World Literature

Ovid

 

BORN: 43 BCE, Sulmo (now Sulmona), Italy

DIED: c. 18 CE, Tomis (now Constanta), Romania

NATIONALITY: Italian, Roman

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Art of Love (1 BCE)

Metamorphoses (8 CE)

 

 

Ovid. © Sandro Vannini / Corbis

 

Overview

Known for his elegiac couplets and a narrative poem called Metamorphoses that mythologizes the creation of the world, Ovid is widely recognized as one of the greatest poets of classical Rome. His works are among some of the most influential in European literature and have inspired centuries of imitation. He is considered a master Latin stylist whose technical accomplishments permanently enriched the language. His verse is distinguished by clarity of expression and exactness.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Life and Early Years at the Twilight of the Roman Republic. Ovid was born in 43 BCE, the year in which the ancient Roman republican system of government finally came to an end when both heads of government fell in battle against the would-be usurper Mark Antony. The bloody series of civil wars that followed until 31 BCE coincides with the years of Ovid’s childhood and adolescence: The chilling events that accompanied this—after his defeat by Octavian, his one-time ally, Mark Antony committed suicide, as did his lover Cleopatra— cannot have failed to leave their mark, but they do not haunt Ovid's early imagination as they do those of other Roman writers such as Vergil or Propertius.

Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona, Italy), ninety miles and a world apart from Rome, into a prosperous family of the equestrian order. The equites, or knights, were the second class of Roman society and supported the status quo of the ruling senatorial elite. Sent to Rome to study rhetoric under the leading rhetoricians of the time in preparation for a legal career, Ovid distinguished himself as a student, but ultimately chose the vocation of a poet. His poetic genius gained him admission to the circle around statesman and literary patron Messalla, and Ovid quickly became a favorite of the Roman elite. Here, he met the other leading poets of the day, including Propertius and Horace.

Love Poetry. Ovid’s first work, Loves, appeared originally in five volumes around 20 BCE and by 1 CE was rereleased in a shorter three-book edition, which is the only version extant today. The Heroines is generally regarded as Ovid’s second endeavor, although some evidence suggests the work was published later in his career. Here Ovid highlights his profound knowledge of mythology and creates clever, rhetorical dramatic soliloquies of unhappy love that breathed new life into an almost exhausted Greek genre.

The Art of Love was published around 1 BCE and instantly caused a sensation. The poem consists of three books, a light and irreverent series of loosely connected instructions on how to find and win one’s love in contemporary Rome. As this poem implicitly ridiculed the conservative moralism of the Augustan regime, Ovid quickly wrote a recantation, The Remedies of Love, but critics have found that work rather biting as well.

Banishment and Metamorphoses. In 8 CE, Emperor Augustus banished Ovid, then Rome’s most popular poet, to Tomis on the Black Sea (now Constanta, Romania) under somewhat peculiar and still unexplained circumstances. The poet was tried for high treason in the emperor’s private court, and his sentence was pronounced directly by Augustus. Ovid’s books were subsequently removed from public libraries, but he lost neither his citizenship nor property, nor was he forbidden to communicate with his friends or wife, as was normal in such cases. Ovid claimed that a poem, most likely The Art of Love, and an indiscretion, perhaps with Augustus’s granddaughter, had caused his exile. On the eve of his exile Ovid was composing the Calendar, a description of the Roman religious year, and the Metamorphoses. The epic Metamorphoses (8 CE), long recognized as his masterpiece, describes the loves and transformations of characters from classical mythology, providing masterly and accessible renditions of ancient tales.

Exile came as a great shock to Ovid; his reaction to the blow provided some of the most remarkable poetry of personal expression from antiquity. He responded to his changed circumstances by investing his emotions in elegy, the genre in which he had written as a poet-lover in his youth. Ovid’s exile poetry in the Lamentations and the Letters from the Black Sea is not in the confessional style a modern reader might expect. While he frequently describes the misery of his surroundings, he focuses his defense upon his art. His pleas were in vain, however; he died in Tomis, still banished. Ovid, over the course of his life, would marry three times and divorce twice, with one daughter.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Ovid's famous contemporaries include:

Caesar Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE): The first emperor of the Roman Empire, from 27 BCE until his death, Augustus's strong rule ushered in the Pax Romana, or time of peace and stability in the empire.

Herod the Great (73 BCE-4 BCE): A Roman king of Judea who, according to the New Testament, was responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, the deaths of all firstborn male children in Bethlehem, in an attempt to prevent the coming of the ''king of the Jews.''

Horace (65 BCE-8 BCE): A Roman lyric poet, Horace is best known for his Odes.

Livy (59 BCE-17 CE): A Roman historian, Livy wrote a comprehensive, seven-hundred-year history of Rome.

Vergil (70 BCE-19 BCE): Vergil, a classical Roman poet, wrote The Aeneid, an epic poem telling of Rome's origins.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Ovid turned myth from the realm of the religious to the aesthetic and imaginative. The stories in his Metamorphoses have influenced much literature and popular culture, including the following works.

The Labors of Hercules (1947), a collection by Agatha Christie. This short-story collection takes the twelve labors of the classical strongman Hercules and turns each into a related mystery that Hercule Poirot, Belgian detective, must solve.

The Mask of Apollo (1966), a novel by Mary Renault. An actor in ancient Greece reluctantly gets involved with the volatile political situation; his moral guide is a mask of Apollo, god of music, representing harmony and order, to whom there was a famous shrine in Delphi.

My Fair Lady (1964), a film directed by George Cukor. This musical starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison reinvents the myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who falls in love with the woman he creates.

Orpheus (1950), a film directed by Jean Cocteau. This movie, set in Paris, retells the story of Orpheus, a gifted musician, who goes to the Underworld to reclaim his beloved wife after her death.

Tales from Ovid (1997), poetry by Ted Hughes. The former poet laureate of England translates twenty-four stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses in this prize-winning collection.

 

Works in Literary Context

Metamorphoses as Classical Sourcebook. Out of the remnants of classical literature, Ovid’s Metamorphoses survived as a sourcebook for artists, writers, and readers seeking access to the world of Greek and Roman mythology. Many of the most seemingly familiar myths of antiquity owe their main outlines, and often their survival, to the form Ovid gives them in his poem. For modern readers, Ovid is the sole source for many tales, but his contemporaries had access to a wealth of literature, written in both Latin and Greek, in which they might have found similar versions of these narratives to hold up in comparison. While epic in scope, the work’s meter, tone, and subject are quite unlike Rome’s imperial epic, Vergil’s Aeneid. Drawn from Greek mythology, Roman folklore, and Mesopotamian sources, the stories constituting the Metamorphoses are all linked by a common motif—transformation.

Ovid’s Lasting Literary Influence. Ovid’s banishment and the removal of his works from public access did nothing to diminish his popularity, as illustrated by the appearance of quotes from The Art of Love in graffiti around the city of Pompeii. While some contemporaries criticized Ovid for his lack of control and irreverent tone in his verse, other writers freely mimicked Ovidian poetic technique. In medieval times, commentators and translators revised his poems into allegories by purging their erotic content in accordance with Christian doctrine. However, the stories and concepts in the Metamorphoses, Loves, and Heroines, as interpreted by the medieval traveling poets, or minstrels, helped form the concept of courtly love, which played an important role in the creation of Arthurian literature.

Ovid’s influence upon English literature began with Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. William Shakespeare drew heavily on Ovid in his earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and Ovid’s influence can be traced throughout Shakespeare’s career. For the poets of the Enlightenment, the intellectual play, which represents the hallmark of Ovid’s style, evoked a deep similarity to their own approach to poetry. John Dryden and Alexander Pope not only translated much of Ovid’s verse, but their original work also shows his influence. In the twentieth century, readers of Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid encounter the poet of the Metamorphoses in revived form.

Ovid’s Influence on the Visual Arts In the visual arts, Ovid’s myths have always provided a rich source of inspiration. The list of painters and sculptors who have treated Ovidian themes is long and includes such artists as Italian Renaissance painter Titian, French painter Nicolas Poussin, Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel, Flemish Baroque painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck, French Romantic painter and lithographer Eugene Delacroix, and Belarusian-French modernist painter Marc Chagall.

 

Works in Critical Context

Ovid has always appealed more to artists than to scholars. His works never formed part of the school curriculum in antiquity, and the Metamorphoses were sanitized during the fourteenth century. At various times during this period, Ovid’s poetry was also banned or heavily censored. However, Ovid’s works were frequently translated into English in the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and his critical reputation was enhanced. Opinions varied: For instance, Arthur Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses in 1567 became immensely popular, going through six printings during Shakespeare’s lifetime, while Christopher Marlowe’s adaptation of Loves, published in 1597 as The Elegies, was publicly burned in 1599. In general, though some critics regard Ovid as a frivolous and superficial poet, others praise his complex mastery of poetic form and narrative skill, and extraordinary grasp of the human, particularly feminine, psyche.

The Complexity of Metamorphoses. In the Spring 1972 issue of the journal Arethusa, Leo Curran questioned the rhetorical intention and meaning of Metamorphoses. He addressed the ‘‘numerous possibilities’’ of the work and asked the reader whether Metamorphoses could be considered epic or entertainment, neutral or profound, poetic or philosophical. Eight years after Curran’s article, Catherine Rhorer also wrote in Arethusa that ‘‘Ovid has moved beyond the stable and architectonic structures of classical art.’’ In translating Metamorphoses in Tales from Ovid (1997), poet Ted Hughes chose to simplify Ovid’s varied and often complicated metonymic references; Ovid used so many different words for a person or object that sometimes the actual identity may not be obvious. Hughes also streamlined Ovid’s excessive use of detail, as scholar Christian Hogel noted, and tried to centralize certain themes. Hogel offered Hughes’s work almost as a critique of Ovid: Hughes pared down Ovid’s classic layering to focus on the ‘‘stories told by Ovid’’ and reveal their ‘‘symbolic value.’’

The Meaning of Loves. As suggested by scholar Sara Mack, the title of Ovid’s work Amores, or Loves, can hold a number of meanings: in Latin, ‘‘The plural amores can ... refer to girlfriends, love affairs, or love poems.’’ The fifty poems in the volume follow a style called a ‘‘love elegy’’ and express a hopeless passion; they are playful in tone, indicating that the narrator will not truly die of his love. With Amores, Ovid is said to have invented the ‘‘posing poet-lover’’ and inspired John Donne.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Ovid’s banishment arguably might have been the defining moment of his life. Write an informal essay addressing this question: If you were forced to live in a different country from your family and friends, do you think you would adjust, or would you always be affected by it?

2. Ovid was an immensely popular writer in Roman times, but some people today consider him ‘‘frivolous.’’ Think of a contemporary writer or other artist who is very popular but whom critics don’t always take seriously. Write an essay describing his or her work, what critics object to in it, and whether you think the author is being criticized fairly.

3. The theme in The Art of Love, how to find and keep your love, is still popular. Think of tips you could give someone today—for example, ‘‘don’t text message the person you like more than three times a day.’’ In a small group of your classmates, write out three to five tips, and read them aloud.

4. In his poems from exile, Ovid writes about the place of art in his life, not only as the cause of his personal disaster, but also as the source of his salvation. Write a personal statement in which you describe how the arts might help you deal with your problems when things go wrong. Be sure to give specific examples.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Fraenkel, Hermann. Ovid: A Poet between Two Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956.

Galinksy, G. Karl. Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Mack, Sara. Ovid. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Martindale, Charles, ed. Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Otis, Brooks. Ovid as an Epic Poet. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Simpson, Michael. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Solodow, Joseph B. The World of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Thibault, John C. The Mystery of Ovid’s Exile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Ovid and the Moderns. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Web Sites

Greenberg, Hope. The Ovid Project. Retrieved May 15, 2008, from http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/ovid/. Last updated on November 7, 1997.