Art of Love

by Ovid

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177

Art of Love is among Ovid’s most skillfully composed elegiac poems, and the novelty of its topic renders the poem a masterpiece of poetic invention. Belonging to the early part of Ovid’s career, this poem would become at once a foundation of Ovid’s fame and a cause of his life’s greatest tragedy.

Ovid was born into an equestrian family in Sulmo (modern Sulmona) in 43 b.c.e. His family financed his education in Rome, where he excelled in rhetoric. After his studies were complete, Ovid remained in Rome and practiced law, but he found most pleasure and success in the composition of poetry. Ovid’s poems were well received, so in his late twenties he abandoned other pursuits to dedicate himself to his art.

Ovid’s first known work is Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English translation, c. 1597), a first-person description of the poet’s love life written in elegiac couplets; it was published in about 16 b.c.e. and subsequently revised. He followed Amores with Art of Love. With this poem, his reputation as a leading poet at Rome was firmly established.

During the next few years, the volume of Ovid’s literary output was phenomenal. Scholars debate the particulars of the sequence in which he composed and revised his works, but the main outline is clear. In addition to Art of Love and Amores, many of Ovid’s other well-known works were composed in the period from about 12 b.c.e. to 8 c.e. These works include Heroides (English translation, 1567), a series of letters from, and in the latter books to, famous female characters from literature; Remedia amoris (Cure for Love, 1600), which provides advice on how a lover might end a love affair; and Medicamina faciei (Cosmetics, 1859).

In the early years of the first century c.e., Ovid became engrossed in his longest work, Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). Metamorphoses comprises fifteen books of dactylic hexameters detailing famous stories of miraculous changes brought on by love in ancient myths. At the same time, Ovid also began work on Fasti (English translation, 1859), a description of the meanings of the significant dates in the Roman calendar, a work that he was destined never to complete.

Perhaps it was partly as a consequence of the fame that Ovid achieved as a love poet that he fell into disfavor with Emperor Augustus and was exiled from Rome in 8 c.e. Mystery still surrounds the reasons for Ovid’s exile, but scholars have generally agreed that the poet was implicated in a scandal affecting the imperial household. Ovid does not reveal the precise reasons for his exile in his poems, but he does mention that one of the causes was Art of Love. Presenting himself to the public as a teacher of seduction would have rendered it difficult for him to rehabilitate his character once imperial opinion had turned against him.

From exile in Tomi (the modern city of Constanta, Romania) on the coast of the Black Sea, Ovid published poems that he hoped would garner popular favor and result in his recall from exile; this, however, was not to be. Ovid died in Tomi around the year 17 c.e. The poems Ovid wrote in Tomi are different from those that he had written in Rome. He abandoned Fasti, which he had been composing before his exile, to write Tristia (after 8 c.e.; Sorrows, 1859) and Epistulae ex Ponto (after 8 c.e.; Letters from Pontus, 1639). In these haunting elegiac works, Ovid continues to develop his craft by writing reflections on the barren emotional, social, and artistic landscape of a life in exile.

Art of Love, then, belongs to the early part of Ovid’s career, a time characterized by energy, high spirit, and invention. Further, with this poem and Amores, Ovid successfully defines a distinct new genre of elegiac composition, that of the Augustan erotic elegy. The elegiac meter, characterized by an alternation of a shorter pentameter line with the longer dactylic line used in epics, already had a long history in Greek and Latin before Ovid first set his hand to the meter. Ovid read with care the Greek and Romans elegists who preceded him, especially Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius.

Ovid’s broad knowledge of Greek and Latin literature is evident throughout his poems. Perhaps the seed for Art of Love can be traced to a poem of Tibullus, in which the poet describes the god Priapus as giving him a lecture on love. However, it is Ovid’s ability to pay homage, to echo, but never to imitate—yet always to excel—his models that continues to delight readers into the twenty-first century. It is this invention for which Ovid’s work is best known, for Art of Love cannot be read as practical advice. Instead, the poet’s ability to weave commonplace observations about love into a brilliant poetic whole allows the poem to elevate its subject. Ovid’s success in using the elegiac genre to establish an emotional connection to his readers not only by talking about his love life but also by advising readers on theirs, remains a cornerstone of his achievement.

Ovid’s spirit at its lightest and most entertaining is on display in Art of Love. In particular, pith, wit, and balance characterize the work. Many of Ovid’s couplets are self-contained aphorisms expressed with subtle art. In some cases, one line of the couplet answers another. In other cases, the first half of one line is balanced by the second half. Whether Ovid employs in his couplets a frame of question and answer or thesis and antithesis, or any other balancing architecture, he always succeeds in creating a memorable or surprising turn of phrase. The themes of love and seduction are universal, but Ovid positions Art of Love firmly in the Augustan Rome that he so loved and of which he would be so cruelly deprived.

The references to places and the social scenes in Art of Love are so vivid and appealing on the one hand and amusing on the other, that some sections of the poem read almost as though they belong to the satirical tradition. Just as Ovid comments on Art of Love, so does he comment on the Roman context that provided many opportunities for the practice of seduction. Ovid also draws unselfconsciously from his varied readings to incorporate clever allusions to the literature that precedes him. In many cases, examples of how women behave are drawn from the actions of female characters in famous Greek and Latin literature. These references often present the old stories in a new and more urbane light, divorcing them from traditional or moralistic interpretations.

Art of Love has exerted considerable literary influence through the ages, but not without becoming the target of occasional moral censure. However, even those who would censure Art of Love as a reflection, if not an encouragement, of a society preoccupied with seduction must admit that the poem in its proper context excels—in artistry and genius—all other compositions of a similar nature.

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