BMCR 2023.08.19

Golden Cynthia: essays on Propertius

, Golden Cynthia: essays on Propertius. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2022. Pp. 222. ISBN 9780472133246.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This collection of essays, a welcome addition to Propertian studies, is a memorial volume honoring the late Barbara Flaschenriem, whose significant contributions as a scholar, a dedicated and much-admired teacher, and a deeply respected colleague and friend are described in a Foreword by her longtime colleague at Grand Valley State University, Diane Rayor.

In the Introduction, editor Sharon James thoughtfully describes Golden Cynthia’s origin as a joint effort by Rayor, Ellen Bauerle of The University of Michigan Press, and herself to bring to publication the two completed chapters of Flaschenriem’s unfinished monograph on dream and ekphrasis in Roman elegy, supplemented with five essays by specialists on Propertius and elegy who were also longtime friends and admirers of Flaschenriem’s work. James also provides a concise description of each of the volume’s contributions.

The book showcases the two chapters by Flaschenriem as its opening essays. In Chapter 1, Flaschenriem provides original insights into the much-studied 1.3 as well as 2.29a and 2.29b. In 1.3, the poet-lover, in dream-like inebriation, attempts in the opening similes to exert control over his sleeping beloved by describing her in vividly pictorial terms; however, the seeming “fixity” of ekphrasis is suggestive also of narrative, Flaschenriem argues, as the poet-lover simultaneously creates an imaginative role for himself in the scenarios he envisions. As the poem progresses, the poet-lover’s role shifts from that of desirous viewer to creative interpreter of his beloved’s sighs and movements, both projecting onto her his own desires and fears and attributing to her a subjectivity that is frustratingly inaccessible to him. As Flaschenriem insightfully notices, the poet-lover’s extended apostrophe to Cynthia in lines 21–30 “begs for a response” (21), which the awakened Cynthia supplies in her angry complaint. Here, Cynthia employs her own vivid imagery as she “echoes terms and expressions that the narrator himself had used earlier in the poem” (22) while describing a very different scenario, in which she as the faithful partner has been repeatedly abandoned by the philandering poet-lover. Flaschenriem then complicates her linear reading of the poem’s progression with the reminder that, because the poem’s events are related retrospectively: “One might say that, when he puts his version of this encounter into language, the narrator echoes—and responds to—the words that Cynthia previously uttered in her complaint.” (23) This “give-and-take” between different perspectives contributes to the poem’s vitality.

In 2.29a, Flaschenriem shows, the “inebriated” poet-lover employs painterly imagery to comic effect, vividly conjuring a mob of nude yet appropriately-armed (with torches, arrows, and bonds) erotes who rebuke him for his philandering and escort him home. Poem 2.29b, like 1.3, focuses first on the poet-lover’s fascination with the form of his sleeping beloved. Then, in an “ekphrastic turn” (30), the speaker imaginatively inserts himself into a narrative with his beloved, recollective of an earlier moment in their love affair. As in 1.3, the dreamlike fantasy is interrupted by the awakened Cynthia’s angry speech. Although in 2.29b, differently than in 1.3, the poem concludes with the beloved’s departure and the poet-lover’s seeming acceptance of his banishment as permanent, Flaschenriem astutely points out that this “note of finality” is “deceptive” (34), as his impasse in fact provides him a motive for further speech.

Flaschenriem’s second essay explores the relationship of dream, ekphrasis, and poetic self-definition in the extensive dream encounters of 3.3 and 4.7. In her reading of 3.3’s recusatio reasserting Propertius’s role as love elegist, not heroic epicist, Flaschenriem examines how Propertius “turns dream and programmatic statement into ekphrasis.” (45) Dream-specific elements highlighted by Flaschenriem include the near conflation (likened to Freudian condensation) of Mt. Helicon and Mt. Parnassus as the dream’s location (41–42) and the “dreamlike collapse of time” as the poet-lover travels into both past and future in his encounter with Apollo (46). Propertius’ programmatic topography simultaneously includes prominent literary metaphors and evokes elements from Roman garden landscapes. The figure of Calliope draws together several of the poem’s aspects. On the poet-lover’s recognition of her “from her appearance” (a facie, 3.3.38), Flaschenreim remarks (49): “Here again, in this dreamlike flash of apprehension, the realm of the somnium fuses with the spheres of literature and art.” Propertius immediately “knows” Calliope, as often happens in dreams, but he also knows her because he has seen her image in painting and sculpture. Calliope’s interaction with the poet-lover is more intimate than Apollo’s: she both speaks to and touches him, including, at the end, with the inspirational water he needs to resume his elegies.

Flaschenriem recognizes in 4.7 a progression like that in 1.3 and 2.29b, in which an initial vivid description of the beloved abruptly segues into a direct speech offering her different perspective on the poem’s situation. 4.7’s poet-lover is full dreamer rather than inebriant, and Cynthia as revenant takes over the poem’s discourse early and keeps control, imaginatively inserting herself into a variety of scenarios in her determination to secure a literary and artistic memorial that contrasts not only with the poet-lover’s nightmarish depiction of her at the start of 4.7 but also with aspects of her representation in Books 1-3. She exposes the fictional nature of the relationship portrayed in the earlier books by describing instead mime-like escapades (55), then “immortalizes” her own fidelity by placing herself in an epic-tragic underworld among faithful wives such as Andromeda and Hypermestra (60–63). Angry over the destruction of her golden image by a rival, she insists that the poet also destroy his poems about her and establish instead a gravesite and epitaph whose literary, artistic, and topographic features meet her specifications (66). The poet-lover’s wish-fulfillment plays a role in 4.7, too, especially in Cynthia’s final assurance, recollective of the poet-lover’s expressed desires in the earlier books, that the lovers will be reunited after his death.

The essays of Andrew Feldherr and Lowell Bowditch are closest to Flaschenriem’s in their engagement with both literary and painterly elements of Propertius’s elegies. Feldherr’s focus is 2.12, Propertius’s most direct juxtaposition of painting and poetry: the elegy opens with the poet-lover’s expressed wonder at the skill of the artist who first painted love as a boy and closes with a description of the puella as “poetry in motion” (ut soleant molliter ire pedes, 2.12.24). Like Flaschenriem, Feldherr demonstrates that Propertius complicates any simple notion of painted images as static artifacts in contrast to poetry’s ability to represent figures in motion and narrate their stories. He convincingly argues (79–80; 84) that 2.12’s careful structure and the “graphic likenesses” of the words (especially puer at the start and puella at the end) contribute to its status as a verbal icon. He further suggests that by incorporating multiple layers of representation into the poem, including presenting amor as both painted image and real experience, and by making both painter and poet-lover not only figures within the poem but also models for the audience, Propertius’s poet surpasses the painter in his ability to depict amor (88): “This reproduction of experience excels thanks to his ability to interweave directly the subjective reception of the work of art within the work itself.”

For Bowditch, the painterly element is cartography; she argues that Propertius’s use of geographic imagery to describe Cynthia and her movements can be seen to reflect aspects of Rome’s imperial ambitions. Poem 2.3 offers especially striking examples of such “mapping.” When, for instance, in line 11 the poet-lover says of Cynthia’s complexion that it is “as if Maeotic snow were vying with Spanish cinnabar” (ut Maeotica nix minio si certet Hibero; my translation), these toponymic expressions for “whiteness” and “redness,” Bowditch convincingly argues, hold political resonance, suggestively pointing toward the empire’s northeastern and western boundaries (127). Cynthia in 2.3 also reflects Rome’s cultural rivalry with Greece: literature, painting and global imperialism all play a role when her beauty is compared to Helen’s, and the painter who makes the domina his model is assured that he will surpass all ancient painters, “whether he displays her in the West or the East” (sive illam Hesperiis, sive illam ostendet Eois, 2.3.43). Bowditch also offers as examples 1.8a–b, in which the poet-lover maps Cynthia’s proposed journey to Illyria “as though charting or surveying the imperial distance of her voyage” (129), and 1.11–1.12, Cynthia’s trip to Baiae, a site closely associated with Roman Hellenized culture.

Ellen Greene examines the poet-lover’s exertion of power over his beloved as materia in 2.1, then turns to 2.15 to consider the ways the poet-lover uses elegiac violence to explore alternatives both to traditional Roman notions of masculinity and to epic definitions of heroism. Greene’s concern to show that the poet-lover exerts control over his puella by equating her with a “literary artifact” (101) or “art object” (102) even as he imagines her as an active presence resonates with both Feldherr’s and Flaschenriem’s chapters. She provides a different perspective on others’ painterly readings of Cynthia’s figure and attributes by emphasizing the transparent qualities of the puella’s Coan dress, and her nudity, as linked with the “blankness of text” (103) and her role as the elegist’s materia. While this concentration on the puella as blank text is forcefully argued, the inclusion of candida in the nexus, especially translated as “pale” (108), is unconvincing. Especially good is Greene’s delineation of the difficulties of interpreting tidily why the speaker in 2.15 emphasizes so strongly the violent aspects of amor when his aim is to promote elegy’s different version of masculinity over those of epic and of Rome.

Alison Keith looks closely at Propertius’ engagement with Vergil’s Aeneid in 4.1. From the start, Propertius makes the Aeneid his primary model as he sets out the program for his final collection; specifically, Aeneas’s tour of Evander’s Pallanteum in Book 8 informs the Propertian speaker’s offer to his guest (hospes, 4.1.1) of a tour of Rome emphasizing its growth from humble beginnings to an imperial capital. As Keith’s nuanced close reading demonstrates, Propertius engages in 4.1 not only with the Aeneid’s later books but also with the Trojan themes of Books 1–6 (and with Vergil’s earlier works), even as he insists on his role as the “Roman Callimachus” and names Ennius as his epic foil. Keith also shows that Vergil remains a model in the second half of 4.1, where the speeches of Horos and Apollo rein in the epic-sized aspirations of the elegist whose appropriate theme is love. She sums up her chapter well (155–56): “Thus, both Propertius’s newly grand, and newly aggrandizing, poetic designs, laid out in the first half of the elegy (4.1.1–70), and Horos’s redirection of them into more conventional elegiac channels, set out in the second half of the elegy (4.1.71–150), draw on Vergil’s epic masterpiece to adumbrate the program of the fourth book.”

Sharon James’s essay, which emphasizes the importance of rereading, is aptly placed as the book’s final chapter. James aims to show that Propertius offers implicit instructions, especially in his opening poems, on how readers should approach his elegies. Taking her start from Peter Rabinowitz’s work on different types of audiences for prose fiction (I refer readers to the five articles listed in James’s bibliography), James describes the qualities of what she calls the “attentive reader” (first used on 164). Two traits emerge as the most significant. First, such a reader comes to recognize that the words and perspective of the poet-lover, precisely because he is a lover and thus emotionally involved in what he relates, cannot be trusted. Second, attentive readers soon learn the importance of intratextuality: because the poet-lover undercuts or revises himself regularly, often using the same words, readers must constantly return to earlier poems, especially, James argues, those at the start of the Monobiblos. James guides her reader through specific moments in 1.1–3 where the Propertian reader is encouraged to reconsider what the poet-lover is saying, and she looks briefly at the final poems of Book 3, which forcefully compel the reader to return to 1.1–3.

Readers of Propertius and of Roman elegy will learn much from the rich essays in this volume, both those by Flaschenriem and those in her honor.


Authors and Titles

Diane Rayor, Foreword

Sharon L. James, Introduction

  1. Barbara Flaschenriem, “The Beloved as Dreamer and Objet d’Art: Propertius 1.3, 2.29a and 2.29b”
  2. Barbara Flaschenriem, “Scenes of Instruction: Propertius 3.3 and 4.7”
  3. Andrew Feldherr, “Moving Parts: The New Form(alism) of Prop. 2.12”
  4. Ellen Greene, “Sex and Violence in Propertius”
  5. Lowell Bowditch, “Roman Cultural Imperialism and Cynthia’s Imperium Sine Fine
  6. Alison Keith, “Vergilian Loci in Propertius Book 4”

Sharon L. James, “Blandi praecepta Properti: What Propertius Teaches”