Speaking of Ovid …

… and the Huffington Post … the latter has a lengthy item from Narrative Magazine focussing on Diane Middlebrook’s final years (as she was working on a biography of Ovid — she was working on it at the time of her death in 2008; not sure if it was ever published). Here’s a bit from the middle … it’s an interesting (and sad) , but melancholy read overall:

The project Diane turned to with her customary verve after “Her Husband” was a biography of the Roman poet Ovid, who rejected his family legacy of membership in the Roman senate and instead became the most famous poet of his era, author of the “Metamorphoses”—a writer intrigued by transformations and also overtly concerned with the survival of his art beyond his lifetime. In the prime of his life, at the apex of his brilliant career, Ovid did something that so offended the deified Caesar Augustus that he was exiled to the barbaric outskirts of the empire and never allowed to return to Rome.

Diane had been reading and studying Ovid since graduate school, had taught him and lectured on him numerous times over the years, and it was not on a whim that she finally dug in to write his biography. Even so, it was an ambitious project since there is virtually no biographical material on Ovid beyond the pages of his own works. Most of what is factually known about Ovid comes from his letters from exile, which were not merely private correspondences but poems intended for posterity by their author, who was certain his words would last. It was Ovid’s confidence in his survival that had always intrigued Diane, and she closed the introduction to her book with a poem Ovid wrote to his stepdaughter from the lonely shore of the Black Sea, urging her not to give up on art:

In brief, there’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal

save talent, the spark of the mind.

Look at me . . .

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. What if

some savage’s sword should cut short my existence?

When I’m gone, my fame will endure,

and while from her seven hills Mars’ Rome in triumph

still surveys a conquered world, I shall be read.

As the four years unfolded during which Diane was working on Ovid and—suddenly, unexpectedly—fighting for her life, Ovid’s words took on an urgent poignancy that none of us who loved her, still less Diane herself, had anticipated. “I am not ready to die,” she said again and again, her voice brisk and decisive, that elegant index finger held aloft, underscoring a declarative that carried with it a refusal to become anything but what through will and self-confidence and keen intelligence and pluck she had determined herself to be. She was not going to be a victim, and she was not going to give up. In the face of Diane’s strategic and uncompromising pursuit of survival—looking at this woman so rampantly alive—it was impossible, inconceivable, to think otherwise.

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