The Better Part of Me
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In his 50th year, the poet Publius Ovidius Naso was much concerned with change. For two decades, he had been the toast of Roman society, a friend to half its most famous poets, a guest of great patrons like Maecenas and Messalla but not their creature, a sardonic commentator on hypocrisies of his society, but an enthusiastic supporter of the peace that made decadence possible. He was born in 43 B.C. to a prosperous middle-rank family ninety miles from Rome, and he was given an expensive, first-rate education in Athens and abroad, the idea being that he would enter into public service in the City and bring his family honor. But he’d been adept with language from an early age, and the drudgery of serving on Rome’s various committees wearied him. We can assume he either won his family’s blessing to change his life’s course or inherited money even without that blessing, because he abandoned the civic cursus honorum and devoted himself to writing, womanizing, and the sweet life.
This was the period when sniveling young Octavian, the improbable victor of the civil wars that had erupted at the death of his nominal kinsman Julius Caesar, was taking for himself the name Augustus and, as sanctimonious little prigs throughout history have been wont to do, trying to create by legislation an entire society of sanctimonious little prigs. After the spectacle of his revered ancestor parading Cleopatra through the streets of Rome and installing her in a lavish villa, after the disgrace of Marc Antony deserting his wife and duty to dally with that same woman in the sybaritic excesses of Egypt, Augustus wanted Rome to return to the austere morality of its Republican past. Never mind that his ruthless possession of sole dictatorial power was the greatest contradiction of that morality (and never mind that he himself, until rectitude befell him, was no tuliped saint) – Augustus wanted Romans to hark back to the heroic days of chaste virgins, fecund families, hard work, and public responsibility. And he forced the spineless Senate to pass prescriptive laws, to help that process along.
So the time was ripe for satire, and Ovid was ready. From his stylus flew a succession of dancing, twinkling, scandalous, titillating works of sexual provocation and moral laxity – and stunning, sustained poetic brilliance. In his Heroides, famous figures from history and mythology write letters to their lovers; in the Amores, the poet describes every ripe detail of his extended affair with the beautiful Corinna; his Ars Amatoria winkingly presents itself as a definitive manual on how to find, seduce, and keep a lover in the City (whether or not she – or he – happens to be married); his Remedia Amoris gives worldly advice to cads who’ve had the bad form to get their hearts broken; there was even a little treatise on cosmetics whose subject and tone was meant to mock the very concept of the heroic ideal. The humor in all of these works is sly and conspiratorial, and the verses glow and flow like honey. Here was a first-rank poet who scorned the very idea of writing patriotic epics in the style of Virgil’s Aeneid, preferring instead to court the laughter of the smart set by writing quite a lot about quite a little. In other words, if ever there was a poet virtually guaranteed to cause a long, slow burn of resentment in the heart of somebody like Augustus, it was Ovid.
The poet’s mind appears not to have been darkened by such a concern, but other changes beckoned. The ribald subject matter and rascally irony of his body of work had served him well, but successful authors often choose the pinnacle of their careers to try something new, to go seeking other, more elusive kinds of approval. Ovid sought to work this transformation on himself. Propertius, Tibullus, Virgil, Horace – all the titans of the literary scene were dead; Ovid was de facto laureate, and it’s possible he surveyed his life’s work of bawdy sketches and yearned to make something more. He conceived the Fasti, an epic series of poems on the events of the Roman calendar, and he began creating his incredible anti-epic, The Metamorphoses, an immense breviary of mythological changes, beginning with the world forming out of chaos and ending with Julius Caesar being transformed into a god – all of it rendered not in the frolicking elegiac lyrics of his love poems but in epic’s more stately hexameters. But where previous epics had concentrated on the telling of one central story, Ovid’s great book would shimmer from story to story, an endless gallery of protagonists and tale-tellers, one change leading to the next, one change embedded in the next, spinning the reader round and round in a whirlwind of glittering verse. “Ovid’s fancy is of the moonlight,” the classicist H. J. Rose so aptly wrote, “and all crude colours and oversharp outlines are softened by it into a half-real harmony of fantastic beauty.”
When his own metamorphosis came upon him, it was as unforeseen and violent – as sad and unwanted – as all those he’d been chronicling, and the irony wasn’t lost on him. More than anybody, he knew there was no safety in mythology, and now he had a brutal demonstration of that fact: an angry god banished him from one world to another, transformed him from a household name to a wretched exile. In A.D. 8, Augustus sentenced him to spend the rest of his life in Tomis, present day Romania, and never to return to the City he so loved. As A. M. Duff put it, “Dr. Johnson despatched to Ultima Thule, or Victor Hugo to Spitzbergen, could not have suffered more.”
There is throughout the Metamorphoses a wonderful indifference displayed toward the justice or injustice of why transformations happen – the innocent become trees, shrubs, crabs, stags, flowers, and spiders as often as the guilty do – and the fact that this, too, is mirrored in his own horrible change is an irony Ovid can neither have missed nor have enjoyed. Romania can be rough on poets, and he spent the rest of his life sending one bitter, defensive, imploring poem after another back to Rome, to his friends, to Augustus, to Augustus’ successor Tiberius – begging to be recalled, loudly protesting that his punishment far exceeded his sin.
He doesn’t elaborate what that sin was, and to this day we don’t know. The ostensible cause was the emperor’s outrage over the Ars Amatoria, but that poem was ten years old when the ruling came down – there had to be more to it than that. Ovid makes passing reference to “a poem and an error,” mentions that he saw something he shouldn’t have seen, darkly implicates certain unnamed slaves, but there are no specifics – an omission which has prompted classicists and historians throughout the ages to speculate on what offense could have been so bad that its punishment would be so vigilant. The front-running theory connects Ovid with some scandal involving Julia, the granddaughter of Augustus, who was banished at the same time as Ovid – but much odder theories have also been floated, by historians and novelists alike, and the truth is likely to be silent forever.
Ovid among the Scythians – Eugene Delacroix, 1859. National Gallery, London.
Banishment and public erasure (Augustus, that great patron of the arts, had all his books pulled from public libraries and burned) must have made Ovid worry that his fame would also fall silent – his protestations to the contrary seem as desperate as they are defiant. The most famous of these protestations comes at the end of the Metamorphoses, in a passage the author almost certainly reworked during the long years of his exile (upon news of his banishment, he theatrically burned his own copy of his epic, but it and many other of his works show distinct hints of having been tinkered with long after he left Rome). In Book XV right after the goddess Venus has transformed the assassinated Julius Caesar into a bright shining star, there’s a little epilogue in which the poet invokes one final change. Here it is in the calm, measured English of Horace Gregory’s celebrated 1959 translation:
And now the measure of my song is done:
The work has reached its end; the book is mine,
None shall unwrite these words: nor angry Jove,
Nor war, nor fire, nor flood,
Nor venomous time that eats our lives away.
Then let that morning come, as come it will,
When this disguise I carry shall be no more,
And all the treacherous years of life undone,
And yet my name shall rise to heavenly music,
The deathless music of the circling stars.
As long as Rome is the Eternal City
These lines shall echo from the lips of men,
As long as poetry speaks truth on earth,
That immortality is mine to wear.
Charles Martin’s idiosyncratic 2004 translation has that same epilogue this way:
My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
nor sword nor fire nor futurity
is capable of laying waste to it.
Let that day come then, when it wishes to,
which only has my body in its power,
and put an end to my uncertain years;
no matter, for in spirit I will be
borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
immortal in the name I leave behind;
wherever Roman governance extends
over the subject nations of the world,
my words will be upon the people’s lips,
and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,
then in my fame forever will I live.
The stubborn finality of this pronouncement must have warmed Ovid when the future seemed very dark, but part of it is untrue: his fame has flickered and wavered with the fashions of the centuries, and the amazing compacted beauty of his verses has attracted readers who invariably express their devotion by changing the very object of it. Ovid lives on in Shakespeare, for instance, only as grapes live on in wine – a necessary foundation, but almost unrecognizably altered. As those two English translations amply show, those alterations extend even to the renderings of Ovid’s own work; here’s the same epilogue from Arthur Golding’s swaggering 1567 translation:
Now have I brought a woork to end which neither Joves feerce wrath,
Nor swoord, nor fyre, nor freating age with all the force it hath
Are able to abolish quyght. Let comme that fatall howre
Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over mee no power,
And at his pleasure make an end of myne uncerteyne tyme.
Yit shall the better part of mee assured bee to clime
Aloft above the starry skye. And all the world shall never
Be able to quench my name. For looke how farre so ever
The Roman Empyre by the ryght of conquest shall extend,
So farre shall all folke reade this woork. And tyme without all end
(If Poets as by prophesie about the truth may ame)
My life shall everlastingly bee lengthened still by fame.
He was treated well by the awestruck inhabitants of Tomis, and he tried to treat them well in return. But he yearned for the undoing of his transformation – his clutching at the consolation of fame cannot have brought him much comfort. He knew as well as anybody how fickle the world can be; he would rather have been returned to his own library than hope his works would feature in someone else’s, even two or three hundred years hence. That we might still be reading him two thousand years later – well, that might have softened the sorrows of exile, but he wouldn’t have believed it. And yet here he is still among us, always changing.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.