Other Literary Forms
Ovid composed a tragedy, Medea (before 8 c.e.), probably a rhetorical closet-drama in the manner of Seneca. Only two or three short fragments of this work remain.
Without any hostility toward Vergil, Ovid led Roman poetry away from the manner and technique of epic poems such as the Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.). Ovid was a poet of great talent whose works cover a vast range of types, including love elegy, mytho-historical epic, handbooks on love, and a set of fictitious letters written by mythological heroines. He produced a voluminous body of poetry even though he had studied to be an advocate and government official.
Ovid’s extensive influence began in his own lifetime. His poems were known throughout the Roman Empire, and they continued to be read through the Middle Ages. Ovid was a favorite author of the period of chivalry, and his works live again in Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch, and the whole circle of Italian Renaissance writers and painters, the Metamorphoses in particular providing many subjects for the artists. Later, Ovid was to influence Ludovico Ariosto, Desiderius Erasmus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Pierre de Ronsard, Jean de La Fontaine, Molière, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, William Congreve, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Early American literature has preserved a retelling of some of his stories in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853). Ovid was not profound—he had none of the vision and greatness of Vergil—but he remains one of the most skillful writers of verse and tellers of tales that the Western world has ever known.
Publius Ovidius Naso was born at Sulmo in the Pelignian territory of Italy on March 20, 43 b.c.e., of wealthy parents. They were not particularly generous with their son while they lived but left him a comfortable inheritance upon their death. Of equestrian, not aristocratic rank, but with good connections and great talents, Ovid was expected to devote himself to the duties of public life. At first, he studied law but had no interest in such a profession. He soon abandoned law in disgust and turned to rhetoric, studying at Rome under Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro. Then, according to the custom, he spent a short time in Athens; while he was in Greece, he took the opportunity to visit the renowned cities of Asia Minor. He returned to Rome at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, and made a halfhearted beginning at a public career, holding such minor offices as triumvir and decemvir. The effort, however, was short-lived. He felt that he had neither the physical nor the mental stamina for a civic career, and he certainly lacked the interest. He finally abandoned politics and threw himself headlong into the life of a man-about-town. He joined the literary circle which included the love poets Aemilius Macer, Sextus Propertius, and Albius Tibullus. Ovid heard Horace recite and, although Ovid was not an intimate of Vergil, the two probably met.
Ovid soon made a name for himself, and before long his elegant poems were being recited in the salons and streets of Rome. His literary career falls into three clearly defined periods. The first is marked by the composition of the Amores, the Heroides, and the brilliant but calamitous trio, the Art of Love, the Cure for Love, and Cosmetics. The Amores was a collection of short elegiac poems, addressed to an imaginary mistress, Corinna; the Heroides purported to be letters from famous ladies of heroic times to their lovers. (There are twenty-one epistles, but only the first fourteen are beyond all doubt Ovid’s own.) The Art of Love, one of the most elegant pieces of seduction in all literature, was published in 2 b.c.e., to be followed shortly after by Cure for Love, which may have been intended as a recantation, and by a treatise on Cosmetics.
The next ten years constitute the second phase of Ovid’s literary career. During this period, Ovid turned from amorous compositions to serious themes. His interest in Greek and Roman literature and mythology now had free rein. He wrote the Fasti, a poetic calendar of astronomical data, embellished with references to the historical, political and social highlights of the Roman year. To this period also belongs the Metamorphoses, his great poem of transformations, and the greatest collection of mythology in any literature. This monumental work had been completed but had not received the master’s finishing polish, when, in 8 c.e., like a thunderbolt from a blue sky, an imperial decree banished Ovid from Rome forever.
This shattering calamity marked the commencement of the third and final period of Ovid’s life. The rest of his extant poetry was written after his banishment and includes Sorrows, an autobiographical poem, and Letters from the Black Sea, letters written in an attempt to induce Augustus to change the location of his banishment. Besides these works, Ovid wrote, while in exile, the Ibis, a vicarious piece of learned abuse. The Fasti is by far the most important product of Ovid’s banishment, although the first books were probably composed before his exile. It is a versified Roman calendar for the first six months of the year. Several other poems by Ovid are now lost.
His banishment is one of the great mysteries of literature, for no explanation was ever given (at least to the public), and Ovid himself refers to the cause in only the vaguest of terms. It was generally believed that the reason was the emperor’s anger at the immorality of the Art of Love. This is reasonable enough, because Augustus had tried very hard, even by legislation, to reduce the moral laxity prevailing in the capital. Ten years, however, had passed since the Art of Love was published, and it must be assumed that some more immediate cause had suddenly fanned the flames of this old resentment. Historians had not far to seek. The emperor’s daughter, Julia, and his granddaughter (also named Julia) were both wanton and dissolute women, and their behavior in court circles had long been a source of anxiety, distress, and shame to Augustus. In the same year in which Ovid was banished, Augustus also banished his granddaughter from the court and the city of Rome. It has been surmised that Augustus knew (or suspected) that Ovid had been aware of some intrigues in the royal household involving the younger Julia which he neither prevented nor reported. In his autobiographical poem Sorrows, Ovid several times takes pains to deny any complicity. He says that he was merely an innocent witness of something he should not have seen and that the cause of his banishment was an error, not a crime.
The punishment, grievous though it was, was not as bad as it might have been. Ovid was banished, not exiled, and this apparently subtle distinction had tangible advantages, for he was allowed to retain not only his citizenship but also his property in Rome. Ovid’s wife (his third—he had divorced the first two) did not accompany him. She remained in Rome at Ovid’s request, possibly to look after his property and to endeavor to persuade her influential friends to intercede for her husband. This was the brighter side of Ovid’s disaster. The rest was a refinement of cruelty. Ovid, the genial, friendly, pleasure-loving poet, was ordered to Tomis on the Black Sea, a barbarous town on the very frontiers of civilization, peopled by long-haired, uncouth Sarmatians, chilled by interminable frost and snow, constantly attacked by savages, and utterly devoid of any culture, literature, or even intelligent conversation.
In anger and despair at the downfall of his hopes, Ovid, on leaving Rome, burned the unrevised manuscript of his Metamorphoses. Some friends, however, had kept a copy, and thus the masterpiece was preserved.
For nearly ten years, Ovid lived out a miserable existence which was one long apologia for his life. He defended himself, excused himself, and explained himself. He sorely missed the sights and sounds of Rome: They were always in his thoughts. One thing remained to him: the exercise of his poetic gift. He continued to pour out elegiac verses, but the sparkle had gone out of them. The lamp was burning low. Nine years of self-pity, self-reproach, abject self-abasement, prayers, tears, and, finally, total despair had taken their toll.
All this time, Ovid had never ceased to hope for a reprieve, but Augustus was unbending, and his successor Tiberius was equally adamant. Ovid bitterly realized that there is no pardon when a deity is offended. The gentle, self-indulgent spirit of the poet was broken. He pathetically pleaded that his ashes be brought home and that imperial malice not pursue him beyond the grave. In 17 c.e., Ovid, the playful singer of tender loves, was dead.
Ovid always maintained a decorous loyalty to language and sentiment in his poetry. He was not a propagandist but a man of letters, pure and simple. He produced mainly love poetry until he turned his attention to something on a larger scale, a quasi epic. His talents were not suited to long flights, such as the Aeneid. He was a thorough Alexandrian in that respect, as in his learning and high polish. It was with the poetry on amatory themes that Ovid first won his reputation, and he continued to work at them for some years, recasting and rearranging them.
The existing poems of the Amores form three books containing, in all, forty-nine poems, none very long (they range from 18 to 114 lines). Most of them tell the story of the poet’s relations with a certain Corinna. No one has ever succeeded in identifying her and a careful reading of these charming trifles reveals Corinna to be a fantasy figure, whom Ovid could adorn with all his taste and ingenuity.
Love poetry as a genre in Roman literature already existed and had been developed by a whole generation of poets before him. Ovid employed two aspects of the genre developed by earlier poets: the autobiographical mode of composition and the devising of transitions from one traditional motif to another. Ovid’s strength, however, lies in grace, not depth. The major pleasures of the Amores are their verbal and metrical dexterity. These poems have an epigrammatical quality; verbal dexterity has sharpened a point to precision but no mental picture is evoked. The result is, at times, a slight incoherence, characteristic of poetry that concentrates more on effect than on expression. Ovid produces three effects in the Amores: neatness, ingenuity, and irony. Neatness is largely a matter of antithesis, balance, and contrast, both in thought and expression, supported often by verbal echoes. Ingenuity is evident in word order, brevity, compression, allusive periphrases, and deliberate ambiguity. Irony, often implied by antithesis, is enhanced by parentheses and asides. The diction is based on the stock amatory vocabulary, but Ovid does coin new words in moderation and skillfully manipulates different registers of diction against the poetic norm. Ovid calculates his effects with great precision and accuracy; imagery consequently plays a minor part in his poetry, in contrast to the various figures of balance and antithesis.
Like earlier Roman love poets, Ovid employs the autobiographical mode of composition. He does so not because he is trying to express inner feelings with the greatest attainable immediacy, but because, for Ovid, the autobiographical form has the advantage that characters and situation can be taken for granted; no explanation is needed. Ovid leaves little to the reader and only demands that he keep his sense of language and the subtle relationships of words at key pitch.
Ovid’s love poetry is far easier to understand than that of his predecessors, because of his clearer transitions from one idea or emotion to another. Ovid’s technique of composition is self-consciously concerned with the fine details of language and thought. This form encouraged him to use an extremely orderly, even rigidly logical process of exposition. Surprising leaps of thought and reversals of emotion are ruled out by a technique that leaves nothing unsaid that can be said.
The style of the Amores is not, of course, beyond criticism. Its brilliance is in a sense superficial; it lacks majesty and mystery; and it is too lucid to present real intellectual problems. Yet the Amores is not an entirely superficial work. The serious note in the poems on poetic immortality has long been recognized, and there is an underlying seriousness in Ovid’s treatment of love and in his attitude to the Augustan regime. His attitude toward love is one of amused resignation, where the difficulties, follies, and deceptions of the lover are humorously magnified, cheerfully minimized, or positively welcomed. In a sense Ovid is offering an alternative and perhaps more practical approach to love than the shapeless idealism of other love poets and the negative stance of the moralists. The work is saved from mere triviality by the warm humanity and psychological truth which underlie its ironic approach. At only one point, when he discusses abortion, does Ovid’s genial banter seem to descend to callousness.
The technique and spirit of the Amores are basically Alexandrian, although in some cases the setting is clearly Roman rather than Greek. It was, however, impossible for a Roman of the Augustan Age to detach himself from the political and social conditions of his time. The Amores inevitably reflects Ovid’s attitude to the regime of Augustus and its ideals. In Ovid’s choice of love rather than any higher theme for poetry and in his evident enthusiasm for the life of a lover, he is clearly flying in the face of Augustus’s attempts to reform marriage. Ovid is flippant about religion, the military ideal, and Augustus himself, but toward politics he reveals indifference rather than any positive stance. The Amores seems to be apolitical and not exactly what Augustus had in mind for the Roman literary scene.
Art of Love and Cure for Love
The Art of Love, along with its companion piece, the Cure for Love, is an adaption of the elegiac tradition to the didactic poem, a genre with a...
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