What is a Propertian poem?

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With the publication of Heyworth's new OCT, the long-standing debates about the nature of the Propertian text have been renewed. I seek to interrogate the logic and assumptions under which this debate proceeds. My argument is that every time a judgment is made about where a poem begins or ends or whether one textual variant is to be preferred to another, "literary aspects of interpretation" (Heyworth) are unavoidable. The task of determining the text, I contend, is always interpretive and always involves judgments about what the nature of a Propertian poem should be. I illustrate my position by examining both the explicit statements of recent editors and critics and the assumptions behind their editorial decisions, with special reference to the opening of Propertius 4.4. I demonstrate four things. First, that the ancient evidence Butrica, Hubbard, Heyworth, and others cite as a warrant for the production of large-scale conjectures and transpositions is, in fact, thin on the ground, subject to more than one interpretation, and not able in and of itself to authorize specific textual corrections. Second, concepts like "elegance," "polish," and "nature," without detailed and specific aesthetic argumentation, are far from self-evident or universally agreed upon and cannot in themselves be appealed to as the basis for one correction or another. Third, what lies behind the textual choices we make are specific assumptions about the nature of Propertian poetry and about poetry in general. More fundamentally, what lies behind the textual choices we make, and that goes for everyone from the most radical editor to the most conservative, are specific assumptions about what the ontology of a poetic text is and how we conceive of its relation, or lack thereof, to the authorial subject. So long as we fail to be explicit about those assumptions, our arguments will ultimately be appeals to "common sense" and "intuition" and will not be capable of rational resolution. Fourth, there is nothing impossible or irrational about reading the vulgate in poems such as 4.4, and it requires you to make very few extra-textual assumptions. In the end, I argue, we are not faced with a choice between a self-transparent, centered, rational intending subject and an arbitrary or unreadable text. This is a false dilemma dictated by an assumed and, I would contend, indefensible humanist ontology. Indeed, the assumption of the first is a separate, often unargued and hence ideological postulate upon which the status of the second need in no way depend.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)329-352
Number of pages24
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2011


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