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Propertius 4.7: Cynthia Re-Reads the Elegiac Affair

Jessica Wise

In elegy 4.7, the dead Cynthia triumphantly returns to Propertius’ poetry, confronting the poet-lover in an extensive speech that provocatively undermines his romanticized account, in Books 1-3, of their relationship.  She focuses on such unglamorous elements as nightly meetings in the Subura, sex in the crossroads, the devastating economic effects of his neglect, and the brutal punishment of slaves.  Cynthia’s speech occurs in the context of poems 4.5 and 4.8, which likewise recast the elegiac love affair as containing many tawdry elements.  In 4.5 the lena Acanthis showcases its mercenary basis; poem 4.8 dramatizes an abrasive picture of elegiac love. In 4.7, Cynthia’s speech re-writes the elegiac love affair and directs readers to re-read Books 1-3 with a different perspective.

Throughout Propertius’ first three books, the poet-lover is the predominant speaker.  Thus readers are led to consider his account authoritative.  Even the rare dissenting female voice is focalized through the male perspective (1.3, 2.29).  The lover repeatedly asserts his fidelity to the puella, curses her infidelity, rejoices in their union, and complains about her absence, while the feminine perspective is obscured by his viewpoint.  But in Book Four, Acanthis and Cynthialike Herrmann’s voleuses de langue—steal the voice of the male speaker, subvert his linguistic power, and forcefully disrupt elegy with their independent female voices.  Acanthis combats the lover’s first-person narrative by offering the puella advice that counteracts his seductive arguments (James; Janan; Wyke).  Cynthia’s direct address goes further by revealing sordid details of the affair and by accusing the lover of infidelity.

Scholars have acknowledged in Cynthia’s speech the dramatic and powerful presence of a distinct female voice, as well as Cynthia’s effective use of that voice to challenge her lover. Wyke, Janan, Ramsby, Flaschenriem, and others consider the female voice in 4.7 within the larger context of Book 4 as a poetic device that simultaneously exposes and expands the elegiac world with new perspectives. Wyke and Janan argue that Cynthia’s speech “ambushes” the elegy-reading audience by uncomfortably exposing a marginalized world as the background of the affair: as a prostitute dependent upon lovers for her living, Cynthia cannot rely upon the luxury of verse.

I too contend that Cynthia’s speech should not be considered in isolation.  It demonstrates the puella’s assertive and spirited realization of the endeavor set out by the lena: to do battle, in speech, with the authority of the male poet-lover. Cynthia steals the elegiac medium from him and recasts the relationship from her own perspective. In her curses, laments, and assertions of virtue (perfide 4.7.13; me servasse fidem 53), she issues a standard elegiac querela, worthy of the poet-lover.  She describes her funeral in terms reminiscent of his fantasies in 2.13 and 3.6.  She composes her own epitaph—similar to his (2.13), but now independent of his verse—and thereby revokes his license to speak for her.  By taking command of elegy, she forcefully inserts a feminine voice into the narrative.  Her perspective as a neglected, dependent meretrix subverts the dominance of the lover’s view and disrupts his linear narrative plot.  After reading Cynthia in poem 4.7, readers should re-read and re-evaluate Books 1 to 3.  For example, Cynthia’s speeches in 1.3, 2.15, and 2.29—rather than being the claims of a fickle girlfriend—may represent cleverly crafted arguments aimed to both allure and destabilize the poet-lover. Reconsideration of enticing statements such as sicine iaces, lente? (2.15.8) reveals Cynthia’s explicit knowledge of what a man wants to hear.

Effectively, Cynthia rewrites the love affair entirely.  With their autonomous speech, she and Acanthis demonstrate that the elegiac relationship—the central subject of Propertian elegy—is not the glamorous love affair that the poet-lover represents.  Rather, it is a battle between lovers that is manifested in a war of words in which Cynthia (following Acanthis in 4.5) shows herself to be a formidable rhetorical opponent of the poet-lover. 

Session/Panel Title

The Feminine in Propertius Book 4: New Assessments

Session/Paper Number

73.1

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