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Ghostwriting elegy in Propertius 4.7

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-18, 21:00 authored by Jonathan WallisJonathan Wallis
Propertian elegy is not an obstinately male genre. It is engendered as masculine in its discursive mastery over the female object of its erotics and poetics, but engenders itself as effeminate in its association with softness, submissiveness, and impotence, and as feminine especially in its self-critique and its interrogation of Roman gender and sexuality.

M. Wyke, The Roman Mistress (Oxford, 2002), 189

As W.R. Johnson puts it neatly, Cynthia ‘is not even supposed to be in this volume’. Yet Cynthia’s startling return to Propertian verse in 4.7 - after being tossed out of elegy at the end of Book 3 - is staged brilliantly. Cynthia comes back to life (for it seems she has died) in a manner that is just as disturbing for the reader as it is for Propertius himself. The mistress’ ghost appears unbidden at the poet’s bedside, scorched and scarred by the funeral pyre, her bones rattling and her voice crackling with rage. Cynthia rebukes Propertius for the shoddy funeral he gave her; but she seems especially galvanized to give her own radical version of the life they spent together in a way that threatens to upend the truths that readers have accepted from Propertius himself. If Cynthia’s sudden reappearance is shocking, what she has to say is more shocking still. We are invited to rethink elegy from the very beginning.

Critical opinion has long wrestled with what to make of Cynthia’s ghost. In an era influenced by biographical criticism, readers were perturbed by an ambiguous tone in the poem (does it intend a serious lament? or is it an inappropriate satire, offered in what must be bad taste?); concern was also expressed at the poem’s position, for not only does Cynthia turn up dead in 4.7 after being dismissed in 3.24, she also appears very much full of life in the next poem, 4.8. Focus shifted subsequently to Propertius’ deft artistry in characterizing his mistress’ ghostly visitation, and, in particular, to the elegist’s complex cross-genre interaction with comedy and mime, epigram and epic as a means of enriching Cynthia’s character, and so the character of the poetry narrating her. The most recent shift has been to examine Cynthia as a speaking character in her own right, who, along with other female narrators of Book 4, seeks to expose ‘the discursive mastery’ (in Maria Wyke’s apt phrase from the opening epigraph) that elegy’s male narrator has exerted over female representation in elegy, even as he continues to do so.

In the present article, Cynthia’s penultimate poem benefits from bringing together these disparate perspectives into a coherent interpretation. Moreover, I argue for a new way of reading the significance of Cynthia’s final speech that seeks to reconcile the infamous contradictions present not only in the poem but also in its characterisation in Propertian scholarship. For instance, a prominent concern of most recent analysis has been the way in which a narrating Cynthia offers a radically different version of the affair from the one that Propertius has offered. In Micaela Janan’s reading, in particular, when Cynthia narrates her own story she seeks to evade the (masculine) systems through which her male poet, and Roman society more broadly, seek to categorize women and to confer meaning upon female behaviour. In the following discussion I combine this approach to Cynthia as an autonomous speaker with a reading that acknowledges the paradoxical similarity to Propertius’ own discourse that Cynthia’s speech also displays. Here I propose that Cynthia’s exemplary elegiac performance in 4.7 - coming (nearly) at the end of Propertian elegy, and offering a sweeping reorganisation of the existing poetry, right back to the beginning - presents itself provocatively as the model after which Propertian elegy has itself been shaped. Cynthia’s acute awareness of her vulnerability to others’ representational control, and her concern to destabilise the cultural apparatus that has determined her biography, offer retrospective commentary on the origins of Propertius’ own emasculated persona and the broader critique his poetry offers of Roman authority and ideology (in Wyke’s terms, elegy’s ‘effeminate’ and ‘feminine’ character, respectively).

In her closing remarks, Cynthia certainly mounts a vehement attack on elegiac verities. But she also significantly furthers the way in which Book 4 as a whole develops and reflects upon elegy’s existing complexities. In the end—for all that she supposedly should not be in Book 4 - Cynthia’s belated presence helps to make sense of a collection that, in its first six poems, never quite manages the clean break from Propertius’ erotic past that he had promised it would.


Publication title

The Classical Quarterly








School of Humanities


Oxford University Press

Place of publication

United Kingdom

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© The Classical Association 2016

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