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Cosmic Leg-Pull

Ovid: The Poems of Exile

translated with introduction, notes, and glossary by Peter Green
Penguin, 451 pp., $10.95 (paper)

After Ovid: New Metamorphoses

edited by Michael Hofmann, edited by James Lasdun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 298 pp., $25.00

The Roman poet Ovid fascinated the Middle Ages, influenced Shakespeare, inspired Bernini and Titian and Handel, was loved by Dryden and Pope, and shocked the nineteenth century (by which I mean the real nineteenth century, the hundred years from, say, 1835 to 1935). Our age is turning again to the subversive Augustan: translations of his poems are multiplying, and scholars are producing commentaries and monographs on him in numbers unimaginable a few years ago.

We speak of “Augustan” literature, but that is one more example of the all-prevading luck of the opportunist, party boss, usurper, and Emperor who took the unheard-of name “Augustus”—“the sublime one.” Most of the great writers who praised him and became classics of Latin literature had grown up before he was established in power; in particular, Virgil and Horace were published and famous in the terrible time of civil war and state murder which followed on the assassination of the dictator Julius Caesar. The only great poet who actually emerged in the reign of Augustus was Ovid; and he was to be its scandal.

Well born and wealthy, although as a love poet he must put up a certain pretense (deliberately flimsy) of poverty, because a wealthy lover was too unpoetical an object to be written about, Ovid ostentatiously refused to enter upon the public career proper to his station. The New Order with which the Emperor was laboriously getting Rome back on the road involved the revival of patriotism and public spirit, with heavy emphasis on military virtue, municipal pride, and imperial glory. Augustus did not fail to include heavy propaganda and contentious legislation intended to oblige the upper class to do its civic duty by marrying among its equals and begetting children for the state. Selfish bachelor hedonism was severely discountenanced, and prolific parents got tax incentives.

Virgil and Horace were prepared to go along with the official line, though reservations of various sorts and strengths can be seen or imagined in their work. Their support has done Augustus much good with posterity. In the words of John Dryden, “The triumvir and proscriber had descended to us in a more hideous form than they now appear, if the Emperor had not taken care to make friends of [Virgil] and Horace.” Ovid was different. Brought up after the end of the horrors of the Forties and Thirties BCE, he felt little gratitude toward the man whose deft hand had put a stop to them; taking peace and opulence for granted, he wrote for an audience which reveled in their pleasures. Pleasure, indeed, is a keynote in Ovid. Another is his interest in the human heart. That meant, in antiquity, primarily the female heart: the emotions were something of a feminine specialty, and the passion of love (for that is what it generally comes down to) is often seen as a kind of equivalent, for women, to what serious business, making money or making war, was for men. In the high-flying arts, passion generally meant suffering and death for the lady; and from Virgil’s tragic Dido to the heroines of Romantic novel and opera and ballet, Violetta and Giselle, Madame Bovary and Madama Butterfly, leading ladies paid the price for being the more intense and interesting characters, for eclipsing the gentleman in the big scenes, by dying a pathetic death.

Ovid entered into that state of mind, but with a difference. His first work was a set of imaginary letters from abandoned ladies of mythology to the heroes who had loved and left them. It would have tickled the poet to hear that nineteen centuries later they would be the first Latin poetry (and that of course meant the first poetry in any language) read and studied by British public schoolboys, whose most serious weekly task was to imitate Ovid’s very brilliant verse technique in their own labored Latin verses. That none of them had ever been a deserted woman, that they could hardly understand the emotions and complexities of the unhappy heroines whose epistles they laboriously construed and imitated, was not a point that struck anyone as important.

The Ovidian poems are very witty and quite often touching. They show an extraordinary ability to go on producing readable variants on an essentially limited subject matter: there are more than twenty of the Heroides, and their typical length is well over a hundred lines. The faithful Penelope, the murderous Medea, the adulterous Phaedra, Helen trying to say No to Paris and ending up by hinting Yes, wives and mistresses, princesses and slaves, and the poet Sappho: all go through their repertoire of anger and forgiveness, hope and despair, self-reproach and happy daydream, always the same and yet always different. Thus Helen begins on her high horse (I summarize):

You have dared to abuse our hospitality, making advances to a virtuous wife! I am insulted—you’ll call that silly, I know—I am a good girl; but I can’t be angry, if you really are in love with me—it’s hard to be sure of a man—the presents you offer me are enough to shake a goddess, but it’s you yourself that are more attractive—your loving me is what counts—the naughty way you look at me! I say to myself, “He’s shameless!”—and you are good-looking—you should have come along before I got married; it’s too late now—

And so on, to the final “I would go off with you, if only I had the courage—I know what you mean by asking me to talk it over with you in secret—Well, maybe—“ This work was to be of enormous importance for the Metamorphoses, both in the virtuoso exploitation of a single enormous theme and also in the mastery of the female heart. Ovid, like Rubens, is one of those artists who give the impression of really liking women. It is a paradox for us that so many of his heroines must suffer rape.

He went on to write Amores (“Loves”), a large collection of shortish poems (between twenty and seventy lines) about episodes in the life of pleasure, a career of affairs with choice demi-mondaines, with its endless round of attraction, seduction, infidelity, jealousy, rapture, rupture, and reconciliation. The appeal of this entertaining work is partly in its subversion of the serious love elegies of Propertius and Tibullus. They talked of spending the night outside the closed door of the cruel beloved; Ovid deflated the convention. No serious self-respecting lover had ever said: “I lay outside on the hard ground, while you were in bed with God knows who; I saw him leave, he was worn out, exhausted: but even that was not the worst—he saw me. That’s something I’d wish on my worst enemy.”

Ovid was as subversive of his fellow poets as of the moral standards of the Emperor. Both at once were satisfyingly mocked by his next bright idea: a didactic poem—that most stodgily respectable and traditional of forms, as popular in antiquity as in the eighteenth century—of all things, a systematic treatment of the technique of seduction: The Art of Love. The Georgics of Virgil and the great philosophical poem of Lucretius are among Ovid’s literary targets here, while Augustan moral seriousness also receives some stinging sideswipes. A delightful poem, it has the feeling of the more playful passages of Byron in its advice to men in love. Augustus was not so much amused.

You must talk about your an- guish, you must play the lover’s part;
To induce her to believe you, do not shrink from using art.
It isn’t hard. Why, even girls who look entirely frightful
Are convinced they are attractive, think their faces are delightful…
You must swear it by the gods: with lovers Jove is not litigious;
It’s expedient that religion should exist: let’s be religious…
[my translation]

Ovid also set out to versify the Romans’ sacred calendar. The Romans did not have weeks, and it was the festivals which gave shape to the year. Religious or state occasions, each had its story—some of them very quaint and archaic—and Ovid had some fun setting them to sophisticated verse of great archness. That was a hard challenge to the technical skills even of so immensely talented a poet as Ovid; the Fasti has always appealed to scholars, and at the moment a lot of work is being done on it, but the humor had to be subdued, and there was a mass of antiquarian and patriotic material to be got through. At the end of June, with the months of July (renamed after Julius Caesar) and August (renamed after Augustus) looming, with all that they called for of imperial flattery, Ovid faltered. Book Six, June, was the last that got written.

Now a terrible thing happened. In 8 CE, Augustus suddenly banished the poet from Rome, from Italy, from the civilized world: to a small town on the Black Sea, now in Romania. This startling act, a piece of nakedly personal and indeed despotic power, with no question of a trial, was linked to a series of convulsions among the political elite and in the family of the Emperor himself. In the year 2 BCE Augustus had banished his daughter to a penal island for adultery; lurid tales were told of her debauchery; named among her lovers were men of the highest station. Some were put to death. To the less prurient eye this looks more like a political conspiracy, aimed at the succession, than simple orgies; but the direct evidence is bafflingly thin. Ten years later, in 8 CE, in a second explosion of rage, Augustus banished his granddaughter: again, adultery was the charge. Others were involved in her ruin, among them the poet Ovid, but how he was involved remains a puzzle.

Exiled to the back of beyond, in a place evidently chosen for its lack of amenity, the poet was not forbidden to write, and he wrote copiously. A substantial volume of his poetry from exile has come down to us, now brilliantly translated by Peter Green of the University of Texas in Austin: Ovid pleads for pardon, begs to be allowed to return, complains of the barbarity and discomfort of his existence. Here is the opening of a poem in which Ovid expresses despair at ever getting his doom changed.

Now I am out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must all be bored stiff by these monotonous poems—
certainly you’ve learned by heart what I want,
and know the contents of each fresh letter already
before you break the seal. So let me change
the direction and thrust of my writing, avoid this constant
struggle against the current, upstream.
For the good I hoped from you, my friends, forgive me.
I’ll not repeat that mistake—nor, from now on,
will men sneer that I pester my wife (who remains as loyal to me
as she’s shy and unassertive)….

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