BMCR 2019.07.65

Le tombeau de Cynthia : mythes, fictions et ironie dans le livre IV des “Élégies” de Properce. Collection d’études anciennes. Série latine 81

, Le tombeau de Cynthia : mythes, fictions et ironie dans le livre IV des "Élégies" de Properce. Collection d'études anciennes. Série latine 81. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2017. 357. ISBN 9782251447421. €55,00.

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Propertius’ fourth book attracts scholars because as the last of a work titled Elegies it does not fit with our conception of Augustan love poetry. Had it stood alone and been titled Epigrams, very likely it would not be so popular in scholarly research. Matthieu Gazeau’s study shows that the last book of Propertius’ Elegies does in fact contain elegies and claims the poet’s fidelity to the genre (11), especially by the presence of Cynthia’s ‘tomb’ in its – slightly displaced – center (4.7). Gazeau explains that book 4 not only has internal cohesion (a fact often disputed) but is also consistent with the rest of the poet’s work, since it stages the poet’s conscience resisting any form of enlistment, be it the pressure to write epic or to sing the new Augustan era.

The book is organised in three parts and divided into nine chapters. Gazeau first aims to explain the “poetics of irony” in Propertius. Chapter 1 proposes a review of the different approaches used by scholars to explain the construction of book 4, and Chapter 2 uses the polymorphic god Vertumnus (present in 4.2) as a representation of the concomitant possible readings of fiction in order to explain that the many characters speaking in book 4 cannot – and should not be expected – to express a unequivocal thought. Chapter 3 explains Propertius’ interpretation of History leading to a recusatio of epic poetry. The poet, Gazeau argues, questions the interpretation of myths legitimized by historiography and epic poetry, and proposes an elegiac reading of Rome’s past.

Once the workings of irony in Propertius have been set, Gazeau elaborates on the “poetics of recusatio ”, first by examining the elements of Callimachean emulation in Propertius, not only because the Response to the Telchines is the reference for all poetic recusationes, but also because of the correspondance of themes in the epigrammatic genre and Propertius’ fourth book. Gazeau argues that Propertius explores the generic delimitations to turn a genus tenuis into the conqueror of epic poetry and the elegiac poet into an epic hero (Chapter 4): the recusatio of epic poetry is a feast worthy of an epic hero (150). From Propertius’ inspiration and models, Gazeau then judiciously turns to the way that our reading of Propertius has long been skewed by the prism of Ovid’s work and fate (Chapter 5). He warns that Propertius’ refusal of the “poetical career” (160) should not be read through a historical lens of elegiac poets turning their back to the high road of epic and nationalist poetry in order to sing personal and intimate battles. This linear perspective was used by Ovid as a judicial argument to plea for his return to Rome, in order to show that he had merely followed his predecessors in the genre. Propertius’s stance is rather a moral battle against the hierarchy of genres (162-171). After showing Propertius’ position in epigrammatic and elegiac poetry, Gazeau explores how, by inviting concurring readings of his poems, the poet opens a dialogue with Horace’s conception of the purpose of poetry and refuses the social role attributed to the poet/ uates of fulfilling a social function called for by the times and the collectivity (202) : under the patriotic and etiologic overtones of the fourth book, Propertius’ elegies remain committed to their original vocation to sing Cynthia, and her immortalisation in this ‘mausoleum’ – that is book 4 – is the ultimate recusatio of the poetical career (211).

The third section explores the “poetics of subjectivity” and Propertius’ ambition to turn elegy into an all-encompassing genre (the French phrase “genre total” [224] smacks of Richard Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk), including and surpassing epigram, comedy, epic and lyric poetry. The subordination of Apollo to Bacchus and of power/Augustus to poetry was already explored at the end of the second section (184-193). Here, Gazeau claims that the originality of elegiac love resides in its relations with situations characteristic of New Roman comedy and its capacity to redefine heroic stature. In this perspective, Gazeau claims that book 4 is a comic staging of the relationship of the poet to power, where Augustus is the senex -obstacle between the poet- iuuenis and Cynthia (220-231). But more than a mute lover, like the puella of comedy, Cynthia is an elegiac hero worthy to stand beside Augustus at the center of the book (4.6 and 4.7). This construction creates an ironic reading of the depiction of Actium on Aeneas’ shield in Virgil, where Apollo is located at the center, while Propertius puts him at the center beside Cynthia (259-271). With such a heroisation of the puella, Propertius in fact lauds the power of poetry. The last chapter of the book insists on the poet’s fides to his genre, in an echo of elegiac fides to his love.

The book aims to revisit the intellectual deadlock created by the reading of certain elegies in book 4 as “ironic”, in order to explain the apparent variations in tone and topics (47). Gazeau explains that “despite a new importance attributed to irony, it operates, in Paul Veyne and Boucher like a deus ex machina or a ‘clandestine passenger’ of the demonstration” (53 my translation, my underscore). The adjective ‘new’ to qualify studies respectively almost forty- and over fifty-year old (P. Veyne, L’élégie érotique romaine. Paris: Seuil, 1983 and J.-P. Boucher, Études sur Properce. Paris: De Boccard, 1965) leaves the reader perplexed. Of course these studies are fundamental, and Veyne’s has enjoyed a widespread and lasting influence, but, while it may be slightly unfair to blame a thesis defended in 2008 for being content to update the bibliography without making good use of the studies published since the defense, the argumentation does tend to build from these older studies and to ignore more recent works from non-French scholars. They appear in the bibliography but are scantily referenced in the pages. This is especially true of T. S. Welch’s Tarpeia: Workings of a Roman Myth (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), not once cited in the substantial section opening the third chapter “L’ironie de l’Histoire: le paradoxe de Tarpeia” (79-89), but mostly of J. Debrohun’s Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003, reviewed by Stacie Raucci in BMCR 2004.02.31), cited a mere three times (including once only to allude to its title, 77). I quote from Raucci’s review that DeBrohun “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 (…) 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.”

It is obvious that a conversation between her analyses and Gazeau’s would have added depth to the discussion on the roles of Apollo and Cleopatra at Actium or on the symbolism of the door in elegiac poetry. She is cited only twice in the section on the exclusus amator and no mention is made of her reading of the limen as a symbol of the poet-lover, while Gazeau himself terms the motif of the exclusus amator a “metonymy for elegy” (234) and devotes a few pages to the numerous portae in book 4 (234-246). Propertius’ staging of the battle of Actium, which she treats at length, also leaves DeBrohun exclusa, while a study by R. Pichon in Mélanges Boissier, Paris: Fontemoing 1903 is cited three times.

All in all, this is a good study. It shines a literary light on the poet’s aim and composition, and it adds interesting analyses to previous scholarship on Propertius. However, in this reviewer’s mind, the absence of ideas presented in more recent scholarly works to the profit of frequently cited older French works is detrimental and represents a certain trend of conservatism.