Ovid in the Third Reich Themes
by Geoffrey Hill

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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?

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.

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...

(The entire section is 435 words.)