Backward glances

Orpheus

I’m just emerging from what were possibly the busiest few months of my life, and I’ve a powerful impulse to stare blankly out of a window for an extended period of time. But there’s stuff to be done, and at the top of the list a final version of A Very Short Introduction to Ovid which needs to get to OUP by the end of January. Right at the bottom is writing a blog, probably, but I’m judging it’ll get the writing juices flowing again.

So here’s something on Ovid that’s going into the book, but which I owe to a couple of former students, one of whom was getting married and the other finding material for a poet who was writing a poem for the wedding. The poem, by Ben Bransfield, is a glosa, a Spanish form which is an extended gloss (glosa) on four lines of pre-existing poetry. The four lines are quoted at the head of the poem, and each line in turn is quoted at the end of four ten-line stanzas.

The lines that Ben chose to gloss (the happy couple are keen and intrepid walkers) were these from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (1.493-6):

et modo praecedas facito, modo terga sequaris,
     et modo festines, et modo lentus eas:
nec tibi de mediis aliquot transire columnas
     sit pudor, aut lateri continuasse latus;

And now walk ahead, now fall behind,
now hurry, and now go slowly.
Nor be shy to slip past some of the columns
between you, or to walk side by side.

The first book of the Art of Love teaches its male readers how to find a lover and win her favour (Book 2 explains how to retain her affections, and Book 3 offers comparable advice, or at least claims it does, to women). Here the guidance is to engineer an apparently innocent encounter with the woman one is courting as she strolls in a colonnade, and it relates to the very earliest stages of a relationship.

Ovid returns to this scene in the Metamorphoses, and what he does with it is very clever, very beautiful and very Ovidian, or so it seems to me. We’re in Book 11, at the end of an account of the singer Orpheus which began at the start of Book 10 with the death of his wife Eurydice at their wedding, bitten by a snake. Famously, Orpheus travelled down to the shades in search of her, and played his lyre and sang so beautifully that Persephone and Hades, queen and king of the underworld, restored Eurydice to him, on condition that he walked ahead of her up to the world of the living and never looked back. Of course, Orpheus cannot resist a backward glance at his beloved wife, and she slips away again, down to the land of the dead.

For the remainder of Book 10 we stay with Orpheus, listening to the songs he sings seated mournfully on a hill in Thrace, the familiar stories of Pygmalion and Adonis among them, and it’s not until the following book that we finally take leave of him. Early in Book 11 Orpheus meets his death, ripped to pieces by envious Thracian bacchanals. His head and lyre are carried off by the river Hebrus, still singing mournfully, but his shade is consigned to the underworld (Met. 11.61-66):

umbra subit terras, et quae loca uiderat ante
cuncta recognoscit quaerensque per arua piorum
inuenit Eurydicen cupidisque amplectitur ulnis;
hic modo coniunctis spatiantur passibus ambo,
nunc praecedentem sequitur, nunc praeuius anteit
Eurydicenque suam iam tuto respicit Orpheus.

His shade goes under the earth, and all the places he had seen before
he recognises, and seeking through the meadows of the pious
he finds Eurydice and embraces her with his passionate arms.
Here now the two of them stroll together with steps synchronised,
now he follows her as she walks ahead, now goes ahead in front of her,
and now Orpheus gazes back in safety at his beloved Eurydice.

It’s a very lovely moment. Reunited as shades, Orpheus doesn’t need to worry this time where he’s walking relative to Eurydice or whether he can look at her. It’s witty on Ovid’s part, and there’s human warmth as well. But the scene also recalls that moment in the Ars Amatoria, and the allusion carries at least two characteristically Ovidian implications. One is that Orpheus and Eurydice are back, now that they are united in death, to how they were even before their ill-fated marriage day. They’re lovers at the very beginning of their relationship.

Another implication gives us Ovid at his most self-aware. The Metamorphoses is a poem that delights in disorientating its readers, leaving us scratching our heads where exactly we are in a plot that’s supposed to be moving inexorably from the beginning of time to the present day, and converging on the city of Rome as it does so. At the beginning of Book 11, by means of this reminiscence of the Ars Amatoria, we’re being taken back to a stage in Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship which predates all Orpheus’ grief and suffering, and that means all the action of Book 10. In fact here at the start of Book 11, with the suggestion that Orpheus and Eurydice are young sweethearts all over again, it’s as if the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses hasn’t happened at all.

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.

2 responses to “Backward glances”

  1. Oscar says :

    Lovely articulation of the loveliness of Ovid – thank you!

    Ramblings ahead:
    Orpheus in 11 always felt interesting vs Aeneas for whom (supposedly) satis est inamabile regnum/adspexisse semel, Stygios semel isse per amnes.

    I wonder if the descent of Orpheus in 11 actually replays what ought to have happened in 10, where Orpheus claims that if he fails to secure veniam pro coniuge, he wouldn’t wish to return – the humour, if we take the whole thing somewhat over-literally, being that under a traditional imagining of the underworld, Orpheus’ whole attempt to twist fate is convoluted and unnecessary. As Virgil’s Sibyl tells us, to descend to the underworld is easy, to get back out is hard. Aeneas’ challenge, in effect, is that he needs to do both, whereas Orpheus simply needn’t. Rather than being too susceptible to the backwards glance (as he may be in Virgil), Ovid’s Orpheus (on one level) is too determined to press on – and could do with more of a slacker’s attitude.
    (On one level, book 10 is written out – but I suppose we may also reread book 10 with the Orpheus of 11 in our minds, with this duality mirroring the bifurcation of Orpheus into the happy soul and lamenting head in 11.)

    Perhaps also a bit of a joke with Lucretius: Ovid has Orpheus abuse Lucretian logic against the fear of death, when he says that the endless time owed to death means that there’s nothing to be lost from death in allowing him and Eurydice more life, whereas Lucretius would use the infinite span of death to argue that there’s no point trying to avoid it by lessening its length. However, in an ironic twist, Orpheus was wrong to try and bargain strenuously for more life (i.e. his perversion of Lucretian logic is revealed as misguided), but this is not because Ovid has produced an Epicurean vision of reality, but precisely because he is depicting a traditional existence after death which will afford Orpheus the culmination of unLucretian romantic love. Ovid’s underworld may not be loca plena timoris, but they do transpire to be plena amoris.

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