The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ovid in the Third Reich” is a short poem in two quatrains (four-line stanzas) of accentual verse; that is, the line is governed by the number of stressed, or accented, syllables. It is a dramatic monologue in which the poet speaks in the persona of the ancient Roman poet Ovid. The title, however, places him in the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler’s Germany, instead of the first years of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Augustus. It is clear from the title that Geoffrey Hill intends a parallel to be drawn between the two periods. They compare very clearly in several ways: First, both states were totalitarian; in both states there was such a thing as correct thinking; and deviation from general opinion was frowned upon and thought subversive in both. Second, both rulers tended to be puritanical in their habits and tastes. Women were expected to be mothers, cooks, and keepers of the state faith. Third, the expression of art, literature, and the free spirit essential to them were severely curbed to accommodate the purposes of the state. The question arises as to what a poet such as Ovid can and should do under a vicious, stultifying, and brutal dictatorship.

For the epigraph, Hill selects one of Ovid’s own lines, from the Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.). Although variously translated, and ambiguous in itself, the meaning relevant to “Ovid in the Third Reich” can be paraphrased: He who refuses to accept himself as guilty...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

There is an impression of completeness in Geoffrey Hill’s “Ovid in the Third Reich” that comes from the perfect unity of the subject and the poetic devices he employs, namely, the poem’s diction, its rhythm, and its form—three essentials in the craft of poetry.

In the first stanza, the fear and trauma of events have reduced the poet—usually of an expansive nature—to sentences that reveal little emotion and lines that are short and declarative: “God/ Is distant, difficult.” A lack of coherent thought is apparent as he moves erratically from subject to subject, as if his emotion has been dammed at its source.

The diction, too, is denotative and literal, which suggests a tautness and a matter-of-factness, as though, like God, the poet would distance himself from the scene. All sensitivity to shades of meaning and feeling has been stripped from the poet’s vocabulary, leaving him with only the most general and simplest words to describe the complexity of his impressions. “Things happen,” he tersely comments. Exactly what things the poet perhaps dares not or cannot say. This uncommunicative tone is overwhelmed, finally, by the last two lines of the first stanza. Sentences that have been of the simplest construction (subject, verb, direct object), with monosyllabic words, suddenly expand to accommodate “Innocence is no earthly weapon” under the impact of his reflections. Not for the first time have the “ancient...

(The entire section is 468 words.)