Tag Archives: a d melville

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).

Ovidian humanity

Recently, I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by A. D. Melville. This translation captures the speed, the vividness, the living poetry of Ovid’s’ hexameters. I recommend it (whereas the Penguin Classics translation I most emphatically do not).

Unlike most of the epics we think of when we think epicThe OdysseyThe AeneidGilgamesh, Beowulf and such — the Metamorphoses is an entire history of the cosmos from Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, told through the specific lens of — you guessed it — metamorphosis.

Right now, I wish to focus in on one passage from the creation story of Ovid’s mythological epic (epic mythology?). In Bk 1 (remember that in ancient literature a ‘book’ is like a chapter), we read:

Then man was made, perhaps from seed divine,
Formed by the great Creator, so to found
A better world, perhaps the new-made earth,
So lately parted from the ethereal heavens,
Kept still some essence of the kindred sky–
Earth that Prometheus moulded, mixed with water,
In likeness of the gods that govern the world–
And while the other creatures on all fours
Look downwards, man was made to hold his head
Erect in majesty and see the sky,
And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.
Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed
Put on the unknown form of humankind.

Hopefully you have enjoyed Melville’s blank verse rendering of Ovid’s hexameters; I know I do. What’s to notice here is what makes us human. All the other animals have been created (as in Genesis), and now, ‘in likeness of the gods’ (as in Genesis), the human race is made.

This post is not about Christian theology (fear not!). Nonetheless, Christian theologians/exegetes/preachers/commentators have spent much time mulling over what it means to be made in the image of God. Does it lie in God’s first commandment to the man and woman? Does it lie in the nature of the Holy Trinity? Is it reason?

It seems to me that Ovid’s answer is that ‘man was made to hold his head / Erect in majesty and see the sky / And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.’

We are fashioned of earth and heaven, says Ovid. And so, of earth, our feet are planted on the ground. Yet, of heaven, our eyes look upwards. We touch the sky (excuse us as we do so, says Jimi). We, unlike the four-footed beasts (says Ovid), stand erect and behold the vastness of the Milky Way, the passage of the Moon, the blazing inferno of the Sun. We walk beneath this vast, starry host and cannot help but consider our place in the universe.

And, as beings who can feel small in the face of that speckled black vastness, we sing songs of this earthy life and that heavenly glory. We philosophise to make sense of it all. We tell of deeds great and deeds small, of gods gigantic and humans striving for gigantism.

Poised between animal and divine, we are human. Walking beneath the vastness of the stars of night, we turn mystical, philosophical, scientifical.

Not such a bad way to be.