CJ-Online Review ~ Ovid: A Poet on the Margins

Ovid: A Poet on the Margins. By Laurel Fulkerson. Classical World Series. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. Pp. xiv + 104. Paperback ISBN 978-1-47253-134-6, 978-1-4752-734-9 and 978-1-4752-317-4.

Reviewed by Jo-Marie Claassen, University of Stellenbosch

The concise format required for Bloomsbury’s Classical World Series offers a unique challenge to any author brave enough to venture a representative introduction to one of the most prolific and versatile, if not slippery, members of the Latin poetic canon. Fulkerson more than meets the challenge, managing to include clear applications of most of the more recent literary theories to the very slipperiness of Ovid’s style and multifaceted versatility. Fulkerson’s Preface explains that she sees Ovid “as animated by a unified set of concerns… rather than as a man destroyed by circumstances” and that the book is more “a study of poetics … than a biography”. All this is pitched, so her Acknowledgements, at a level that will ensure that “normal people might enjoy reading [it]” (xii). Throughout Fulkerson signposts her own arguments with reference to both what went before and what she is to discuss next.

To the extent that undergraduates and other less initiated students of Latin poetry are also “normal people,” this slight book offers them an ideal introduction to Ovid’s life and works, with emphasis, as the title implies, on all those aspects that set Ovid aside from the “normal” in Roman literature. Three chapters, with subdivisions, cover Ovid’s life story and contemporary historical background, his style (with emphasis on his use of repetition), and his allure as an exemplum of victimization and marginality.

Chapter 1, “Life on the Margins” (1-27) starts with Ovid’s banishment, working back to a schematic chronology that offers at a glance (4) a complete list of his works set against the major literary and historical events of his time. This is followed by a brief discussion of his literary output that combines brief overviews of content with concise stylistic discussion. Next, the historical context of his poetry is offered through the filter of Ovid’s final status as “an outsider, looking yearningly at Rome” (18). Augustan Rome and the Augustan settlement, including his marriage laws, get due emphasis, ending with a provocative, short comparison between the poet and the prince that points out similarities (both were “shap[ing] the world to [their] own image”) and differences (Ovid served as Augustus’ “negative mirror reflection”) (26).

Fulkerson’s style is evocative of that of her subject: the chapter ends with a striking apothegm: “Ovid for his part needed both to be understood and to be misunderstood” (27). Such a very Ovidian paradox may puzzle a tyro; a teacher who is also an expert in Ovidian studies will need to guide undergraduates toward fully understanding Fulkerson’s arguments.

Chapter 2, “Repetition-compulsion and Ovidian excess” (29-58) covers the most salient aspects of Ovid’s style, starting with another paradox as sub-heading: “Now you see him, now you still see him: Ovidian style and metre”. The content is, however, clearly aimed at the non-initiated (the “normal people” of Fulkerson’s Acknowledgements), starting with a concise explanation of ancient poetic conventions (including metrics and generic range) and Ovid’s adaptation of these conventions. Next, Ovid’s style proper is addressed, with due emphasis on his apparent simplicity that hides subtle complexities. Throughout Fulkerson illustrates her various points by reference to, rather than quotations from, the whole range of Ovid’s poetry, both individual elegies and episodes from the Metamorphoses. Ovid’s debt to his own rhetorical training (such as his explorations of alternatives that suggest inconsistency) is duly noted, also salient aspects of modern criticism of his style (for instance, his ubiquitous “absent presences”, a term first coined by Philip Hardie). Discussion includes Ovid’s narrators, narrative transition, his manipulation of readerly perceptions and the intrusion of comment that undercuts what went before.

The second half of the chapter considers Ovid’s frequent reworking of his own topics and themes as well as the “recycling” (sic, page 49) of the poetry, both words and themes, of others. Discussion of Ovidian revision (explicitly claimed as such, merely mooted, or either noted or just suspected by modern critics) includes his generic adaptation of the same material in, for instance, both the Amores and the Ars, or the Fasti and the Metamorphoses. Fulkerson gives due acknowledgement to feminists’ concern about Ovid’s repetition, with slight differences, of disturbing tales of rape in the earlier books of his epic. Finally, Fulkerson summarises various critical approaches to what she terms “repetition and repetitiveness”, ending with an own considered judgement of the appeal that his poetry has had through two millennia.

The third and final chapter (59-87) gives due emphasis to what (fortuitously) has been this reviewer’s abiding interest: the universality with which Ovid’s exilic yearning represents the feelings of all those on the margins, with more than a nod also to the concerns of post-colonial literary theory, as implied in its title, “Romans at home and abroad: Identity and the colonial subject”. The first subsection deals with Ovid’s penchant for “narratives of individuals out of place, taken away from the familiar”, either temporarily displaced, or permanently outcast (as he was himself). Refugees of all kinds are considered, such as the innocent Evander in Fasti 1, or the (in some way) “guilty” Dido, Medea and Ariadne of the Heroides. The next subsection treats of “victims and victimizers” and Ovid’s portrayal of loss of speech as a frequent punishment of “female and other victims”. Again the concerns of feminist readers are briefly treated: why would Ovid so often portray women as victims, and why would there be a “disjunction between Ovid’s compassion and his exploitation” of the victims’ pain, as in the gory details in the story of Philomela, Procne and Tereus?

This section ends with reference to literary theorists’ ideas regarding Ovid’s equation of women with poetic material, his verbal voyeurism and his metaphorical portrayal of women as “unexplored territory”. Criticism of the differences in approach to pleasing the opposite sex between Ars 1-2 and 3 (where women are advised to become complaisant in their own victimisation) leads to a further consideration of Ovid’s apparent concern with status-based relationships at Rome. Fulkerson notes the suggestion that elite males’ anxiety about erosion of their own power under Augustus may have served as “one of the wellsprings of elegy” (75). Next Fulkerson returns to Ovid’s portrayal of “victims that become villains”, such as Procne and Philomela, or Daedalus in his treatment of his own nephew, from which she turns to speculation about the degree to whichOvid saw himself less as victim of injustice than as some form of perpetrator.

Her final subsection illustrates the joint topics of empire and colonialism with reference to Ovid’s own view of himself as loyal Roman, his apparently guileless celebration of Roman civic life and politics, but also the way in which his own undercutting (or not?) of his professed loyalty has led critics to wonder about his attitude to Augustus. Fulkerson ends with two observations: that Ovid and Augustus “each intruded into the sphere of the other” (86), and that “each generation creates its own Ovid to suit its particular concerns” (87). For her, the twenty-first century is very “Ovidian” in its suspicion of authoritarian power-relations.

Fulkerson’s list for “Further reading[s]” (89-92) is necessarily short in such a slight volume, as are her “Glossary of proper names and Latin terms” (93-9) and brief Index of topics (with page references, 101-4). The latter two rubrics could perhaps have been combined, but not much space would have been saved. In all, this is an admirable first guide to Ovid that also rewards reading by more advanced Ovidian scholars for the breadth of topics Fulkerson covers.

Posted with permission …

©2017 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.

CJ-Online Reviews Archive

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 …

The Afterlife of Ovid ~ Conference Videos!

Last weekend, the Warburg Institute and the Institute for Classical Studies hosted a conference called The Afterlife of Ovid and a number of videos from the meeting have made it to Youtube. I’m going to sort of intersperse an ‘edited program’ with the videos (not all talks are there … not sure if they will be coming later today or what):

Thursday 7 March 2013

10. 50 Welcome: John North (IClS)

11.00 Professor Frank Coulson (Ohio State University)
Bernardo Moretti: A Newly Discovered Humanist Commentator on Ovid’s Ibis

11.50 Dr Ingo Gildenhard (University of Cambridge)
Dante’s Ovidian Poetics

1.50 Professor Gesine Manuwald (University College London)
Letter-writing after Ovid: his impact on Neo-Latin verse epistles

2.40 Professor Hélène Casanova-Robin (Université Paris-Sorbonne Paris IV)
D’Ovide à Pontano : le mythe, une forma mentis? De l’inuentio mythologique à l’élaboration d’un idéal d’humanitas

4.00 Dr Fátima Díez-Platas (Universidad de Santiago de Compostela)
Et per omnia saecula imagine vivam: The imaged afterlife of Ovid in fifteenth and sixteenth century book illustrations

4.50 Dr Caroline Stark (Ohio Wesleyan University)
Reflections of Narcissus

Friday 8 March 2013

10.30 Professor John Miller (University of Virginia)
‘Ovid’s Janus and the Start of the Year in Renaissance Fasti Sacri.

11.20 Professor Philip Hardie (University of Cambridge)
Milton as Reader of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

12.10 Dr Victoria Moul (King’s College London)
The transformation of Ovid in Cowley’s herb garden: Books 1 and 2 of the Plantarum Libri Sex (1668).

2.00 Professor Maggie Kilgour (McGill University)
Translatio Studii, Translatio Ovidii

2.50 Professor Hérica Valladares (John Hopkins University)
The Io in Correggio: Ovid and the Metamorphosis of a Renaissance Painter

4.10 Professor Elizabeth McGrath (Warburg Institute)
Rubens and Ovid

Note in passing: this is a pretty good model for recording a conference or panel session although it might be useful if handouts were posted at the original conference website.

“Ovid’s” Niobe Statues Found

Tip o’ the pileus to Martin Conde, who alerted us to a story in la Reppublica relating the discovery of the villa of Marcus Valerius Messala Corvinus — Ovid’s patron — and statuary from the Niobe story which is being connected to Ovid. I managed to track down an English summary in Gazzetta del Sud:

Archaeologists say they’ve uncovered an “exceptional” group of sculptures dating to the 1st century BC in a villa in Rome’s suburb of Ciampino. The sculptures, found in an ancient villa owned by Roman general Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, a patron of the poet Ovid, tell the myth of Niobe, the proud daughter of Tantalus who lost all her 14 children after boasting to the mother of Apollo and Artemis, Leto, about her fertility. Niobe, regarded as a classic example of the retribution caused by the sin of pride or hubris, was turned to stone. Excavations at the villa have also revealed a thermal bath area with fragments of artistic mosaics and a swimming pool as long as 20 meters with walls painted blue. Inside the bath area were found seven sculptures dating to the Augustan age, as well as a complete series of fragments that experts say can be reassembled. The group tells the story of Niobe, which figured in Ovid’s epic poem of transformation, the Metamorphoses, published in AD 8. La Repubblica newspaper said Tuesday a team of archaeologists made the valuable discovery last summer. “Statues of Niobe have been found in the past, but in the case of Ciampino, we have a good part of the group,” of statues, said Elena Calandra, superintendent of archaeological heritage. According to their reconstruction of the bath area, experts say the statues were carved on all four sides of the swimming pool, which may have been buried by an earthquake in the 2nd century AD.

It’s worth checking out Martin Conde’s flickr page of the La Reppublica coverage, which includes photos and a somewhat different spin on the story (which seems to be yet another major conservation kerfuffle in Italy): ROMA / LAZIO ARCHEOLOGIA: Roma, ecco le statue che Ovidio cantò nelle Metamorfosi Scoperta la villa di Messalla, LA REPUBBLICA (08/01/2013), pp. 1 & 23. If you need a quick refresher on the story of Niobe, here’s a translation of the relevant section of the Metamorphoses (6.146 ff) …

ADDENDUM (a couple hours later): See also Dorothy King’s post for further coverage and a whack of photos: New Niobids – New Light on a Old Group

Other coverage: