Propertius and his poetry

“One often cannot – and should not – make a distinction between Propertius’s descriptions of his life and his poetry.”

 – Commager

I’m not sure how much I agree with this, to be honest. Due to the number of programmatic references in his poems, it is clear that to some extent he does treat the events he relates to the audience (for example, Cynthia scratching (notet) him with her fingernails is a programmatic reference as “notet” can mean “marking”) as having a large poetic element, but I’m not so sure that he wrote from life. He certainly gives the impression of this due to the free use of pronouns and quite often the first person voice, to give his poems greater immediacy, but at least when it comes to his poems about Cynthia we have maybe one other piece of evidence that she ever existed (the Apologia of Apuleius). If Cynthia were aristocratic, we would certainly expect to have more information about her – and besides, her pseudonym is taken from an epithet of Apollo (Cynthios), indicating that Propertius intends to write a literary lover. Moreover, poets making up events that they were supposed to have experienced is not unprecedented; there are no records indicating that Ovid’s mistress Corinna ever existed, and more importantly, no records outside of Ovid’s poetry show that he was ever exiled. It is certainly possible that he made the whole thing up – and perhaps that Propertius did too. (He is also famously ambiguous.)


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