Ovid’s Amores: Wit, desire, artifice

I just finished A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Amores in his Oxford World’s Classics volume of Ovid, The Love Poems. I had previously read his translation of the Metamorphoses and fell in love with the liveliness of Melville’s verse, as quick to turn a phrase as Ovid himself, so when I took advantage of Blackwell’s 2 for 1 sale of Oxford World’s Classics early this week, I paired this volume with Selected Philosophical Writings of St Thomas Aquinas.

If I ever get around to recommending more classical epic, a piece on the Metamorphoses would be in order — following, however, The Aeneid of Vergil.

But right now, some thoughts on the Amores as they come.

This selection of poems includes some of Ovid’s earliest publications (Ovid lived 43 BC-AD 17/18), although he re-edited the original five books into three for the final, single-volume edition. The poetry included here is elegiac verse. Elegy is written in couplets; the first line of the couplet is a dactylic hexameter, the same meter as epic verse, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The second line of the couplet is a pentameter, comprising two pairs of two and a half dactyls.*

It is a meter as invariable as the Appenines of Ovid’s birthplace (Sulmo), moving ever forward as desire draws a man to his beloved. It can be playful; it can be mournful. Today, we associate elegy with mourning.

In Latin, elegiac verse was written primarily for love poetry. The themes of elegiac verse are, in fact, often associated with mourning or lament. Lamenting the burning of desire caused by love. Lamenting a door keeping the lover out of the beloved’s house. Lamenting the husband at a dinner party. Lamenting the beloved being away for the weekend. Lamenting the beloved coming back to Rome early. Lamenting the beloved’s unfaithfulness.

That’s not all that it’s about, but those are not uncommon themes in Latin love elegy, which I first encountered with J C Yardley at the University of Ottawa where we read his little text and commentary Minor Authors of the Corpus Tibullianum (including such figures as Lygdamus and Sulpicia) as well as a few from Tibullus himself. The other poet famous today for Latin love elegy is Propertius. And all of these men looked back to Gallus, from whom one papyrus fragment was found in the 20th century, much to the disappointment of Latinists everywhere. It wasn’t as good as hoped.

Anyway, Ovid comes after Tibullus and Propertius and basically does everything you can with Latin love elegy. In the introduction to this volume, E J Kenney says that he ‘finished off … Latin love elegy.’ (xix) Whereas for one such as Tibullus and Propertius, the affair is mostly an unhappy business, Ovid’s love affair is, until the later stages of Book 3, not unhappy.

There are laments or complaints, such as to doors and slaves and suchlike. But Ovid’s wit brings us a largely happy love affair from inception to denouement — hence it is not always happy, for the endings of such things tend not to be. In three books of short poems, Ovid takes his reader on a journey through this love affair, his wit creating various conceits and situations along the way: addressing the doorpost, a (written) poem that is ostensibly an oral message to the slave who bears a written message, a poem to the mistress followed by one to the slavegirl about the same event, one early poem about what to do if the husband is at a party, a later one about her doing these things in relation to other men at a party where Ovid is present, and so forth.

Besides the straight-out love poetry, there are pauses and breaks. We have an encounter between Tragedy and Elegy. We have a defence of poetry vs politics and the lawcourt. We have a funerary elegy for Tibullus. And throughout, there is interwoven Ovid’s expected mythological allusions and uncommon, unstandard versions of the tales of literature, as well as allusions to his other work, such as the Heroides which are a series of fictional letters from famous heroines of myth to their lovers.

Throughout, driving Ovid more than anything is desire. The desire for Corinna, who is probably a fiction. The desire for immortality and fame. The desire to twist and turn and make new what has been done before by many another. The desire for his art to be taken seriously. And the glass tesserae that comprise Ovid’s mosaic of poetry are wit and artifice.

Wit and artifice — not necessarily insincere but a caution to take Ovid’s love poetry too seriously — run through all of Ovid’s work, whether the works in elegiac verse such as the Amores and Ars Amatoria or the epic Metamorphoses.

I invite you spend some time today with one of Rome’s wittiest poets, a man who was certainly successor to Virgil as the giant of the Augustan Age. And do so, if you can, in the company of A. D. Melville’s masterful, faithful, fast-paced translation.

PS: If you’re interested in the Metamorphoses, Nemo at ‘Books on Trial’ has two posts of what will be a series up, one on Phaeton and another on Narcissus and Echo.

*A dactyl is: Long, short, short, like the joints of a finger (daktylos is Greek for finger).

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