Hunter Gardner |
The most dominant form of feminine subjectivity in Propertius’s fourth poetry book is one that hovers uncomfortably between life and death. While nearly all the women of book four are presented with some reference to their deaths, Cynthia of 4.7 and Cornelia of 4.11 are the most obvious examples of women who linger on a threshold that separates the living from the dead. By suspending the closure of death owed to these two women, Propertius allows them to dictate terms of their commemoration. While scholars have noted various situational and verbal parallels between poems 7 and 11 (Hallett 1973; Janan 2001), I argue that the most important ground for identification between Cynthia and Cornelia is located in the contrasts they draw between the desires of the amator and Paullus (himself cast as a “lover”) to reconstitute (or re-present) the images of these women after death—whether as shades, dreams, or simulacra—and the reality of their diminished, material remains.
To understand the prescriptions (mandata; cf. Hutchinson 2006) of Cynthia and Cornelia, I consider a literary tradition of attempts to compensate for death through artistic expression. The poet relies on macabre mythological precedents of recreating images of the dead, Admetus’ imagined recreation of Alcestis, in particular, to foreground a paradox in the status of woman as a signifier in elegiac practice: the immortality assigned to her as an art object is dependent on the mortality and decay implied throughout the elegiac corpus, but made explicit in the context of book four’s interest in dead or undead women (Gardner 2013). Both Cornelia and Cynthia implicitly distinguish between their availability for verbal commemoration (4.7.83-6, 4.11.35-6) and possibilities of visual representation, whether as simulacra (4.11.83-4) or imagines (4.7.47-8). Both women, moreover, signal such visual representations in language reminiscent of Admetus’ desire to renew intercourse with Alcestis, in the form of a sculpted image, in Euripides’ play (Alc. 348-54). Cornelia’s prolonged existence as a simulacrum has been recognized by Curran (1968), whose study of the matrona submits her to sobering comparison with restored heroine in the Alcestis (cf. Richardson 2006). Cynthia’s interest in how she will be remembered after death relies on a similar vocabulary of artistic likeness. As a nocturnal shade of her former self, she also evokes the “dreams” (oneirata, Alc. 354; cf. somnia, 4.7.87-8; cf. 4.11.82) and “cold delight” (terpsis psuchra, Alc. 353; cf. Prop. 4.7.6) that will comfort Admetus’ marriage bed. Such moments in 4.7 and 4.11 gesture toward an effort to extend the elegiac beloved’s existence beyond death, and in doing so reflect back critically on the impulse to shape and animate her in life.
Arranging it in counterpoint to expressions of possible transcendence through artistic representation, Cornelia and Cynthia also deploy a language of physical evanescence. A tension emerges from the speaker’s juxtaposition of her rapidly diminishing material remains, articulated through epitaphic references to the remnants of the body after its experience of the pyre (en sum, quod digitis quinque legatur, onus 4.11.14; cf. mea ossa 4.7.54, 80, 94; 4.11.20), with her lover’s attempt to recreate her image. The “sameness” sought ardently by the lover (eosdem...capillos,/eosdem oculos, 4.7.7-8) is denied by the physical transformation instantiated through the beloved’s sepulchral form (Paphanghelis 1987; cf. Dufallo 2006). This pressure placed on the notion of woman as artifact collapses the gap between two female subjects frequently cited as inhabiting disparate ideological spheres (Grimal 1952; Lowrie 2008; cf. Rambaux 2001) and, in doing so, complicates the binary model of feminine subjectivity that characterizes Augustan elegy (Wyke; Gibson). Situating the testimonies of these women in a larger tradition of artistic commemoration allows us to work against the grain of the duly acknowledged processes of creating the beloved de nihilo (Prop. 2.1.16), or “womanufacture,” in elegy (Sharrock; cf. Downing), and offer a more nuanced model of elegiac woman, one whose animation is adamantly dependent on her destruction.