The Immortal Poet Ovid

Image of Ovid statue
Monument to Ovid, (1887) by Ettore Ferrari (1848–1929), in Constanta (formerly Tomis, the place of Ovid’s exile), Romania. Image by Romeo Tabus

Now, I’d like to introduce you to a beloved friend of mine. He’s our patron, mentor, and champion. That’s the immortal poet Ovid.

That thou mayst know, Posterity, the man whose works thou art reading, understand that I am he who sportively sang of voluptuous love.

–  Ovid, ‘Tristia’, transl. Henry T. Riley

Long ago in Ancient Rome and the time of Caesar Augustus, there lived an extraordinary lover and poet. His name was Publius Ovidius Naso, whom we know, in English today, simply as Ovid. This is, of course, our immortal poet and tutor.

Rome, back then, was the booming political, economic, and cultural heart of its extensive and formidable empire. It was the capital city then of the Western world. Indeed, the first-to-second-century Roman biographer Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus) writes that Augustus ‘so beautified it that he could justly boast that he had found it built of brick and left it in marble.’ This then was the illustrious Rome in which our immortal poet lived, loved, and wrote.

As a young man who’d been born into Roman aristocracy, Ovid, nonetheless, rejected the usual privileged opportunities his inherited rank had otherwise afforded him. Against the protestations of his father then, Ovid, I’m thankful to say, chose the relatively unlucrative vocation of poet and lover instead. The consequences of this courageous decision have since proved monumental. Ovid has bequeathed a far greater legacy and wealth to us than he could ever have done had he followed a more prosaic, and less nobly inspired, career.

Ovid’s bitter-sweet legacy

At about the time then that Jesus of Nazareth was born, my dear friend Ovid wrote his three timeless love seduction manuals in the poetic form of elegiac couplets (i.e. a hexameter line followed by a pentameter line). Even now, these remain unsurpassed and amongst – if, indeed, they’re not singularly so – the chief treasures of our immortal poet’s legacy. Needless now to say, this three book series is called Ars Amatoria – or, in English, Art of Love.

Ovid’s love poems, meanwhile, brought him considerable fame within his own lifetime. They, nonetheless, also brought him suffering later in his life. Whilst Ovid lived most of his life more or less contently then in Rome, he was later banished from the city. He spent his latter years unhappily in exile. His Ars Amatoria (Art Of Love), which was deemed to undermine chastity and promote adultery, was, he says, part of the reason given for his banishment.

Throughout his career, though, Ovid, like the famous warrior Achilles, had a more substantial prize in sight, but which he pursued through nobler means than the more mercenary, impetuous, and reckless deeds of Achilles. At the end of his brief autobiography in Tristia (Sorrows) then, his first volume of letters from exile, translated here by Henry T. Riley, Ovid thus aptly expresses his hope that he’ll be remembered beyond his death and be immortalised by his poems:

If, then, the prophecies of poets contain any truth, though I should die at once, I shall not be thine, O Earth. Whether through kindly feeling, or whether, through my verses, I have gained this celebrity of my own right, candid reader, I return thee thanks.

More justly then, Ovid today ranks amongst the chief poets of ancient Rome and what’s often called the Golden Age of Latin literature. His poems remain, to this day, a chief source of classical mythology and, as he intended, have indeed immortalised his name.

Ovid’s works then have had a tremendous influence on Western art and literature, and were particularly influential in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, to name just two, are amongst an illustrious list of artists whose works have been influenced by Ovid’s.

A concluding testimonial

And now, I’d like to end this brief introduction to Ovid with the appropriately warm and affectionate words that conclude the introductory account of Ovid’s life in the 1813 edition of John Dryden, et al.’s translations of Ovid’s amorous poems:

Ovid is, throughout, a perfect poet, and, as such, will always give delight to readers of sensibility and taste. His views of nature are so clear, his delineations of the passions are so just, and his reflections upon them so correct, that he must be a reader frigid, even to indifference, whose fancy is not delighted, whose heart is not warmed, or whose judgement is not improved by his writings.

We shall conclude this brief sketch of a man, whose name will endure as long as poetry exists, with the following epitaph, which he composed for himself, and which is exquisitely beautiful for its simplicity:

Here Ovid lies, who sung of tender love,
Yet liv’d the danger of his wit to prove;
To you, true lovers, he makes one request,
As you pass by, to say, “May Ovid rest.”

This brief introduction to Ovid is directly extracted from, and is an introductory essay within, The Word of Venus abridged edition of each book of Ovid’s Art of LoveIt’s also extracted from the considerably more extensive account of Ovid’s life, and works, contained in the forthcoming comprehensive Word of Venus editions.