The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation by Peter France 28 Introduction



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2.2.2 Ovid


Ovid, who lived between the times of Virgil and Seneca, is praised for many of his works – the Metamorphoses (a narrative poem consisting of fifteen books), Ars Amatoria (a love elegy – basically instructions how to get and keep a lover) and Heroides (poetic letters from heroines to their beloveds) are the three of his works that will be, to a different extent, commented upon later in this chapter.

In his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), Ovid describes various ways how one should behave to make someone attracted to them. Especially interesting is his advice to women – they should take care of their body, they should recognize their weak points and hide them and, on the other hand, they should take advantage of their fortes. This method is applied even to a sexual intercourse – or rather the wooing part that precedes it. But he not only encourages the girls to hide the bad sides and show off the flattering aspects (or as would Ben Jonson in his play The Silent Woman say: to deceive men), he also “enjoins his feminine disciples not to neglect their minds, to add gifts of learning to attractiveness of person, to pursue the liberal arts and study Greek and Latin because as they grow older, the body will decay but these will endure” (Barish 219). In The Art of Love it is quite vivid, as Alan Griffin fittingly points out, that “above all, Ovid actually liked women as a sex – something that cannot be taken for granted in the case of many other Latin poets” (Griffin 59).

Griffin praises Ovid especially for his Metamorphoses. He defines him, in comparison with Virgil, as a poet able to “select the significant moment in any story or episode and impress it vividly on his reader’s imagination” (68). He supports this argument by an example from the story of Pygmalion – when he comes home and, unaware that Venus heard his prayers, starts caressing his statue and she, under his gentle touches, becomes alive. Griffin also compliments Ovid for his portrayal of Byblis, for “nowhere in ancient literature is the psychology of a woman on the edge of sanity so well painted” (68) as in this story of a woman who falls in love with her twin brother, tries to resist her love as unnatural, but in the end is unable to fight against her passion. But Ovid is not praised only for picturing unnatural love; he was also able to – without comparison in the ancient literature, as Griffin states again – portray the love of a married couple and especially the wife’s love for her husband in the story of Ceyx and Alcyone – after he dies on a ship, she commits suicide by jumping into the sea, but the gods pity them and transform them both into halcyon birds.

His ability to portray various kinds of love is also proved in the Heroides – a set of letters from different heroines to their lovers, which was actually his first work. In these letters are hidden the stories of for example Phaedra and Hippolytus, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason, and Sapho and Phao. These letters contain “the whole spectrum of passion – love, scorn, tenderness, submission, regret, hate, lust. It reveals a special understanding of women and their moods. It shows the ability to analyse and present complex personalities and relationships” (Griffin 61).

Ovid shares with Euripides something of his reputation of a controversial writer – he was sent to exile for the last decade of his life and there is a supposition that his exile was connected to his Ars Amatoria. Griffin argues that Ovid’s punishment from the emperor was harsh – he was a man of the city and his exile was a deserted place in Romania – so that the offence must have been personal. There is a possible explanation – the emperor’s granddaughter, Julia, was sent to exile in the same year – for infidelity. Many critics, Griffin among them, think that the emperor, known for his sort of Victorian attitude towards morals, was displeased by this kind of literary works and thought that they inspire unchaste ideas.

Nevertheless, “the Elizabethan age, the Renaissance, and the Middle Ages had no doubts about Ovid’s merits as a poet and storyteller” (Griffin 58). He even became a part of the school curriculum: “extensive reading and memorizing of the Metamorphoses was almost universally required in sixteenth-century grammar schools” (Bate 21). The influence of his work was according to literary critics so extensive that Jonathan Bate wrote a whole book only on Shakespeare and Ovid. He claims that “all fifteen books of the Metamorphoses make themselves felt in [Shakespeare’s] works in the form of mythological allusions and borrowings of phrase” (Bate 23). One particular influence of Ovid’s work is based on the fact that he “dramatizes others, most notably victims of desire, many of them women” (Bate 5). These women (among them for example Medea) “are among the models for the soliloquizing that is the distinctive activity of Shakespeare’s most admired characters; the Ovidian dramatic monologue and the Shakespearian soliloquy create the illusion that a fictional being has an interior life” (Bate 5).



On the other hand, his Ars Amatoria were still problematic even in the Early Modern times – not only this work of Ovid was not a part of the curriculum, it became a reason for condemning Ovid as wanton – the sixteenth century was a period in which “ways of reading Ovid underwent radical transformation, as a newly unapologetic delight in the poetic and erotic qualities of the Metamorphoses came to compete with the predominant medieval practice of moralizing and even Christianizing them” (Bate 25). While reading Ars Amatoria as moral or Christian would be difficult, the Metamorphoses reached this kind of misinterpretation during the Middle Ages, but “the allegorizing and moralizing of Ovid’s often explicitly erotic tales was an interpretative device that enabled his poetry to retain currency and escape suppression in an age when all education and most art was dominated by the precepts of Christianity” (Bate 25). Yet his works did not “escape suppression” for good – in 1599 “the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London ordered a translation of Ovid’s love poems to be publicly burned” (Griffin 57). Richard F. Hardin states four reasons for Ovid’s fading popularity in the seventeenth century: there were changes in taste and interest in the post-Renaissance period that made the Metamorphoses less desirable as a “mythological handbook” or as a collection of love poems (mainly because there was an increase of literary works written in English, so he was no longer needed); Ovid as an author “suffered by comparison” with newly discovered, especially Greek, literary works; Classical literature became less influential on the modern writing; and mythology became “devalued” in the schools because of the Christian reaction to everything pagan.17



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