The late, lamented P. Ovidius Naso

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Very, VERY busy this term, and no time to blog. But one of the things making me busy is at least a pleasure to do, and that’s a graduate seminar on a book of Ovid’s exile poetry: Epistulae ex Ponto 4. This was the last book of poetry written by Ovid from exile, and thus the last poetry issued under his name, its sixteen poems ranging in date from AD 13 to 16, shortly before the poet’s death, in Tomis, modern Constanța in Romania, far away from the Rome for which, in five books of Tristia and four books Ex Ponto, the exiled poet had since AD 8 expressed his yearning.

My colleague, once upon my time my tutor, Stephen Harrison has done almost all of the organising of this seminar, and for an hour and a half every Thursday morning a mixture of graduates and teachers ponder the last poetry of perhaps the most influential of all ancient poets. Ovid’s exile poetry has always had a bit of an image problem, encouraged by Ovid himself, who constantly insists that his talents are on the wane in exile (he’ll be a much better poet if restored to Rome!). But what we’ve found ourselves reading in the last few weeks are as sophisticated as anything Ovid wrote, or so it seems to me. And something else: Ovid’s swan songs can also be extremely moving in their evocation of the experience and psychology of a Roman exile.

This last week we were looking at Ex Ponto 4.8, a poem addressed to the husband of Ovid’s step-daughter, P. Suillius Rufus, through whom Ovid also makes an appeal to Germanicus, by now (it is shortly after the death of Augustus in AD 14) heir apparent to the imperial throne. There is a Latin text and a translation of Ex Ponto 4.8 here.

I don’t think there’s anything I enjoy more than reading Roman poems for the first time, especially when they’re good. I need to keep this short (I’m still perfecting the art of writing a blog in two hours on a Sunday morning), but here are four thoughts I had about this poem when I first read it last Wednesday night, in the hopes they’ll illustrate some of the qualities I find in Ovid’s last poems.

Fine composition in the opening

The poem opens with the information that Suillius has written to Ovid, thereby providing Ovid with the pretext to write an answer in the shape of this poem. He begins,

Littera sera quidem, studiis exculte Suilli,
huc tua peruenit, sed mihi grata tamen

(“The letter you wrote, accomplished Suillius, was late/ in reaching here, but brought me pleasure.”) The lines contain a clear note of reproach: the letter Suillius wrote is welcome, but he took his time to write it. And Ovid subtly reinforces both the lateness (sera quidem) and the welcomeness (mihi grata tamen) of his son-in-law’s letter in his word placement: tua, “your”, is delayed until the second line, and placed next to huc, “[to] here.” This is Ovid exploiting the vastly more flexible word order of an inflected language (an English translation just can’t capture it): the displacement of key words portrays the arrival of the letter (in the juxtaposition of huc and tua), but the peculiar separation of tua from the noun it qualifies, littera, also conveys what a very long time it took to get to Tomi.

A vintage piece of Ovidian wit

By the time we get to lines 35-6, Ovid has moved from addressing Suillius to addressing Germanicus: strictly speaking, he’s telling Suillius what Suillius should in turn say to Germanicus, but it very quickly turns into a direct address to Germanicus (and after a while we probably forget he’s writing to Suillius at all). Here Ovid is asking Germanicus to relieve the harsh conditions of his exile. He will repay any kindness with all he can offer in return, his poetry, but in the presence of this powerful man he is self-effacing about its comparative value:

Parua quidem fateor pro magnis munera reddi,
cum pro concessa uerba salute damus.

(“Small indeed, I confess, is the gift given in return for great kindness,/ when I give words in return for a grant of salvation.”) “I give words” (uerba damus) is already an unglamorous way to describe writing poetry (no mystical inspiration here), but the expression uerba dare has another meaning (see the image at the top, from the Oxford Latin Dictionary), to cheat or swindle. Ovid is implying that poetry can only represent a dishonest exchange for tangible kindness, and that is quite typical of how sceptical this superlative poet became about the value of poetry after his exile. Clever, then, but also rather sad.

A bold illustration

By 51-4, Ovid has warmed to his theme, and is making more confident claims to Germanicus about the capacity of poetry. While physical memorials moulder, he insists, poetry, and the praise of men it contains, persists for all time. (Which happens, in this case, to be true.)

Scripta ferunt annos: scriptis Agamemnona nosti
et quisquis contra uel simul arma tulit.
Quis Thebas septemque duces sine carmine nosset
et quicquid post haec, quicquid et ante fuit?

(“Writing endures the years: through writing you know of Agamemnon,/ and whoever bore arms against him or with him./ Who would know of Thebes and the seven leaders if not for poetry,/ and whatever went after that, and before it?”) There is clarity in the first and third lines here: we are aware of two very specific mytho-historical phenomena, Agamemnon and the Seven against Thebes, because of poetry. But the second and four lines are as nebulous as the first and third are precise, and it seems to me that Ovid is provoking his readers (Germanicus especially, he hopes) to imagine how things would be without poetry: his vague “whoever” and “whatever” might be their state of knowledge about iconic stories like the Trojan War and the events surrounding the attack of the Seven. But in fact they had the Iliad to inform them of the first, and Sophocles among others to fill in the second (in Oedipus Rex and Antigone). In other words, we read the second and fourth lines, and in discovering that we can, in fact, fill in the blanks that Ovid leaves, we realise forcefully that it’s only poetry that makes it so.

Finally, real pathos

Ovid’s reputation is as a poet very good at provoking laughter, but too irreverent to be capable of pathos. But I’ve been regularly moved reading Ex Ponto 4, and the end of this poem is an example. My colleague Gail Trimble was leading the discussion of this part of the poem on Thursday, and described the last two lines as Ovid abruptly remembering that he’s writing to Suillius, not Germanicus. That’s spot on, I think. After 30 lines addressed to Suillius, and 58 to Germanicus, it is only in the very last couplet, almost as an afterthought, that he turns back to Suillius again:

Tangat ut hoc uotum caelestia, care Suilli,
numina, pro socero paene precare tuo.

(“That this prayer may touch the heavenly powers, dear Suillius,/ pray on behalf of him who is almost your father-in-law.”) This is Ovid standing back, and capturing his own psychology. He was so carried away with his desperate appeal that he forgot he wasn’t talking directly to Germanicus, only to Suillius. At the very end, though, all the more effectively for being unexpected (we have forgotten too), he remembers, and the return to reality is poignant. So far from being anything Germanicus may ever hear, let alone respond to, all this is just what Ovid hopes Suillius will communicate to him. And even Ovid’s power to influence Suillius in placed in doubt here: through the paene that Ovid drops into the final line, he is only nearly, not really, Suillius’ father-in-law.

It’s the same tenuous thread linking Ovid to his beloved Rome that we started with, a letter that came, but came late; a source of support that may not feel as much responsibility as the poet passionately wishes he would.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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