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ovid's erotic poems

23 november 2014

There's an unusual tension between claims in two prefaces to a new translation of Ovid. In her Introduction, Sarah Ruden asserts that the ancients didn't think of the self in the same way we do:

There tended to be no clean delineation between an individual's inner sense of self and a sense of the self's outward endowments obtained from education, clan, religion, culture, and nationality, and traditional stories inhered in all of these. Even the poets we might not call erotic but pornographic had no actual ability to set themselves apart from society … (9)
That's a fairly standard view of premodern identity. Before capitalism atomized us into separate producing and consuming beings, promoting illusions of individuality that were constructed by reading Montaigne and Bacon and other early harbingers of the liberal subject, humans were more like coral organisms than lone wolves.

Well, maybe. Len Krisak thinks differently in his Translator's Preface.

Everything that really matters to us mattered to them. Their poems are imbued with human passion, suffering, wonder, and excitement, and they constitute a priceless record of how the very finest literary artists of the past dealt with the most intensely human subjects. … They are the ultimate riposte to a degrading and debilitating "presentism." (19)
Krisak's views may be less antagonistic to Ruden's than these culled quotations make them appear; I don't think he's accusing his own Introducer of "degrading and debilitating" views. But clearly there's some implicit crosstalk here. And it seems fitting to conduct that crosstalk over Ovid, who writes so volubly about sex and sexuality – domains of life where we must have something in common with our distant ancestors, or we wouldn't be here.

The debate over the construction of the self is venerable and intractable. We feel we have a pretty good idea of our own selves, via introspection, live conversation, and social media. But everything we know about selves from two thousand years ago is contained in the texts they wrote, which have gotten to us via an uncertain and biased process of transmission, and reflect only a sliver of what people thought and said in, say, ancient Rome. And that sliver is massively unrepresentative in terms of genre, consisting largely of ornate poetry, highly-wrought rhetoric, and literary nonfiction.

If the presentation of the self in everyday life is a complicated business (as Erving Goffman showed, to borrow his famous term), then the presentation of the self in exquisitely stylized elegaic poetry in an ancient dialect is going to be even trickier to unpack. We need translation, and we need to know our translator's assumptions, and Len Krisak lays them out for us: his Ovid is someone who had a sense of desire much like ours.

Krisak's volume has the English title Ovid's Erotic Poems, but as readers might guess, the Amores and Ars Amatoria aren't particularly sexy texts. Here and there, Ovid opens up the bedroom door to observe activities inside; near the end of the Ars Amatoria, there's a catalog of recommended sex positions that might be worth one of those brief items that Cosmopolitan keeps printing with minor variations month after month. Most of both long poems, however, concerns relationship and dating advice, usually in the context of how to date somebody else's wife.

While sexual gymnastics, pickup lines, and jealousy may not have changed much in 2,000 years, the social assumptions that underlie these poems tend to highlight Ruden's contention that much has changed. Anyone trying to use the Ars Amatoria as a guide to charming women will need to find a city where aristocratic matrons in arranged marriages have staffs of subornable servants. He must then haunt temples, forums, and sporting events till he meets the inevitable lovelorn wives. Tinder, this ain't; or at least, it's a distant forerunner.

A third of the Ars Amatoria is of course devoted to counseling women on how to pick up men, so it's naturally addressed to the wives who were the prey in its first two sections. The basic idea throughout is that marriage is an economic and legal arrangement, and that desire must be expressed outside its bounds. Not that there are no marriages like that in 2014, but our ideals have shifted, and continue to shift, in the direction of viewing marriage as a companionate sexual institution, as well as a legal contract and an economic partnership.

The Ars Amatoria is more appealing than the Amores, which is a looser collection that places a fictionalized Ovid himself at the heart of a set of "complaints" about the woes that involve loving a certain Corinna. Both poems are shot through with misogyny (even book III of the Ars, which is for women); there's an anti-abortion theme; there's quite a bit of "no really means yes, and she likes it rough" (see especially Ars I, pp. 136-37); there's some overt homophobia, too. Much of this stuff is embarrassing; when Ovid's voice is detached from his material, it seems phony; when he seems to be feeling sincerely, we wish he wouldn't. The Metamorphoses are uneven, but also (paradoxically) full of both sympathy and ironic distance; the erotic poems are either too callous or too maudlinly self-involved.

The question naturally arises: why should we still read these poems? As a college classics student, I read a few of the set pieces from the Ars Amatoria, like the story of Daedalus and Icarus (139-42), which resembles a narrative from the Metamorphoses, but is a severe digression from the main theme. The trouble is, there's not much to admire in the main theme. My favorite pieces of actual romantic advice from the Ars Amatoria are parallel passages from books II and III, in which men are advised to seek out older women (162) and women to seek out older men (183). But aside from this advocacy for the elder-hot, I'm not sure I'd recommend anything that Ovid actually says.

Krisak's work is memorable, though. His translation shows some unusual features. Ovid's Amores and Ars Amatoria are written in Latin elegaic meter, which alternates "epic" hexameter lines – similar to those of Vergil's Aeneid – with shorter pentameter lines, themselves divided into two half-lines. I remember one in the Ars Amatoria, from my college days:

forma viros neglecta decet; Minoïda Theseus
abstulit, a nulla || tempora comptus acu
As Krisak translates:
For men, slight grooming's best; when Theseus won the fair
     Ariadne, no pin or clip held back his hair. (Ars Amatoria 1, ll. 509-10; p. 130)
Krisak chooses a unique means to convey the feel of elegaic verse. The Latin has a longer line followed by a shorter one; so does Krisak's English. His first line is an English hexameter; his second is the more familiar English pentameter. But unlike those of Ovid or any other classical Latin elegist, the two lines rhyme.

I can't remember seeing another poet use the form that Krisak has chosen here, though my ignorance should never be relied on to exclude precedents. Someone has probably tried this formal experiment before. But it hasn't caught on. The hexameter line, though standard in French, isn't common for long poems in English. It usually appears for elegant variation (what Alexander Pope dissed as "a needless Alexandrine"). There is an early-modern English meter called "Poulter's measure," where the poet takes an Alexandrine and follows it with a "fourteener," as in this couplet by George Gascoigne:

Cupid that mighty God although his force be fearse,
Yet is he but a naked Boye, as Poets doe rehearse.
Note, though, that in Gascoigne, the second line of the rhyming couplet is longer. Note too that the Poulter's couplet breaks down into shorter lines of 6, 6, 8, and 6 syllables rhyming XAXA, and might as well be printed that way. Krisak's lines don't break down into any form familiar from English traditions.

As a result, Krisak's couplets pull you up short with a rhyme you don't expect (until, with familiarity, you come to expect it). Ovid himself is fond of commenting on his elegaic verse as halting and uneven, and Krisak tries to convey its basic awkwardness. That awkwardness is compounded by Ovid's irregularity of tone, which Krisak also tries to convey.

As I noted when reading Charles Martin's translation of the Metamorphoses, Ovid is awkward in the original Latin, and poses many problems for the translator who would presumably prefer to sound elegant in the target language. Krisak's English can sound like a Victorian don trying to wrap his way allusively around mildly bawdy material. He can sound like a mid-20th-century hygienic pamphlet or a late-20th-century advice column. Krisak's Ovid essentially sounds like nothing anybody in 2014 would remotely think of writing. That may undercut his own assertion that the ancients were just like us. But perhaps one way the ancients were like us is in wanting to use oddly heightened language in order to show off.

When reading Krisak's Ovid, I was reminded of T.S. Eliot's contention that new works of poetry alter old ones. One of Krisak's favorite devices is the proleptic allusion, where Ovid seems to borrow the language of poets who wouldn't be born for centuries. In just a few pages of his Amores, Krisak echoes Yeats ("kites that gyre," 61), Andrew Marvell ("none do there embrace," 65; "Time's wingèd," 82), and Eliot himself ("dare to eat a peach," 61). There are far more of these borrowings than I can list, and surely many that I didn't even catch. The effect is of an Ovid who likes to weave early- and late-modern poets into his classical diction. But explicitly, throughout the erotic poems, Ovid likes to cite his own precursors – Catullus, Gallus, Vergil – and Krisak's witty appropriations, woven into his weird meter, give us a sense of a vastly literate and playful mind at dialogic work on a stock of tags and commonplaces. In other words, one imagines, a lot like reading Ovid 2,000 years ago.

And we're still reading Ovid today, via Krisak's help. One of the most sympathetic passages in the Amores – frankly, about the only sympathetic passage in the Amores – is the elegy for the poet Tibullus (book III, poem 9), with its meditation on the persistence of poetry down through the ages (98-100). The inevitability and indifference of death are starkly expressed:

When good men die though young, I start to think—forgive
     My doubt!—there are no gods. For if you live
In piety, you die. Pray right, and as you pray,
     From fane to tomb, death drags you down to stay. (99-100)
"Believe in verse alone!" Ovid exclaims (100), and adds
Should more than name outlive us till some kingdom come,
     Tibullus then will see Elysium. (100)
For once, Ovid is direct (possibly because he's thinking of himself as much as his dead friend). And Len Krisak shows himself as much equal to Ovid's occasional simplicity as to Ovid's more usual farrago of styles and tones.

Ovid's Erotic Poems: Amores and Ars Amatoria. Translated by Len Krisak. Introduction by Sarah Ruden. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. PA 6522 .A3