The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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“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 is not guilty. Only those who are well-known (who have played a part in the affair?) must, of necessity, profess their guilt. Whereas the Roman poet historically was banished from his beloved city, Ovid in the Third Reich accepts a self-imposed banishment rather than take part in the madness about him. Both suffer fearfully. The Roman is exiled to the farther shores of the Black Sea to live his days among barbarous folk, as he complains in one of his poems; Ovid in the Third Reich is forced by banishment to endure limitations, is deprived of the life of the city, the joy of companions, and the freedom to love and create.

This Ovid is reduced to the essentials in his life: “I love my work and my children.” As a poet, he bears witness to the terrible time. He has learned one thing, as he says, that the vicious are as tormented as the damned. Strangely, though, they are part of the divine plan. In the world of the contraries, they make the harmony of the world; if man does not see and hear the dissonant, he cannot know the vibrancy of concord and the good and love. As dire as the days may be, he knows himself to be part of the “love-choir,” in which, as a poet, he will always sing.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

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 troughs” run with the blood of the innocent, revealing the darker side of man’s nature. Primitive rituals demanded blood sacrifice then, and the cultism of the Nazis demands it now, as an extension of that barbarity into the twentieth century.

With this insight, the diction begins to expand, and the trip-hammer rhythms of the first stanza become less strident and insistent. The strict regular blows of the spondee in “I have learned one thing: not to look down” gives way to a gentler rhythm. The form itself opens like a floodgate, as if liberated by the recognition that the events the poet has witnessed “Harmonize strangely.” This frees him for even greater speculation.

The poet alludes, finally, to the “sphere,” a metaphor for the universe, recalling ancient Pythagorean cosmology, in which the contraries of the world are met in the music of the spheres and all seeming disharmony is reconciled in accordance with the laws of nature. The poet, however, presents the idea in a Christian context, in which the contraries of good and evil are alluded to in an image from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). The damned, embodying the evil in human nature, are still part of the greater design of God and must be accepted—if not with charity, at least with forbearance. Man is free to choose his own path. The damned are their own hell.