Ovid: The Poems of Exile
After Ovid: New Metamorphoses
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 …