Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies. By Ovid (Trans. David R. Slavitt). Harvard University Press. 352 pp. $26.95.
To read Ovid’s Metamorphoses is to feel like you’ve suddenly slipped back to the beginning of time—or at least the beginning of our shared imagination. The stories Ovid tells are ones we’ve continued to tell for centuries, adapted and transformed to suit the times; their simplicity allowing them to undergo transmutations nearly as wild as those that befall Ovid’s mythological characters.The only other works of comparable influence and fecundity that come to mind are the Bible and The Thousand and One Nights, both the work of many hands; Shakespeare’s plays might qualify, but that would merely bring us back to Ovid, one of his greatest influences. Ovid, by himself, seems to have set down all the permutations of desire, and we’ve been drawing on his insight ever since.
Which makes his other great work, The Amores, available now in a new translation by David R. Slavitt under the title Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid, all the more striking. For the Love Poems feel as contemporary as the Metamorphoses feel ancient. If the Metamorphoses seem like a time capsule that allows us to breathe the air of the ancient world, the Love Poems exude a more familiar fug: the brain-fogged morning-after reek of cigarettes and regret and things that should perhaps have been left unsaid. Like the Metamorphoses, they’re poems of desire, but unlike the gods of the former, the male speakers of the latter are all too human, without the gods’ power (and, fortunately, the casual brutality) to simply take whatever they want. Spitted by love, or at least lust, they roast in its fires, begging the shapely hand that turns the crank to give them relief.
But it’s not just that the sufferings Ovid depicts are familiar: it’s that his language and tone, wry and ironic, self-deprecating and sly, feel so very contemporary, too. He sets that tone in the very first poem, an earnestly phrased mock apology for his subject in which he claims to have intended to write a Virgilian epic, but that Cupid had other plans:
He bent his sturdy bow into a half-moon
and announced, “Singer, this will be our subject now.”
He shot. And I was on fire, entirely helpless.
In my heart that had been my own, Love sits on his throne.
The theme returns in Book II, poem 18, in which Ovid barely even bothers to pretend that he’d rather deal in more serious subjects:
Dear Macer, your serious poems present Achilles’ wrath
and give us the great drama of men at war,
while I laze about in the shady groves of Venus whose antics
distract me from your ambitious enterprise
to which a good poet ought, I suppose, aspire.
By the first poem in Book III, Ovid has come to openly acknowledge his fitness for his subject:; after a self-exhortation to “Get serious, why don’t you? Sing of the deeds of heroes!”, he writes,
I turn rustic rutting to courteous sporting
and I was born to be the go-between
in the service of Venus.
That’s a sharp piece of translation, best appreciated if read aloud, juddering from consonant to consonant with an almost palindromic perfection. But while that’s a stanza worth crediting David Slavitt for, it’s a more subdued moment, in the previous piece I quoted, that I want to highlight as emblematic of what he brings to the book: the “to which a good poet ought, I suppose, aspire” of the last line of II, 18. It’s the “suppose,” and all the shoulder-shrugging indifference it conveys, that makes these lines feel so contemporary; you could almost imagine the poem ending with a “meh.”. And that air of freshness is, in this case, almost entirely the result of Slavitt’s translation. While almost any translation of Ovid offers glimmers of familiarity—his preoccupations are simply too lasting for there not to be—Slavitt again and again brings the language in line with the feeling. Compare those lines to this version, from Peter Green’s translation for Penguin (1982):
While you are taking your poem up to the wrath of Achilles
And arming your oath-bound heroes for the fray,
Love-in-idleness, Macer, and the shades of dalliance
Preoccupy me. That tender erotic urge
Shatters my high-flown intentions.
By removing the veil of archaism that Green left in place, Slavitt enables us to see Ovid’s jealousies and obsessions, his struggles with the pains of love, as ones we continue to live with.
Anthony Powell in his notebook once wrote, “People always talk of a love affair as if lovers spent all their time in bed,” and Ovid’s poems are almost exclusively concerned with that majority of hours that can’t be spent in bed–and are thus spent obsessing about getting back there, and about who might be engaged in “that rumpy-pumpy business” there instead of you right now. As a chronicle of self-destructive jealousy, the Love Poems rival In Search of Lost Time; they ring the changes on male jealousy, frustration, and obsession with almost mathematical precision.
In II, 5, we get the pains of simple jealousy:
No love is worth this much. Cupid, take your quiver
and go. Get out of my life! My usual prayers
these days are for death, which seems a better option
than the torment in which I suffer from that girl!
Followed by the very Proustian desire to prove the unprovable, innocence:
Happy is he who can in good conscience defend
his darling, who can swear, “I didn’t do it!”
But stronger than I am in mind and heart is he who can be
satisfied by proving his mistress guilty,
winning the bloody battle and losing the damned war.
There’s the anxiousness of being shut out, as in this begging poem to the guard on his mistress’s door:
Think for a bit!
What we intend to do together is hardly a crime.
We are not concocting poisons or sharpening swords.
All that we ask is to spend an hour or two together
in safety. Can you not grant our modest prayer?
There’s the disdain for a conquest that is too easy, as in II, 19, which urges the husband Ovid is cuckolding to pay more attention:
Hope blooms best when it grows in the rich soil of fear,
and it’s only being shut out that whets our desire
to be let in to enjoy what fortune now withholds.
. . . .
Who wants the low-hanging fruit? Who wants to drink
from the bank of a broad slow river? Women who understand
what men are like practice now and then
a deception or two–not to drive them away but to keep them.
And the pains of loving two women at once:, in II, 10, which calls forth a couple of Ovid’s most memorable images:
I am torn in two as Venus doubles my torments.
Wasn’t the one love enough of a nuisance?
Why stick leaves on trees? Why water the ocean?
Still, it could be worse. If I were not
in love with either one, or any, and living alone
the austere life I would wish on enemies, that
would be dreadful. To sleep in a bed all alone, to spread
my arms and legs and encounter nobody else’s?
Let love’s demands wake me in the dark hours of night.
Let me get up in the morning spent and exhausted.
That image of the empty bed is repeated, from the opposite side, in a letter from Hero to Leander in the book’s second section, Letters:
Why should I have to lie down alone in bed’s center?
The Letters, more commonly known as the Heroides, take the form of letters written by heroines of mythology and classical literature to the men who, almost to a one, have done them wrong. They’re fascinating for countless reasons, including the way that Ovid uses the female perspective to offer a sidelong or reversed view of familiar stories; they also serve, coming after the litany of male vanity that is the Love Poems, to remind us of the destruction wrought by male fecklessness and cruelty–and the strength required to choose among the limited, often horrible options for dealing with it. When Aeneas’s departure brings Dido to suicide, Virgil portrays an emotional maelstrom, but the quiet determination Ovid ascribes to her is no less harrowing:
I do not at all fear the thrust of the cold blade,
for I have felt the sharper stab of love,
compared to which this will be short and easy to bear.
Even worse is the cold horror of Medea’s letter to Jason, written after she’s decided to kill their children:
That you have the power now of being an ingrate . . .
What you now deserve is not for me to tell you.
I shall not bother to make any threats against you,
but where my anger leads, I will surely follow.
I may one day repent for what I plan,
but now I repent of having loved a faithless husband.
I shall work it out with the god within my heart.
Whereas the Love Poems benefit from being read together, all in a rush, the Letters are better when read here and there, piecemeal: it seems that, in reading at least, obsessive love benefits from surfeit, whereas female suffering and well-earned spite are best taken in small doses.
The book’s final portion, Remedies, is its slightest, but offers charms nonetheless. Ovid’s prescription for those who want to escape love’s clutches, it, too, feels unexpectedly contemporary in its analyses and suggestions. This passage, for example, could come from any of a number of current studies of happiness:
I have laughed at a friend who feigned being happy
even though we knew his mistress was cheating on him
and soon thereafter I found myself in the same
risible plight.I believe it’s mostly a matter of habit,
or call it inertia. You don’t so much decide
as you simply persist, keeping on in the same direction. A feigning
turns real and pretending to be sane
induces a condition of actual mental health.
But mental health is not what we come to Ovid for, and it would be wrong to close on that note. Let’s choose torment, and the deliberate preference of torment over peace, instead. From Love Poems II, 9:
Should some god command me to lay my loves aside
and learn to live without them, I should pray
to be excused. However wicked and painful they are,
how can I resist those beautiful women?
. . .
Who can sleep all the way through the night
and say he is content? He may indeed be rested
but he is a fool! Sleep is the model of death,
and he will have plenty of rest once he is in the grave.
Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for the Quarterly Conversation.
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