Riffing on the poetic tradition

William Poulos says that in his wisdom and readability, Llewelyn Morgan serves his subject well


This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Poor Ovid. In 8 AD, he was one of Rome’s leading poets when the emperor Augustus sent him to Tomis, the Roman Empire’s equivalent of Woop Woop. His seduction handbook written in verse, the Ars Amatoria, was banned from Rome’s public libraries. In Tomis, on the Black Sea, he eked out a wretched existence until he died about ten years later.

Ovid: A Very Short Introduction by Llewelyn Morgan Oxford University Press, £8.99

In 1599, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, banned and burned Christopher Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s collection of love poems, Amores. As recently as 1928, copies of the Ars Amatoria were barred entry to a country whose constitution, written by Latinists, prevents the government from abridging the freedom of the press — the United States, of course.

In 2015, Columbia University put “trigger warnings” on his poem Metamorphoses, and earlier this year, there was a huge fuss about Oxford University making Virgil and Homer optional authors for study in its Classics course. Ovid, sadly, was already optional.

Yet, the last word of the Metamorphoses is vivam, “I will live”. How? Despite a long history of censorship and neglect, Ovid’s poetry is among the most influential in Western art, so much so that it requires a huge scholarly industry to keep up. Llewelyn Morgan’s short introduction claims, “it could be argued that Ovid’s legacy, the profound debt owed him by literature and art, is even greater than Homer’s”.

You should not, however, get lost in the works Ovid inspired before reading the poet himself, which can easily give a lifetime of pleasure. Morgan tells you all you need to know about Ovid’s major works and his literary culture. Ovid, writes Morgan, is “the most sophisticated and self-aware artist in Latin verse”, and his poetry is “intensely aware of its predecessors, as objects of both respect and rivalry, and reminiscences of earlier poetry … are not only common but essential means of expression”.

Morgan concludes, “there can only be true originality in the presence of established rules, and the traditional character of Graeco-Roman literature merely acknowledges that truth.” If only some of his Oxford colleagues thought the same.

Morgan tells you all you need to know about Ovid’s major works and his literary culture

Morgan rightly spends a lot of time talking about how Ovid imitates, subverts, mocks his poetic predecessors, whom many academics think were merely the agents and propagandists for political power. But if the exiled Ovid and Dante don’t make them reconsider, the jazz world should. An aspiring jazz musician must learn the repertoire of “standards” to be taken seriously: a jazz musician who can’t riff on “Autumn Leaves” is not a jazz musician. Similarly, a Latin poet who couldn’t riff on the Iliad was not a Latin poet. No one except God expresses himself ex nihilo.

Only within a tradition can talent express itself. The closest Latin word to “talent” is ingenium, which can also mean “wit”, or “cleverness”, and this is the word most often associated with Ovid’s poetry. Ovid in English translation is like jazz without swing; as the meaning of a Latin sentence doesn’t depend on word order, it is more supple than English.

Two thousand years ago, Quintilian said that Ovid was “too fond of his own talent” (ingenium), which some might excuse as adolescent enthusiasm. But even in Tomis, Ovid’s ingenium stayed strong. The first poem in Ovid’s Tristia (“Sorrows”) ends with a couplet addressing the book that the exile will send to Rome: “longa via est, propera! nobis habitabitur orbis / ultimus, a terra terra remota mea”. Morgan translates this as, “The road is long, make haste! As for me, I shall dwell at the world’s / edge, a land far distant from my land”, and points out that “the word ultimus is lost, most effectively, over the edge of the first line, and in the second line Ovid brings the words denoting Rome and Tomis together: he uses the same word, terra, ‘land’, for each, and sets them beside each other. The possibility of contact, both realized and denied, is beautifully conveyed.”

So are many parts of this book. Morgan is very good on Latin metre and is too modest in excluding his other work on the topic from the bibliography. Ovid’s favoured metre, the elegiac couplet, was the medium often used to subvert epic poems like the Iliad. After explaining how Ovid suggests that Achilles’s “spear” (his definitive weapon in the Iliad, and the only item Patroclus couldn’t borrow) was actually his penis, Morgan reassures the reader that “when Ovid does smut, you can at least be sure it’s smut with a long and prestigious poetic pedigree.”

Reading that Ovid’s poetry is full of allusion and artistry might make you think that he’s like a Roman James Joyce, but you must remember (if you could ever forget), although Ovid is often clever and often funny, Joyce is often clever, often funny, and often unreadable. Clever and readable, Llewelyn Morgan serves his subject well. With scholars like him, Ovid might not be doing so poorly after all.

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