That Ovid Test

You’ve probably already heard about the ‘scandal’ that teenagers were asked to comment on a racy passage from the Amores, but in case you haven’t … here’s a sort of roundup of it all. The original coverage was at the Times, which is behind a paywall, but the Daily Mail — that bastion of moral rectitude — seems to have put on its blinders so as not to have to glance at the stories in its Femail section and started/augmented  the ‘outrage’ reaction (if there was, in fact, such a reaction):

Even the most diligent of AS-level students may not have been fully prepared for one of the questions in their recent Latin exam.

Young classicists – usually aged between 16 and 17 – were asked to read and offer a ‘personal response’ to an ancient but explicit account of sexual intercourse.

The passage from The Amores – one of Ovid’s collection of erotic poetry – describes in the racy embrace of two lovers.

A version of the poem translates on passage as ‘… slip off your chemise without a blush and let him get his thigh well over yours.

‘And let him thrust his tongue as far as it will go into your coral mouth and let passion prompt you to all manner of pretty devices.

‘Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.’

The addition of the passage, which was part of a longer section of verse from Ovid’s poems published in the 1st century BC, in the exam for children provoked consternation from one leading academic.

Professor John Ellis, a reader in physics at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and fellow at Gonville and Caius College, said the exam board was not in their ‘right minds’ to include the passage for children as young as 16.

He told the Times: ‘How would a school react to such material distributed on their premises?

‘Many teachers would have glossed over this extract, assuming no one in their right minds would set it in an exam.’

The text featured in an AS-level Latin paper on Tuesday set by the University of Cambridge OCR board.
Controversial: The inclusion of passages from explicit erotic poetry in AS-level exams – typically sat by pupils aged 16 and 17 – has been criticised by a leading academic. (file picture)

Controversial: The inclusion of passages from explicit erotic poetry in AS-level exams – typically sat by pupils aged 16 and 17 – has been criticised by a leading academic. (file picture)

Students were awarded up to 10 marks out of a total of 100 on the paper for their answers. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, defended the inclusion of the text, telling the Times: ‘Please, let’s not go back to the days when kids were not supposed to read some poems of, say, Catullus, because some old codger had thought they might get corrupted.’

An OCR spokesman said not including the passages would be tantamount to ‘censorship’ and would deny students the opportunity to study some of the finest elegiac poems ever written.

The elegiac style is a poetic technique where each couplet usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.

The spokesman said: ‘Ovid’s Amores poems are considered by professionals to be some of the finest examples of elegiac poetry that there are.

‘To censor such material would only leave young adults with a false perception of their area of study. If such censorship were to be applied to English literature it would preclude coverage of the works of DH Lawrence, Chaucer and even Shakespeare.’

Tip o’ the pileus, by the way, to Nick Lowe for sending me assorted links. His daughter actually sat the exam and just in case you were wondering, the passage was Amores iii.14.21-6 … here’s the text from the Latin Library:

illic nec tunicam tibi sit posuisse pudori
nec femori inpositum sustinuisse femur;
illic purpureis condatur lingua labellis,
inque modos Venerem mille figuret amor;
illic nec voces nec verba iuvantia cessent,
spondaque lasciva mobilitate tremat!

I think I got those right … whatever the case, it really does have to be admitted that there is probably more lasciviousness in a random ten minute television show after 8:00 p.m. than there is here. The incipit of the Guardian’s coverage is rather more fitting with this particular century:

Despite the well-known adage that all literature is about sex and death, the Times and the Daily Mail got rather agitated today about the inclusion of that Playboy-esque filthfest, Ovid’s Amores, in the most recent Latin AS-level exam. “Slip off your chemise without a blush”, reads a translation of the extract. “Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.” All sorts of naughty things? Dear God, spare the innocence of our nation’s teenagers!

Forgive me if I don’t join the moral outrage brigade in this instance, but I’m pretty sure the average UK teenager isn’t going to balk at much in Ovid. Take the UK singles chart – a compilation predominantly controlled by the consumer habits of teens – where the present number one, Blurred Lines, includes the lyrics “Lemme be the one you back your ass up to /… Had a bitch, but she ain’t as bad as you / So, hit me up when you pass through / I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Even at its most risqué, Ovid at least preserved a semblance of mutual pleasure. In a world where “tearing you up”, “smashing you”, and “hitting it” is commonplace, exposure to sensual – rather than violent – language surrounding sex might even do the little scamps some good.

Meanwhile, it would be prudent to bear in mind that this is hardly the first time 16-year-olds have encountered amorous literature in the classroom. Studying sex is almost as old as the act itself – as the list below shows. [...]

The list in the Guardian, by the way, includes such items as Solomon’s Song of Songs and the Miller’s Tale. That said, today we read in Cambridge News the reaction to the reaction from some of the head teachers involved:

The headteacher of a Cambridge sixth form has defended an exam question which gave teenagers a raunchy description of sexual intercourse.

Cambridge exam board OCR asked AS-level Latin candidates about Ovid’s Amores, in which the poet tells his mistress she can sleep with other men.

In part of the 16BC elegy reproduced in the exam he tells her to “slip off your chemise without a blush and let him get his thigh well over yours” and to “let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure”.

The exam board has come under fire from some quarters saying the racy material is inappropriate for AS-level students, who are typically aged 16-17.

Latin sixth formers from Stephen Perse Foundation were among those who have been studying the passage.

Simon Armitage, director of sixth form at the Cambridge private school, said the section they studied was “very tame” compared with other parts.

He said: “It’s not a lad’s mag list of obscentities or provocative statements. It’s not designed to trivialise or titilate. It’s poetry, beautifully constructed.

“The story is all about Ovid explaining how his girlfriend is cheating on him. He is appealing to her not to tell him what she’s up to.

“The students really engage in the way the emotion is being conveyed through the poetry in a way they can’t if they are studying farming practices or bee-keeping.”

He added: “It says a lot about this text that we’re still talking about it thousands of years later.”

Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard is glad the censoring of some of the greatest Latin poetry has been confined to the past.

She told The Times: “The Amores is a hugely popular text and, inevitably, like many aspects of ancient culture, it prompts all kinds of discussion about gender, mysogyny, eroticism and how these were differently negotiated by the Greeks and Romans.

“Please, let’s not go back to the days when kids were not supposed to read some poems of say, Catullus, because some old codger had thought they might get corrupted.”

An OCR spokeswoman said: “Ovid’s Amores poems are considered by professionals to be some of the finest examples of elegiac poetry that there are.

“To censor such material would only leave young adults with a false perception of their area of study. If such censorship were to be applied to English literature it would preclude coverage of the works of DH Lawrence, Chaucer and even Shakespeare.”

The News reported on Monday how Cambridge law students were confronted with a graphic depiction of oral sex, male rape and naked torture, which the university said was needed to test students’ understanding of criminal law.

A passage from Ovid’s Amores:

“…slip off your chemise without a blush and let him get his thigh well over yours. And let him thrust his tongue as far as it will go into your coral mouth and let passion prompt you to all manner of pretty devices.

“Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure. But as soon as you have got your things on again, look the nice demure little lady you ought to be, and let your modesty belie your wantonness. Bamboozle society, bamboozle me; but don’t let me know it, that’s all; and let me go on living in my fool’s paradise.”

We might cynically hope that all the publicity from this attracts a few more teens with raging hormones to consider Latin/Classics as study fodder …

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