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The Erotic Poems - Ovid, Peter Green

Book Review by Ursus

Love be not proud. Let love be cynical, irreverent and bawdy! Ovid is the perfect cure for maudlin saps pining for unrequited romances. The good man from Sulmo is perhaps the most infamous Roman poet, and deservedly so. Not content with being a creature of the Augustan propaganda machine and its prudish morality, Ovid literally turned fornication into a high art.

Adultery, seduction, objectification of women - Ovid pulled no punches in his early career. Obsessed with achieving immortality through the written word, Ovid attained his goal - but at a cost. Like an overly proud angel, the poet was cast down from heaven to his own hell. Penguin's The Erotic Poems gives us a glimpse of this forbidden but delicious fruit.

Having outlined Ovid's life and style elsewhere, I will not repeat myself superfluously here. Rather, the aim of this review will be to convey a sampling of Ovid's poetry, and in particular why the Penguin edition is an excellent start for the neophyte to Ovidian love elegy.

The Penguin edition encompasses four separate works from Ovid. First are the three books of The Amores, a journal of joyous and bitter experiences of the Poet's erotic escapades, often at the hands of a female figure named Corinna. Second is another work in three books, The Art of Love, a parody of didactic literature that serves as a veritable handbook for seduction for both sexes. Cures for Love is exactly what it sounds like: the poet's (often tongue-in-cheek) advice on how to overcome sentimental attachments. Finally there is the poet's unfinished The Art of Facial Treatment for Ladies, a parody of antiquarian "drug lore", and honestly a work that many modern readers may find more useless than amusing.

First and foremost, let me say Penguin is, on an artistic level, perhaps not the best verse translation of Ovid to be found on the market. I can think of at least one better example off the top of my head - Rolfe Humphries' translation of The Art of Love. What endears the Penguin publication to the amateur reader is the extensive introduction and copious notes provided by Peter Green. Green was an honors student at Cambridge and served as a professor at both the University of Texas at Austin and University of Iowa; he has translated other classics for Penguin. He is well qualified to introduce Ovid to a general audience.

When I say extensive introduction, I offer an understatement. The 75-page essay on the life and style of Ovid is alone worth the publication price. It does what any good introduction should do: let us know the literary figure, as much as history allows us, as a human being rather than a mere author; and furthermore places the work of the artist in proper context.

More than a mere biography, there are some precious insights here. Green theorizes, based on a master's thesis from one of his students, that Ovid's first marriage - which occurred in his teen years and failed in short order - traumatized the poet. The barely mentioned wife of that marriage may serve as the inspiration for the female figure of Corinna that appears in Amores. For Green, the much more cynical Art of Love is the poet's defense mechanism for the wounds of an unprepared young lover:

Behind the hard-shelled sophisticate of the Art of Love we occasionally glimpse the sensitive young lover of the Amores, compensating for the wound he had received as a husband by a stylized assault on the whole marital condition, a Casanova-like commando raid against fidelity wherever it might be found.

Another penetrating insight from Green is his possible solution to the vexing question of what inspired Ovid's banishment from Rome. It is generally conceded Ovid's poetry was more of an annoyance than a threat to the regime; but if this is so then what motivated Augustus to exile the poet? Green theorizes, plausibly, that Ovid was privy to a conspiracy of Julian supporters against Livia and the succession of Tiberius, and failed to promptly report it to the authorities. After the conspiracy was uncovered and neutralized, Ovid looked complicit in his silence:

Ovid's unwillingness to go to the authorities sprang not only from fear, but also from a disinclination (which he could never acknowledge afterwards) to betray his Julian friends. .. The hostile reaction of highly placed individuals (especially supporters of Tiberius), the deadly and unforgiving enmity of Livia and Tiberius themselves - these now make complete sense.

The end of the book gives over 160 pages of notes on the four works. It analyzes the social context of the lines, the probable psychological and personal relevance of the poetry to the poet, the style of poetry, and clarification of often obscure mythological allusions. Green spares no effort in elucidating the subject matter.

But of course the central exhibition is the actual poetry. Ovid is often a rather verbose poet; he loves to drive home a point, probably a product of his legal training. Those looking for a quick read will be disappointed. He is also rather unapologetically candid about the act of sex and the subjection of women to that end. Those with either virgin ears or politically correct attitudes may find the subject matter offensive.

But beyond that, Ovid is a great poet.

It is difficult of course to choose only a few demonstrative passages for the purposes of a review. But the following selections are offered as brief examples of style and substance.

Ovid, like any good poet, knows a refined art can lead to immortality. This leads to a certain level of narcissism. But with narcissism is also coupled prophecy, for the poet's words did indeed long outlive the man, and here he offers his love a chance to join him in eternity:

... ... From each
Lover his all - but according to his resources. My gift
Is poetry, the praise
Of beautiful girls. I can make them immortal. Fine dresses,
Jewelery, gold, all perish. But the fame
Bestowed by my verse if perennial.
Amores, I.10

But the price of immortality for Ovid is that he is waging a constant war. In body and spirit, love is no different than military service:

Every lover's on active service, my friend, active service,
believe me,
And Cupid has his headquarters in the field.
Fighting and love-making belong to the same age-group -
In bed as in war, old men are out of place.
A commander looks to his troops for gallant conduct,
A mistress expects no less.
Amores. I.9

In the Art of Love, the author thoughtfully shares his wisdom with us on how to fight in this war.

Should anyone here in Rome lack finesse at love-making,
let him
Try me - read my book, and results are guaranteed!
... This work is based
On experience: what I write, believe me, I have practiced.
My poem will deal in truth
Art of Love 1

Any girl can be had, it seems, and if anyone would know it would be Ovid:

The first thing to get in your head is that every single
Girl can be caught - and that you'll catch her if
You set your toils right.
Art of Love 1

Just don't be overly nice about: women since the dawn of history have preferred bad boys:

It's all right to use force -force of that sort goes down well
with
The girls; what in fact they love to yield
They'd often rather have stolen. Rough seduction
Delights them ...
Art of Love 1

Above all remember; every woman is perfect, or wants to think she is:

Take care not to criticize girls for their shortcomings: many
Have found it advantageous to pretend
Such things didn't exist.
Art of Love 2

Older women are not to be eschewed; they have the advantage of experience:

... they know a thousand postures - name yours - for making love in,
More ways than any pillow-book can reveal.
...
It's great when my mistress comes, eyes
swooning
Then collapses, can't take any more
For a long while. Such joys attend you in your thirties;
Nature does not bestow them on green youth.
Art of Love 2

Lest anyone think The Art of Love is nothing but a young male's escapist handbook on how to get laid, Ovid offers equal service by rendering advice to women:

A woman should melt with passion to her very marrow,
The act should give equal pleasure to them both;
Keep up a flow of seductive whispered endearments,
Use sexy taboo words while you're making love,
And if nature's denied you the gift of achieving a climax,
Moan as though you were coming, put on an act!
Art of Love 3

Cures For Love offers some smart advice on how to avoid situations that may subject one to Cupid's naughty arrows. Among other things, avoid leisure, take up farming, and shun public places. The poem is an enjoyable read, but not as good as the previous two. On Facial Treatment for Women can be safely skipped with no great loss.

The poet may have been flung from heaven for his naughty defiance, but those who have tasted the forbidden fruit passed down the sin for eternity. One could go on for some length on Ovid's influence on later European literature. But more importantly for the neophyte, I believe, is simply experiencing the biting wit and raw lasciviousness of this rebel literati. Penguin's The Erotic Poems is a joyous and informative read. Try as though you might to remain true to loftier ideals, Ovid's allure will mercilessly seduce you with wanton abandonment.

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Book Review of The Erotic Poems - Related Topic: Roman Sex


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