Ovid the Exile: World Poetry Project
When working with ancient authors, we most often know them through their translators, and if we have been reading them for a long time, we have gone through several translators, changing the version of the author we favor with the arrival of new options. For example, I first met the text of Beowulf in high school through a rather clumsy, awkward prose translation. In college, I read it again in an equally awkward transliteration that sacrificed poetry to accuracy. Now, when I read Beowulf , I read Seamus Heaney and I am happy. I went through the same process with Ovid, reading several different translators over time, however without settling on one in preference to all others. I like Hughes work on Metamorphosis , but it is too clear to me that there is a lot of Hughes in it, making the presence of Ovid in the translation suspect: it is Hughes' flesh on a Roman skeleton.
Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE-19 CE) is the last of the Augustan age poets in World Poetry . He was born in Sulmona in the Apennine valley to a family of the equestrian order, a class of people whom we might think of as either nouveau riche or middle class, depending upon their individual land-holdings, commercial relationships, and relationships with the patricians. The other poets of the Augustan age that we have looked at established stable lives for themselves as artists within the established order under their patrons. Ovid did not. His patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, provided him with a circle of artists and intellectuals with whom to engage, but he was unable to parley this into a place within the imperial order, and was exiled by Augustus for unclear reasons in 8 CE. His exile may have been parcel of a moral campaign by the emperor in defense of marriage, at least Ovid identifies his manual on adultery and seduction, the Ars Amoria , as the cause of his downfall, and his banishment occurred at about the same time as that of Augustus's grandchildren, Agrippa Postumus and Julia the Younger, and the execution of Julia's husband, Lucius Aenilius Paullus.Augustus's Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BCE were recent, criminalizing the illicit love Ovid celebrated. The Augustan state was concerned with the bedrooms of its citizens, frightened by demographics, and such panics occur today as well, often accompanied by moral crusades to enforce monogamy and promote reproduction. Ovid's character, thrice married and twice divorced before the age of thirty, did not render him a good fit for Augustus's reproductive state.
World Poetry 's selections from Ovid opens with pieces from the Metamorphoses translated by Thom Gunn and Charles Boer. The Metamorphoses present tales of change of form, of transformation, drawn from Greek mythology, and as a prime source for our understanding of Greek and Roman mythology, familiarity with this series of poems is of value to any who would read in the humanities or in European literature. Greek and Roman mythology are the common wellspring of poetic metaphor and allusion in the West. The included piece from the Metamorphoses concerns Arethusa, a nymph, in flight from the randy river god, Alpheus.
When the god of the river
pursues her over Greece
weed-rot on his breath
rape on his mind,
at length Arethusa
loses her lead,
stops, prays for help
from a huntress like herself.
Artemis, the virginal goddess of the hunt, sister to Apollo, hears the nymphs plea, and hides her in fog:
she cowers wetly
in condensing cloud
and her own sweat cooling
from the cross-country run.
Arethusa becomes a living sheet of water, a stream, but Alpheus continues his pursuit. Artemis acts to save her again, with Alpheus still threatening:
cracks underneath her
hair-thin but deep.
Down them the girl slips
soaking out of sight
before his glassy stare
--to be conducted through darkness
to another country,
Sicily, where she springs
as virgin stream…
In this selection, fear is the connecting force between the violent aggressor and the innocent victim. It is a strong, palpable presence. There is no attempt to romanticize Alpheus, to render his aggression some sort of misplaced love rather than selfish lust. His object, rape, is never denied and not given some other name that would make it more palatable. Arethusa's only hope lies with the aid of a goddess. Without that superiority of power the goddess brings to the flight, Alpheus's victory and the rape of Arethusa are unavoidable. Nothing Arethusa can do will affect Alpheus at all, and even the goddess does not save the nymph by punishing Alpheus, but merely offers her a route of escape he is unable to follow.
Charles Boer translates that part of the Metamorphoses presenting the death of Orpheus. Orpheus was the arch-minstrel of Greek legend whose songs charmed even the stones. He attempted to retrieve his love, Eurydice, from Hades, but lost her again when he turned to assure himself that she followed him out. Orpheus turned to an exclusive devotion to the god Apollo, and dies, torn apart by the female followers of Dionysus. His head and lyre floated down the Hebrus, to the sea and on to Lesbos, where the singing head was buried. A shrine at Antissa provided prophecy until Apollo silenced Orpheus' oracle.
The efforts of the women of Dionysus to slay the singer who denied their lord is delayed by the power of the minstrel. So charmed is nature by his song that birds and stones refuse to be accomplices in his death, and so it is that the women are forced to rely upon the strength and cruelty of their own hands, blocking their ears to his seducing sound by a clamor of their own. The chill violence of Alpheus in his pursuit of Arethusa pales before the communal madness of the women in pursuit of Orpheus. Ovid reunites the singer with Eurydice in Hades:
Orpheus-ghost underground recognizes places
seen before: searches Fields of the Blessed & finds
Eurydice; eager embraces; they walk there now
stepping together: or he follows her; or she
follows him with Orpheus looking back at her safely
The Thracian women are punished by Bacchus/Dionysus, who also loved the poet:
…he ties down
with twisted roots in forest all Thracian women
who saw the crime: toes of those pursuers out, bodies
stuck in solid ground: as bird feels its legs
caught in crafty trapper's snare & shrieks frightened,
tightening the bonds with movement, terrified women try
in vain escaping, soil-stuck
The murderesses become oak trees, with branches like arms.
From Metamorphoses we move on to the poet in exile, a selection from Tristia translated by David R. Slavitt. Here, Ovid addresses his patron in Rome, expressing his gratitude for the continuing affection that man has shown to his art, his poems, and also to the artist, even as he suffers in exile.
only now do I learn the value of your esteem
independent, abiding--the way a friendship
always ought to be but seldom actually is.
My books are still on your shelves, and you still speak
my ghostly name to the new poets coming along.
In the U.S.A., we might not connect with this love for another man for merely continuing to possess a book, to speak an author's name, but there are writers and artists in other countries, some close to us and some far, who do understand the greatness of such loyalty in the face of official proscription and exile. Ovid makes his patron the guardian of his orphaned children/poems.
Three of my offspring carry the trait and share the taint
of my corruption, but keep the rest of the flock
with the kind care you have shown over them over the years. Remember
the thrice five books of the Metamorphoses ,
snatched, as it were, from the conflagration of my disaster.
I think with remorse of what I left undone,
how unrevised it has limped into the marketplace.
He writes to his patron from the ends of the earth, the Black Sea, far from the literate, educated fellowship that supported him in his efforts.
To take up a pen here
is an act of defiance, folly, stubborn pride, habit,
and the occasion of deep chagrin. There are no books,
nothing to prompt me here or prime the pump to flowing.
There's no literate talk but only the rattle
of men in armor. Poets don't need enormous throngs
but a small group to read to, intelligent ears
to appreciate and judge, sometimes to make suggestions
In his banishment, he does not even have the privilege of solitude's calm to work within. The poet without his circle, without friendship and connection, feels his Latin fading, as he tries to find words surrounded by a babble of alien tongues.
After his patron, Ovid turns his attention to his wife, whose virtues he praises, for her steadfastness and character in his time of trouble.
If I am a sorry figure, you're still splendid,
a light for time to come and a model for all women
to remember and emulate in moments of trial.
He can give her nothing, however, except immortality within his work, the promise that she, as a virtuous woman and loyal wife, will be remembered so long as Ovid is read.
…To have carved you a place in the annals
of civilization is no small thing and the least I could do
after what you've done for me, the sole
guardian of my fortunes and vessel of all my hopes.
Ovid praises his wife, not for her efforts, but for her nature. He imagines that she is perplexed by his praise itself, by the poetic form and parallels he finds for her behavior, while she does only what she true to her own nature must. She is not acting the part of love, but she is a woman who loves.
…Your nature expressed itself
in its pure spontaneity as a bird in miraculous grace,
wheels overhead and astonishes us all.
Ovid's achievement was not ended by his exile, and, indeed, exile appears to have given a depth of tone to his work that it lacked in the security of his artistic circle, when he was speaking in safety to a few others like himself, insulated from the suffering of the world outside, idling and gossiping, writing mock-serious instruction manuals for adulterers.