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Inspirational Fictions: Autobiography and Generic Reflexivity in Ovid's Proems

  • Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos


When the first edition of the Metamorphoses appeared in the bookshops of Rome, Ovid had already made a name for himself in the literary circles of the city. His literary début, the Amoves, immediately established his reputation as a poetic Lothario, as it lured his tickled readers into a typically Ovidian world of free-wheeling elegiac love, light-hearted hedonism, and (more or less) adept adultery. Connoisseurs of elegiac poetry could then enjoy his Heroides, vicariously sharing stirring emotional turmoil with various heroines of history and mythology, who were here given a literary forum for voicing bitter feelings of loss and deprivation and expressing their strong hostility towards the epic way of life. Of more practical application for the Roman lady of the world were his verses on toiletry, the Medicamina Faciei, and once Ovid had discovered his talent for didactic exposition à la mode Ovidienne, he blithely continued in that vein. In perusing the urbane and sophisticated lessons on love which the self-proclaimed erotodidaskalos presented in his Ars Amatoria, his (male and female) audience could hone their own amatory skills, while at the same time experiencing true Barthian jouissance in the act of reading a work, which is, as a recent critic put it, ‘a poem about poetry, and sex, and poetry as sex’. And after these extensive sessions in poetic philandering, his readers, having become hopeless and desperate eros-addicts, surely welcomed the thoughtful antidote Ovid offered in the form of the therapeutic Remedia Amoris, a poem written with the expressed purpose of freeing the wretched lover from the baneful shackles of Cupid.



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1. Sharrock, A., Seduction and Repetition in Ovid's Ars Amatoria 2 (Oxford, 1994), vii.

2. The relatively recent discovery of the Gallus-papyrus at Qasr Ibîrim has provided an unprecedented opportunity for a first-hand look at ancient elegiac layout technique. See the plates published in Anderson, R. D., Parsons, P. J., Nisbet, R. G. M., ‘Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrîm”, JRS 69 (1979), 125 ff.

3. Cf. Aristotle, , Poetics 1459b34, where the hexameter is further called ‘the most stately’ (στασιμώτατον) and ‘the most dignified’ (⋯ϒκωςέστατον) of metres, Horace, , Ars Poetica 73 f., and Ovid himself (Amores 2.17.22: ‘iungitur herous cum breviore modo’; Fasti 2.125f.: ‘quid volui demens elegis imponere tantum / ponderis? heroi res erat ista pedis). Ovid was very much aware of the theoretical classifications of a given metre with its appropriate content and repeatedly exploited the comic potential of ‘form alive’. Besides, Amores 2.17 and Fasti 2.125 f., cf. Amores 1.1.1 f, Amores 3.1.8ff. (the limping personification of Elegy: one of her feet is – rather charmingly – longer than the other), Ars Amatoria 1.264f. (Thalia, Ovid's elegiac Muse, drives alop-sided chariot), Remedia Amdris 381 (‘Callimachi numeris non est dicendus Achilles’), and Heroides 15.5–8 (Sappho explaining her switch from lyric to elegy). Cf. also Conte, G. B., ‘Empirical and Theoretical Approaches to Literary Genre’ in Galinsky, K. (ed.), The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics? (Frankfurt am Main, 1992), 119f. on Ovid's ‘incessant consciousness of the system of genres’ and the subtle discussion of Barchiesi, A., Il poeta e il Principe, Ovidio e il Discorso Augusteo (Rome, 1993), 12ff. for the way in which Ovid handles the meaning potential of (epic) hexameter versus (elegiac) pentameter in the Fasti for special effect.

4. Cf. Sharrock, , op. cit., 115: ‘Gigantomachy is the theme which above all others epitomizes martial epic, which is the most daring of literary exploits and exactly that attempted by Virgil. Gigantomachy epitomizes the ultimate in poetic audacity, the most quintessential epic of epics, the polar opposite of Callimacheanism.’ See also Hardie, P., Virgil's Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford, 1986), passim.

5. For a theoretical formulation of this fact, cf. Eagleton, T., Literary Theory. An Introduction (Oxford, 1983), 84: ‘Every literary text is built out of a sense of its potential audience, includes an image of whom it is written for: every work encodes within itself what Iser calls an “implied reader”, intimates in its every gesture the kind of “addressee” it anticipates.’

6. The curious discrepancy between the actual length of the work and its proem consisting of only four verses has often been noted. Cf., e.g., Kenney, E. J., ‘Ovidius Prooemians’, PCPS 22 (1976), 46: ‘This is an astonishingly brief introduction to an epos over 12,000 lines long; and that very brevity ought to put us on our guard. We should expect that not a word will be wasted…’

7. After Luck, G., ‘Zum Prooemium von Ovid Metamorphoseri', Hermes 86 (1958), 499 f., Kenney, op. cit., Tarrant, R. J., ‘Editing Ovid's Metamorphoses: Problems and Possibilities’, CP 77 (1982), 342ff., and Kovacs, D., ‘Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.2’, CQ 37 (1987), 458ff. (although the latter's speculations about the date and purpose of the parenthesis should be resisted) there can be no doubt that ilia (referring back to coeptis) is the correct reading and it has been accepted as such at least in Anglo-American scholarship. Cf. Knox, P. E., Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Traditions of Augustan Poetry (Cambridge, 1986), 9: ‘The case for reading ilia, a reference to Ovid's poetic endeavours, has been made elsewhere, and it ought now to be accepted into the text.’ Cf. also Mack, S., Ovid (Yale, 1988), 99 and, above all, the palinode in Anderson, W. S., ‘Form Changed: Ovid's Metamorphoses’ in Boyle, A. J.(ed.), Roman Epic (London/New York, 1993), 108.

8. Anderson, , op. cit., 109, nicely evokes the response of an audience that had not had the chance to browse through any volumina of the Metamorphoses beforehand and first encountered the work orally, in the context of a recitation: ‘What Ovid in fact made a caesura [after coeptis] would normally, in his elegiac couplets, have functioned as the break between the halves of the pentameter. Thus, as the admiring audience start to sit back to another elegant Ovidian performance in elegiacs, they suddenly hear a metrical conclusion to the line, emphasized by the many long syllables of the spondees, which transforms their expectations and the poetic form from elegiacs into hexameters.’ Cf.Tarrant, , op. cit., 351: ‘The words “nam vos mutastis et ilia”, coming at the end of the second line, mark the point at which the metre reveals itself as hexameter rather than elegiacs’; and Knox, , op. cit., 9: ‘the parenthesis fills the second half of the second hexameter, precisely the point where the reader of a new work by Rome's most celebrated elegist will first notice that this is not an elegiac couplet.’

9. In two other places in the Metamorphoses, Ovid rather unexpectedly alludes to this most elaborate of invocations to the Muses: 8.532–5 and 15.622–5, i.e., the approximate middle and the very end of the poem.

10. Fleischer, U., ‘Zur Zweitausendjahrfeier Ovids’, Antike und Abendland 6 (1957), 52; cf. von Albrecht, M., ‘Die Parenthese in Ovids Metamorphosen und ihre dichterische Funktion’ (Hildesheim, 1964), 172–3.

11. Cf. Nagy, G., Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaka/London, 1990), esp. 36–82.

12. Cf. McKeown, J. C., Ovid: Amores, II. A Commentary on Book One (Liverpool, 1989), 8: ‘It was conventional to acquiesce without demur or debate in the deity's injunction against attempting the more ambitious genres. Since, however, his epic had been progressing nicely, Ovid objects vehemently and at great length to such interference.’

13. Cf. Mack, , op. cit., 56: ‘Whereas Propertius’ [opening] poem fuses poet and lover, Ovid separates them, wittily turning the epic poet into an elegiac poet in a whimsical and illogical littledrama.’

14. A thorough victory; the second book of the Amores again acknowledges the dominance of Cupid over his poetic inspiration (cf. 2.1.3: ‘hoc quoque iussit Amor’). Ovid continues to sing ‘carmina, purpureus quae mini dictat Amor’ (2.1.38). And somewhat later, when Ovid again feels strongly inclined to try a more lofty genre, Cupid gentle but firmly disables the recidivist: ‘sceptra tamen sumpsi curaque tragoedia nostra / crevit et huic operi quamlibet aptus eram / risit Amor pallamque meam pictosque cothurnos / sceptraque privata tam cito sumpta manu. / hinc quoque me dominae numen deduxit iniquae, / deque cothumato vate triumphat Amor‘ (Amores 2.18.13–18). In the opening elegy of Book 3, Ovid has apparently accepted his servitium Amoris for his own benefit and prefers to write elegy instead of tragedy for his own reasons. Only at the very end of the collection (3.15) does he announce a momentary respite from erotic poetry and turns to the genre of tragedy instead.

15. For this take on the Roman love elegist, see Stroh, W., Die rb'mische Liebeselegie als werbende Dichtung (Amsterdam, 1971).

16. The question of whether the previous two generations of love elegists were ‘true lovers’, in the sense that they expressed ‘real’ emotions is irrelevant. Ovid's predecessors at least pretended that this was the case, and it is this poetic stance which he contests with a fiction of his own. For the problematic of ‘art’ and/vs. ‘life’ in Roman erotic poetry see Veyne, P., Roman Erotic Elegy (Chicago, 1988), reviewed in Wyke, M., ‘In Pursuit of Love, the Poetic Self, and a Process of Reading Augustan Elegy in the 1980's’, JRS 79 (1989), 165 ff.; Griffin, J., Latin Poets and Roman Life (London, 1985), reviewed in Nisbet, R., ‘Pyrrha among Roses: Real Life and Poetic Imagination in Augustan Rome’, JRS 77 (1987), 184 ff. For a neat deconstruction of the terms of the whole debate, see Kennedy, D. F., The Arts of Love: Five Studies in the Discourse of Roman Love Elegy (Cambridge, 1993), chapter 1.

17. Du Quesnay, I. M. le M., ‘The Amores’ in Binn, J. W.(ed.), Ovid (London/Boston, 1973), 1.

18. Conte, G. B., Genres and Readers (Baltimore and London, 1994), 46. Conte calls this change a transformation ‘from the ideology of sincerity to that of fiction’ (54).

19. For Ovid's ironic self-consciousness in his erotic teachings, see Conte, , op. cit. (n. 18), 3565 and 154–63 and Sharrock, op. cit., passim.

20. Remedia Amoris 1–2: ‘Legerat huius Amor titulum nomenque libelli: / “Bella mihi, video, bella parantur” ait.’

21. At Remedia Amoris 557–74, Cupid himself, in an apparent theophany, adds some prescriptions against love-sickness. See Ex Ponto 3.3 for the sad aftermath of his earlier poetological engagements with Amor.

22. For a list of the standard elements of the form, see Wimmel, W., Kallimachos in Rom (Wiesbaden, 1960), 323.

23. McKeown, , op. cit, 8. McKeown compares 2.1.11 f., 2.18.13f., and 3.1.29f. (where the personification of Tragedy herself certifies Ovid's talents for the higher genres: ‘nunc habeam per te Romana Tragoedia nomen!/ implebit leges spiritus iste meas’).

24. Ovid's present attempt to ascend to higher generic spheres has a precedent in his earlier poetry. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid to a certain extent re-enacts an earlier move from genus tenue to genus grande, recounted in Amoves 3.1 and 3.15. In the first poem, Ovid, making the crossroads choice of Hercules between the nequitiae and nugae of Elegy and the genus grande of Tragedy, still opts for postponing his go at the higher genre. Only in the last poem of the Book does he feel ready and duly says goodbye to his beloved elegies.

25. Cf. Ovid's own comments on the semantics of metrical form, above n. 3.

26. Mack, , op. cit., 27.

27. Cf. the formulation of Conte, , op. cit. (n. 18), 4950: ‘Once a metaliterary consciousness has been achieved, it considers the borders that demarcate the language of elegy to be mere rhetorical constraints, codifications of an ideology that claims the status of reality.’

28. That Ovid should use the verb mutare, obviously a Leitmotif in an epic on transformation, both in reference to content (‘mutatas formas’, line one) and form (‘nam vos mutastis et ilia’, line two) of the work further reinforces the mutual interaction between content and form, subject matter, and poetics, in the Metamorphoses. Indeed, the first metamorphosis Ovid recounts in the poem concerns his literary practice, i.e., the fact that he is writing an epic. The second, as Henderson, J., ‘A turn-up for the book: yes, it's … Ovid's Metamorphoses’, Omnibus(1989), 20 points out, is the transformation of the Greek title ‘Metamorphoses’ into the Latin ‘mutatas formas’.

29. Cf. Hesiod, , Theogony 116ff., where Eros is a primal element in universal creation, Lucretius 1.1 ff., and Ovid's earlier erotically-charged account of the early years of the cosmos at Ars Amatoria 2.467 ff.

30. We hope to examine Ovid's programme of ‘erotic exclusion’ in Metamorphoses 1 in greater detail on some other occasion.

31. The definitive treatment of the episode remains Nicoll, W. S. M., ‘Cupid, Apollo and Daphne (Ovid, Met. 1.452ff.)’, CQ 30 (1980), 174ff., which we are following here.

32. Nicoll, , op. cit., 176 traces the lineage of this Ovidian praetentio pattern back to Callimachus' Aitia prologue.

Inspirational Fictions: Autobiography and Generic Reflexivity in Ovid's Proems

  • Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos


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