vivet Maeonides, Tenedos dum stabit et Ide
dum rapidas Simois in mare volvet aquas.
Homer will live, as long as the island of Tenedos and Mount Ida stand,
as long as the river Simois rolls its rapid waters to the sea.
This is a brief essay, in part, about the life and poetry of Ovid, but mostly it is about his vast and varied afterlife. If any individual in the West has a claim to the epithet immortal, it is surely Ovid. This is something of a romantic proposition but I’ll try to keep it as irreverent and light-hearted as Ovid himself would have wanted. I will briefly discuss material from his Amores and exile poetry, but also make use of the Metamorphoses along with Ovid’s other works. Everyone else did, as we shall see.
Two thousand years ago, at the beginning of the Roman Principate, Ovid himself was already very aware of the notion of poetic immortality, inherited from the Greeks in reverence for Homer (as per the quote above) and he was hardly shy about bringing it up. Some may find his claims to a long afterlife via his poetry, in even his first writings, to be presumptuous and arrogant, as at the end of the final poem in his first collection of love poems, the Amores, Ovid tells us that “even when the final flame has consumed me, I shall live, and a considerable part of me will survive.” In the same poem he tells us unequivocally that “poetry has no death”. He goes on to repeat this claim in nearly all his major works*, from the Ars Amatoria to the Metamorphoses. Even his final collection, theEpistulae Ex Ponto, bitter and hopeless as it seems at first, reminds the reader that a poet’s “reputation grows greater after the ashes”. Ovid would die in exile from Rome in Tomis, in what is now Romania, but for him felt like the end of the earth. The robust and continued health of his poetry, independent of its author, was Ovid’s sole consolation in exile and something about which he felt assured.
And so it proved to be the case, but it could so easily have been not so. In the same poem, the last of the Epistulae Ex Ponto, Ovid lists a great many of his literary contemporaries (mainly to compare himself favorably to them, it must be said). They include Marsus, Rabirius and Pedo, Carus, Severus and Numa… and the list goes on and on. All of whom you will, no doubt, never have heard, precisely because none of their work survives to the present day. Great versifiers they may have been in their time, but we couldn’t possibly judge; their work is as dead as they are. Ovid alone remains, the last man standing. The transmission of Ovid’s work down the centuries is a complex and rather tiresome topic, but the essence of it is that before the invention of the printing press in 1450, someone, usually a monk, had to copy and re-copy his poetry by hand in order for it to survive from antiquity. There is more than a taste of delicious irony that the arch-pagan, whose work is full of fleshy, cavorting adulterers, was perpetuated into the modern age by Christians who should, on the face of it, been horrified by subject matter.
Such was the pull of Ovid’s verse that, even after the civilization in which it first found an audience was pounded to dust, Ovid continued to be read and admired. He was quoted (out of context, normally) as an authoritative text, even as a guide to behaviour or morals, just as if Scripture. I imagine that this would have amused him greatly. Peter Abelard quotes Amores III.4 when warning against a too strict regime in monasteries “We always strive for what is forbidden and desire what is denied.” The original context is a poem encouraging a husband to care much less about his wife’s tendency towards adultery. James I, King of Aragon, once quoted Ovid in a speech to his barons and bishops (“Nor is it less a talent to protect what you have than to find it”) and claimed that this line was taken from the Bible instead of the Ars Amatoria. I wonder if those listening could tell the difference? In the 14th century a reinterpreted ‘moral’ version of the Metamorphoses was published in France, 70,000 lines long, partly to explain how Ovid could be made compatible with Christian teachings.
Unlike Greek authors, there has never been a time in the West when Ovid’s Latin was not read and admired and his poetry imitated, right from when he composed his work to the present day. He is a bright red thread which you can trace woven through two thousand years of documented history, from Augustus to the European Union. Unlike the Bible, which is a conglomeration of different works in various styles and languages, or Homer, who may or may not have existed and whose life is pure myth, the works of Ovid are the outpourings of an individual about whom we know a fair amount; how he lived, what he loved and what he hated, how he met his end. The thoughts and ideas of this single, characterful person sit here on my desk, having been filtered through the minds of thousands, if not millions, of perplexed schoolboys, wannabe poets, scandalized monks, visionary artists and boring schoolmasters.
The uses of Ovid’s works by later artists have been very well documented, and anyone with a cursory understanding of culture from the Medieval to Modern periods will know the vast number of other geniuses he has inspired and for whom he has provided material. Shakespeare’s debt to him alone could fill a book. “The sweete wittie soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.” noted a contemporary of the Bard in 1598. From Chaucer through to Marlowe, to Donne and Byron, English poetry, at least, has pilfered his stories and his style, along with producing a surprising number of translations of Ovid’s work. Arthur Golding’s English translation of the Metamorphoses, which it is assumed by many that Shakespeare had read, assumes that all the tales have “pithy, apt and plain instructions” which teach us our vices and virtues. A somewhat unlikely interpretation of the work by today’s standards but demonstrative of the effort to interpret the work in view of the culture of the time.
Especially since the Renaissance Ovid’s poetry has also inspired painters and sculptors, to the point where the Metamorphoses has become something of a source book for the aspiring artist. Great examples include Bernini’s statue of Daphne turning into a laurel tree as she is chased by Apollo (Met. I), Titian’s Venus and Adonis (Met. X) and Rembrandt’s Philemon and Baucis (Met. VIII). Opera pinched plots from him (Bach’s Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan and Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice) and in the twentieth century Benjamin Britten composed Six Metamorphoses after Ovid and Ted Hughes gave us a wonderful translation of some of his poetry in his Tales from Ovid. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts 1300-1990s names 272 artists who have used the story of Daphne and Apollo from Met. I alone, let alone the 800 plus who have borrowed from his version of Orpheus. As you might imagine, it all goes on for a great many pages.
The works of Ovid have never been far from the minds of both the creators and consumers of European culture. As such, if any one person were to deserve to be called immortal, then, it is surely him. However, poetry, the very vehicle by which Ovid has obtained this most sought after mantel, gives us another sort of warning. As Shelley wrote on observing a broken statue of Ramesses II in the British Museum, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.” Perhaps nothing and no one are truly salvageable from the slow march of history. Ovid has lived on longer than most of us could ever dream of, in his own words and in the minds of others. He’s made it to the digital age and a Google search of his name revealed 2,670,000 hits. But will it be enough to last out further millennia, or will he too crumble, like Shelley’s statue, fragment by unreadable fragment back into the deserts of time?
*Direct References to Immortality in Ovid’s Work:
Amores iii.15 19-20
Ars Amatoria iii. 339-40
Metamorphoses XV 871-9
Tristia iii.3. 77-80
Epistulae Ex Ponto IV.16