Ovid: Contribution as Roman Poet in Latin Literature

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      The Peace of the Empire, secured by the victory of Actium, and fully established during the years which followed by Augustus and his lieutenants, inaugurated a new era of social life in the capital. The saying of Augustus, that he found Rome brick and left it marble, may be applied beyond the sphere of mere architectural decoration. A French critic has well observed that now, for the first time in European history, the Court and the City existed in their full meaning. Both had an organised life and a glittering external ease such as was hardly known again in Europe till the reign of the Grand Monarque. The enormous wealth of the aristocracy was in the mass hardly touched by all the waste and confiscations of the civil wars; and, in spite of a more rigorous administration, fresh accumulations were continually made by the new official hierarchy, and flowed in from all parts of the Empire to feed the luxury and splendour of the capital. Wealth and peace, the increasing influence of Greek culture, and the absence of political excitement, induced a period of brilliant laxity among the upper classes. The severe and frugal morals of the Republic still survived in great families, as well as among that middle class, from which the Empire drew its solid support; but in fashionable society there was a marked and rapid relaxation of morals which was vainly combated by stringent social and sumptuary legislation. The part taken by women in social and political life is among the most powerful factors in determining the general aspect of an age. This, which had already been great under the later Republic, was now greater than ever. The Empress Livia was throughout the reign of Augustus, and even after his death, one of the most important persons in Rome. Partly under her influence, partly from the temperament and policy of Augustus himself, a sort of court Puritanism grew up, like that of the later years of Louis Quatorze. The aristocracy on the whole disliked and despised it; but the monarchy was stronger than they. The same gloom overshadows the end of these two long reigns. Sentences of death or banishment fell thick among the leaders of that gay and profligate society; to later historians it seemed that all the result of the imperial policy had been to add hypocrisy to profligacy, and incidentally to cripple and silence literature.

Ovid: as Roman Poet

      Of this later Augustan period Ovid is the representative poet. The world in which he lived may be illustrated by a reference to two ladies of his acquaintance, both in different ways singularly typical of the time. Julia, the only daughter of Augustus, still a mere child when her father became master of the world, was brought up with a strictness which excited remark even among those who were familiar with the strict traditions of earlier times. Married, when a girl of fourteen, to her cousin, Marcus Claudius Marcellus; after his death, two years later, to the Emperor's chief lieutenant, Marcus Agrippa; and a third time, when he also died, to the son of the Empress Livia, afterwards the Emperor Tiberius—she was throughout treated as a part of the State machinery, and as something more or less than a woman. But she turned out to be, in fact, a woman whose beauty, wit, and recklessness were alike extraordinary, and who rose in disastrous revolt against the system in which she was forced to be a pivot. Alike by birth and genius she easily took the first place in Roman society; and under the very eyes of the Emperor she multiplied her lovers right and left, and launched out into a career that for years was the scandal of all Rome. When she had reached the age of thirty-seven, in the same year when Ovid's Art of Love was published, the axe suddenly fell; she was banished, disinherited, and kept till her death in rigorous imprisonment, almost without the necessaries of life. Such were the first-fruits of the social reform inaugurated by Augustus and sung by Horace.

      In the volume of poems which includes the posthumous elegies of Tibullus, there is also contained a group of short pieces by another lady of high birth and social standing, a niece of Messalla and a daughter of Servius Sulpicius, and so belonging by both parents to the inner circle of the aristocracy. Nothing is known of her life beyond what can be gathered from the poems. But that they should have been published at all, still more that they should have been published, as they almost certainly were, with the sanction of Messalla, is a striking instance of the unique freedom enjoyed by Roman women of the upper classes, and of their disregard of the ordinary moral conventions. The only ancient parallel is in the period of the Aeolic Greek civilisation which produced Sappho. The poems are addressed to her lover, who (according to the fashion of the time—like Catullus' Lesbia or Propertius' Cynthia) is spoken of by a Greek name, but was most probably a young Roman of her own circle. The writer, a young, and apparently an unmarried woman, addresses him with a frankness of passion that has no idea of concealment. She does not even take the pains to seal her letters to him, though they contain what most women would hesitate to put on paper. They have all the same directness, which sometimes becomes a splendid simplicity. One note, reproaching him for a supposed infidelity—

 Si tibi cura togae potior pressumque quasillo Scortum quam Servi filia Sulpicia—

      Has all the noble pride of Shakespeare's Imogen. Of the world and its ways she has no girlish ignorance; but the talk of the world, as a motive for reticence, simply does not exist for her.

      Where young ladies of the upper classes had such freedom as is shown in these poems, and used it, the ordinary lines of demarcation between respectable women and women who are not respectable must have largely disappeared. It has been much and inconclusively debated whether the Hostia and Plania, to whom, under assumed names, the amatory poems of Propertius and Tibullus were addressed, were more or less married women (for at Rome there were degrees of marriage), or women for whom marriage was a remote and immaterial event. The same controversy has raged over Ovid's Corinna, who is variously identified as Julia the daughter of the Emperor herself, as a figment of the imagination, or as an ordinary courtesan. The truth is, that in the society so brilliantly drawn in the Art of Love, such distinctions were for the time suspended, and we are in a world which, though for the time it was living and actual, is as unreal to us as that of the Restoration dramatists.

      The young lawyer and man of fashion, Publius Ovidius Naso, who was the laureate of this gay society, was a few years younger than Propertius, with whom he was in close and friendly intimacy. The early death of both Propertius and Tibullus occurred before Ovid published his first volume; and Horace, the last survivor of the older Augustans, had died some years before that volume was followed by any important work. The period of Ovid's greatest fertility was the decade immediately following the opening of the Christian era; he outlived Augustus by three years, and so laps over into the sombre period of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which culminated in the reign of Nero.

      As the eldest surviving son of an opulent equestrian family of Upper Italy, Ovid was trained for the usual career of civil and judicial office. He studied for the bar at Rome, and, though he never worked hard at law, filled several judicial offices of importance. But his interest was almost wholly in the rhetorical side of his profession; he "hated argument;" and from the rhetoric of the schools to the highly rhetorical poetry which was coming into fashion there was no violent transition. An easy fortune, a brilliant wit, an inexhaustible memory, and an unfailing social tact, soon made him a prominent figure in society; and his genuine love of literature and admiration for genius—unmingled in his case with the slightest trace of literary jealousy or self-consciousness—made him the friend of the whole contemporary world of letters. He did not begin to publish poetry very early; not because he had any delicacy about doing so, nor because his genius took long to ripen, but from the good-humoured laziness which never allowed him to take his own poetry too seriously. When he was about thirty he published, to be in the fashion, a volume of amatory elegiacs, which was afterwards re-edited and enlarged into the existing three books of Amores. Probably about the same time he formally graduated in serious poetry with his tragedy of Medea. For ten or twelve years afterwards he continued to throw off elegiac poems, some light, others serious, but all alike in their easy polish, and written from the very first with complete and effortless mastery of the metre. To this period belong the Heroides, the later pieces in the Amores, the elaborate poem on the feminine toilet called De Medicamine Faciei, and other poems now lost. Finally, in 2 or 1 B.C., he published what is perhaps on the whole his most remarkable work, the three books De Arte Amatoria.

      Just about the time of the publication of the Art of Love, the exile of the elder Julia fell like a thunderbolt on Roman society. Staggered for a little under the sudden blow, it soon gathered itself together again, and a perpetual influx of younger men and women gathered round her daughter and namesake, the wife of Lucius Aemilius Paulus, into a circle as corrupt, if not so accomplished, as that of which Ovid had been a chief ornament. He was himself now forty; though singularly free from literary ambition, he could not but be conscious of his extraordinary powers, and willing to employ them on larger work. He had already incidentally proved that he possessed an instinct for narrative such as no Roman poet had hitherto had—such, indeed, as it would be difficult to match even in Greek poetry outside Homer. A born story-teller, and an accomplished master of easy and melodious verse, he naturally turned for subjects to the inexhaustible stores of the Graeco-Roman mythology, and formed the scheme of his Metamorphoses and Fasti. Both poems were all but complete, but only the first half of the latter had been published, when, at the end of the year 8, his life and work were suddenly shattered by a mysterious catastrophe. An imperial edict ordered him to leave Rome on a named day, and take up his residence at the small barbarous town of Tomi, on the Black Sea, at the extreme outposts of civilisation. No reason was assigned, and no appeal allowed. The cause of this sudden action on the part of the Emperor remains insoluble. The only reason ever officially given, that the publication of the Art of Love (which was already ten years old) was an offence against public morals, is too flimsy to have been ever meant seriously. The allusions Ovid himself makes to his own "error" or "crime" are not meant to be intelligible, and none of the many theories which have been advanced fully satisfies the facts. But, whatever may have been the cause—whether Ovid had become implicated in one of those aristocratic conspiracies against which Augustus had to exercise constant vigilance, or in the intrigues of the younger Julia, or in some domestic scandal that touched the Emperor even more personally—it brought his literary career irretrievably to the ground. The elegies which he continued to pour forth from his place of exile, though not without their grace and pathos, struggle almost from the first under the crowning unhappiness of unhappiness, that it ceases to be interesting. The five books of the Tristia, written during the earlier years of his banishment, still retain, through the monotony of their subject, and the abject humility of their attitude to Augustus, much of the old dexterity. In the four books of Epistles from Pontus, which continue the lamentation over his calamities, the failure of power is evident. He went on writing profusely, because there was nothing else to do; panegyrics on Augustus and Tiberius alternated with a natural history of fish—the Halieutica—and with abusive poems on his real or fancied enemies at Rome. While Augustus lived he did not give up hopes of a remission, or at least an alleviation, of his sentence; but the accession of Tiberius, who never forgot or forgave anything, must have extinguished them finally; and he died some three years later, still a heart-broken exile.

      Apart from his single tragedy, from a few didactic or mock-didactic pieces, imitated from Alexandrian originals, and from his great poem of the Metamorphoses, the whole of Ovid's work was executed in the elegiac couplet. His earliest poems closely approximate in their management of this metre to the later work of Propertius. The narrower range of cadence allowed by the rule which makes every couplet regularly end in a disyllable, involves a monotony which only Ovid's immense dexterity enabled him to overcome. In the Fasti this dexterity becomes almost portentous: when his genius began to fail him, the essential vice of the metre is soon evident. But the usage was stereotyped by his example; all through the Empire and through the Middle Ages, and even down to the present day, the Ovidian metre has been the single dominant type: and though no one ever managed it with such ingenuity again, he taught enough of the secret to make its use possible for almost every kind of subject. His own elegiac poetry covers an ample range. In the impassioned rhetoric of the Heroides, the brilliant pictures of life and manners in the De Arte Amatoria, or the sparkling narratives of the Fasti, the same sure and swift touch is applied to widely diverse forms and moods. Ovid was a trained rhetorician and an accomplished man of the world before he began to write poetry; that, in spite of his worldliness and his glittering rhetoric, he has so much of feeling and charm, is the highest proof of his real greatness as a poet.

      But this feeling and charm are the growth of more mature years. In his early poetry there is no passion and little sentiment. He writes of love, but never as a lover; nor, with all his quickness of insight and adroitness of impersonation, does he ever catch the lover's tone. From the amatory poems written in his own person one might judge him to be quite heartless, the mere hard and polished mirror of a corrupt society; and in the Art of Love he is the keen observer of men and women whose wit and lucid common sense are the more insolently triumphant because untouched by any sentiment or sympathy. We know him from other sources to have been a man of really warm and tender feeling; in the poetry which he wrote as laureate of the world of fashion he keeps this out of sight, and outdoes them all in cynical worldliness. It is only when writing in the person of a woman—as in the Phyllis or Laodamia of the Heroides—that he allows himself any approach to tenderness. The Ars Amatoria, full as it is of a not unkindly humour, of worldly wisdom and fine insight, is perhaps the most immoral poem ever written. The most immoral, not the most demoralizing: he wrote for an audience for whom morality, apart from the code of good manners which society required, did not exist; and wholly free as it is from morbid sentiment, the one great demoralizing influence over men and women, it may be doubted whether the poem is one which ever did any reader serious harm, while few works are more intellectually stimulating within a certain limited range. To readers for whom its qualities have exhausted or have not acquired their stimulating force, it merely is tiresome; and this, indeed, is the fate which in the present age, when wit is not in vogue, has very largely overtaken it.

      Interspersed in the Art of Love are a number of stories from the old mythology, introduced to illustrate the argument, but set out at greater length than was necessary for that purpose, from the active pleasure it always gives Ovid to tell a story. When he conceived the plan of his Metamorphoses, he had recognised this narrative instinct as his special gift. His tragedy of Medea had remained a single effort in dramatic form, unless the Heroides can be classed as dramatic monologues. The Medea, but for two fine single lines, is lost; but all the evidence is clear that Ovid had no natural turn for dramatic writing, and that it was merely a clever tour de force. In the idea of the Metamorphoses he found a subject, already treated in more than one Alexandrian poem, that gave full scope for his narrative gift and his fertile ingenuity. The result was a poem as long, and almost as unflagging, as the Odyssey. A vast mass of multifarious stories, whose only connection is the casual fact of their involving or alluding to some transformation of human beings into stones, trees, plants, beasts, birds, and the like, is cast into a continuous narrative. The adroitness with which this is done makes the poem rank as a masterpiece of construction. The atmosphere of romantic fable in which it is enveloped even gives it a certain plausibility of effect almost amounting to epic unity. In the fabulous superhuman element that appears in all the stories, and in their natural surroundings of wood, or mountain, or sea—always realised with fresh enjoyment and vivid form and colour—there is something which gives the same sort of unity of effect as we feel in reading the Arabian Nights. It is not a real world; it is hardly even a world conceived as real; but it is a world so plausible, so directly appealing to simple instincts and unclouded senses, above all so completely taken for granted, that the illusion is, for the time, all but complete. For later ages, the Metamorphoses became the great textbook of classical mythology; the legends were understood as Ovid had told them, and were reproduced (as, for instance, throughout the whole of the painting of the Renaissance) in the spirit and colour of this Italian story-teller.

      For the metre of the Metamorphoses Ovid chose the heroic hexameter, but used it in a strikingly new and original way. He makes no attempt, as later poets unsuccessfully did, at reproducing the richness of tone and intricacy of modulation which it had in the hands of Virgil. Ovid's hexameter is a thing of his own. It becomes with him almost a new metre—light, brilliant, and rapid, but with some monotony of cadence, and without the deep swell that it had, not in Virgil only, but in his predecessors. The swift, equable movement is admirably adapted to the matter of the poem, smoothing over the transitions from story to story, and never allowing a story to pause or flag halfway. Within its limits, the workmanship is faultless. The style neither rises nor sinks with the variation of subject. One might almost say that it was without moral quality. Ovid narrates the treachery of Scylla or the incestuous passion of Myrrha with the same light and secure touch as he applies to the charming idyl of Baucis and Philemon or the love-tale of Pyramus and Thisbe; his interest is in what happened, in the story for the story's sake. So, likewise, in the rhetorical evolution of his thought, and the management of his metre, he writes simply as the artist, with the artistic conscience as his only rule. The rhetorician is as strong in him as it had been in the Amores; but it is under better control, and seldom leads him into excesses of bad taste, nor is it so overmastering as not to allow free play to his better qualities, his kindliness, his good-humour, his ungrudging appreciation of excellence, in his evolution of thought—or his play of fancy, if the expression be preferred—he has an alertness and precision akin to great intellectual qualities; and it is this, perhaps, which has made him a favourite with so many great men of letters. Shakespeare himself, in his earlier work, alike the plays and the poems, writes in the Ovidian manner, and often in what might be direct imitation of Ovid; the motto from the Amores prefixed to the Venus and Adonis is not idly chosen. Still more remarkable, because less superficially evident, is the affinity between Ovid and Milton. At first sight no two poets, perhaps, could seem less alike. But it is known that Ovid was one of Milton's favourite poets; and if one reads the Metamorphoses with an eye kept on Paradise Lost, the intellectual resemblance, in the manner of treatment of thought and language, is abundantly evident, as well in the general structure of their rhetoric as in the lapses of taste and obstinate puerilities (non ignoravit vitia sua sed amavit might be said of Milton also), which come from time to time in their maturest work.

      The Metamorphoses was regarded by Ovid himself as his masterpiece. In the first impulse of his despair at leaving Rome, he burned his own copy of the still incomplete poem. But other copies were in existence; and though he writes afterwards as though it had been published without his correction and without his consent, we may suspect that it was neither without his knowledge nor against his will; when he speaks of the manus ultima as wanting, it is probably a mere piece of harmless affectation to make himself seem liker the author of the Aeneid. The case was different with the Fasti, the other long poem which he worked at side by side with the Metamorphoses. The twelve books of this work, dealing with the calendar of the twelve months, were also all but complete when he was banished, and the first six, if not actually published, had, at all events, got into private circulation. At Tomi he began a revision of the poem which, apparently, he never completed. The first half of the poem, prefaced by a fresh dedication to Germanicus, was published, or republished, after the death of Augustus, to whom, in its earlier form, it had been inscribed; the second half never reached the public. It cannot be said that Latin poetry would be much poorer had the first six books been suppressed also. The student of metrical forms would, indeed, have lost what is metrically the most dexterous of all Latin poems, and the archaeologist some curious information as to Roman customs; but, for other readers, little would be missed but a few of the exquisitely told stories, like that of Tarquin and Lucretia, or of the Rape of Proserpine, which vary the somewhat tedious chronicle of astronomical changes and national festivals.

      The poems of the years of Ovid's exile, the Tristia and the Letters from Pontus, are a melancholy record of flagging vitality and failing powers. His adulation of the Emperor and the imperial family passes all bounds; it exhausts what would otherwise seem the inexhaustible copiousness of his vocabulary. The long supplication to Augustus, which stands by itself as book ii. of the Tristia, is the most elaborate and skilful of these pieces; but those which may be read with the most pleasure are the letters to his wife, for whom he had a deep affection, and whom he addresses with a pathos that is quite sincere. As hope of recall grew fainter, his work failed more and more; the incorrect language and slovenly versification of some of the Letters from Pontus are in sad contrast to the Ovid of ten years before, and if he went on writing till the end, it was only because writing had long been a second nature to him.

      Of the extraordinary force and fineness of Ovid's natural genius, there never have been two opinions; had he but been capable of controlling it, instead of indulging it, he might have, in Quintilian's opinion, been second to no Roman poet. In his Medea, the critic adds, he did show some of this self-control; its loss is the more to be lamented. But the easy good-nature of his own disposition, no less than the whole impulse of the literary fashion then prevalent, was fatal to the continuous exercise of such severe self-education: and the man who was so keen and shrewd in his appreciation of the follies of lovers had all the weakness of a lover for the faults of his own poetry. The delightful story of the three lines which his critical friends urged him to erase proves, if proof were needed, that this weakness was not blindness, and that he was perfectly aware of the vices of his own work. The child of his time, he threw all his brilliant gifts unhesitatingly into the scale of new ideas and new fashions; his "modernity," to use a current term of the present day, is greater than that of any other ancient author of anything like his eminence.

 Prisca iuvent alios, ego me nunc denique natum Gratulor: haec aetas moribus apta meis— this is his deliberate attitude throughout his life.

      Such a spirit has more than once in the history of the arts marked the point from which their downward course began. I do not sing the old things, for the new are far better, the famous Greek musician Timotheus had said four centuries earlier, and the decay of Greek music was dated from that period. But to make any artist, however eminent, responsible for the decadence of art, is to confuse cause with effect; and the note of ignominy affixed by Augustus to the Art of Love was as futile as the action of the Spartan ephor when he cut the strings away from the cithara of Timotheus. The actual achievement of Ovid was to perfect and popularise a poetical form of unusual scope and flexibility; to throw a vivid and lasting life into the world of Graeco-Roman mythology; and, above all, to complete the work of Cicero and Horace in fixing a certain ideal of civilised manners for the Latin Empire and for modern Europe. He was not a poet of the first order; yet few poets of the first order have done a work of such wide importance.

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