Elegies, Book 1.2

The beauty of simplicity

by Propertius

This poem doesn’t mention Cynthia, the object of the suffering and frustration that Propertius bemoans in the first piece in this book, by name, but the musical accomplishments referred to at the end mean that it is probably her: in contrast with the previous poem, the narrator is now sounding very much like an accepted lover. Whether Cynthia was a real person, or one that Propertius created as part of a literary back-story for his poetry, we can’t be sure. The theme – the superiority of simple, natural beauty to artifice and ornament – appears in poetry contemporary with Propertius and was probably an established one.

Making and recognising mythological references of the kind he uses here and elsewhere would be a sign of taste and elegance in Propertius and his audience: building up evidence to support the proposition you were making by quoting several relevant examples is characteristic both of Roman rhetoric and poetry. Leucippus was a legendary king and Castor and Pollux were Helen of Troy’s divine brothers. Evenus fell into a river, later named after him, while pursuing Idas who had abducted his daughter, in whom Apollo was also interested. Hippodamia was a princess whom the hero Pelops won by cheating her father in a chariot race, which explains the reference to wheels. Apelles, a real person, was one of the most famous painters of classical antiquity.

See the blog post with Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus here.

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Quid iuvat ornato procedere, vita, capillo
et tenuis Coa veste movere sinus,
aut quid Orontea crinis perfundere murra,
teque peregrinis vendere muneribus,
naturaeque decus mercato perdere cultu,
nec sinere in propriis membra nitere bonis?
crede mihi, non ulla tuae est medicina figurae:
nudus Amor formae non amat artificem.
aspice quos summittat humus formosa colores,
ut veniant hederae sponte sua melius,
surgat et in solis formosius arbutus antris,
et sciat indocilis currere lympha vias.
litora nativis persuadent picta lapillis,
et volucres nulla dulcius arte canunt.
non sic Leucippis succendit Castora Phoebe,
Pollucem cultu non Hilaira soror;
non, Idae et cupido quondam discordia Phoebo,
Eveni patriis filia litoribus;
nec Phrygium falso traxit candore maritum
avecta externis Hippodamia rotis:
sed facies aderat nullis obnoxia gemmis,
qualis Apelleis est color in tabulis.
non illis studium vulgo conquirere amantis:
illis ampla satis forma pudicitia.
non ego nunc vereor ne sim tibi vilior istis:
uni si qua placet, culta puella sat est;
cum tibi praesertim Phoebus sua carmina donet
Aoniamque libens Calliopea lyram,
unica nec desit iucundis gratia verbis,
omnia quaeque Venus, quaeque Minerva probat.
his tu semper eris nostrae gratissima vitae,
taedia dum miserae sint tibi luxuriae.

What good does it do, my darling, to go about with your hair elaborately done, or float a gown of gossamer silk from Cos around you? Why anoint your locks with Syrian myrrh, flaunt yourself with foreign fripperies, and give up the loveliness of nature for treatments from shops instead of allowing your form to shine out through its own true qualities? Believe me, your figure needs no help from cosmetics: Cupid goes naked, and prefers beauty without artificial enhancements. Look at the colours that the lovely earth produces, and how ivies flourish of their own accord, how arbutus grows more beautifully in unfrequented groves. The waters know where to flow without being told, seashores look most impressive among their own natural mosaics, and it isn’t technique that makes birds sing more sweetly. It wasn’t those artificial methods that Leucippus’s girl Phoebe used to light a flame in Castor, and her sister Hilaira one in Pollux, nor Evenus’s daughter, once the cause of conflict between Idas and passionate Apollo on her father’s banks, nor was it false beauty by which Hippodamia got her Phrygian husband when carried off on his foreign wheels; she had a face that owed nothing to gems with the kind of colours you find in Apelles’s paintings. It was not those women’s way to hunt lovers by such vulgar means: their modesty was more than enough beauty for them. Nor am I afraid that I will seem worth less to you than those lovers did to them: if a girl pleases one man, then she is cultivated enough, especially when Apollo can gladly give you his songs and the Muse her Euboean lyre, and not one single grace can be missing from your charming talk, with all the seductiveness and good sense that Venus and Minerva approve. It’s through these that you will always be the dearest thing in my life, for as long as those detestable luxuries leave you cold.