Laurel Fulkerson discusses the appeal of this outsider poet, now excitingly back in fashion.
Ovid, the lucky dog, currently finds himself at the centre-point of a number of overlapping interests which mean that, once again, he seems very much like a Poet for Our Time. Although the Roman poet has been dead for (almost exactly!) 2000 years – our best guess is that he died in the year 17 CE, in exile – he continues to exert a curious fascination on modern readers. Or perhaps it is not so curious: his poetry concentrates on love and death, engages with problems of power and identity, and occupies itself with politics writ both large and small: these are all very contemporary issues. Add the fact that he was forced out of Rome by an angry emperor (at least as he tells the story), and resorted to an ancient version of crowdsourcing to generate hype around his potential return, and things start to seem very contemporary indeed. You might, in fact, wonder how Ovid ever fell out of fashion. Some of it has to do with the Romantic belief of many writers and scholars of the eighteenth century that art had to be sincere, to express some part of its author’s soul. And Ovid’s poetry is deliberately artificial, presents itself as unserious in the extreme. This seems to have made him unpopular, at least among some, in the Augustan period, and in a number of other historical eras. In our more cynical moment, this stance combines with the fact of his exile (or pseudo-fact; we do not actually have any outside confirmation) to make Ovid seem like the anthropological ideal of the ‘native informant’ – Roman but an outsider, witness to but seemingly not a fan of the contemporary changes scholars of the period find most interesting. But given the well-documented moves among the current crop of students towards community, inclusion, and also respect for an increasing range of diversity, it is very much an open question whether Ovid will continue to be popular among the young, who may well be more interested in a less subversive poet.
Ovid’s most famous poem, the lengthy but by no means monotonous Metamorphoses, takes readers on a whirlwind History of Everything, from the creation of the universe through what quaintly, or disturbingly, used to be called the ‘loves of the gods’, to historical times right down to the present moment (right around the year zero, the turn of the millennium), when Rome’s empire has temporarily stabilized, but has also become an Empire, with all that means. After a full generation of infighting, Rome under Augustus gave up the Republican ghost, and began a new history under a single hereditary monarchy. Ovid is well-placed, again, to point readers to a number of questions and problems surrounding this transition. He has often been understood as ‘anti-Augustan’; while this is a stance that can seem old-fashioned, there is still much to be learned from the ways Ovid defines Augustanism, and Augustus defines Ovidianness. It is in Ovid’s exile poetry that some of the points most relevant to this issue are raised. For, perhaps astonishingly, after being sent to remote Tomis (now in Romania), Ovid did not stop writing. In fact, he wrote ten books of poetry from Tomis. These poems, for a long time underappreciated but more recently receiving scholarly attention, are part travelogue, part lament, part groveling apology and plea for relocation, directed to the emperor himself, but also to powerful friends who might be able to exert moral pressure.
And yet. The ‘exile poetry’, as it is usually called, bears striking similarities to Ovid’s pre-exilic work. For one, metre: they are written in elegiac couplets, the variant of epic metre in which he had first made his name (the Metamorphoses alone of his extant poetry are written in dactylic hexameter, the metre of epic poets such as Homer). For another, treatment of the subject matter: Ovid persistently, and disconcertingly, seems to suggest that his removal from Rome is not so different from a lovers’ quarrel, and that Augustus shares similarities with the cruel elegiac mistress, who has shut him out from Rome. Ovidians these days mostly presume this to be a deliberate tactic on the poet’s part (opinions differ about its intent), but it has also been understood to be the result of a tic he could not control. One effect of this, whatever its motivation, is that there is a certain sameness to Ovid’s poetry. Here again, this was seen by generations of readers as an unfortunate shortcoming, but more recently it has been seen as a key, and positive, feature of Ovid’s poetry, with the repetition conveying its own set of messages.
The Heroides, for instance, which are a series of letters written by Ovid in the persona of various (mostly female) mythological characters, were loved by the Romantics because they convincingly portrayed such ‘genuine’ emotion. Those who came after found them repetitive and stale; this tide too has turned, and their repetition has been valorized as showing Ovid’s dazzling ability to display difference within similarity. The Fasti have enjoyed a similar but less-pronounced renaissance. What used to look like bumbled Ovidian attempts to fit the data of Roman religion into the traditional schema now look more like broad re-interpretations, re- envisionings of what ‘religion’ and even ‘Roman’ might mean.
There are a few strands that unite the poet’s seemingly disparate work. Throughout his poetry, but especially in longer narratives like the Metamorphoses and Fasti, Ovid portrays a variety of characters that seem to represent some aspect of himself. Among the most obvious of these are cases where he tells a story about some kind of artist, literary, musical, or visual. For instance, the sculptor Pygmalion finds himself unable to love any human woman, so creates one for himself out of ivory; he falls in love with his own creation, and she ultimately comes to life.
There are certainly connections to be drawn here to questions Ovid raises throughout his poetry about the natural vs. the artificial, about self and other, and about the nature of love (among other things). In an interesting foreshadowing of his own biography, there are also a lot of characters who travel – voluntarily, as explorers, conquerors, or tourists, and involuntarily, as exiles – and who are changed, sometimes for the better but often for the worse, by their experiences. Medea is perhaps the most compelling of these (compelling to the poet too, since he treated her on at least three separate occasions, one of them, his tragedy Medea, lost to us). Rather than concentrating on the part of the story we already know, Ovid’s Medeas instead explore how she came to be the monster tradition makes her.
If we are able to withhold judgement, we are rewarded with a sensitive portrayal of what love and loss can drive people to, and with the reminder that power sometimes changes hands in unexpected ways.
Ovid’s poetry also makes room for a variety of narrative voices, telling stories that are not often told in Latin, stories about rape from the point of view of the raped woman, for instance. The sensitivity with which Ovid portrays various kinds of victims suggests that we might also understand them as representing some aspect of himself. But, troublingly, Ovid also seems to telling stories of exploitation from the point of view of those who benefit, who use their power over others to harm. The Amores and the Ars Amatoria, two elegiac collections mostly about intimate relationships, feature especially grotesque narrators; both revel in the cruel games they play, and seek to dominate and manipulate everyone they come into contact with. As is often the case with Ovid, the precise tone, and even more, the intent, are difficult to judge. And readers often struggle with these poems; yet, as a teacher, I find that with care, they can provide a fantastic canvas for classroom discussions. Here as well, Ovid has something to contribute to modern concerns with power and the dispossessed. And – without attempting to speculate too much about Ovid’s inner life – the complicated nexus identification with both victim and exploiter probably connects to changing roles in the Roman world: Ovid is on the one hand patently a member of the elite, but on the other hand – as his exile will have brutally reminded him – he was not the master of his fate.
Laurel Fulkerson is Professor of Classics at the Florida State University and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her introductory book Ovid: A Poet in the Margins is published by Bloomsbury.