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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Francis Willey Kelsey (1858–1927)

By Ovid (43 B.C.–18 A.D.)

THE AUGUSTAN Roman came into a full and rich inheritance. Conquest had brought the civilized world into subjection to the city by the Tiber; contact with many peoples, and the adjustment of local institutions to a wide range of conditions, had enlarged the intellectual horizon of the conquerors, while the inpouring of wealth from subject provinces had made possible the leisure and the accumulation of resources essential to progress in matters of culture. Greece, with art, literature, and philosophy developed to a singular perfection, ministered to every longing of awakened taste, offering at the same time inspiration and models of excellence.

This broader and more cultivated life ushered in with the reign of Augustus found spontaneous expression in literature. In poetry two opposing tendencies contended for the mastery. With a few poets the thought of Rome’s greatness was uppermost. The responsibility resting upon those whose mission it was “to rule the nations with their sway, to fix the terms of peace, to spare the conquered, and by war subdue the haughty,” strengthened allegiance to the ideals of honor and virtue characteristic of the earlier period.

But there were many men who, recognizing the position of the Eternal City as the mistress of nations, yet were less moved by the contemplation of her greatness than attracted by the opportunities which an age of leisure and luxury afforded for self-gratification. As the centralization of governmental functions increased, less room was found for the display of those ambitions which had spurred the youth of the Republic to put forth their most earnest efforts. Contact with the Orient had introduced new forms of vice. As the strain of constant wars yielded to peace, there was a reaction from frugality to extravagance, from the practice of the hardier virtues to the extreme of self-indulgence. The energy that formerly had pressed the Roman eagles to the borders of the known world, flung itself into dissipation. Love, wine, and art were the watchwords of the day. The freshness and glamour could not endure; but they lasted long enough to inspire a group of poets who became the interpreters of this life of gayety both for their own age and for future times. Four of these poets have often been mentioned together, in the order of succession: Cornelius Gallus, whose writings have perished, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid.

For the details of the life of Ovid we are indebted to the numerous personal references in his poems. He was born on the 20th of March, B.C. 43. His birthplace was Sulmo (now Solmona), a small town “abounding in cool waters,” as he tells us; picturesquely situated in the midst of the Apennines, about ninety miles northeast of Rome. The Ovid family was ancient, of the equestrian rank; but possessed of only moderate means. The constant companion of the poet’s youth was his brother Lucius, who was a year older than himself. The father was a practical man, apparently close in matters of business, but ambitious for his sons, to whom he gave the best education that the times afforded. It was his desire that both boys should devote themselves to the law; he placed them at Rome under the most distinguished masters. Lucius manifested an aptitude for legal studies, but the hapless Publius found his duty and his inclination in serious conflict. As he makes confession in the ‘Tristia’ (Book iv., x.):—

  • “To me, a lad, the service meet
  • Of heaven-born maids did seem more sweet,
  • And secretly the Muse did draw me to her feet.
  • “Oft cried my father, ‘Still content
  • To humor such an idle bent?
  • Even Mæonian Homer did not leave a cent!’
  • “Stirred by his words, I cast aside
  • The spell of Helicon, and tried
  • To clothe my thought in phrase with plainest prose allied.
  • “But of themselves my words would run
  • In flowing numbers, and when done,
  • Whate’er I tried to write, in web of verse was spun.”

  • In one part of his training, however, Ovid was not unsuccessful. The rhetorician Seneca heard him declaim; and says that “when he took pains he was considered a good declaimer,” but that “argumentation of any kind was irksome to him,” and that his discourse resembled “loose poetry.” His rhetorical studies exerted much influence later on his verse.

    When Ovid was nineteen years of age, the bond of unusual affection existing between his brother and himself was severed by the death of Lucius; at this time, he says, “I began to be deprived of half of myself.” He made a feeble effort to enter civil life, and held several petty offices; but routine was distasteful to him, and he preferred to keep himself free from “care-bringing ambition,” while his passion for poetry constantly grew stronger:—

  • “Me the Aonian sisters pressed
  • To court retirement safe, addressed
  • To that which inclination long had urged as best.
  • “The poets of the time I sought,
  • Esteemed them with affection fraught
  • With reverence; as gods they all were in my thought.”

  • At some time after his brother’s death Ovid studied at Athens, and made an extended tour in Asia Minor and Sicily in company with the poet Macer. He became saturated with Greek culture; and many a passage in his poems has a local coloring due to his inspection of the spot described.

    The earliest productions of our poet were recited in public when his “beard had only once or twice been cut.” His songs were immediately popular. He became a member of the literary circle of Rome, and made the acquaintance of prominent men. Having sufficient means to free him from the necessity of labor for his own support, he mingled with the gay society of the metropolis, and wrote when in the mood for writing. He secured a house near the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter, where he lived happily with his third wife; for the first wife, given to him “when little more than a boy,” and a second wife also, had been speedily divorced.

    So the years passed, in pleasure and in the pursuit of his art; and the poet fondly imagined that all would continue as it had been. But suddenly, in the latter part of the year 8 A.D., without a word of warning, an order came from the Emperor Augustus, directing him at once to take up his residence at Tomi, a dreary outpost on the Black Sea, south of the mouths of the Danube. He received the message when on the island of Elba. Returning to Rome, he made preparations for his departure; his picture of the distress and confusion of his last night at home (‘Tristia,’ Book i., iii.) is among the most pathetic in ancient literature. He crossed the stormy Adriatic in the month of December, and reached Tomi, after a long and wearisome journey, probably in the spring of 9 A.D. His wife remained in Rome to intercede for his pardon.

    The pretext assigned for the decree of banishment was the publication of the poet’s ‘Art of Love’; which, however, had been before the public for a decade, and was hardly worse in its tendencies than many other writings of the time. The real reason is often darkly hinted at by Ovid, but nowhere stated. To discuss the subject at length would be idle: all things considered, it seems probable that the poet had involuntarily been a witness to something which, if known, would compromise some member of the imperial family; and that it was deemed expedient, as a matter of policy, to remove him as far from Rome as possible.

    The decree was not a formal sentence of exile: Ovid was left in possession of his property, and did not lose the rights of citizenship. But his lot was nevertheless a hard one. The climate of Tomi was so severe that wine froze in the winter. The natives were half-civilized. The town was wholly without the comforts of life, and even subject to hostile attacks; especially in winter, when tribes from the north could cross the Danube on the ice. For a younger man, full of life and vigor, enforced residence at Tomi would have been a severe punishment: Ovid was past the age of fifty, beyond the period when men adjust themselves readily to new surroundings. Absence from the city for any reason was looked upon by the average Roman as exile; for the pleasure-loving poet the air of joyous Rome had been life itself. Who can wonder that his spirit was crushed by the weight of his misfortune? He sent to Augustus poem after poem, rehearsing his sorrows and begging for a remission of his sentence, or at least for a less inhospitable place of banishment. Yet he was not unkindly to those among whom his lot was cast. He learned the language of the people of Tomi, and composed in it some verses which the natives received with tumultuous applause; they honored him with exemption from public burdens. So long as Augustus lived there was some hope of pardon; but even this faded away when Tiberius came to the throne. The poet’s health finally succumbed to the climate and to the strain; he died in 18 A.D., and was buried at Tomi.

    The poems of Ovid may be conveniently arranged in three groups: Poems of Love, Mythological Poems (‘Metamorphoses,’ ‘Fasti’), and Poems of Exile. The ‘Metamorphoses’ and a short fragment (‘Halieutica’) are written in hexameter verse; all his other poems are in the elegiac measure, which he brought to the highest perfection.

    Noteworthy among the poems of the first group are the ‘Love-Letters’ (‘Epistulæ Heroidum’), assumed to have been written by the heroines of the olden times to their absent husbands or lovers. Penelope writes to Ulysses how she lived in constant anxiety for his safety all through the long and weary Trojan war, and begs him to return and put an end to her unbearable loneliness. Briseis, apologizing for her letter “writ in bad Greek by a barbarian hand,” implores Achilles either to slay her or bid her come back to him. The fair Œnone, deserted for Helen, reproaches Paris with his fickleness; Medea rages with uncontrollable fury as she recalls to Jason the rites of his new marriage; and Dido with fond entreaty presses Æneas to abide at Carthage. Every imaginable phase of passionate longing and despair comes to expression in these cleverly conceived epistles, which in the development of thought and in the arrangement of words show abundant traces of the poet’s rhetorical studies.

    The ‘Loves’ (‘Amores’) consist of forty-nine short poems, written at different times, and arranged in three books. While the variety of topics touched upon is great, the ‘Loves’ as a whole celebrate the charms of Corinna, whom the poet presents as his mistress. But there is reason to suppose that Corinna was altogether a fiction, created by the poet’s fancy to furnish a concrete attachment for his amatory effusions. The most pleasing of these poems is the elegy on the death of a pet parrot, which has often been imitated; but the poet hardly anywhere strikes a higher level than in the bold prophecy of his immortality, at the end of the first book.

    The ‘Loves’ were followed by ‘Ars Amatoria’ (Art of Love), which was published about 2 B.C. This was a didactic poem in three books, concerned with the methods of securing and retaining the affections. The first two books are addressed to men, the third to the fair sex. While characterized by psychological insight and a style of unusual finish, this work reflects conditions so foreign to those of our day that it does not appeal to modern taste, and it is very little read. A supplementary book on ‘Love-Cures’ (‘Remedia Amoris’) published three or four years later, recommends various expedients for delivering one’s self from the thraldom of the tender passion.

    The ‘Fasti’ (Calendar) is arranged in six books, one for each month from January to June. Ovid clearly intended to include also the remaining months of the year, but was prevented by his banishment; the part completed received its final revision at Tomi. Under each month the days are treated in their order; the myths and legends associated with each day are skillfully interwoven with the appropriate details of worship, and a certain amount of astronomical information. Thus, under March 15th, we find a mention of the festival of Anna Perenna, with an entertaining account of the rites and festivals in her honor; then come the various stories which are told to explain how her worship at Rome originated; lastly there is a reference to the assassination of Julius Cæsar, who fell on that date. The following day, March 16th, is passed with the statement that in the morning the fore part of the constellation Scorpio becomes visible. Apart from the charm of the ‘Fasti’ as literature, the numerous references to Roman history and institutions, and to details of topography, lend to the poem a peculiar value for the student.

    The most important work of Ovid is the ‘Metamorphoses,’ or ‘Transformations,’ which comprises about eleven thousand lines, and is divided into fifteen books. From one of the elegies written at Tomi (‘Tristia,’ Book i., vii.), we learn that when the poet was banished the work was still incomplete; in a fit of desperation he burned the manuscript, but as some of his friends had copies, the poem was preserved. In point of structure, thought, and form the ‘Metamorphoses’ has characteristics that ally it with both epic and didactic poetry; but it is more nearly akin to the latter class than to the former. The purpose is to set forth, in a single narrative, the changes of form which, following current myths, had taken place from the beginning of things down to the poet’s own time.

    The poem begins with the evolution of the world out of chaos; it closes with the transformation of Julius Cæsar into a star. Between these limits the poet has blended as it were into a single movement two hundred and sixteen stories of marvelous change. For the last two books he drew largely upon Roman sources; the rest of the matter was taken from the Greek,—the stories following one another in a kind of chronological order. Notwithstanding the diversity and amount of the material utilized in the poem, the parts are so well harmonized, and the transitions are so skillfully made, that the reader is carried along with interest almost unabated to the end.

    The ‘Sorrows’ (‘Tristia’), in five books, are made up of short poems written during the first four years of Ovid’s residence at Tomi; they depict the wretchedness of his condition, and plead for mercy. Of a similar purport are the ‘Letters from the Black Sea’ (‘Epistulæ ex Ponto’), in four books, which are addressed to various persons at Rome, and belong to the period from 12 A.D. to near the end of the poet’s life. The ‘Letters’ particularly show a marked decline in poetical power.

    Besides these and a few other extant poems, Ovid left several works that have perished. Chief among them was a tragedy called ‘Medea,’ to which Quintilian gave high praise.

    Poetry with Ovid was the spontaneous expression of an ardent and sensuous nature; his ideal of poetic art was the ministry of pleasure. There is in his verse a lack of seriousness which stands in marked contrast with the tone of Virgil, or even of Horace. His point of view at all times is that of the drawing-room or the dinner-table; the tone of his poetry is that of the cultivated social life of his time. No matter what the theme, the same lightness of touch is everywhere noticeable. Up to this time, poetic tradition had kept the gods above the level of common life: Ovid treats them as gentlemen and ladies accustomed to good society, whose jealousies, intrigues, and bickerings read very much like a modern novel. In this as in his treatment of love he simply manifested a tendency of his age. His easy relation with the reader gives him a peculiar charm as a story-teller.

    As a poet, Ovid possessed a luxuriant imagination, and great facility in the use of language. His manner is usually simple and flowing. His verse is often pathetic, never intense; sometimes elevated, never sublime; abounding in humorous turns, frequently with touches of delicate irony. It is marred sometimes by incongruous or revolting details, or by an excess of particulars which should be left to the imagination of the reader; and also by a repetition of ideas or phrases intended to heighten the effect, but in reality weakening it. In view of the amount of poetry which Ovid produced, it is surprising that the average of quality is so high. He left more than twice as many lines as Virgil, four times as many as Horace, and more than fifteen times as many as Catullus.

    Ovid has always been a favorite poet, though read more often in selections than as a whole. To his influence is due the wide acquaintance of modern readers with certain classical myths, as those of Phaëthon and of Pyramus and Thisbe. In the earlier periods of English literature he was more highly esteemed than now, when critical and scientific tendencies are paramount, and the finished poetry of Horace and Virgil is more popular than the more imaginative but less delicate verse of our poet. Milton knew much of Ovid by heart; the authors in whom he took most delight were, after Homer, Ovid and Euripides.

    The concreteness of Ovid’s imagination has given him an influence greater than that of any other ancient poet in the suggestion of themes for artistic treatment, from Guido’s ‘Aurora’ to the prize paintings at the École des Beaux-Arts.

    BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.—There is a notable Elizabethan version of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ by Arthur Golding, published in London 1565–7. It is in ballad metre, usually of fourteen syllables, and has much poetic merit. It is considered certain that Shakespeare was well acquainted with this book. Sandys’s ‘Metamorphoses’ appeared in 1626, and shares with Ogilby’s Homer the distinction of having incited Alexander Pope to become a translator. The translation of many portions of the ‘Metamorphoses’ by Dryden is well known, and is now easily accessible in the Chandos Classics. There is a version of the ‘Metamorphoses’ entire in blank verse by Henry King (1871), and one by F. J. Miller in the Loeb Classical Library. Professor Grant Showerman translated the ‘Heroides’ and ‘Amores’ for the same series.

    There is a very convenient brief monograph on Ovid in the ‘Ancient Classics for English Readers,’ written by Alfred Church. Less sympathetic than Mr. Church’s treatment, and not quite complete, is the section on Ovid in Professor Sellar’s ‘Roman Poets of the Augustan Age.’ There is an excellent essay on Ovid by Professor E. K. Rand in ‘Harvard Essays on Classical Subjects’ (Boston, 1912).

    There is no complete library edition, nor indeed any annotated edition for English readers, of Ovid entire, nor even of the ‘Metamorphoses.’ The ‘Heroides’ have been carefully edited by Palmer, the ‘Fasti’ by Hallam. Selections from the ‘Metamorphoses’ and other poems (virginibus puerisque) are in wide use as school textbooks. From the introduction to the essayist’s own school edition, a few sentences have been repeated here.

    [These citations are all taken either from the volume Ovid in ‘Ancient Classics,’ or from Vol. cxlix. of the ‘Chandos Classics.’]