Ovid in the Third Reich

by Geoffrey Hill

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

“Ovid in the Third Reich” prompts two questions in particular. What is a good man is to do when faced with such consummate evil? What is a poet to do?

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The major philosophical basis of the poem is the belief that the world of nature is an eternal battleground on which good and evil, love and hate, and tyranny and freedom are in ceaseless conflict. Since there is nothing new under the sun, as the author of Ecclesiastes asserts, the drama of history will be repeated over and over.

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Man confronts evil in many ways: He may choose direct action, thereby courting martyrdom. He may, on the contrary, retreat into the comfortable ease of the accepted views of the state, accepted by the mass of men; in this case, by his very passivity he gives his assent to the evil.

Customarily, and from earliest times, the role of the poet has been clearly understood and honored. He is, first, a historian recording the events of society. “Things happen,” Ovid in the Third Reich avers. The poet, furthermore, must cultivate a clear perception and objectivity in order that he should be neither a propagandist nor an apologist; in effect, he must keep his distance, very like a god. He must also, finally, come to terms with his own emotional response. He must fully acknowledge the concentration camps, as others have acknowledged the “ancient troughs of blood.” In an intuitive leap from experience, the poet comes to a philosophical or spiritual knowledge which satisfies or at least consoles. In “Ovid in the Third Reich,” the consolation comes from the recognition that, in the biblical phrase, “one must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s.” Man cannot judge. Thus, the poet tries to wrestle with the age-old Christian problem: How can God be omnipotent and all good? If He is omnipotent, then He purposely allows evil to flourish; if all good, then He must be limited, for an all-good, omnipotent God would prevent the evil of the world. It is the individual who tips the balance, not nations, which are a construct of man. In this final representation, Hill confirms the meaning of the epilogue. As a poet, he knows—as did Ovid in the first century—that no tyranny, oppressive and limiting as it may be, can destroy man’s thought and feelings, for the mind is a very private place. The individual, if he has not intentionally violated the laws of man, nature, and God, cannot be guilty. He is still part of the “love-choir.”

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Analysis