Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, Ovid!

Ovid, or more formally, Publius Ovidius Naso (March 20, 43 B.C. – 17 A.D.) was a Roman poet who wrote on many topics, including love and sex, abandoned women, exile, and mythological transformations. Ovid was born in Sulmo, a vilage east of Rome. He was trained as a lawyer, but gave up that profession to be a poet and is therefore, in my mind at least, the patron saint of all recovering attorneys.

Perhaps Ovid's best-known work is The Metamorphoses, completed around 8 A.D., which retells much of Greek mythology and Roman history.

Soon after the completion of The Metamorphoses, the Emperoror Augustus banished Ovid to the fringes of the Empire--a region north of the Black Sea. It is not clear what the poet had done to merit this punishment; one of the more popular legends is that Ovid either facilitated or gossiped about the extra-marital affairs of Julia the Younger, Augustus' granddaughter.

Ovid wrote two more collections of poems, titled Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from Pontus), that are particular favorites of mine. These poems are largely concerned with Ovid's sadness at being exiled from Rome and constitute an ongoing plea to Augustus to allow the poet's return.

Ovid died in exile in 17 A.D., after nearly 10 years of banishment.

Here's an excerpt from Letters from Pontus:

From Book EIII.I:1-66
To His Wife: Her Role

Sea, first struck by Jason’s oars, and land,
never free of savage enemies and snow,
will a time come when Ovid is ordered away
to a less hostile place, leaves you behind?
Surely I ought not, living on in this barbarian
country, to be buried in the soil of Tomis?
By your leave, Pontus, if you’ve any leave to give,
land trampled by swift horses of nearby enemies,
by your leave I’d seek to call you the worst feature
of my harsh exile, you that aggravate my trouble.
You never experience Spring wreathed in crowns
of flowers, nor see the naked bodies of the reapers.
Autumn never offers you its clusters of grapes:
all seasons are gripped by the immoderate cold.
You hold the waves ice-bound, and the fish,
in the sea, often swim roofed-in by solid water.
There are no springs, except those that are almost brine:
drink, and you’re dubious whether they quench or parch.
The odd barren tree sticks up in the open field,
and the land is merely the sea in disguise.
No birds sing, unless they’re ones from far forests,
drinking sea-water here, making raucous cries.
The empty plains bristle with acrid wormwood,
a harvest appropriate to this bitter place.
Add our fear, walls battered at by enemies,
their arrows soaking wet with fatal venom,
add how far this region is from every track,
to which none travel on foot, securely, or by boat.
No wonder then if, seeking an end to this,
I ask endlessly for a different location.


Shown are pages from the George Sandys translation of The Metamorphoses (1640).


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