4.10, and 4.11.

Chapter 4, “Costume and Character,” is a revised version of an article that appeared in JRS 84. DeBrohun contends that Propertius manipulates the “rhetoric of fashion” (physical characteristics, clothing, props). Clothing changes (literally and rhetorically) become an enabling strategy for characters to move between the worlds of aetia and love elegy. Among DeBrohun’s cross-dressers are Hercules (4.9), Vertumnus (4.2), Propertius and his toga (4.1), Arethusa and Lycotas (4.3), Tarpeia (4.4), and Cornelia (4.11). There is a nine page excursus at the end of this chapter on how Propertius engages with Callimachus’ poetry in 4.9, particularly in his discussion of Hercules’ thirst and water imagery. Chapters 3 and 4, in my opinion, are the most stimulating, since they consider the most poems and we can see the effects of DeBrohun’s thesis most broadly tested.

4.6 is the focal point of chapter 5. The Battle of Actium is DeBrohun’s final “third.” DeBrohun proposes that the Battle of Actium acts as a conflict between Propertius’ competing discourses ( amor vs. Roma, of course). Although the shortest chapter of the book, DeBrohun manages to fit in a great deal. She contends for a revaluing in 4.6 of naval language, of the roles of Apollo, Propertius, and Cleopatra, as well as the historical vs. amatory role of the battle itself.

In the conclusion DeBrohun reminds us of her premise, that Propertius did not have to abandon his Callimachean elegy to write aetiological elegy. Rather, elegiac themes are reinscribed and the conflict between amor and Roma never really ends, since neither side ever seems to win.

An epilogue closes the book by claiming that death, a powerful theme in elegy, could be one more “third” to consider. While ending the book on the note of death may be a final witty and appropriate touch, I could not help but wish for a more extensive analysis once DeBrohun had raised the topic. She reminds us of the importance of death in elegy and in aetia, but leaves it at that. There are a few pages on the permeable limen of death in chapter 3.

DeBrohun’s organization and style make the book pleasurable to read. All sections within chapters are clearly indicated. In particularly long or complex sections, she often summarizes her argument before making a new point. While I can see how these summaries may prove tiresome to some, I find them quite useful literary road maps, preparing the reader for what is to come. DeBrohun’s close textual readings are skillfully executed, considering everything from word choice and placement to the justification for which ideas are part of the hexameter line vs. the pentameter. The bibliography and footnotes are extensive and useful for further thought and reading. Since all Greek and Latin passages are translated and, for the most part, the book is free of jargon, this work will be comprehensible to specialists and non-specialists alike. DeBrohun’s work is especially appealing in that it does not read these poems in a vacuum but instead places the poetry in its wider cultural context. Background on the contexts, both literary and cultural, of each of the “thirds” is provided.

In short, this book should be a welcome addition to the shelf of any Propertian scholar but will also be of great appeal to those interested in the intricacies of Latin poetry and in the way poetry engages with cultural discourses.