Tristia, Book IV, 10
Who was this I you read, this trifler in tender passions?
You want to know, posterity? Then attend:—
Sulmo is my homeland, where ice-cold mountain torrents
make lush our pastures, and Rome is ninety miles off.
Here I was born, in the year both consuls perished
at Antony’s hands; heir (for what that’s worth)
to an ancient family, no brand-new knight promoted
just yesterday for his wealth.
I was not the eldest child: I came after a brother
born a twelvemonth before me, to the day
so that we shared a birthday, celebrated one occasion
with two cakes, in March, at the time
of that festival sacred to armed Minerva—the first day in it
stained by the blood of combat. We began
our education young: our father sent us to study
with Rome’s best teachers in the liberal arts.
My brother from his green years had the gift of eloquence,
was born for the clash of words in a public court;
but I, even in boyhood, held out for higher matters,
and the Muse was seducing me subtly to her work.
My father kept saying: “Why study such useless subjects?
Even Homer left no inheritance.” Convinced
by his argument, I abandoned Helicon completely,
struggled to write without poetic form;
but a poem, spontaneously, would shape itself to metre—
whatever I tried to write turned into verse.
The years sped silently by: we arrived at manhood,
my brother and I, dressed for a freer life,
with the broad stripe and the purple draped from our shoulders,
each still obsessed by his own early pursuits.
But when he was barely twenty years old, my brother
died—and from then I lost a part of myself.
I did take the first step up the governmental ladder,
became a member of the Board of Three;
the Senate awaited me; but I chose to narrow my purple
stripe: there lay a burden beyond my strength.
For such a career I lacked both endurance and inclination:
the stress of ambition left me cold,
while the Muse, the creative spirit, was forever urging on me
that haven of leisure to which I’d always leaned.
The poets of those days I cultivated and cherished:
for me, bards were so many gods.
Often the ageing Macer would read me what he’d written
on birds or poisonous snakes or healing herbs;
often Propertius, by virtue of that close-binding
comradeship between us, would recited
his burning verses. Ponticus, noted for epic, and Bassus,
pre-eminent in iambics, both belonged
to my circle; Horace, that metrical wizard, held us
spellbound with songs to the lyre.
Virgil I only saw, while greedy fate left Tibullus
scant time for our friendship. He
came after Gallus, then Propertius followed:
I was next, the fourth in line.
And as I looked up to my elders, so a younger generation
looked up to me: my reputation soon spread.
When first I recited my earliest poems in public
my beard had only been shaved once or twice:
she fired my genius, who now is a Roman byword
because of those verses, the girl to whom I gave
the pseudonym of “Corinna”. My writing was prolific,
but what I thought defective, I myself
let the flames claim for revision. On the brink of exile,
raging against my vocation, my poems, I burnt work
that could have found favour. My heart was soft, no stronghold
against Cupid’s assaults, prey to the lightest pang.
Yet, despite my nature, though the smallest spark would
ignite me, no scandal ever smeared my name.
When I was scarce past boyhood I was briefly married
to a wife both worthless and useless; next
came a bride you could not find fault with, yet not destined
to warm my bed for long; third and last
there’s the partner who’s grown old with me, who’s learnt to shoulder
the burden of living as an exile’s wife.
My daughter, twice pregnant (but by different husbands) made me
a grandfather early on, while she was still
just a slip of a girl. By then my father had completed
his lifespan of ninety years. For him I wept
just as he would have done had I been the one taken.
Then, next, I saw my mother to her grave.
Ah, lucky the pair of them, so timely dead and buried,
before the black day of my disgrace!
And lucky for me, that they are not still living
to witness my misery, that they felt no grief
on my account. Yet if there survives from a life’s extinction
something more than a name, if an insubstantial wraith
does escape the pyre, if some word, my parental spirits,
has reached you about me, if charges stand to my name
in the Stygian court, then understand, I implore you
—and you I may not deceive—that my exile’s cause
was not a crime, but an error. So much for the dead. I return now
to you, my devoted readers, who would know
the events of my life. Already my best years were behind me—
age had brindled my hair, and ten times since my birth,
head wreathed with Pisan olive, the victorious Olympic
charioteer had carried off the prize
when the wrath of an injured prince compelled me to make my way to
Tomis, on the left shore of the Black Sea.
The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin
must not be revealed through testimony of mine.
Why rake up associates’ meannesses, harm done me by house-slaves,
and much further suffering, not a whit less harsh
than the exile itself? Yet my mind disdained to yield to trouble,
showed itself invincible, drew on its strength,
till I, forgetting myself and my old leisured existence,
took arms on occasion with unpractised hand;
by sea and land I suffered as many misfortunes
as the stars between the unseen and the visible poles.
Through long wanderings driven, I at length made landfall
on this coast, where native bowmen roam; and here,
though the din of neighbouring arms surrounds me, I still lighten
my sad fate as best I can
with the composition of verse; though there is none to listen
this is how I spend, and beguile, my days.
So the fact that I live still, to grapple with such grim hardships,
unwearied, yet, of the light and all it brings,
I owe, my Muse, to you: it’s you who afford me solace,
who come as rest, as medicine to my cares;
you my guide and comrade, who spirit me from the Danube
to an honored seat on Helicon; who have
offered me that rare benefit, fame while still living,
a title rarely granted till after death.
Nor has Envy, belittler of all that’s present, sunk her
malignant fangs into any work of mine:
for although our age has produced some classic poets,
Fame has not grudged my gifts renown.
There are many I’d rank above me: yet I am no less quoted
than they are, and most read throughout the world.
So if there’s any truth in poetic predictions, even
should I die tomorrow, I’ll not be wholly earth’s.
Which I was it triumphed? True poet or fashion’s pander?
Either way, generous reader, it is you I must thank.
I have been refraining in these Poetry Month posts from commenting too personally on the works, preferring to let them speak for themselves. However, I have to say that this poem, in a version by my favorite translator of ancient verse, Peter Green (whose magnificent Iliad I’ve been slow-reading), is especially haunting to me. Ovid wrote it, after all, not knowing that this exile would never end, or more accurately that it would end in death and burial in Tomis—modern Constanța, in Romania.
To the right is an image of the statue of Ovid in Constanţa, executed by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari in 1887. It stands in a square named for the poet—Ovidiu Square—in front of the Museum of National History and Archaeology. I love that the sculptor captured the weight of Ovid’s longing for home and the solace provided by his small writing tablet and the stylus clutched in his right hand. In 1925 a replica of the statue was erected in the Italian city of Sulmona, Ovid’s birthplace, which of course he mentions in this most autobiographical of his poems.
This post wouldn’t be complete without noting that Bob Dylan borrowed from Green’s Ovid translations for various lyrics on his albums “Love and Theft” and Modern Times. A testament to the bard from Hibbing’s lapwing nature (pace Robert Graves) and to the truth in Ovid’s assertion that “I’ll not be wholly earth’s.”