Sextus Propertius was a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age. He was born around 50–45 BC in Assisium and died shortly after 15 BC.
Propertius' surviving work comprises four books of Elegies. He was friends with the poets Gallus and Virgil, and with them had as his patron Maecenas, and through Maecenas the emperor Augustus.
Propertius' fame rests on his four books of elegies, totaling around 92 poems (the exact number cannot be known as over the intervening years, scholars have divided and regrouped the poems creating doubt as to the precise number). All his poems are written using the elegiac couplet, a form in vogue among the Roman social set during the late 1st century BC.
Like nearly all the elegists, Propertius' work is dominated by the figure of a single woman, one he refers to throughout his poetry by the pseudonym Cynthia. She is named in over half the elegies of the first book and appears indirectly in several others.
It is difficult to precisely date many of Propertius' poems, but they chronicle the kind of declarations, passions, jealousies, quarrels, and lamentations that were commonplace subjects among the Latin elegists. The last two poems in book III seem to indicate a final break with her: "It is a shame that my verses have made you famous", and Cynthia died some time before the publication of the final book IV. In this last book Cynthia is the subject of only two poems, best regarded as a postscript. The bi-polar complexity of the relationship is amply demonstrated in a poignant (if amusing) poem from the final book IV. Cynthia's ghost addresses Propertius from beyond the grave with criticism (among other things) that her funeral was not lavish enough, yet the longing of the poet remains.
Book IV strongly indicates Propertius was planning a new direction for his poetry. The book includes several aetiological poems which, in reviewing the mythological origins of Rome and its landmarks, can also be read as critical—even vaguely subversive—of Augustus and his agenda for the new Rome. The position is currently a subject of debate among modern classics scholars. The final poem is a touching address by the recently deceased Cornelia consoling her husband Paullus and their three children. Although the poem (given Cornelia's connection to Augustus' family) was most likely an imperial commission, its dignity, nobility, and pathos have led critics to call it the "queen of the elegies", and it is commonly considered the best in the collection.
Propertius' style is marked by seemingly abrupt transitions (in the manner of Latin neoteric poetry) and a high and imaginative allusion, often to the more obscure passages of Greek and Roman myth and legend. His idiosyncratic use of language, together with the corrupted state of the text, have made his elegies a challenge to edit; among the more famous names who have offered criticism of and emendations to the text have been the classicist John Percival Postgate and the English poet A. E. Housman.
In the 20th century Ezra Pound's poem "Homage to Sextus Propertius" cast Propertius as something of a satirist and political dissident, and his interpretation of the elegies presented them as ancient examples of Pound's own Imagist theory of art. Pound identified in Propertius an example of what he called (in "How to Read") "logopoeia": "the dance of the intellect among words." Gilbert Highet, in Poets in a Landscape, attributed this to Propertius' use of mythic allusions and circumlocution, which Pound mimics to more comic effect in his Homage. The imagist interpretation, the poet's tendency to sustain an interior monologue, and the deeply personal nature of his poetry have made Propertius a favorite in the modern age. Two modern English translations of his work have appeared since 2000, and the playwright Tom Stoppard in his masterwork The Invention of Love suggests the poet was responsible for much of what the West regards today as "romantic love".