February 14, 2014, by Helen Lovatt

Song for whoever: Propertius and cultural relativism

Do you believe in love? I’m talking romantic love, ‘lurve’, roses, Valentine’s cards, love will make you real, love will make you whole, love will make everything OK, all-you-need-is-love. And why should reading love poetry written by a Roman in the first century BC make any difference? Surely that shows just how universal love is: we all feel the same. Don’t we? Just like Ovid, Tibullus, Petrarch, Ezra Pound?

‘Cynthia first captured me with her eyes’: love at first sight. ‘Cynthia was the first, Cynthia will be the last’: eternal love. ‘Great love can cross even the shores of fate’: love beyond death. Propertius is ‘sincere’; Propertius is ‘passionate’; Propertius is ‘real’. Especially in a friendly and familiarising translation, such as that by Guy Lee, Propertius feels like one of us.

But what reading Propertius brings home to me, more each time I read and teach it, is the way that romantic love is culturally constructed. We talk about love in the ways we have learnt from those around us, from books, films, poetry, parents, friends. We think about it, we feel it in the ways we have learnt. ‘There is only one person for me.’ ‘He’s not the one.’ ‘I will love her for ever.’

When we look in greater depth at Propertius we see a number of things: that the object of his desire is shadowy, unformed. That the same situations and ideas arise as in Tibullus and Ovid. Ovid more or less comes clean that he’s made up the girl for the sake of the poetry. It’s not real, it’s realistic.

How do we feel about the imagery of slavery? Slaves are tortured to make their evidence stand up in court. Propertius is tortured by love: ‘bravely I will suffer knife and cautery, given liberty to speak as anger bids’. But this torture only functions to validate his poetic speech.

What if the beloved is a courtesan? Propertius bewails the fact that he doesn’t have enough money to keep her happy. The term courtesan softens the fact that she expects gifts in return for sex. That’s prostitution.

Cynthia doesn’t knit Propertius woolly hats. She doesn’t turn up at the station in the middle of the night to pick him up. She doesn’t cook him dinner. For me, romantic love is a destructive illusion that stands between us and the reality of love: caring for people. So don’t feel sad if life doesn’t throw you perpetual passion in the manner of Propertius. Recognise the realities and appreciate them. Use your energy this Valentines to do something for someone you care about.

Meanwhile, enjoy this tongue-in-cheek song from Beautiful South about ‘written women’:

Picture credit: Interior from an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 490. From Vulci. British Museum. From Wikimedia commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reveller_courtesan_BM_E44.jpg

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