Llewelyn Morgan on Ovid and his enduring influence.

A colleague once accused Ovid of having only one joke, to which I responded that it was a very good joke, worth repeating. Now, I don’t really believe that Ovid is limited to just the one joke, and if I did, I wouldn’t be admitting it when I’ve just published Ovid: A Very Short Introduction. Nevertheless, there is something about the exercise of writing an introduction to Ovid, and especially a very short one, which is like explaining a joke, dissecting poetry and struggling to preserve the joy of it as you do so. Ovid’s irrepressible wit makes particular demands, but the only way to discover if I’ve risen to the task is to buy a copy, I’m afraid.

An even greater challenge in a book like this is how, in the space available, to give a remotely adequate account of Ovid’s afterlife, the huge influence that his poetry, Metamorphoses especially, has exerted on literature, visual art and culture in general. What follows is an illustration of the legacy of a part of Ovid’s oeuvre that to me at least proved unexpectedly influential when I came to research it, the collections from exile entitled Tristia (“Sad poems”) and Epistulae ex Ponto (“Letters from the Black Sea”). At the age of 50, and at the height of his celebrity, Ovid was banished from the city he loved as much as it loved him to a remote town on the Black Sea, at the edge of Roman control, called Tomis, modern Constanţa in Romania. His banishment was in part the direct consequence of his success as a poet, one poem in particular, the Ars Amatoria, a mischievous Handbook to Love Affairs, handing Augustus enough rope to be able to claim (some years after its publication) that Ovid posed a dire threat to public morals.

The statue of Ovid in Ovid Square, modern Constanţa.

Poetry is always of greater interest to Ovid as a topic of his poetry than any other subject. But the circumstances of his exile give to the poetry he wrote in Tomis a preoccupation with his own creative talent and a deep ambivalence about it. Accompanying that sense of the damage his ingenium, “creativity”, had done him, though, is a sporadic awareness that poetry, while it had been his downfall, was also key to his survival. That he still wrote verse allowed Ovid, amid the profound crisis of self-identity that afflicted a Roman male in exile, to feel (and to communicate to his readers) that he still existed.

The Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto are thus strikingly untypical of Classical Latin poetry in one respect at least, the extreme alienation they describe of a formerly confident and fêted member of a social elite, not just from his home and family, but from the structures of society and culture that had made him who he was. For his successors this made the exile poetry a compelling point of reference for comparable expressions of ambivalence or separation, from Rome or its counterparts, from respectability, from love, from oneself, even from poetry. Pushkin in exile in Bessarabia is one example, though this Muscovite is dismissive of Ovid’s claims about the Black Sea’s wintry climate. Goethe similarly imagines himself as Ovid in exile when he takes regretful leave of Rome for the last time in Italienische Reise.

Another example is the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott (1930-2017) in a poem from his collection The Fortunate Traveller (1981), The Hotel Normandie Pool. This poem is further illustration of the character of the legacy of Ovid’s exilic pessimism, but it also addresses some issues given particular urgency by recent events. How does Classical literature reflect Empire, and to what extent does it encode racial hierarchy?

Sir Derek Alton Walcott, KCSL, OBE, OCC (23 January 1930 – 17 March 2017) was born on the island of St Lucia in the eastern Caribbean in 1930. The Hotel Normandie is in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and The Hotel Normandie Pool finds Walcott at fifty, a comparable age to Ovid at his exile in AD 8, and in multiple ways alienated from the familiar. It is New Year, a point of transition, and the poet sits contemplating the surface of the hotel pool and pondering “the disfiguring exile of divorce” from the mother of the two daughters who are staying with him. His wish at New Year, adressed to his water sign Aquarius, is “Change me, my sign, to someone I can bear.” “Time cuts down on the length man can endure/ his own reflection.”

Into these melancholy reflections intrudes a “sandalled man”, who walks out of the hotel toward the pool, stops, fixes his eye on Walcott, and nods. A “petty businessman” at first sight,

but, in the lines of his sun-dazzled squint,

a phrase was forming in that distant tongue

of which the mind keeps just a mineral glint,

the lovely Latin lost to all our schools:

“Quis te misit, Magister?” And its whisper went

through my cold body, veining it in stone.

The mystery guest is Ovid, of course, and Walcott seeks from his eminent predecessor answers for the crises affecting the West Indies (“ideas/ with guns divide the islands; in dark squares/ the poems gather like conspirators”), and for a crisis of identity of his own:

And I, whose ancestors were slave and Roman,

have seen both sides of the imperial foam,

heard palm and pine tree alternate applause…

The Ovid of this poem is Ovid after exile, and he responds to Walcott by recalling the trauma of his own adversity:

When I was first exiled,

I missed my language as your tongue needs salt,

in every watery shape I saw my child,

no bench would tell me ‘Here’s your place’;

bridges, canals, willow-fanned waterways

turning from my parting gaze like an insult,

till, on a tablet smooth as the pool’s skin,

I made reflections that, in many ways,

were even stronger than their origin.”

A peculiar thing about Ovid’s exile poetry, as another colleague of mine once perceptively remarked, is that we learn more about the physical character of Rome from Ovid’s wistful reminiscences of the city in these poems than we do from almost anywhere else. Here Walcott, or Ovid, is thinking of moments like Epistulae ex Ponto 1.8.31-38, where he recounts to his fellow-poet Cornelius Severus how vividly he finds himself recalling the city he has lost:

For at times my mind recalls you, sweet friends,

at times thoughts of my dear wife and daughter come to me,

and from my own house I visit again the sites of the beautiful city,

and my mind with its own eyes surveys the whole scene.

Now the forums, now the temples, the theatres clad in marble,

now every portico with its levelled floor come to me,

now the lawns of the Campus that looks toward the beautiful gardens,

the pools, canals, and the water of the Aqua Virgo.

Walcott’s Ovid, with the advantage of knowing how celebrated his poetry has continued to be in the two millennia since his death, gives voice to an optimism about the power and value of poetry that is only occasionally glimpsed in his actual poetry. As he ends he encompasses Walcott too in that optimism:

“Romans”—he smiled—“will mock your slavish rhyme,

the slaves your love of Roman structures, when,

from Metamorphoses to Tristia,

art obeys its own order. Now it’s time.”

Tying his toga gently, he went in.

Walcott’s crisis at 50, the one answered by the exiled Ovid that he conjures up (“to make my image flatters you”, Walcott later hears Ovid’s voice say), is a personal one, but one that extends to the core of his identity as a post-colonial artist, suspended between places and histories and racial perceptions, with his classical education at St. Mary’s College, Castries, introducing a tension parallel to the very profession of poet: Emily Greenwood’s article in L. Hardwick & C. Stray, A Companion to Classical Receptions (2008) is informative on the role of Classics, mainly Latin, in education in the pre-independence West Indies. Yet it is poetry itself, Walcott uses Ovid in exile to propose, that can allow him to transcend such apparent contradictions.

That Ovid is the vehicle for this statement of self-renewal is worth pondering, and Walcott’s poem has received quite a lot of attention in recent years from scholars interested in the Ovidian angle. My focus here (and in my book) is on what Ovid’s exile poetry, specifically, offered Walcott, and at least part of the answer to that is the cultural heft of a classical poet, a stereotypically European standard of value, but one (untypically) tempered and attenuated by disadvantage. The exiled Ovid is banned from the Imperial City, and while his poetry gets there without him (only the name of Naso is not yet in exile, Ovid quips at Tristia 3.4.45), it is an unending effort to maintain his status as poet, and his hopes of correcting his misfortune by poetry are tenuous. Walcott’s Ovid, as we have seen, has a perspective on things that Ovid was never able to achieve unambiguously in life. But a Roman poet who embodies estrangement from Rome as much as Romanness suits Walcott’s purposes admirably, and reminds us again how remarkably and expressively malleable the category of “Classical” in practice is.

Llewelyn Morgan is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at Oxford University, and Vice-Principal of Brasenose College. His new book Ovid: a Very Short Introduction was published this year by OUP.