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.)