Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515
The speaker, who is never named; some argue that he should be distinguished from Ovid. This first-person narrator is a Roman poet born in Sulmo, as Ovid was, and in several poems he argues the case for the erotic elegy. The speaker or persona in the poems is a young man who enjoys making love and playing at love, but he is not serious about much of anything, except, presumably, his poetry, in which he has considerable confidence. He is a sexual athlete, but he is frank about his shortcomings. His romantic liaisons often are thwarted by a mistress’s husband, other lovers, servants (gatekeepers), and in one case by an old witch named Dipsas, whom he overhears advising his mistress to hold out for money. Perhaps because he is promiscuous himself, he is suspicious of his mistresses. He seems most devoted to Corinna, but she is clearly not his only love, and like the other women in his life, she occasionally frustrates him by playing hard to get, so that he is forced into the conventional role of the woeful, unrequited lover. How much of Ovid’s actual experience and personality are vested in the speaker is impossible to say. Those who focus on the relationship between these poems and the love poems of Propertius regard the speaker as a playful and fun-loving version of the Propertian speaker, who is generally more serious and sometimes bitter over the frustrations that come with the game of love. Ovid’s speaker is much more willing to play and to enjoy the game as a game. He is witty and audacious, in good humor even when he is lamenting his inability to get through to one mistress or another. When he declares that love has made him thin, readers do not take him so seriously as to be concerned for his health.
Corinna, the only other character of note to appear in the poems, though a few others are mentioned by name. She is the speaker’s most significant, but not his only, mistress. She never speaks for herself but is always portrayed by the speaker; she is seen only from his point of view. The speaker considers her to have been his best sexual partner, and she understands how to manipulate him. It is not clear if Corinna is the mistress he beats, but it is she for whom he composes the famous elegy on the death of a pet parrot. He also expresses genuine concern over Corinna’s ocean voyage. In general, Corinna appears to be the focus of the speaker’s more sincere love poems, and even though he asserts that “beauty makes Corinna hard,” he claims that he will remain devoted to her. He laments his loss of Corinna, whom he describes as his “sole inspiration,” because others have fallen in love with his depiction of her beauty. The speaker turns on the reader by insisting on her role as a literary character: “My praise of Corinna should have been read as fiction./ You are my trouble—you, uncritical reader.”