A Serious Man Whose Love Will Last

By Bruce WhitemanNovember 24, 2011

A Serious Man Whose Love Will Last
IN 1958 WHEN EZRA POUND WAS RELEASED from the Washington, D.C. mental hospital where he had spent twelve years as an "inmate," the press asked him what the experience had been like. "Ovid had it worse," he said, to almost universal befuddlement. Publius Ovidius Naso, the greatest Latin poet of the Augustan age, spent the last ten years of his life (8–17 CE) banished to the Roman equivalent of Siberia, a city called Tomis on the far eastern edge of the Empire, almost a thousand miles from Rome. (The Latin word for his banishment was relegatio, or relegation; had he suffered exilium or exile, he would have been deprived of both his property and his citizenship.) Tomis was a small port city on the Black Sea, in modern-day Romania, and although not the furthest outpost of Empire in terms of distance from Rome (northwest Africa, northern Germany, Asia Minor, and the Iberian peninsula were farther away), it was definitely what any diplomat today would call a hardship post. It was in the province of Moesia, which had come under Roman subjugation only a half century earlier, and was still exposed to constant attack by various tribes.

Recent scholarship asserts that Ovid may have exaggerated the crudeness and barrenness of Tomis as part of a continuing effort over the course of his exile to be recalled, first by Augustus and, after Augustus's death in 14 CE, by his successor Tiberius. All the same, to an urbane, well-educated, well-off poet who had moved in the highest Roman circles, a colonial town — where Latin was the language of only a small minority, the food and drink atrocious, and literary culture and the book trade nonexistent — must have been depressing and difficult, Cicero's fifteen-month exile in Greece a pleasure trip by comparison. Ovid knew what he was in for when he set out for Tomis. One of his love poems, published sometime between 20 and 1 BCE, describes his hometown of Sulmo (now Sulmona in the Abruzzo, whose main street is the Corso Ovidio) as being like the wastes of Scythia because his lover is not with him. Tomis, while politically not part of Scythia, was just next-door.

Until his still unexplained banishment, Ovid lived a charmed life. He came from a well-to-do equestrian family and was expected to enter law and politics. He chose poetry instead and became famous. The literary world of his day was as cowed by Virgil as the German-speaking music world in the middle of the nineteenth century was by Beethoven; and just as Brahms repeatedly delayed publishing his first string quartet and his first symphony because of the weight of Beethoven's achievements in those forms, so Ovid and his crowd stayed away for the most part from the epic and concentrated of elegiac poetry. Ovid was not by nature at ease in the epic mode in any case, and while his only pseudo-epic work, the Metamorphoses, did employ the dactylic hexameters of epic poetry, it is not so much a narrative as a mosaic of what in another context he called fairy tales for grown-ups. Augustus's support being something of a sine qua non for a poet in imperial Rome, Ovid concluded his book of changes with the advent of his sovereign ruler, Jove's counterpart on Earth, as he calls him. Yet it feels like a mere doffing of his hat, this acknowledgement by Ovid of literature's role in nation-building, and his final words propose that it is poetry that lasts, not the work of emperors no matter how brilliant. "My work will last" — vivam in Latin — the final word of the concluding sentence of the Metamorphoses, may strike us as an egotistical contention. It also turned out to be true, however, although it is ironic that Ovid had barely finished his long poem when his exile was decreed. The work would live on in glory forever, but the poet would live the last of his life remotely and in squalor and would be buried on the periphery of the country he had celebrated, however adventitiously.

The Metamorphoses notwithstanding, Ovid was famous in his day as a love poet, and if it was not the love poems which kept his reputation alive through almost two millennia of Christian civilization, it is those poems which today seem most contemporary through their vivid expression of romantic love and sexual politics. The Amores, fifty poems arranged in three books, contain so little in the way of cultural or political reference to their time that scholars have not been able to decide when they were written and made public. They patently date to the last two decades before the beginning of the new millennium, when Ovid was in his twenties and thirties, but greater exactitude is stymied by their determined focus on the lover's covert life, his feelings as well as his erotic strategies. Ovid learned a lot from the other elegiac poets of his time, especially Propertius and Tibullus (the ninth poem in Book III is a moving elegy for Tibullus), as well as from the poems of Catullus, the great love poet from two generations earlier. But despite his appropriation of the well-worn tradition of addressing his love poems to a pseudonymous woman — he calls her Corinna, although unlike Catullus's Lesbia or Tibullus's Delia, she seems to have had no real life counterpart — his poems are if anything even more vivid and "true" than those of his coevals and predecessors. This is entirely due to his greatness as a poet. He did not "invent" love, as Tom Stoppard said of Propertius through his character A.E. Housman in The Invention of Love. He just wrote about it in such a way that a tradition was established, a tradition that still seems permanently true to experience.

In the early eighteenth century, Samuel Garth, a physician to the court of George I and a poet who was instrumental in seeing through the press an English version of Ovid's Metamorphosestranslated by a group of writers including Pope, Dryden, and Addison, wrote that a translator of Ovid ought "neither to follow the Author too close out of a Critical Timorousness, nor abandon him too wantonly through a Poetick Boldness." On that scale, David R. Slavitt's new translation of the Amores, together with the Heroides (Letters of Heroic Women) and the Remedia amoris(Remedies for Love's Afflictions) definitely comes closer to poetic boldness than to critical timorousness. During a recent Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview about his book, Slavitt joked that he liked to think of his translations of Ovid as renditions, as in not only versions but also unwarranted kidnappings of the texts.

Slavitt, who will publish his 100th book in 2012 and who is well known as a poet and novelist as well as a translator from several languages, including Latin and Greek, has attempted to contrive an Amores with a very contemporary tone. While respecting Ovid's verse form (elegiac poetry was written in couplets with one six-beat and one five-beat line), he has not hesitated to alter, paraphrase, extend, or update Ovid's language, using current or almost current slang at times while never completely transforming the poet into an East coast metrosexual, as indeed one could if so moved. He has resisted too much modernizing and essential 2000-year-old details remain. There is, for example, the fact that Ovid anathematizes a wood and wax writing tablet rather than a letter on paper for bringing him disappointing news about a proposed assignation and the paraclausathyron or address to the closed door that guards his lover that constitutes the sixth poem of Book I remains what it is despite the ability of lovers today to arrange rendezvous by e-mail and text messages, a substitution that probably would not have borne fruit. By contrast, various words and phrases do get re-imagined. Anus, which means an old woman, becomes "an over-the-hill playgirl," while procax, which means forward or bold, becomes "a brassy babe" ("dame" occurs a few lines further on) and senex, an old man, becomes "an old geezer." Other bits are simply invented, as in I.8, where the sentence "and I should make it clear that she / and I were an item, as they say" has no equivalent in Ovid's Latin (and what the Latin would be for that is hard to imagine).

Slavitt can be concise when he wants to be — the opening of II.5, for instance ("No love is worth this much. Cupid, take your quiver/and go") is as brief as the Latin ("Nullus amor tanti est-abeas, pharetrate Cupido!") — but in general he needs substantially more space than Ovid required. Poem I.8 is 114 lines in the original and 155 in English, and while this is not solely attributable to Slavitt's expansions, Latin being considerably more concise than English as a rule, it is certainly in part his doing. Christopher Marlowe, whose translation of the Amores was probably made while he was an undergraduate but was not published until after his death in 1593, managed the same poem in exactly Ovid's 114 lines. Peter Green, whose Penguin translation is perhaps the most widely read modern version, also kept this poem to 114 lines. (To be fair, Green's line is generally long and serpentine and he does not keep to six and five beats.) Marlowe's choice for anus, incidentally, was "trot," perfect and concise slang from another age. Green seems to have dithered about the word without making a decision. He gives us "a certain bitch, snake, hag."

Slavitt's expansion of the Latin can be unstinting. His "Remedies" is almost 200 lines longer than the Latin (993 as against 814 lines), and an example will demonstrate the reason. Toward the end of the poem, Cupid is quoted with some specific recommendations about avoiding romantic entanglements. At one point, suggesting how Paris might have acted to avoid the whole Trojan War, he says, Ut posses odisse tuam, Pari, funera fratrum/debueras oculis substituisse tuis, literally "To have focused on hatred, Paris, you should have turned your eyes to your brothers' deaths," admittedly not the clearest advice if a reader does not know his or her history. Slavitt fills that history in and adds a perhaps unnecessarily dismissive characterization of Paris: "Had Paris not been such a selfish ninny, / he might have thought of his brothers and how his banal romance / would end with their bloodshed on the Trojan plain." Implication and mythic reference are thus made very specific in the English. Ovid does not call Paris names nor dismiss his love affair as "banal," but this is often Slavitt's way. He will open the language up and be expository when the Latin is not, if he thinks the modern reader requires his help, and this is reasonable in the absence of notes or any sort of apparatus. Allowing for that, one might still question the choice, if one believes that the choice is the translator's to make, of the somewhat old-fashioned insult "ninny." Among alternatives, "jerk" or "asshole" both seem somewhat too contemporary. Perhaps "idiot" or "fool" would have been better, though neither word is quite satisfactory metrically.

Ovid was just twelve years old when the Battle of Actium was fought, and therefore lived most of his life at a time when the Roman world was at peace. He detested military affairs, patriotism, and war, but was nevertheless content to conceive of the relationship between the sexes as just that, a war. The first word of the Amores is arma ("arms"), and while this undoubtedly constitutes in part an ironic kiss of the fingers in Virgil's direction (the opening phrase of the Aeneid isArma virumque cano, "Of arms and the man I sing"), it also establishes a vocabulary of strategy and contest, both failure and victory, that on one level will characterize the poems as a whole. "Every lover is a soldier," begins I.9, a poem that then concludes with talk of the "campaigns of night." When the sequence as a whole ends, Ovid tells us that he is withdrawing from the fray of love by once again using a military metaphor: "Cupid and you, too, Venus, take your golden standards/out of my field." Yet in the forty-eight poems that come between these two, the poet's heart is rarely as objective as the narrative of erotic strategy might suggest. He may sometimes be focused on the rhetoric of success and defeat — we learn both that he is an indefatigable fornicator (nine orgasms in a night is his record) and that he has suffered from impotence ("my prick lay there as if it were dead") — but at other times he confesses to missing Corinna when she travels, to feeling embarrassed by his loose morals, and to the old conundrum of love that you can't live with her and you can't live without her. This last is a feeling that Ovid states in such a literal and modern way (sic ego nec sine te nec tecum vivere possum) as to make it sound like the opening line in a stand-up comedian's routine.

Thirty years ago and more, the Australian novelist David Malouf published a novel entitled An Imaginary Life that recreated Ovid's years of banishment, and in the brief afterword he wrote: "Ovid is very much an actor, inclined to exaggerate for effect, so very little of what he tells us is reliable." Classical scholars tend to take this view as well, but I think that there is little in the love poetry to support it. That the poems written from Tomis are sometimes inclined to whining and pleading goes without saying, but who, in Ovid's position, would not have done the same? That the poet was self-conscious about the value of poetry is another matter. He was confident that poetry would guarantee his immortality, and of course he was right. As a lover, he took a more paradoxical view of his poems, offering them on the one hand as a way for Corinna to also gain immortality — that is the debonair seducer talking — while complaining, on the other, that his skill has brought his lover to the attention of rivals, who ought to know that poets are inveterate prevaricators and are not to be trusted. The tales poets tell about Tantalus and Perseus are "children's stories," he says, so why would a reader take his narratives about his love life any more seriously? This paradoxical or self-serving attitude strikes me as simply a genuine symptom of erotic engagement. It's an honest desire to have it both ways, a forgivable fault of any man deeply enmeshed in "this rumpy-pumpy business," to quote Slavitt's slangy version of a phrase from Remedia Amoris.



Turning from the very modern concerns of Ovid to what one tends to think of as the more removed and Olympian world of Virgil (as least as far as the Aeneid is concerned — he also wrote poetic texts about farming and the Arcadian life), a higher style might be expected. But in the so-called Appendix Virgiliana, the rubric under which a group of poems traditionally ascribed to Virgil has been published since Joseph Scaliger assigned it to them in 1572, and most of which have recently been translated by Slavitt as The Gnat and Other Minor Poems, we find an atypical Virgil writing humorous, obscene, parodic, and very slight poems, uncharacteristic to such an extent that scholarship has pretty definitely consigned them to the realm of forgery and misattribution. Although he probably did not write these poems, then, they remain associated with his name, and undoubtedly survived for that reason alone and not for any putative innate greatness as poetry. A.E. Housman dismissed them as "the work of poetasters," and even their Loeb Classical Library editor, whom one might have forgiven a bit of special pleading, charmingly called them "motley pinchbeck." Unlike Virgil's three main books, these minor poems have rarely been translated into English. Apart from the Loeb edition which contains Rushton Fairclough's rendering, and occasional translations of individual poems (Edmund Spenser, for example, published a rather free version of "The Gnat" in 1591), only one largely complete English version seems to be recorded. This translation by Joseph J. Mooney, issued in 1916 with a second edition four years later, is an extremely rare book and thus almost unknown. All the more welcome, then, is Slavitt's new translation.

He has translated eight of the poems in the Appendix, plus the group of four known as "Priapea," or poems about Priapus. He makes a case for them in his introduction as "appealing, charming, and affable," and proposes that they are worth his and a reader's time if the reader has "fun." I did not find them particularly fun. "The Gnat" is technically called an epyllion, as in a miniature epic poem, and it is rather tiresome even at its short length (414 lines in Latin). "Curses," a much shorter poem, seems rather lame as cursing poems go, and "Pesto" is just that, a recipe for making the Roman equivalent of the basil, garlic, and olive oil sauce. Three further poems now assigned to the poet Ausonius are slight (although one, "Budding Roses," has a pleasant Robert Herrick-like conclusion), and the poems for Priapus, while fetchingly full of inflated pricks as one might suspect, seem even less attractive as poetry. That leaves "The Barmaid," a brief poem summed up by its last line (Mors aurem vellens "vivite" ait, "venio"- literally "Live, says death, tugging at my ear, for I am on my way"), and "Lydia," the best of the lot, a poem about the loss of love:

My darling is no longer by my side, and no one
on earth is as clever as she or nearly as lovely.
I only wonder that Jove, at home in the heights,
never noticed that here on earth was a greater
prize than Europa or Danaë in her tower.


The poems is a mixed bag, then, as Slavitt himself admits, but it is always a good thing to have some more or less new bits of classical poetry made available in an English translation that is lively and vivid, if not always fun. 


LARB Contributor

Bruce Whiteman is a Canadian poet who lives in Toronto and writes full-time. His most recent books are a collection of poems, The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books I-VI (2006), and a translation of Tiberianus’ Pervigilium Veneris (2009).



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