Alexandrian challenges

Back to where I left off last time. In his comments to Propertius III:15, John Kevin Newman remarked:

Propertius is sentimental, but evidently sentiment does not exclude cruelty.

To this observation, Newman supplies a footnote quoting from The Brothers Karamazov: “He was malicious and sentimental.” Complicating things, the Russian word zloy (злой) does not have a precise one-to-one equivalent in English. Other translations I’m aware of are “evil and sentimental” and “wicked and sentimental.”

I don’t see a shadow of a paradox above: the 20th century supplied examples of mass murderers weeping over touching trifles. What’s odd, to me, is the comparison itself: Propertius’ characters and Dostoevsky’s seem to come from different planets, not merely from different civilizations.

Pushkin, however, would be the right sort of name to mention alongside Propertius, and Newman – not only a classicist but an expert in Russian poetry – supplies three brilliant footnotes connecting the two masters. Here’s an abbreviated version of the first footnote:

He substitutes… for Horace’s and Propertius’ “Pyramids” the “pillar of Alexandria”… This was the so-called “Pillar of Pompey,” in reality erected in honor of the emperor Diocletian, seen still standing in an engraving of Alexandrian antiquities made for Napoleon in 1798… How unerringly the Russian poet’s imagination converged on the Alexandrian challenge! How Propertian is his response!

Newman’s articles on Pushkin and the Alexandrian tradition (including its Roman adepts) have been a revelation to me. See, for instance, his Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” and the Epic Tradition (1972) and Pushkin and Horace – Remarks on “Exegi monumentum” and “Pamyatnik” (1975).

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