Ovid: Poems of Exile

April 3, 2020

The Poems of Exile
Tristia; Black Sea Letters
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by Peter Green
(University of California, 2005) [8-14 AD]
lxxxiv + 451 p.

Ovid had for years been at the heart of Rome’s literary culture when, in 8 AD, he was exiled by Augustus, sent to the city of Tomis, on the edge of the Black Sea, on the far fringe of the Empire. It was for him a death in life, and from the depths of his misfortune he wrote these poems, first the Tristia (in 5 books, composed roughly 8-11 AD) and then the Epistulae ex Ponto (in 4 books, written roughly 11-14 AD).

The reason for Ovid’s exile is not entirely understood. He says in the Tristia that “It was two offences undid me, a poem and an error”. About the “poem”, at least, there is no doubt, for he dwells on it constantly throughout these poems:

“Poetry made Caesar condemn me and my life-style
because of my Art, put out
years before: take away my pursuit, you remove my offences —
I credit my guilt to my verses. Here’s the reward
I’ve had for my care and all my sleepless labour:
a penalty set on talent. If I’d had sense
I’d have hated the Learned Sisters, and with good reason,
divinities fatal to their own
adherents.” (II, 1)

His “Art” is the Ars Amatoria, his poetic guidebook for the aspiring seducer. An important raft in Augustus’ political program was reform of marriage and family life in Rome; he passed laws requiring marriage of all Roman citizens of child-bearing years, and imposed severe penalties for adultery. Evidently Ovid’s casual indifference to this program and the moral ideals underlying it earned him Augustus’ anger, and this despite the fact that the love poetry had been written decades earlier.

As for the “error” to which Ovid alludes, we don’t know what it was. A personal affront to Augustus? Perhaps he just brought his old poems to his patron’s attention at an inopportune time? We will probably never know. It may have been something personally embarrassing to Ovid, for, unless I am mistaken, he mentions this “error” only once, a rarity made the more remarkable because of the obsessiveness with which the poems dwell on his fate.

And they are obsessive, exhaustingly so. In his notes to his translation, Peter Green sums up these poems: “Ovid is chronicling his own slow inner destruction”. The ambit of his themes is disconcertingly narrow: his misfortune, the fickleness of his friends who will not lobby on his behalf to the Imperial ear, the barbarity of his surroundings, the inadvertence of his offence, the faithfulness of his wife, praise of Augustus’ godlike power, and that’s about it. We read of how an exile’s condition is like that of a storm-tossed ship, of how his journey to exile was worse than Ulysses’ voyage from Troy, of his fair-weather friends, of his loneliness and isolation, of the rigours of life in Tormis, a “land seared by crimping frost”. As one reads through these poems, the monotony of his complaints, almost always in combination with self-justifying excuses, is wearying, and he knows it:

“Now I am out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must all by now be bored stiff by these monotonous poems —
certainly you’ve learned by heart what I want,
and know the contents of each fresh letter already
before you break its seal.”
(BSL 3.7)

It would be reasonable to become exasperated with Ovid, but I found myself inclining more to pity. He was obviously at his wit’s end, overwhelmed by the punishment inflicted on him, and I felt that in these poems I heard the voice of Ovid the man, rather than Ovid the dazzling conjurer of tales or Ovid the irreverent huckster. Though the range of his mind in these poems is almost immeasurably narrower than in the Metamorphoses, the field of view is in clear focus: we see a tortured heart. “Who can see another’s woe, and not feel in sorrow too?”

Despite the monomaniacal intensity of these poems, there are some interesting variations here and there in which Ovid finds a new angle on his sorrow. He imagines his book of poems travelling to Rome and touring the city from which he is barred (Tr 3.1); he writes movingly of his memories of spring in Rome (Tr 3.12); he celebrates his birthday with a lament on his being separated from everyone he loves (Tr 3.13); he imagines himself and his wife aging apart (for she had stayed in Rome to argue his case before the Emperor) (BSL 1.4); he relates a vision of the god of Love, the deity who caused his exile (BSL 3.3).

The most famous of these exile poems is the tenth in Book IV of the Tristia, a long autobiographical poem in which Ovid tells us about his childhood, his family, his first efforts at poetry, the people in his poetic circle in Rome (Propertius, Horace, and, at a distance, Virgil), his fame, and finally his exile. It is a long, consistently interesting, and touching performance.

And “performance” might be the right word for many of these poems. Despite the directness with which they speak, there is reason to think that a certain amount of artifice is at work. He writes, after all, with a purpose which Peter Green says can be summed up in just five words: “Get Me Out Of Here”. He begs his friends to speak on his behalf to Augustus, and he begs Augustus to relent, to rescind his exile, or at least to allow him exile in a more hospitable place. To this end, we are subjected to a good deal of self-abasing praise of the munificence and wisdom of Augustus:

Spare me, my hero, whose virtues eclipse the boundless
cosmos, rein in your vengeance, just though it be!
Spare me, imperishable glory of our era, through your
own devoted care, lord of the world!
(BSL 2.8)

Such cringing gives no pleasure to the reader, and if it brought any pleasure to Augustus it was nonetheless not enough. When Augustus died in 14, Ovid was still in exile, and he died there a few years later, a great talent brought to a sad end.

It doesn’t seem quite apt to describe a collection of poems of this heft as a “pendant”, but that does roughly describe the place of these poems in Ovid’s oeuvre. If his whole body of work is like a symphony, with the love poetry being a scherzo and the Metamorphoses a long and elaborate fantasia, then these exile poems are a stately andante in a minor key, gradually winding down and fading away into silence. They are not going to bring anyone joy, but, for their disarming portrait of a man sundered from home and all he loved best, I am grateful to have read them.

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