Tristia by Ovid

How wretched to live among tribal natives
for him whose name was once a household word.
(Tristia book 4, poem 1, lines 67 and 68)

What I seek is not praise but pardon.
(Tristia book 1, poem 7, line 31)

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
(Tristia, book 3, poem 7, lines 43 and 44)

America-based British academic Peter Green has published an impressive number of books about the ancient world – numerous histories and essays, along with many translations from ancient Greek and Latin.

Among these are two volumes of translations of the Roman poet Ovid for Penguin books: a portmanteau volume titled The Erotic Poems of Ovid, which includes Amores, The Art of Love and The Cure for Love, and this volume, The Poems of Exile, which includes Ovid’s last two works, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’).

These fairly long works (Tristia 103 page, Letters 90 pages) were, as the title suggests, written during Ovid’s 10-year-long and miserable exile at a town called Tomis, on the Black Sea (now the coastal resort of Constanca in Romania).

(Apparently it is important to distinguish between exile (deportatio) – where the banished person lost their Roman citizenship and all their property – and Ovid’s condition, which was the lesser punishment of relegatio, whereby he retained his citizenship and his property – very important for the ongoing life of his wife and daughter back in Rome, see note p.225 among others.

Ovid’s career

Born in 43 BC Ovid was a fluent and prolific poet who made his reputation with a series of books about love, treated in a cynically witty, urbane style:

  • first there was a set of letters supposedly written by women from myth and legend (the Heroides)
  • then the stylish Amores (‘Love poems’) which followed in the line of elegiac love lyrics pioneered by Catullus and developed by Tibullus and Propertius. The Amores were published in 16 BC
  • but most successful, and scandalous, was the Ars Amoris (‘The Art of Love’) which I thought might be a philosophical-moral treatise but turns out to be an extremely cynical, worldly guide to picking up women, preferably married women, for an illicit affair, closer to the world of Tinder and modern pickup artists than Plato or Castiglione. The Ars Amoris was published around 1 BC

Around the age of 40, Ovid made a significant shift in subject matter to produce the vast Metamorphoses, an encyclopedic collection of ancient myths and legends linked by the common topic of physical transformation i.e. tales of men and women who were changed by the gods or magic or fate into flowers, trees, animals, rivers and so on.

The poem contains flattering references to the emperor Augustus (who effectively ruled Rome single handed between 27 BC and his death in 14 AD) and leads up to a description of the apotheosis (conversion into a god) of Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar and then fulsome praise of Augustus himself. Metamorphoses was published in 8 AD.

Ovid was half way through writing a work which contains even more flattering references to Augustus and his extended family, the Fasti, a long poetic account of the Roman calendar which sets out to explain the origins and aspects of Rome’s numerous religious festivals, anniversaries and important dates – when he received an angry summons to the emperor’s personal presence, was given a fierce dressing down and instructed to pack his bags because he was being sent into exile (or to be precise relegatio). He was ordered to go and live in the wretched frontier town of Tomis, in the only partly-pacified province of Moesia, on the coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Romania.

Born in 43 BC, Ovid was 51 in late 8 AD when he was sent into exile.

Ovid’s exile

Why? What had he done which was so outrageous? For the last ten years of his life (8 to 18 AD) Ovid wrote these two books – 50 or so letters in which he pleaded with all his friends back in Rome to beg the emperor to change his mind and rescind his banishment, and 50 or so poems in which he gave poetic expression to the changing moods of an exile. But although he refers to the causes of his exile quite a few times, he never specifies exactly what it was.

To be precise, Ovid attributes his exile to two causes. One was that his recklessly cynical and amoral pickup guide The Art of Love offended against the very serious efforts of Augustus to restore traditional morality among Rome’s aristocracy, particularly when it came to marriage – banning adultery and rewarding fidelity and especially the parenting of children who should be brought up in a traditional, settled married environment. The Art of Love, as a guide to how to start and maintain adulterous affairs, flew straight in the face of everything Augustus was trying to achieve.

But Ovid himself thinks Augustus’s citing of this poem as a cause for exiling him was a smokescreen for a deeper reason. This he refers to repeatedly as his error but, infuriatingly, tells us his lips are sealed and he won’t explain it. For 2,000 years scholars have been forced to speculate.

Political – maybe was present at discussions about a coup to overthrow Augustus; maybe he was a witness to a secret marriage of Julia – either way Ovid’s hints imply that he himself was never part of a conspiracy, never carried out any action: but that he witnessed something and then, apparently, failed to report it.

The Tristia are accessible and enjoyable

I really struggled with Anne and Peter Wiseman’s prose translation of Ovid’s Fasti, several times thinking I’d have to give up reading the work altogether. It was only when I switched to A.S. Kline’s online verse translation that I was able to finish wading through the often very obscure and confusing text.

By contrast Peter Green’s verse translations of the Tristia and The Letters from Pontus are a delight to read. Above all, unlike long sections of the Fasti, it’s obvious what they’re about. Whether he’s describing the long stormy journey by sea to Tomis, or sending his book back to Rome, or praising his wife for her loyalty, or castigating an old friend for abandoning him, or begging Augustus for forgiveness, or saying his frivolous love poetry didn’t deserve to bring such a harsh fate down on their author’s head – the subject matter is obvious and the development of the argument almost always easy to follow.

Peter Green’s translation

This is immensely helped by Peter Green’s fresh, zingy, accessible translation. In fact there are two very strong points about this edition. One is the translation, which has an enjoyably flexible, rolling rhythm about it. The second is Green’s notes. Wiseman’s notes for the Fasti were sensible but fairly brief, restrained, limited. By contrast Green’s notes are almost long as the texts themselves (Tristia text 103 pages, Green’s notes 90 pages).

Green is gloriously unbuttoned, chatty, opinionated, fluent, garrulous. Tristia is divided into 5 books and each book gets a page or so of introduction explaining when it was written, describing Ovid’s changing tone of voice and approach as the books progress.

Then each poem in each book gets a page introduction to itself, before we get onto notes for specific references: these introductions describe what the poem is about, how it differs from other poems or echoes or repeats certain themes, how it riffs off this or that ancient genre or trope. Green freely discusses contemporary history, Ovid’s family relationships, the climate and people of Tomis, the theories of other scholars (for example, whether the poems are arranged in careful order or are more random) and so on, in a buttonholing garrulous manner which I found immensely interesting and entertaining.

And it is all immensely helpful for understanding how the tone and approach of the books changed over the long 10 years during which they were written; at understanding the genres or rhetorical conventions of Latin poetry which they invoke, copy or modify; for understanding the complex matrix of cross references Ovid sets up between them; and, on the simplest bucket level, understanding the historical events, the real historical people or the mythical personages which the poems refer to.

Instead of a set of standalone, isolated factual explications, Green’s notes are more like one vast essay of commentary and explication. His notes are easily as interesting to read as the poems.

Book 1 (11 poems)

1.1 (128 lines)

Little book – no, I don’t begrudge it you – you’re off to the City
without me, going where your only begetter is banned!

This is the envoi to book 1 and addresses the book as a sentient being which he is sending to Rome to argue on his behalf. This was an established literary convention (used by Catullus and Horace among others) but differs from its predecessors in introducing the recurrent theme that the book will argue for forgiveness and an end to his exile.

1.2 (110 lines)

‘You gods of sea and sky’ – what’s left me now but prayer? –
‘Don’t, break up our storm-tossed ship:
don’t, I beseech you, endorse great Caesar’s fury!’

Description of the violent storms which Ovid endured on his journey by ship across the Mediterranean in December 8 AD, with some poking fun at traditional descriptions and epic conventions around describing storms at sea.

1.3 (102 lines)

Nagging reminders: the black ghost-melancholy vision
of my final night in Rome,
the night I abandoned so much I dearly treasured,
to think of it, even now, starts tears…

Ovid paints the scene of his departure from Rome, the weeping and wailing of his servants and family, especially his (third) wife. With typical irony (and mocking epic convention) he compares himself briefly to Aeneas leaving Troy. More to the point he emphasises that his error was a mistake and not a deliberate crime.

1.4 (28 lines)

Dipped now in Ocean, the She-Bear’s stellar guardian
is stirring up stormy seas: yet here am I
constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic…

Another description of his stormy journey, notable for the description of the figurehead of Minerva at the prow of the ship (Roman and Greek vessels carried painted figureheads of gods, to whom the crew prayed if they got into trouble).

1.5 (84 lines)

Friend, henceforth be reckoned the foremost among my comrades,
who, above all others, made your fate your own,
who first, I recall, when the bolt struck, dared to support me
with words of comfort…

Ovid praises the handful of friends who stuck by him when most of his fairweather friends bolted as soon as Augustus’s wrath struck his home. This passage, and Ovid’s plight generally, remind me much of Oscar Wilde’s sudden, fateful reversal of fortune, from talk of the town to almost complete abandonment by all but a handful of real friends:

Before my house’s downfall
visitors thronged the place, I was à la mode
if not ambitious. The first tremor sent them running…

In the second half of the poem Ovid wittily but bitterly compares himself to Ulysses who made a long and painful journey by sea, but the poet uses the extended comparison to bring out obvious differences, namely that Ulysses was a rough tough warrior, whereas Ovid is a sensitive poet unused to rough conditions; and that Ulysses was heading home to his loving wife and family whereas Ovid is heading away from everything that he loves.

1.6 (36 lines)

Not so dear was Lyde to the Clarian poet, not so truly
loved was Bittis by her singer from Cos
as you are deeply entwined, wife, in my heart…

In praise of his wife’s loyalty, including the (repeated so often as to become hackneyed) comparison with Ulysses’ loyal wife, Penelope. It ends with another theme which was to be repeated scores of times, the notion that his exile has killed off his former self, old Ovid is dead, and the old poetic exuberance borne of his high-flying social life is extinguished – but still the old dead suffering ex-poet can still squeeze out a few last lines:

Alas, my verses possess but scanty strength, your virtues
are more than my tongue can proclaim,
and the spark of creative vigour I once commanded
is extinct, killed off by my long
misfortunes. Yet in so far as our words of praise have power
you shall live through these verses for all time.

1.7 (40 lines)

Reader, if you possess a bust made in my likeness,
strip off the Bacchic ivy from its locks!
Such signs of felicity belong to fortunate poets:
on my temples a wreath is out of place.

A poem to a friend who’s stuck by Ovid, but which is really about the condition of the works Ovid leaves behind him in Rome. The poem claims that Ovid threw his copy of the Metamorphoses into the fire, and that it was unfinished, had yet to have a final revision:

…because the poem was still unfinished, still
in rough draft… it lacks my final hand:
a job snatched from me half-done, while still on the anvil,
a draft minus the last touch of the file.

1.8 (50 lines)

A poem of bitter reproach to an old friend who dumped him when trouble struck, scholars identify as the poem Macer, related to Ovid’s third wife, with whom he travelled through Greece and Asia Minor when he was a student. The poem opens with the rhetorical trope called adynaton meaning ‘impossibility’, similar to the modern saying ‘when hell freezes over’.

Back from the sea now, back to their sources shall deep rivers
flow, and the Sun, wheeling his steeds about,
run backward; earth shall bear stars, the plough cleave heaven,
fire shall give forth water, and water flames,
all things shall move contrary to the laws of nature,
no element in the world shall keep its path,
all that I swore impossible will happen now: there’s nothing left
that I can’t believe. This I prophesy after my betrayal by that person
who, I’d believed, would aid me in my distress…

1.9 (66 lines)

Reader, should you peruse this work without malice, may you
cross life’s finishing-line without a spill!

A poem to a faithful friend, notable for reminding friends who hesitate to support him that Augustus has demonstrated a capacity for clemency and respects those who stay loyal to friends and cause, even if they opposed him. Ovid says he wishes now he had never taken up the wretched art of poetry, seeing as where it’s led him. And repeats other recurring tropes: that the cynical amorality of the Ars Amatoria had nothing to do with his own private life which was chaste and faithful; and that it was a joke, a joke for God’s sake.

1.10 (50 lines)

I have (may I always keep!) blonde Minerva’s protection: my vessel
bears her painted casque, borrows her name.

In contrast to the earlier poems about storms at sea, this is a poem in praise of the good ship Minerva which brought him to a harbour in eastern Greece where they docked, Ovid unloaded and continued his journey by land, but the second half of the poem is an envisioning of the voyage back the ship will take, studded with famous placenames and historical references and calling down blessings on the good ship Minerva.

1.11 (44 lines)

Every word you’ve read in this whole book was written
during the anxious days
of my journey: scribbling lines in mid-Adriatic
while December froze the blood…

A poem highlighting the contrast between the lazy peaceful couch on which he composed his great works back in Rome, and the storm-tossed ship on which he tried to write poems on the blustery, brine-drenched journey East.

If these lines fall short – as they do –
of your hope: they were not written, as formerly, in my garden,
while I lounged on a favourite day-bed, but at sea,
in wintry light, rough-tossed by filthy weather, spindrift
spattering the paper as I write.

Book 2 (578 lines)

Book 2 stands out because instead of a set of 10 or so shorter poems it is one longer poem of 578 lines. Green cites earlier scholars who consider the poem a suasoria, meaning:

Suasoria is an exercise in rhetoric: a form of declamation in which the student makes a speech which is the soliloquy of an historical figure debating how to proceed at a critical junction in his life. (Wikipedia)

Or maybe a legal argument, to be presented in court. It consists of:

  1. the exordium – attempt to placate the judge (Augustus) (lines 1 to 26)
  2. the propositio – outlining the speaker’s aim (27 to 28)
  3. the tractatio – the handling or treatment in which the case is unfolded at length (29 to 578); this can be sub-divided into:
    1. probatio or proof of evidence (29 to 154)
    2. epilogus 1 or first conclusion, entering a plea for mitigation of sentence
    3. refutatio or rebuttal of the charge (Ovid argues that his poetry never corrupted anyone because to the pure all things are pure and to the corrupt, anything is corrupt) (207 to 572)
    4. epilogus 2 or second conclusion, again calling for clemency

In other words, even more than

Book 3 (15 poems)

These poems were composed in 9 to 10 AD. The first excitement of the journey into exile, undertaken in December 8 AD and vividly described in book 1, is over. He has spent one winter in Tomis and now knows the role freezing bitter cold is going to play in his life. And it is dawning on him that this exile isn’t for a year or so, isn’t a game which will come to an end – but is the bitter condition for the rest of his days.

3.1 (82 lines)

‘I’m an exile’s book. He sent me. I’m tired. I feel trepidation
approaching his city – kind reader, lend a hand.’

Book 3 poem 1 repeats the conceit of book 1 poem 1 in conceiving the book as envoy except that whereas in book 1 Ovid had been outside the book, sending it as the author, this poem speaks in the voice of the book itself. This allows the book itself to find its way through Rome in order to seek out readers, a library to stay in, and the palace of the great Augustus (who, for the umpteenth time, Ovid begs for forgiveness). In so doing, the poem provides an interesting and historically useful guide to the layout of the Rome of his day. He is as conscious as ever of the role the Ars Amoria plays in his personal disaster, something so well known that he has his book tell anyone encountering not to fear:

‘Have no fear: I won’t turn out an embarrassment to you:
no instructions about love, not one page,
not a syllable. So bleak my master’s misfortunes, he shouldn’t
try to camouflage them with light verse,
though that sport of his green years, that frivolous disaster
he now – too late, alas! – detests and condemns.
See what I bring you’ll find nothing here but lamentation,
verse matching its circumstances…’

The book’s tour of Rome, appropriately, at Asinius Pollio’s library

3.2 (30 lines)

So it was my destiny to travel as far as Scythia,
that land lying below the Northern pole,
and neither you, Muses, not you, Leto’s son Apollo,
cultured crowd though you are, gave any help
to your own priest…

Ovid makes the theme clear: he is a soft poet, not used to a hard life (‘an escapist, born for leisured comfort’), his erotic poetry was a joke, a pose, he was never a libertine in real life (‘my poetry’s more wanton than my life’). But now all that’s dead and gone.

The journey to Tomis was so stormy and colourful it helped to distract him from the misery of exile, even inspired him a bit. But now the hard fact of exile has hit him and his existence has settled into a monotonous drudge – it’s cold, it’s boring and it’s dangerous. Now ‘weeping is my only pleasure’. Now he yearns for death.

In the poem he knocks at the door of his own sepulchre door, which he finds stubbornly shut against him. (Green makes the typically illuminating comment that this is an inversion of the trope of the paraclausithyron, the image of the poet keeping watch morosely outside the locked door of his beloved, well established in the elegiac tradition and which Ovid had himself used in the Amores.

3.3 (88 lines)

If perhaps you’re wondering why this letter’s drafted
by another’s hand, I’ve been, am, sick,
sick, and at the unmapped world’s remotest limits,
scarce certain of my survival.

Ovid is ill and depressed. He lists the tribulations of exile: cold climate, impure water, depressing landscape, no proper housing, bad diet, no doctors to treat his illness, no friends’ conversation to distract him. He addresses his wife, swearing she’s the only woman he thinks about, he said her name during the delirium of his illness. He imagines his death. He writes his own epitaph.

3.4A (lines 1 to 46)

Ah friend, my dear care as always, though in harsh circumstances
first truly assayed, after my world’s collapse,
if you’ve any respect for the lessons experience has taught me,
live for yourself, keep far from all great names…

A poem to an unnamed friend, advising him to live a discrete, retired life, not to make grand acquaintances, not to fly too high lest, like poor Ovid, he be blasted by Jove’s thunderbolt. (The comparisons of Augustus with Jupiter, and the decision to exile Ovid falling on him like the god’s thunderbolt, appear in virtually all the poems, quickly becoming a part of their standardised litany of complaint.) He warns his friend to:

Live without rousing envy, enjoy years of undistinguished
ease and delight…

3.4B (lines 47 to 78)

A region that neighbours the polar constellations
imprisons me now, land seared by crimping frost…

The poem begins by lamenting the frozen waste he finds himself in, such that Rome and its familiar landscapes now linger on only in his memory. Next to them, his wife, whose image haunts him. And then his loyal friends. He asks them not to forget him, to do what they can to lend a hand to his cause.

3.5 (56 lines)

Our friendship was new and slight: you could have denied it
without any trouble. (You’d have not, I think,
embraced me more closely had my vessel been driven
on by a favouring wind.)

While some of his old friends have abandoned him, the (unnamed) addressee of this poem stuck by him despite being a new acquaintance. Ovid thanks and praises him, then asks that he use his eloquence to argue his cause before the emperor.

Again and again and again Ovid insists he did no wrong, he merely witnessed something and failed to report it: he committed no crime except simply having eyes. Here there’s one of the longest passages describing this, 10 lines of exculpation, emphasising that he committed an error but – as he repeats just as often – shying away from explaining the nature of this ‘error’. God, I can see why it’s driven 2,000 years of scholars mad with frustration.

3.6 (38 lines)

The bond of friendship between us, carissimo, you neither
wish to dissimulate, nor could if you so wished…

To his best friend, praising his loyalty, saying he’s shared everything with him – except the nature of the ‘offence’ which got him banished. If he’d shared it, his friend would have joined him in exile, indicating what a toxically powerful secret it must have been.

He repeats the claim that he, Ovid, didn’t do anything, merely witnessed something – so that it’s his eyes which are to blame. He says that even to hint at his crime would be ‘great risk’. He says it is better buried in deepest night. He asks his friend to help and intercede on his behalf with angry Jupiter.

3.7 (54 lines)

Go quickly, scribbled letter, my loyal mouthpiece,
and greet Perilla for me. Her you’ll find
either sitting in the company of her sweet mother
or among her books and poems…

A sweet and touching poem to his step-daughter, Perilla (his wife’s daughter by an earlier husband), now a young woman. Surprisingly, it turns out that she is a poet too, her talent spotted and nurtured by her dad. They often read their poems to each other. He praises her and tells her, if she’s worried about his fate, that she’ll be fine so long as she doesn’t set out to teach anyone about love (Ovid’s writing of The Art of Love having been given out as the official reason for his banishment).

It ends with a triumphant assertion of the supremacy and triumph of art. Age may wither her, the emperor’s punishment has blasted him – everything can be taken from them, and yet:

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
Look at me – I’ve lost my home, the two of you, my country,
they’ve stripped me of all they could take,
yet my talent remains my joy, my constant companion:
over this, Caesar could have no rights…

Caesar will die, yet so long as Rome exists, Ovid will be read. It must have been an optimistic claim, made to keep his spirits up and yet, 2,000 years later, amazingly… it’s true!

3.8 (42 lines)

Now I wish I were high aloft in the car of Triptolemus
who flung the untried seed on virgin soil…

He wishes for the paraphernalia of various mythological figures so he can fly back to Rome, then pulls himself up short. Fool! Instead of old legends he should be petitioning the real Augustus in the here and now. If not to end his exile at least to move him somewhere else. The wretched climate, the lack of all amenities and civilised companionship is sapping his spirit, making him ill. God, why didn’t Augustus just kill him outright and be done with it?

3.9 (34 lines)

Here too, then, there are – who would credit it? – Greek cities
among the wild place-names of barbary: here too
colonists, sent out from Miletus, founded Greek outposts
on Getic soil…

An aetiological poem i.e. one which explains a modern custom, practice or place name in terms of a myth or legend. In this case Ovid derives the name of his exile town, Tomis, from the old story that the witch Medea, having fled her homeland, saw the sail of the ship of her father, Aeëtes, approaching and, in panic, conceived a plan to delay him so she could make a getaway. The plan? To rip to shreds her brother and scatter his body parts about the shore, thus forcing her father to collect them together for a proper funeral pyre. In Latin the (false) etymology relates tomé, a noun meaning the act of chopping up, with Tomis.

Green’s notes tell us that a) aetiological poems were a speciality of the Hellenistic poet, Callimachus (305 to 240 BC) and b) Roman aetiological poems almost always get the etymology and derivation of words wrong. Odd that we, 2,000 years later, know more about their customs and, especially their language, than they did.

3.10 (78 lines)

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid, if my
name survives in the City now I’m gone,
let him know that beneath those stars that never dip in Ocean
I live now in mid-barbary, hemmed about
by wild Sarmatians, Bessi, Getae, names unworthy
of my talent!

A long vivid poem giving a rare description of what Tomis was actually like, or the landscape around it. To be precise Ovid focuses on the bitter freezing winter weather and the way the many mouths of the river Danube which enter the Black Sea close to the town freeze over. Not only that but the sea itself freezes: he knows, he’s walked on frozen waves.

But it’s worse, it’s not just that it’s cold: normally the river acts as a barrier against barbarian tribes but when it freezes they can ride over it and raid nearby villages. Some peasants flee, leaving their farms and possessions to be looted by the raiders. Some are shackled and led off to slavery. Some die in agony because the raider’s sharp arrowheads are dipped in poison. What they can’t steal, the barbarians burn to the ground.

3.11 (74 lines)

Whoever you are, vile man, who scoff at my misfortunes,
and with bloody zeal fling charges at me – you
were born from the rocks, by wild beasts’ udders nurtured
with flints, I’ll swear, in your breast…

A bitter recrimination against some (unnamed) enemy who is bad mouthing and savaging his character back in Rome. Why make a miserable man more miserable? Ovid laments the coldness, the isolation, he can’t speak the natives’ language, he suffered cruelly on the journey out, now he lives in terror of the violent tribesmen. O vile calumniator, why hit an unfortunate man when he’s down?

3.12 (54 lines)

West winds now ease the cold: at the year’s closure
a longer-than-ever winter must yield at last,
while the Ram (that bore Helle – and dropped her) now equalises
the hours of darkness and light…

March 10 AD. The first half of the poem is a vivid celebration of the sights and sounds of spring back in Rome and the Italian countryside, spring flowers, children playing in the fields, men exercising, the roar of crowds at the theatre.

Then the volta or ‘turn’ to contrast his sad isolated existence. For Ovid Spring means the very slow thaw of the ice, some water runs a bit free in the cistern. Wine left outside no longer freezes solid in the bottle. The Danube flows again and the Black Sea becomes navigable and so, once in a blue moon, a ship may arrive from Rome and Ovid will avidly question the captain for even the slightest scraps of gossip which can, for a moment, revive his link to his long-lost homeland.

3.13 (28 lines)

My birthday god’s here again, on time – and superfluous:
what good did I get from being born?
Cruel spirit, why come to increase this wretch’s years of exile?
You should rather have cut them short…

The Greeks considered the genethliakon or ‘birthday poem’ a genre in its own right, with its own rules and stock imagery. It’s here to mark Ovid’s birthday. He was born on 20 March 43 BC so, if this poem was written in 10 AD, he was 53.

But Ovid deliberately reverses all the conventions of the birthday poem. For example, he curses the birth god (the natalis) who oversaw his birth. It would have been more merciful to have let him die as a baby, or never be born at all, rather than endure this misery. Instead of the customary toga and ritual thanksgivings on his birthday, he’d prefer an altar of death.

3.14 (52 lines)

Patron and reverend guardian of men of letters, you always
befriended my talent – but what’s your attitude now?
In the days before my downfall you used to promote me –
and today?

Scholars consider the addressee of this poem to have been Caius Julius Hyginus, director of the Palatine library, patron of young poets, and a close friend in the old days back in Rome. The poem echoes the themes of books and libraries announced in poem 3.1, in other words they form bookends ti the volume.

Ovid hopes Hyginus is still supportive of his work. Books are like children, they can remain behind in the city even when the father is exiled. Ovid refers to the fact that his erotic poems (The Art of LiveThe Cure For Love) have been banned and removed from all libraries, but hopes the others are read.

Interestingly, he is at pains to emphasise that the Metamorphoses was left unfinished (a claim which consciously or unconsciously compares him with Virgil’s famously unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid).

Then he turns to the present book, ‘a missive from the world’s end’, and asks Hyginus to be indulgent and remember the context of its writing: Ovid fears his talent has withered, he has forgotten his Latin, here in a place surrounded by barbarian tongues and threatened every day with violent attack, he worries all his stylishness has been rubbed off him. Please make allowances.

Book 4 (10 poems)

4.1 (106 lines)

Whatever defects there may be – and there will be – in these poems,
hold them excused, good reader, by the times
in which they were written. An exile, I was seeking solace,
not fame…

In the envoi to book 4 Ovid asks the reader’s indulgence, and to consider the miserable exile. His only true and steadfast companion is his Muse. He tells us how slaves, chained rowers, slave girls, manual labourers, sing songs to pass the time, as did the legendary figures Orpheus and even Achilles, sulking in his tent.

And so Ovid in exile. He ought to curse the avocation which led him to write the love guide which led to his downfall, but he can’t: he’s hooked. Writing transports him away from his miserable situation, drugs him, like the potions which numbed the lotus eaters.

What is he drugging himself from? The horrible situation of living in a walled defensive town liable to attack at any moment from barbarian tribes. He describes the way the way the alarm goes and he has to buckle on a sword although he’s 60 years old! He repeats the description of the way the raiders capture, shackle and lead off to slavery local farmers, or just shoot them with poisoned arrows and leave them to die.

Once again he laments that there is no-one at all to read his poems to who will understand them let alone appreciate them. Sometimes he waters the paper with his tears. Sometimes he crunches them up and throws them in the fire. What has survived he presents in this book and craves our indulgence.

4.2 (74 lines)

Already fierce Germany, like all the world, confronted
by the Caesars, may well have bent her knee
in surrender…

He imagines the full panoply of celebrations surrounding what he assumes must be Tiberius’s victories in Germany, including the sacrifices in temples and the great public triumphant procession through Rome, all under the guiding vision of beneficent Augustus.

The poem switches to meditate on the process of imagination itself, by which he is imagining and visualising all this, for his imagination, his mind’s eye, can go where he, alas, never again can.

4.3 (84 lines)

He asks the stars of the new constellation to turn their eyes upon his wife, ‘sweetest of wives’. He hopes she is missing him. Then addresses her directly and asks a series of rhetorical questions itemising her grief (when she looks at his untouched pillow in their marital bed, does she weep?)

Yet, to be honest, he wishes he had died. Then she would have something simple and pure to weep over, instead of his agonising shame, and the fact that he lives, but forever inaccessible to her. She supported him and was so proud of his achievements, for so long. Please don’t be ashamed of him, now. Defend him. Intercede for him.

4.4 (88 lines)

O you who with your high birth and ancestral titles
in nobility of character still outshine
your clan, whose mind mirrors your father’s brilliance
while retaining a brilliance all your own…

An appeal to Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus, the eldest son of Ovid’s patron (recently deceased), Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sings Valerius’s praises but as the poem proceeds it becomes clear he never really knew the boy and is trying to curry favour because of the connection with his (now dead) father.

This leads Ovid into embarrassed contortions, and apologies, before going on to the usual litany of self-exculpation (‘it wasn’t a crime, it was an error‘) before begging Valerius to intervene with Augustus to ask for his exile to be, if not revoked, that at least he be moved somewhere better, safer from raids by barbarians, hot for blood and plunder, some of whom are cannibals.

4.5 (34 lines)

A sycophantic poem addressed to Messalinus’s younger brother, Marcus Valerius Cotta Maximus although, as with all the Tristia the addressee is not explicitly named – because Ovid knew it would do nobody any good to be associated with his disgrace, his exile, his crime. This young man was loaded and well connected. Ovid politely, discreetly, begs for his help.

Do what you safely can: rejoice in your heart that I’m mindful
of you, that you’ve been loyal to me; still bend,
as now, to your oars to bring me succour…

4.6 (50 lines)

Believe me I’m failing; to judge from my physical condition
I’d say my troubles have a scant
future remaining – I lack my old strength and colour,
there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones;
yet sick though my body is, my mind is sicker
from endless contemplation of its woes…
(lines 39 to 44)

Two winters have passed (of 9 and 10 AD) so scholars think this poem was written in 11. Ovid is tired, worn down, sick in mind and body, and has one hope left – ‘that my troubles may be soon cut short by death’.

4.7 (26 lines)

Twice has the Sun approached me after the chills of icy
winter, twice rounded his journey off
through the sign of the fish.

The sign of the Fish enters the Sun in February so scholars date this poem to 11 AD. Ovid reproaches a dear old friend (unnamed like all the addressees of these poems) for not writing to him, hoping he has written, but that the letters have got lost on the long, fraught journey to the outer reaches of the empire.

4.8 (52 lines)

Already my temples are mimicking swans’ plumage,
and hoary age bleaching my once-dark hair;
already the frail years are on me, the age of inertia,
already my infirm self fins life too hard…

He has grown old. Ships, racehorses, charioteers, old soldiers, all these get to be pensioned off – why not an old poet? Why can’t an old poet be set free from his miserable exile and allowed to return?

At my time of life I shouldn’t be breathing this alien
air, or easing my thirst at Getic wells,
but dividing my days between those peaceful country gardens
I once possessed, and the pleasures of human life,
the human round…

4.9 (32 lines)

Ovid is ferociously angry with an unnamed enemy who has been bad-mouthing the powerless poet back in Rome. Ovid calls down vengeance on him – ‘then luckless sorrow will perforce take arms’ – and promises that his angry words will travel the world and last for generations to come – as they, indeed, did.

Although
I’m sequestered on this wasteland where the northern stars circle
high and dry above my gaze, nevertheless
my clarion message will go forth to countless peoples,
my complaint shall be known world-wide;
whatever I say shall be heard, across deep waters;
my lamentation shall find a mighty voice.

4.10 (132 lines)

This is the best known of all the 100 or so exilic poems for the simple reason that it is a versified autobiography, detailing Ovid’s early life and career, his decision to choose poetry and art over a career in public service, then the inevitable story of his erotic poetry – emphasising, as always, the clear distinction between his promiscuous poetry and his respectable personal life. And then on to his notorious ‘error’ and so into exile.

He dwells on the deaths of his elder brother, which left him maimed. Later the deaths of his father then mother, and he thinks them lucky to have led long blameless lives. Maybe from Elysium they can hear him when he assures them (for the umpteenth time) that his exile was caused by an error not a crime.

When a youth the older poets were like gods to him. Old Macer read him his latest poems. Propertius and he had ‘a close-binding comradeship between us’. Horace, ‘that metrical wizard’, held them spellbound to the sound of the lyre. Virgil he only saw, never spoke to. Tibullus died young, before he could make his acquaintance. He thinks of the elegiac poets as being, in chronological order, Gallus (whose entire oeuvre is lost), Tibullus, Propertius then himself (interesting that he doesn’t mention Catullus).

He lists his three marriages, the first wife ‘worthless and useless’, the second wife died young, and now his long third marriage. His daughter makes him a grandfather. He is growing old when the thunderbolt falls, and he is sent into exile.

The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin
must not be revealed through testimony of mine.

After a long and gruelling journey (again and again he compares himself to Ulysses) he arrives in his wretched place of exile and now, his only remaining solace is writing poems, when he can. Again, he repeats the idea that everything else is lost, but his talent, his gift, and the Muse which brings it, remain.

Book 5 (15 poems)

Yet another Black Sea booklet
to add to the four I’ve already sent!

The fifth and final book of Tristria is different in tone from the previous four, more resigned, more limited in ambition, with less zest and irony. More tetchy, irritated, and desperate. Only one poem is descriptive (i.e describes Tomis). The other 13 are all addressed to specific individuals, half of them to his wife (more than in the previous four books put together) begging them all to get Augustus to revoke his exile or, at least, assign him somewhere warmer, safer and closer to Rome.

His references and analogies become increasingly repetitive. In every single poem he repeats that he did nothing wrong, he committed no bloodshed, it was a simple ‘error’, he merely witnessed something by accident, by mistake.

In every poem Augustus is compared to Jupiter (reasonably enough). Ovid repeatedly compares himself to Capaneus, one of the heroes of the war against Thebes who, as he led the attack on one of the city’s gates shouted that not even Jupiter could stop him now, so Jupiter promptly zapped him with a thunderbolt.

Or to Philoctetes, suffering from a wound which would never heal, for ten long years abandoned on the inhospitable island of Lemnos.

5.1 (80 lines)

I don’t correct these poems, let them be read as written:
they’re no more barbarous than their place of birth.

He warns his reader that this is not a book of sexy, frivolous poems as by Gallus, Tibullus or Propertius. They are grim and bleak, like his circumstances: ‘A dirge best fits a living death’.

He imagines a critical reader wondering why he’s bothering to write such depressing poems, and defends it as a form of crying out in pain, an action he then defends by giving half a dozen mythological examples of legendary figures crying out in unendurable pain.

He defends his erotic poetry against the charge of immorality by pointing out the only person who ever suffered because of it was him.

(Green makes the droll point that, alone of all the Augustan poets Ovid was singled out for immorality therefore undermining Augustus’s reforming legislation about marriage; and yet, as far as we know, Ovid was the only one of the famous poets to be married: neither Virgil (gay), Horace (promiscuous bachelor), nor Propertius were.)

5.2 (78 lines)

To his wife, increasingly desperate, sick and depressed.

It’s a barbarous land that now holds me, earth’s final outpost,
a place ringed by savage foes.

He accuses his wife of not putting herself out as she should on his behalf. Has she deserted him, like everyone else? He tells her to approach the emperor directly. If she won’t then he will and at line 45 the poem changes to a hymn of praise to Augustus. All the double-edged irony and wit which you can discern in the earlier references to Augustus has evaporated. Now he is on his knees, spouting extravagantly excessive praise and openly begging.

O glory, O image of the country that flourishes through you,
O hero to match the very sphere you rule.

He says it’s not the cold, nor the lack of culture among a people none of whom speak Latin, it’s the fear of attack by uncivilised barbarians, living in a small settlement protected only by one low wall, that he’s seen fighting at close quarters, that he lives in constant anxiety and insecurity. He begs Augustus to move him to some less terrifying place of exile.

5.3 (58 lines)

A poem celebrating Bacchus, god of wine, on his feast day, the Liberalia, 17 March (described in Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, the Fasti) then asking him to intercede with Augustus.

5.4 (50 lines)

From the Black Sea’s shore I have come, a letter of Ovid’s,
wearied by sea-travel, wearied by the road.
Weeping he told me: ‘See Rome, for you it’s not forbidden –
alas, how better far your lot than mine!’

Ovid repeats the conceit of having the poem speak in the first person as a letter, all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the (unnamed) recipient in Rome, a letter able to go where he, alas, cannot, sealed with a signet ring wet with his tears.

But he emphasises that he accepts he was wrong, accepts punishment, like a broken horse doesn’t strain against the leash. He just wishes the great god who punished him will show mercy.

The letter rehearses Ovid’s grievances and bitter experiences before going on to describe the addressee as his best friend, remembering how he stuck by him when almost everyone else abandoned him, how he visited Ovid and wept and tried to console him for his sad fate.

5.5 (64 lines)

A poem to his wife. It’s her birthday so he describes going through the rituals to celebrate a birthday, namely wearing a white toga, building an altar from turf, hanging a woven wreath, lighting a fire and sprinkling wine and incense on it. He sends her a fleet of good wishes, may she have a long untroubled life. He says she has a strength of character to match Penelope or Andromache, she is a paragon of ‘uprightness, chastity, faithfulness’.

He introduces a series of classical comparisons with the thought that all those famous women from antiquity were famous because of their husband’s suffering and their loyalty – Andromache, Penelope, Evadne (wife of the recurring figure of Capaneus, blasted by Jupiter), Alcestis, Laodamia.

But she doesn’t deserve to be famous for her husband’s suffering and her share of it, and so the poem ends with a plea to Augustus to forgive him, for his wife’s sake if not his own.

5.6 (46 lines)

Poem to an unnamed friend. Ovid recriminates the friend for dropping him, now he’s in trouble, now he’s become a ‘burden’. Ovid compares him unfavourably to a raft of mythological figures famous for their loyalty. For the umpteenth time he invokes a familiar set of similes to indicate the sheer number of woes he suffers, as numerous as reeds which soak sodden ditches, or bees on Mount Hybla (famous for its honey), or ants carrying grains to their nest, or grains of sand on the seashore, or ears of wheat in a field.

5.7A (lines 1 to 24)

A short letter to an unnamed friend in which he describes himself as wretchedly miserable and gives a rare description of the native inhabitants, great hordes of tribal nomads, Sarmatians, Getae, hogging the road on their horses, each bearing a bow and quiver full of poisoned arrows, fierce faces, harsh voices, shaggy hair and beards, quick to argue and stab each other with the knives in their belts.

These are the people Ovid lives among, the elegant esteem he won for his light love verses back in Rome long, long forgotten and irrelevant in this harsh environment and violent, illiterate society.

5.7B (lines 25 to 68)

Some scholars divide the poem in two, because this second half switches from describing the grim natives of Tomis and whirls us back to Rome where he hears that his poems are now recited and applauded on the stage (the translator, Peter Green, speculates that this is for the pantomimi where an actor declaimed verses while dancers danced; sounds like ballet).

He curses his poetry which got him into such trouble, and yet he has nothing else. Here in this windswept waste amid violent, illiterate tribals, writing poetry is the only consolation he has, the only last slender link with distant Rome and his former life.

Then about language: not a single person in Tomis speaks Latin, none. Some speak a very debased form of Greek, legacy of when the town was founded centuries ago by Greeks. But most speak only the local tribal tongues. When he talks to anyone it is in pidgen-Sarmatian. He worries not only that he’s lost his style, in the absence of Latin speakers to listen to and comment on his poems – he worries that he’s forgetting Latin. And so he spends his time conversing with himself and doing writing exercises and writing these poems, holding at bay the collapse of his language skills and talent.

Thus I drag out my life and time, thus
tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes.
Through writing I seek an anodyne to misery: if my studies
win me such a reward, that is enough.

5.8 (38 lines)

Angry poem to an unnamed person who has been spreading malicious lies about him, a ‘vile wretch’ than whom no-one is lower. Once again Ovid curses this person, then emphasises the non-criminal nature of his error, praises the emperor’s clemency (hoping against hope), and hopes for the end of his exile and recall.

The early part of the poem is an interesting invocation of the goddess Fortune, whose wheel is always turning, and Nemesis, ‘hot for revenge’. Ovid says he has certainly been brought from the pinnacle of fame to miserable exile, but what makes his unnamed critic so confident the same thing won’t happen to him?

For Ovid hopes that Augustus will apply his mercy and recall him, at which point the critic will be amazed to see his face, one day, in Rome and then Ovid knows things which will secure that his critic is sent into exile!

5.9 (38 lines)

A poem to a friend who stayed loyal, Ovid claims more or less the only friend who stayed loyal and so he wishes he could a) name him (but that is forbidden for the friend’s own safety), b) devote every poem he ever writes in future to his friend’s praise.

The poem is factually interesting because it (unconsciously) brings to the fore the thought that whatever Ovid did (his notorious error) may actually have merited death. Therefore his relegatio already exemplified Augustus’s mercy, and that this may account for why no further mercy(i.e. relenting and letting Ovid return; even moving his place of exile to somewhere less inhospitable) may have been impossible for Augustus.

Behind all this is the most common interpretation of his fate which is that it was tied to something he saw being enacted in favour of Julia and her so-called ‘party’, meaning the aide of the extended Augustan family which wanted the succession to pass to a male on her side of the family.

Tiberius had had two sons by Julia, Augustus’s daughter – Gaius and Lucius, who died in 4 and 2 AD, respectively. Agrippa Postumus, Julia’s son by her first husband, Agrippa, had been unadopted and exiled in 7 AD. Julia herself was sent into exile in 8 AD, the same year as Ovid, ostensibly for immorality and widespread adultery, though conspiracy theorists from that day to this speculate that she was involved in some kind of plan to overthrow Augustus and replace the heir apparent with someone from her side of the family, or possibly a male contender who she married in the hypothetical secret marriage that Ovid hypothetically witnessed or knew about but didn’t report.

Both the Roman historians, Cassius Dio and Suetonius refer to a series of plots in the final years of Augustus’s rule, the most serious in the spring or early summer of 8 AD. Green thinks Ovid’s error was some kind of passive involvement in one of these (note p.212).

Thus the speculation engendered by Ovid’s frustrating failure, in over 100 poems of exile, to spell out what his offence was.

If it was a secret marriage, or a vow, or some kind of ceremony binding the Julia party, this explains the unremitting opposition to Ovid of the man who emerged during these years as the (reluctant) heir apparent, Tiberius, and of his scheming mother, Augustus’s second wife, Livia.

If Ovid’s error had somehow proved him sympathetic to the Julia party then not only was this the reason for his relegatio but explains why Livia made quite sure that Augustus, even if he contemplated mercy, never enacted it. And that when Tiberius came to power in 14 AD, Ovid stood no chance.

It explains why Ovid never mentions Tiberius in any of the 100 exile poems, but does mention Germanicus and Drusus, heirs in the Julian line. (Indeed, in exile Ovid reworked the first book of the unfinished Fasti to introduce a new dedication to Germanicus, Tiberius’s nephew, who Augustus had forced him to adopt in 4 AD – presumably in the hope that he would intercede with Augustus.)

It explains something which comes over in the notes – though not explicitly in the poems – which is that his friends back in Rome, in varying degrees, saw the way the wind was blowing, saw that Tiberius’s rise to power was becoming unstoppable, and so shifted allegiance to the coming man.

For all his contacts back in Rome, then, defending Ovid not only risked angering the old and visibly ailing emperor Augustus, but alienating the new master.

5.10 (52 lines)

Ovid tells his addressee he’s been in Tomis for 3 winters, watching the Danube freeze over. He ponders time: has time in general slowed down or is it only for him? In which case, is time subjective? (Well, the experience of it obviously is).

Once again he laments his location and, above all, the endless threat from marauding tribes whose only language is rape and pillage and the feeble defences (a good defensive site and a low wall) which is all that stands between Tomis and violent death. Their poisoned arrows litter the streets. Farmers dare not farm for they will be raided at any moment. Over half the population of the town are tribals, their chest-length hair, their shaggy bears, their trousers, fill him with loathing.

He knows that the townspeople regard him as the outsider, the oddity, with his soft hands and strange foreign language. Here he is the barbarian. OK, he admits, maybe it was right for him to be exiled…but to a place like this? It is cruel.

5.11 (30 lines)

The poem starts out feeling terribly sorry for his wife who, he’s learned, has been called ‘the wife of an exile’ as a deliberate insult. He grieves at the shame he’s brought upon her and tells her to be steadfast.

Then he switches, for the umpteenth time, to consider his fate. He does this to try and console his wife by making a fine legal distinction, namely that the emperor could have had him a) executed or b) fully exiled (deportatio), deprived of all rights and Roman citizenship. Instead Ovid was c) given the milder punishment of relegatio and so has retained life and estates and civil rights; to that extent, the emperor showed clemency, a punishment fitting his error, not a crime. To that extent the bastard who called his wife ‘the wife of an exile’ was wrong. So there! Little comfort, the modern reader might feel, to his lonely, distant wife.

Then in a move which feels pitifully grovelling, Ovid turns to praising the emperor, claiming his decision was just and mild, and that is why he devotes his poems to praising him:

Rightly then, Caesar, and to the very best of their powers
my poems (such as they are) proclaim your praise…

But if the interpretation that Ovid had seen something (as he repeatedly says, he didn’t do anything, his error was simply to witness, to see something) which somehow linked him with the Julia party, implicated him in a secret marriage or plan or collaboration which, in effect, was a conspiracy against the emperor and his chosen successor, Tiberius – if this was the case then it’s sadly obvious to the reader that absolutely no amount of grovellingly sycophantic hymns to Augustus would ever change Ovid’s plight. And they didn’t

5.12 (68 lines)

Reply to a friend who appears to have told him to buck up and write poems. Ovid sullenly replies there are two kinds of poems, the best ones, the real ones, require happiness and peace of mind to emerge, as inspiration (a commonplace of Roman poetry also mentioned by Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal among others). Here, in the grim outback, surrounded by barbarian tribesmen, the best he can do is squeeze out these exile elegies which are, in reality, mere vehicles for his complaints and grievances.

As to cheering up, should Priam have had fun fresh from his son’s funeral, should Niobe have held a party after all her children were killed?

Chief among the Forces undermining the peace of mind needed for composition are fear, constant fear of attack and violent death. Beside, long rusting has eaten away his talent. He is a field that’s been long unploughed and returned to stones and weeds. He is a rowboat kept out of the water that has cracked and rotting. So that explains the poor quality of the poems he now sends to Rome, such as this one itself.

Finally, a young poet is fired by ambition for renown, to be famous, numbered among the immortals. Now all that has soured to nothing. Now he wishes to be unknown, never to have been famous. His poems got him into this mess. He bitterly blames the Muses for ever inspiring him.

No-one in his remote outpost, a place of savage jabber and animal outcry’, even understands Latin, let alone the wonderful refinements and tricks he brought to it. Lastly, he admits his inspiration does still drive him to write – but he still has his standards and most of it ends up in the fire. Only ‘scraps of my efforts’, such as this very poem, survive because they have a practical purpose.

[What, 2,000 years of fans and scholars have wondered, were those poems he consigned to the flames about and how good were they? Unless this is another trope, developed solely for literary purposes, to illustrate his feelings of disgust and failure, just as he claims to have consigned his own draft of the Metamorphoses to the flames in 1.7. (note p.214)]

5.13 (34 lines)

Of all the Tristia poems this one is most like a letter in format, starting with the standard salutation (‘Good health and greetings from Ovid in his outback’) ending with the standard ‘Farewell’. In between the short poem addresses a loyal friend, possessed of ‘oak-touch loyalty’, complaining that:

  • he’s sick, the mental illness has penetrated his body, to give him a searing pain in his side (Green and scholars suspect pleurisy, triggered by the freezing climate)
  • this friend doesn’t send him enough letters to alleviate his bleak isolation

Ovid hopes the friend has not forgotten him, it’s merely the errancy of the postal service not delivering the letters. He remembers their many happy conversations, talking late into the night. Now letters between them can recreate that intimacy and intelligence. Please write.

5.14 (46 lines)

The final poem in the volume is to his wife, ‘dearer to me than myself’. It’s odd because it defines her, praises her, for sharing his suffering; it is this, her role as wife to a famous poet and tragic figure, which will make her immortal, just like Penelope, Andromache and Alcestis, Evadne and Laodameia.

To be good when there are no tribulations is easy; but to be faithful, as she has been, after the wreck of a god’s thunderbolts, ‘that is true married love/that’s loyalty indeed.’

He praises her continually and now – the poem veers in subject matter – wants her to return his devotion by appealing on his behalf. It is a sincere love poem, and that he ends the entire book with it is moving – even though a modern critic, particularly feminist, may find it objectionable, the extent to which he defines his wife solely in relationship to him. But then, he was in a dire situation.

Terms of rhetoric

Green is chatty, loquacious, garrulous, sprinkling his introductions and notes with foreign phrases (not just Latin – French and the like), references to modern poets (T.S Eliot crops up a lot [pages 217, 220, 224], so we can deduce he is an influence on Green’s translating style) and mention of ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical devices. These always interest me but I have a terrible memory for them. So here’s an (incomplete) list:

  • adynaton – a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility: ‘pigs will fly’ (note p.216)
  • apologia – a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct
  • chiasmus – (‘to shape like the letter Χ’) reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses – but no repetition of words: ‘By day the frolic, and the dance by night’
  • circumlocution – the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; in ancient poetry it refers to poets’ habit of referring to people in terms of their relationships to someone else (‘the son of…’, ‘the wife of…’ etc) or to a place (‘the Phrygian hero’); this can often make ancient poetry difficult to read – it’s particularly common in Ovid’s Fasti which is why I found it such a demanding read (note p.219)
  • genethliakon – a poem in honour of a birthday in association with a gift or standing alone. Callim.
  • hysteron proteron – a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order: ‘putting the cart before the horse’ (note p.218)
  • laudatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in praise or commendation of someone or something
  • propemptikon – a poem that wishes a departing friend or relative all the best for a prosperous trip overseas, such as 1.1
  • recusatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in which the poet says he is unable or disinclined to write the type of poem which he originally intended to, and instead writes in a different style; the Hellenistic poet Callimachus introduced the trope of saying his poetic gift was too modest to attempt great epics, so he would write frivolous love poems instead, and this trope was copied in Augustan Rome by Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Ovid
  • synkrisis – the juxtaposition of people or things with the aim of comparing them: a famous exampe is the juxtaposition of the long speeches by Caesar then Cato in Sallust’s account of the Catiline conspiracy
  • variatio – varying a theme with digressions, examples and so on
  • zeugma – (note p.220) any case of parallelism and ellipsis working together so that a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence: ‘She filed her nails and then a complaint against her boss’

Conclusion

After struggling through both the Metamorphoses and especially the FastiTristia came as a welcome relief. Although a hundred pages long in the Penguin translation, it’s made up of short, discrete poems which you can pick up and read in a few minutes. You can immediately grasp what they’re about, what he’s saying, and immediately empathise with his feelings.

All this is hugely helped by Peter Green’s easy-going, demotic translations and his free approach to rhythm and metre which means you barely notice you’re reading poetry, in the best sense, meaning each poem flows smoothly, seems well phrased and expresses its meaning, conveys its purpose, easily and enjoyably. Surprisingly accessible and enjoyable.

And strongly helped by the fact that the editorial apparatus around the poems is so ample and informative. Not only the introduction to the entire volume, but the extremely useful introductions to each individual poem accompanied by useful notes, but also a long Glossary of named individuals and places. Altogether it makes for a full and thorough and rich and informative experience. Other translations are available, but this is one of the best, most compendious, most enjoyable volumes of Roman literature that I’ve read.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Tristia by Ovid was published by Penguin books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

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Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes (1997)

Given his reputation for avoiding anything which smacked of ‘the Poetic Tradition’, the fact that he dropped English at Cambridge because he found studying the classics too stifling for his imagination, and his lifelong preference for depicting the harsh realities of a brutal, untamed nature – it might come as quite a surprise that, right at the end of his life, in 1997, Ted Hughes published a full-on translation of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, the kind of thing you might expect from a far more traditional, decorous, academic poet.

An odd choice?

Having just read the full Ovid poem I can see that Hughes’s decision is less surprising than might at first appear. I had fond memories of reading the Metamorphoses 30 years ago and had completely forgotten that they are consistently brutal, intense and often very cruel indeed. As such, they obviously chime with Hughes’s lifelong obsession with the brutality, intensity, and visionary otherness of the natural world.

Also, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Hughes had, earlier in his career, translated another work by a canonical Roman writer, the Oedipus of Seneca. In fact I was surprised, double checking his bibliography, to discover that after his death a whole suite of translations was published – translations of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Phèdre by Jean Racine, and Alcestis by Euripides, all published in 1999. What do they have in common? Classic stories from classical antiquity. So the Ovid translations are far from unique. Hughes’s imagination clearly took a classical turn in his last decade.

And then, on rereading his poetry as I just have, I realised there are scattered references to classical mythology throughout – not many, admittedly, but they’re there.

Plus the entire sequence in Moortown named ‘Prometheus on his crag’, and the poem in that volume about Actaeon, and one titled ‘Pan’.

So once you start looking, you find a strong undercurrent of classical references and subject matter throughout his oeuvre.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a long poem in Latin in which the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, generally referred to as Ovid (43 BC t o18 AD) brought together into one continuous narrative some 250 ancient Greek myths and legends.

these ancient stories all have one thing in common – the protagonist, the figure at the centre of the story, be they man, woman, child, sometimes a minor divinity such as a nymph or nereid – at the climax of the story, each of them is transformed into something else. Sometimes into an animal, like a bird or pig or wolf or dog; sometimes into flora, such as a tree or flower; sometimes into inanimate matter, like stone – various characters are turned into statues or just into stone – or into water – several characters are turned into standing pools or streams.

Hughes’s approach

Ovid’s poem is huge. At just short of 12,000 lines of regular dactylic hexameter it is as long and detailed and complicated as the canonical epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Hughes’s version is nowhere near as long. For a start he restricts himself to just 24 of the longer or more complete tales.

So instead of a continuous narrative describing stories big and small, containing full length treatments with throwaway references in a line or two, as Ovid does, Hughes presents us with what is, in effect, a collection of 24 individual poems.

Second, and a more glaring difference, is Hughes translates Ovid into free verse. Hughes employed free verse and flexible stanza shapes right from the start of his career, so by 1997 he’d had 40 years of practice. The result is a style where every line is its own thing, its own measure, justifying its own length and rhythm by its meaning and poetic force, rather than being compelled to fit into a regular metre.

Tales from Ovid does in fact contain regular stanza structures, though I only slowly realised it. Thus the opening story about Phaethon who fools his father, the god of the sun, into letting him drive his chariot for a day and proves totally inadequate to the task – a kind of ancient Greek Liz Truss – and loses control of the immortal horses and lets the sun chariot swoop low over the earth causing widespread destruction – in Hughes’s hands this narratives begins by being told in 47 5-line stanzas, each line being as flexible as he needed it to be.

When Phaethon bragged about is father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him. ‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’

In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.’

And so on. However, Hughes has no hesitation in switching format as required so that, for example, when Phaethon enters the palace of his father, the verse switches to long verse paragraphs in order to describe its grandeur.

Fittingly magnificent
Columns underpropped a mass
Of gold strata so bright
The eyes flinched from it.
The whole roof a reflector
Of polished ivory.
The silver doors like sheet flame –
And worked into that flame
Vulcan, the god of fire,
Had set, in relief, a portrait of the creation…

Back to 5-line stanzas for a bit and then, when Phaethon loses control of the horse of the sun so that they fly down, far too close to the surface of the earth, it switches again to verse paragraphs, although the freedom of individual lines remains identical to what it was in the stanzas i.e. there’s no particular rhyme or pattern except the power of the phrases themselves.

Earth began to burn, the summits first.
Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets,
All crops were instantly fuel –
The land blazed briefly.
In the one flare noble cities
Were rendered
To black stumps of burnt stone.
Whole nations, in all their variety,
Were clouds of hot ashes, blowing in the wind,.
Forest-covered mountains were bonfires…

Later on the 9-page tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in a series of free verse 3-line stanzas so popular with contemporary poets for some reason. (Maybe this is for the simple reason that they’re no couplets which tend to make you expect rhymes, and not quatrains, ditto. Triplets are free of those old traditional expectations.)

Throughout the East men spoke in awe of Thisbe –
A girl who had suddenly bloomed
In Babylon, the mud-brick city.

The house she had grown up in adjoined
The house where Pyramus, so many years a boy,
Brooded bewildered by the moods of manhood.

These two, playmates from the beginning,
Fell in love.
For angry reasons, no part of the story,

The parents of each forbade their child
To marry the other…

In other words, Hughes felt utterly free to pick and choose verse forms, or variations of free verse forms, as they suited his needs.

List of the poems

  1. The Creation of the Universe. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron). the Flood. The story of Lycaon (20 pages)
  2. Phaethon (21 pages)
  3. Callisto and Arcas (7 pages)
  4. The Rape of Proserpina (15 pages)
  5. Arethusa (4 pages)
  6. Tiresias (2 pages)
  7. Echo and Narcissus (11 pages)
  8. Erisychthon (10 pages)
  9. Semele (6 pages)
  10. Peleus and Thetis (4 pages)
  11. Actaeon (8 pages)
  12. Myrrha (15 pages)
  13. Venus and Adonis (16 pages)
  14. Pygmalion (7 pages)
  15. Hercules and Dejanira (13 pages)
  16. The Birth of Hercules (3 pages)
  17. The Death of Cygnus (6 pages)
  18. Arachne (9 pages)
  19. Bacchus and Pentheus (18 pages)
  20. Midas (11 pages)
  21. Niobe (12 pages)
  22. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (5 pages)
  23. Tereus (17 pages)
  24. Pyramus and Thisbe (9 pages)

The merits of Hughes’s version

Characteristic, trademark phrasing, precise, brisk, no fat on the bone, no extraneous syllables. Hard, precise and clinical.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
Was bringing his new bride home
When he came to the river Evenus.

Burst banks, booming torrent,
Where there had been a ford. Hercules
Had no fear for himself, only for his wife.

No namby-pamby, stuff-and-nonsense, decoration or silly sentiment for our Ted. Stick to the facts, son, and tha’ll do alreeght.

The weaknesses of Hughes’s version

1. Verbosity

The weakness of Hughes’s later verse is its verbosity, as I tried to demonstrate in my overview of Hughes’s career. Much of Crow is dazzlingly brilliant, Gaudete is an extraordinarily weird achievement, but by the time of Moortown in 1979, you feel Hughes could churn this stuff out by the yard, by the mile if necessary. Same is true in spades of Tales from Ovid.

There are still flashes of brilliance in his phrasing, and his shaping of lines i.e. deciding how many words and beats to include in each line, and his ability to build up rhythms over successive free verse lines remains very impressive. But his commitment to a diction which is ‘a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical’ often ends up emptying the lines of colour. His verse feels oddly empty.

2. Functionality

Also, in order to tell stories in verse some of the lines need to be unavoidably functional. Now, if you’re Dryden or Pope, you could use a standard format like the rhyming couplet or blank verse, both of which are utterly predictable in layout, pace and metre and so very suitable for settling down to hear a very long narrative in.

Hughes tries to translate his 24 stories into ad hoc verse shapes and line lengths but, whereas these were justified when they contained a blitz of stunning images in his own poems, this approach works less well for narrative poetry.

Somewhere the critic (and mate of Hughes’s) Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems leap from one dazzling image to the next. That’s fine if that’s all the poems are meant to do – dazzle. But telling a story requires something a bit more predictable, a regular repeatable style which can take a backseat to the narrative.

3. Thin

In stripping his versions back to the bone, Hughes loses a lot of what makes Ovid Ovid, which is the myriad digressions and throwaway references, about genealogy and relationships and attributes of this god or the achievements of that hero; all the peripheral detail which goes to build up a rich imaginative world. These are just some of the aspects which make the original Metamorphoses feel very dense and rich, sumptuous, luxurious. Hughes deliberately chucks all that out in order to hone things down to maximum intensity for each line. But what if the sumptuous detail is the point of Ovid?

4. Scene setting and landscapes

Now I’m really thinking about this, I realise that Ovid, in his best most extended stories, often goes in for slow, lush, storytelling descriptions of scenery and setting.

There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid. (book 3)

Hughes chucks all this out in order to get to the pith of the action.

A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress

Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern

That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken

By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,

Diana came
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

I suppose Hughes’s version is more crisp, factual, minimalist and modern – but, in a poem of Ovid’s type, half the pleasure is in the details, the lushness and the time taken to elaborate and decorate the subject. It’s nice to know that Diana is the goddess ‘of the high-girded tunic’ and a thousand and one other details and spin-off phrases which adorn and enrich the Ovid. All burned away in Hughes. Hughes’s version is like a concrete multi-story car park – admirable in its stark, uncompromising efficiency. But difficult to warm to, let alone love.

5. Blank style

And that brings me round to the lack of sensuality in Hughes’s verse. His is a powerful sensuality of imagery but not of language, as such.

Right from the start Hughes was capable of using simple words in unexpected combinations to convey his otherworldly insights into nature with stunning power, but there was rarely anything special about the words themselves. they are often very ordinary indeed. It was always the novel combinations of words into brilliant, often mind-bending phrases which had so much impact on readers. In fact, paradoxically, Hughes often works with a very limited, plain diction.

Somehow, for me, his translation of the Tales really brings this out. The deliberate blankness of a lot of the style, and the occasional dazzling phraseology, can’t conceal the fact that a lot of the lines are, lexically speaking, rather, well, pedestrian.

The introduction

There’s a case for saying the best part of the book is the introduction. For a start, it’s admirably brief at just four and a half pages. After some fluff about Ovid’s biography, it quickly turns to Hughesian interests. After mentioning the Metamorphoses‘ importance to Chaucer as a source book for all manner of myths and legends, Hughes goes on to cite Shakespeare.

Characteristically, Hughes dismisses Shakespeare finding sweet and beautiful images amidst Ovid’s dense foliage. Instead:

A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.

Now, admittedly these elements are present in Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest plays and remain in moments of the high tragedies, especially King Lear. But roughly speaking who do ‘a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion’ remind you of? Hughes. and his hyperbolic brain-damaged worldview (see my overview of Hughes’s oeuvre for quotes to back this up).

But it’s worth bearing with this over-passionate man for the insights he offers into Ovid:

Above all, Ovid was interested in passion. or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in extremis – passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural.

Then Hughes says something really interesting and profoundly insightful. I quote it in full to give the rhythm and rise of his argument:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point, touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane. Sometimes this happens because mortals tangle with the gods, sometimes because mortal passion makes the breakthrough by sheer excess, without divine intervention – as in the tale of Tereus and Philomela. But in every case, to a greater or lesser degree, Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed.

I think the thought behind this, and the phrasing, are wonderfully vivid and evocative. I’m not at all sure what he says is true of the entire Metamorphoses, which feature just as many nymphs and Naiads and whatnot as mortals – and also includes some happy endings, such as Pygmalion, and Baucis and Philemon (the happiest story in the Metamorphoses and so, symptomatically, not included in Hughes’s selection of tales.)

But as a description of what does happen to the poor, stricken mortals among Ovid’s hapless protagonists, this is a wonderfully, energetically perceived and phrased insight.

Conclusion

As Hughes’s last volume of poetry, Tales from Ovid has interest, though it’s not the best place to start if you’ve never read him before.

If you want to find out what Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually like, then emphatically do not read this translation, try the more traditional versions from Penguin or OUP which give you the full text along with all the wonderful details and grace notes which welcome you into an entirely new world. Every bit as savage and cruel as Hughes’s, but redeemed and enlivened by far more colour and variety.


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The Legend of Cleopatra by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386)

And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte
And in myn herte have hem in reverence;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon.

(The narrator describing his love of books in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380s)

The Legend of Good Women is a long-ish poem by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 to 1400). Like so many poems from the period, it features a dream vision i.e. the narrator falls asleep and then has a supernatural fantasy (in this case of the god of Love) which is described in a naturalistic manner. Chaucer wrote three other dream vision poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls) and it was a very popular genre for other poets of the period (for example, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland about a decade earlier).

In the prologue to the poem, after he has fallen asleep, the god of Love appears to the narrator (pretty obviously Chaucer) and reprimands him for giving a negative image of women in a) his translation of the long French poem, The Romance of the Rose ‘that is an heresye ayeins my lawe’, and b) his portrayal of the fickle and inconstant Criseyde, in his very long poem, Troilus and Criseyde. The god of Love demands that Chaucer correct this breach of manners by depicting women from myth or legend who have lived well according to the medieval religion of courtly love i.e. lived and died for Love. Who have been ‘Cupid’s saints’.

This is meant to be a poetic version of the real-life story behind the commissioning of the poem, for it is said that Anne of Bohemia, the wife of King Richard II, expressed the same sentiments of gentle disapproval and so laid on Chaucer the commission of writing a poem in praise of women and hence The Legend. Nice, if it’s true.

Courtly love

In the Middle Ages the cult of Courtly Love arose, stemming supposedly from the south of France and spreading to all the courts of Europe. Courtly love wittily and sophisticatedly reworked the format and rhetoric surrounding Christian saints and, indeed, the Christian religion itself, into a mock-serious ‘religion’ centred around the adoration of a courtier knight or poet for his semi-divine mistress or Lady.

Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. To quote my review of Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995):

The twelfth century saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service of a noble knight to an aristocratic lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

As it spread, the cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address recommended to courtiers who wanted to play this sophisticated game. As the Dutch historian of the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, put it, back in 1919:

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.
(The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, Penguin paperback edition, page 105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

And so Chaucer is reprimanded by the stern god of Love for having been discourteous to women as a whole in his portrayal of Criseyde, and must – by the rules of Courtly Love – atone to all noble women for this transgression.

A ‘legendary’

The structure of the poem is based on the ‘legendary’, a well-established medieval format of a collection of lives of saints. Thus each section of the poem is the courtly love equivalent of a saint’s life, except that these saints died not out of devotion to the Christian God, but as martyrs to the god of Love.

Thus, for example, the very title of the legend of Cleopatra invokes Christian rhetoric in a light, sophisticated play on ideas: Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie, Martiris, Egipti Regine, meaning ‘Here starts the legend of Cleopatra, martyr, queen of Egypt.’ She was, quite obviously, not a martyr to the Christian religion, which didn’t exist when she committed suicide (in 30 BC); but viewed through the prism of Courtly Love, she and any number of other fine ladies from pre-Christian myth and legend were martyrs to the religion of Love.

The Legend of Good Women devotes a chapter or legend to each of nine virtuous women from myth and legend, being:

  1. The legend of Cleopatra
  2. The Legend of Thisbe
  3. The Legend of Dido
  4. The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
  5. The Legend of Lucretia
  6. The Legend of Ariadne
  7. The Legend of Philomela
  8. The Legend of Phyllis
  9. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Unfinished

Like Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the Legend appears to be unfinished. The Retraction or Apology for the Canterbury Tales mentions 25 legends and we only have nine, so maybe some are lost or maybe he never completed it. The balade embedded in the prologue mentions several women — Esther, Penelope, Marcia Catonis (wife of Cato the younger), Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia — who don’t appear in the legends we have; were they meant to be included?

At the end of the Prologue the god of Love indicates that the nineteen women who are attending Queen Alceste must all be included in the poem (though he doesn’t name any of them):

Thise other ladies sittinge here arowe
Ben in thy balade, if thou canst hem knowe,
And in thy bokes alle thou shalt hem finde;
Have hem now in thy Legend alle in minde.

It’s discrepancies like this which lead scholars to conclude the poem was abandoned. Whether the poem’s state is due to Chaucer becoming bored with it is uncertain, but it is now regarded as very much a lesser work, despite being popular when first written. The legends are a bit repetitive, with the same high-minded behaviour tending to recur again and again, so that it lacks the drama of Troilus and and the wonderful variety and vivid characterisation which is key to The Canterbury Tales.

Iambic pentameter

The poem is among the first works in English to use the iambic pentameter, which Chaucer later used throughout The Canterbury Tales. A pentameter is a line with five beats:

When I consider how my light is spent

Lines of poetry can be divided up into units surrounding a beat. A long time ago, the Greeks categorised all this and called these units ‘feet’. When you write a line of verse it naturally has strong or emphasised or accented syllables, and weak or soft or unaccented syllables, and a moment’s reflection makes you realise there’s a certain amount of variety to these.

For a start, a ‘foot’ can have one, two, three or possibly more syllables. And the accented syllable can come first, second, third in the order of these syllables. All the possible permutations were defined and named by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago, which explains why we still use unusual (Greek) words to describe them.

A Wikipedia article lists all the possible permutations of beat within a foot, with their Greek names. By far the most common ‘foot’ in English is the ‘iamb’, where the unit has two syllables and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. If you emphasise the syllables in bold you’ll get it straightaway:

When I consider how my light is spent

Or just:

di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum

It is a pentameter because it has five beats. It is a iambic pentameter because each of the beats comes in a pairing with a softer, unaccented syllable, which comes before it. The accent falls on the second syllable of each unit or ‘foot’. di dum.

Anyway, the point is that, even if he didn’t introduce it to English poetry, Chaucer was the first poet to write extensively in this metre. With the vast examples of Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, he helped to establish it as the basic, default metre for English poetry, which it has remained ever since.

Reading Chaucer’s verse

The single most important thing to do when reading Chaucer’s medieval verse is to pronounce the final ‘e’ in every word – then the lines will scan as five-beat pentameters. Here I’ve bolded the e’s which need to be pronounced, not the beats.

The moste party of thy tyme spende

Don’t pronounce these e’s as eee, but as schwa, or ‘er’.

The most-er party of thy tym-er spend-er

Now the line has five regular beats and is a iambic pentameter (nobody minds that it has a final unstressed syllable dangling at the end, this dangling syllable is very common in Chaucer’s verse and gives it a nice bouncy feel).

If you do this with all the lines (unless the e comes before a vowel, in which case don’t pronounce it), they all become regular, and the thing comes into focus as a jolly rhythmic canter (s is pronounced as z in this excerpt) (and now I am bolding the syllables to emphasise):

Of good-er wommen, maiden-ez and wyv-ez,
That weren trewe [don’t pronounce the e because it is followed by a vowel: so true-win] in lovinge [omit the e] al hir lyv-ez.

Obviously there are other differences in pronunciation between Chaucer’s English and ours but I’m not writing a book. If you just pronounce the e’s, emphasise the beat and pause at the end of every line, it will start swimming into focus. Above all don’t worry if you don’t understand half of it. Don’t stop to look up individual words. Get into the swing and the rhythm first and the general gist will emerge. Years ago I was taught how to pronounce it and remember most of the principles but, listening to myself say it out loud, I suddenly realised I sound a bit like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, especially if you really pronounce those final e’s.

The prologues

Actually there are two prologues, one scholars think was the original (Prologue A), and a second one which survives in just one copy and critics think was a later version, maybe composed when Chaucer revised the poem some time in the 1390s (Prologue B).

There’s a lot of overlap but also passages unique to each prologue. The solution (well, a solution) is to have an edition like the old OUP Complete Chaucer which is big enough to print both versions side by side. To compare and contrast, if you’re feeling scholarly: or just to jump from one to the other to make sure you catch everything he wrote.

They both begin with a characteristically invocation of the importance of ‘olde bokes’ from which we study and learn. Book learning.

Than mote we to bokes that we finde,
Through which that olde thinges been in minde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeven credence, in every skilful wyse,
And trowen on these olde aproved stories,
Of holinesse, or regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry thinges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersinges.
And if that olde bokes were a-weye,
Y-loren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel oghte us than on olde bokes leve,
Ther-as ther is non other assay by preve.

Lightly translated:

Then must we to the books that we find
Through which the old things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrine of these old ways
Give credence in every skillful ways
And believe in these old approved stories,
Of holiness, or reigns, or victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Of which I need not make rehearsings.
And if that old books were put away,
Lost would be of memory the key.
Well ought we, then, in old books to believe,
Because there is no other way to prove.

In praise of the daisy

As soon as the poem has got settled in it turns into an extended passage in praise of the humble daisy.

Now have I than swich a condicioun,
That, of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun.
To hem have I so great affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe,
So glad am I whan that I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever y-lyke fair, and fresh of hewe;
And I love hit, and ever y-lyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye…

It barely needs translating, but:

Now have I then such a condition
That, of all the flowers in the meed,
Then love I most these flowers white and red,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
To them have I so great affection,
As I said before, when comes in the May,
That in my bed there dawns for me no day
But I am up and walking in the meed
To see this flower against the sun spread,
When it uprises early in the morrow.
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad I am when I am in its presence,
To do it all manner of reverence,
As she that is of all flowers the flower,
Fulfilled of every virtue and honour,
And always alike, fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it and ever like new,
And always will until my heart dies…

Why is it so effective? Because it has a sweet and touching innocence without being naive or sentimental. Plus the language of Middle English has an intrinsic simplicity about it, a simplicity of vocabulary, for example, a pure English which was to become increasingly cluttered with new-fangled foreign imports and made-up words as we move into the Renaissance but, back in Chaucer’s time, feels simple and fresh.

But it’s also important to note that this passage is the product of tremendous poetic sophistication. Many Italian and French poets had already written poems in praise of various flowers – there is a vast epic poem named The Romance of the Rose – and Chaucer has read them and knowingly references lines and ideas from them. He tells us as much:

For wel I wot, that ye han her-biforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glening here and there,
And am ful glad if I may finde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.

For well I know that you have here-before,
Of making rope and led away the corn,
And I come after gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I may find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.

If you think about it, praise of flowers is very compatible with the ideas of Courtly Love. It is a soft and beautiful subject very appropriate for a feminised court (as, for example, grittier stories of knights and wars, anything from the bloodthirsty ancient world, emphatically were not).

So popular did the cult of flowers as a kind of sub-category of Courtly Love become that we have records of courts dividing into factions who, in a witty, sophisticated spirit, staged debates about the relative merits of different flowers.

There are records of debates between defenders of the flour and defenders of the leaf. In the hands of this culture everything becomes allegorical, symbolic of something else, and so the flower came to be associated with beauty and sensual pleasure which is intense but, alas, fleeting; whereas the leaf symbolises fidelity and endurance – and so these debates and poems displayed the participants’ skill and graciousness, but always circled round to alight on a firm Christian moral.

An entire medieval poem survives on the subject – The Floure and the Leafe – and Chaucer references this cult, too:

Ye lovers, that can make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whether ye ben with the leef or with the flour.

You lovers, that can write of sentiment,
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether you are with the leaf or with the flower.

That poem is invoked half a dozen times, with Chaucer humorously clarifying that he is not coming down on one side or other of the Great Debate, but wishes to speak of ancient stories from well before the Great Strife began:

But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef:
For, as to me, nis lever noon ne lother;
I nam with-holden yit with never nother.
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour;
Wel brouken they hir service or labour;
For this thing is al of another tonne,
Of olde story, er swich thing was begonne.

And so the Prologue wends its lazy way, weaving a complex tapestry of references to ancient authors, to the cult of the leaf and the flower, praising the daisy but also praising a Grand Lady or muse figure to whom the narrator speaks.

The narrator describes rising early one May morning and going out into the fields to kneel down ‘Upon the smale softe swote gras’ and admire the sweet daisy (‘The Empress, and flower of flowers all’) and its lovely scent.

He hears the birds singing their songs and imagines they are taunting the hunters who hunted them in winter and lay traps for them. Some of the birds are singing lays of love in honour of their mates, some sing in praise of St Valentine, on whose day they met, and they nuzzle their beaks against each other. Any who have erred promise repentance. And the gods Zephyr and Flora give to the flowers their sweet breath.

This is all a magnificent preparation, sweet and sensitive and beautiful. For after this hard day admiring flowers and listening to the birds, the narrator makes his way home, has his servants rig up a couch in a little arbour, and there he falls asleep, and at this point the Dream Vision commences:

The Dream Vision

The narrator dreams he is in a meadow and sees come walking the god of Love, with two small wings and holding two fiery darts. He is holding hands with a queen, dressed in green with a fret of gold about her hair and a white crown, looking, in other words, very like his beloved daisy. The narrator says people say the god of Love is blind but this god of Love is looking at him very sternly and makes his blood run cold!

The queen is named ‘Alceste the debonayre’. Behind them come ‘ladyes nyntene’ in attendance, followed by a vast concourse of other women, making up maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population! (At the very end of the Prologue, the god of Love suggests that the figure is 20,000. Small world.)

It is at this point that the ladies spy the daisy the narrator is worshipping and stop to sing a ballad with a repeated refrain. Each verse lists a number of famously beautiful women from antiquity and tells them to hide or retire, because none of them can compare with the lady they are accompanying i.e. Alceste. In one version of the prologue the refrain runs:

Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.

The other version has:

My lady cometh, that al this may desteyne.

Where I think ‘desteyne’ means ‘disdain’ in the sense of triumphs over or puts all that – all those other women – in the shade. The second version feels fractionally better, more powerful.

Now this entourage notice the narrator and call him over to them and the god of Love proceeds to reprimand him for translating the Romance of the Rose and writing Troilus and Criseyde and generally portraying women, and love, in a bad light. Why has he shown women in such a negative light?

‘Why noldest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse
Of wemen, as thow hast seyd wikedness?’

Couldn’t Chaucer find in all his fancy books stories of women who were ‘good and trewe’? After all, he has no fewer than sixty books in his library, telling of ancient Greeks and Romans, featuring many stories of women who preferred to die than betray their love, who preserved their virginity, or were faithful to their husbands, or were dutiful in their widowhood. This is a fierce indictment.

But then queen Alceste intervenes on the narrator’s behalf, reminding the angry god of Love (at great length) of the mercy of great kings and even of beasts, such as the noble lion. Such should be the mercy the god should show this errant servant who was only translating matter out of old books. (You can see how the intercession of a compassionate queen softening the wrath of a stern ruler echoes the role assigned to Mary in Catholic theology, interceding on the part of us poor sinners; a posture which could also be mapped onto countless medieval courts, where hard-headed kings and princes could (possibly) be softened by appeals for mercy from their queens.)

Alceste proceeds to plead the poet’s cause and it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) that the sleeper and narrator of the vision is Chaucer himself, because she cites his many works which do speak favourably of love, to wit, The House of FameThe Book of the DuchessThe Parliament of Fowls, the story of Palamon and Arcite (i.e. the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales). And ‘to speke of other holynesse’ he has translated the popular medieval philosopher, Boethius.

Alceste concludes her defence of Chaucer by promising that, if the god of Love forgives him:

“Now as ye been a god, and eek a king,
I, your Alceste, whylom quene of Trace,
I aske yow this man, right of your grace,
That ye him never hurte in al his lyve;
And he shal sweren yow, and that as blyve,
He shal no more agilten in this wyse;
But he shal maken, as ye wil devyse,
Of wommen trewe in lovinge al hir lyve,
Wher-so ye wil, of maiden or of wyve,
And forthren yow, as muche as he misseyde
Or in the Rose or elles in Creseyde.”

Out of reverence for the queen (and obeying the Courtly Love injunction to cede to your Mistress’s requests), the god of Love quickly and graciously forgives the narrator, who promptly kneels and delivers his own justification. Chaucer grovellingly points out that he never meant to do any harm. He only repeated what his source authors wrote. His purpose was only ever to promote ‘trouthe in love’ and to warn his readers away from falseness and from vice. ‘This was my menynge’.

By which point I’m realising that this has turned into a court case, or a trial, comparable in structure to the debates about the floure and leefe. It has the same formal structure of accusation and two figures arguing for the prosecution and the defence.

Anyway, Chaucer is still wittering on when Alceste, rather winningly, tells him to shut up. No pleading can influence the forgiveness of a god, which proceeds by his own grace alone. And she then proceeds to itemise the penance Chaucer must undertake:

“Now wol I seyn what penance thou shald do
For thy trespas, and understond hit here:
Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
The moste party of thy tyme spende
In making of a glorious Legende
Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,
That al hir lyf ne doon nat but assayen
How many wommen they may doon a shame;

“For in your world that is now holde [considered] a game.
And thogh thee lyke nat a lover be,
Spek wel of love; this penance yive I thee.

“And to the god of love I shal so preye,
That he shal charge his servants, by any weye,
To forthren thee, and wel thy labour quyte.”

And she concludes his penance with a sudden surprising reference to the real world.

“Go now thy wey, this penance is but lyte.
And whan this book is maad, yive hit the quene
On my behalfe, at Eltham, or at Shene.”

Chaucer is grovellingly grateful. The god of Love is amused and tells him of the high ancestry of this forgiving queen, for the first time explaining why it is Alceste of all ancient women who accompanies him. It is because, according to legend, Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. To prolong his life, she offered to die in his stead. Later she was rescued from hell by Hercules.

Thus she is an eminently fitting figure to herald a book about feminine loyalty and ‘trouthe’ unto death. What is not in any ancient version of the story is the association the poet goes on to make between Alceste, queen of women, and the daisy, queen of flowers whose colours, as we observed above, she is dressed in (green and white and gold).

The god of Love concludes the vision with two points: first, he indicates (as mentioned above) that all nineteen of the unnamed escorts of Queen Alceste should appear in this poem he has to write. Lastly, he tells Chaucer to start with Cleopatra. He gives no strong reason, just the general thought:

“For lat see now what man that lover be,
Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she.”

‘Let’s see what man would ever suffer for love as much as she did!’ In other words, Cleopatra is arguably the most eminent example from the ancient world of a woman who died for love.

The Legend of Cleopatra, approach

And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere.

Well, after all the buildup (the Prologue is about 800 lines long), the actual legend of Cleopatra is disarmingly short, a mere 126 lines long.

I’ve read the several Plutarch biographies which underpin modern knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Antony) and Suetonius’s life of Augustus, as well as half a dozen histories of the period but there’s not much point applying them here. This is an entertainingly cartoon version of the story, short and simple with sweet medieval details and phrasing thrown in.

In fact this lack of historical rigour is something the author was conscious of and expresses through the god of Love, who is made to explicitly order Chaucer to keep his legends short and sweet:

“I wot wel that thou mayest nat al hit ryme,
That swiche lovers diden in hir tyme;
It were so long to reden and to here;
Suffyceth me, thou make in this manere,
That thou reherce of al hir lyf the grete,
After thise olde auctours listen to trete.
For who-so shal so many a storie telle,
Sey shortly, or he shal to longe dwelle.”

“I know well that you may not it all rhyme,
What such lovers did in their time,
It were too long to read and to hear.
Suffices me, you write in this manner,
That you rehearse of all their life the great,
Following what those old authors liked to treat.
For whoso shall so many a story tell,
Should say shortly or he shall too long dwell.”

The Legend of Cleopatra, plot summary

After the deeth of Tholomee the king, regned his daughter, quene Cleopataras. Out of Rome was sent a senatour to rule Egypt and he was named Antonius. He abandoned his legal wife, the sister of Octavian, because he wanted another wife: ‘For whiche he took with Rome and Cesar stryf’.

Antonius was brought to such a rage and tied himself in a noose (the noose of fate), ‘Al for the love of Cleopataras, That al the world he sette at no value.’

Cleopataras loved this knight for his ‘persone and of gentilesse, And of discrecioun and hardinesse’. So they got married.

The narrator complains that, as he has so many stories to write, he doesn’t have time ‘The wedding and the feste to devyse’ so he’ll get right to the point:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

Octavian was infuriated by this marriage and so led a host of brave Romans against Antonius.

Interestingly, the longest passage in this short poem is a vivid if cartoony description of a battle at sea, the decisive Battle of Actium. The description keeps talking about ‘he’ as if referring to one person, but translations indicate it is a generic pronoun, like ‘one’, and best translated as ‘they’, thus describing the behaviour of countless sailors in incidents from the battle.

And in the see hit happed hem to mete —
Up goth the trompe — and for to shoute and shete,
And peynen hem to sette on with the sonne.
With grisly soun out goth the grete gonne,
And heterly they hurtlen al at ones,
And fro the top doun cometh the grete stones.

In goth the grapnel so ful of crokes
Among the ropes, and the shering-hokes.
In with the polax presseth he and he;
Behind the mast beginneth he to flee,
And out agayn, and dryveth him over-borde;
He stingeth him upon his speres orde;
He rent the sail with hokes lyke a sythe;
He bringeth the cuppe, and biddeth hem be blythe;
He poureth pesen upon the hacches slider;
With pottes ful of lym they goon to-gider;

And thus the longe day in fight they spende
Til, at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
Anthony is shent, and put him to the flighte,
And al his folk to-go, that best go mighte.

As:

And in the sea it happened that they meet —
Up sounds the trumpet — and to shout and beat,
And urged them to set on with the sun.
With grisly sound out booms the great gun,
And fiercely they hurtled all at once,
And from the top down came the great stones.

In goes the grapnel, so full of crooks,
Among the ropes, and the shearing-hooks.
In with the poleaxe presses one and another;
Behind the mast one begins to flee,
And out again, and drives him overboard.

One stabs himself upon his own spear;
One tears the sail with hooks like a scythe;
One brings a cup, and bids them to be blithe;
One pours out peas, so on the deck they slither;
With pot full of lime they fall together;

And thus the long day in fight they spend
Til, at the last, as every thing has end,
Anthony is beat and put to flight,
And all his folk run off as best they might.

Chaucer follows the sources so much as to say that it was the flight of Cleopatra’s fleet which plunged Anthony into despair but jumps over all the events which followed in order to get straight to his suicide. He laments the day that he was born and runs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Antony, Chaucer’s one conveniently dies on the spot.

Knowing she will get no forgiveness from Caesar, Cleopatra flees back to Egypt, ‘for drede and for distresse.’ And now we come to her suicide, but first Chaucer repeats the moral mentioned in the Prologue, that all men who make great boasts about the sacrifices they’ve made for love, should observe how it’s really done.

Ye men, that falsely sweren many an ooth
That ye wol die, if that your love be wrooth,
Here may ye seen of women such a trouthe!

Cleopatra is so bitterly pained with lost love and despair that she gets her workmen to build a shrine with all the rubies and fine stones of Egypt. She has Antony’s body laid in it, along with plenty of with ‘spycerye’. Then has a pit built next to it and gets all the serpents that she owns put into it.

And then Cleopatra delivers the point, the message, in an extended speech – for she says that on the day they were married she swore an oath to be with Antony night and day, and as he suffered wele or wo, to accompany him, to bear all with him, ‘lyf or deeth’.

“And this same covenant, while me lasteth breath,
I will fulfill, and that shall well be seen.”

She made an oath, a covenant, a promise and now – far excelling most women and all men – she will fulfil it unto death. And so she jumps naked into the pit full of snakes (!). Immediately the snakes began to bite her and she received her death ‘with good chere.’

“Was never unto hir love a trewer quene.”

Thoughts

It’s not worth wasting time pointing out the many facts Chaucer has simply dropped, he’s in a hurry to get to the only bit that matters for the purposes of his royal commission, the moment of Cleopataras’s outstanding fidelity to love:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

True to his commission, Chaucer has exonerated Cleopatra. She is not at all the wicked, oriental seductress, the Egyptian whore who seduced a noble Roman away from his family and duty, as depicted in Augustan propaganda and later male, Roman accounts.

On the contrary, in this brisk telling of her story Cleopatra emerges as an epitome, a role model of fidelity unto death, a type of fidelity no man could ever aspire to. And not just included in a collection of loyal women, but carefully and deliberately placed as the first in the list, the loyalest and truest of all the loyal and true women of antiquity. A role model for love.


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For practical purposes I date the Middle Ages from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until about 1500, and so exclude all texts from and histories about the Dark Ages, thus excluding my reviews of Anglo-Saxon poetry or the Icelandic sagas which, although written in the 13th century, refer to events before the Conquest.

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