Ovid may not be a feminist, but he was a bohemian and a free spirit. The Greek and Roman models of poetry were far from prudish, yet his writing is bold: think Henry Miller or D. H. Lawrence, only comic. He may be sexist but he is not a Red Pill Casanova. In Amores (The Loves), the narrator woos Corinna, a strong, sexy woman who is not always available to him. And in his poems he describes Roman women’s lives: their beauty regimens, going to the games, dinner parties, their relationships with men, and even almost dying of an abortion.
Ovid’s erotic writing is said to have offended Augustus. He was exiled for carmen et error (a poem and an error), and scholars conjecture that the carmen was his outrageous early poem, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love).
In The Art of Love, a parody of didactic poetry, Ovid devoted two books to instructions on how to pick up women, and the third to instructing women so they would be in bella pares (equal in war).
The opening lines of Book I are light and frivolous. (And, by the way, this is my literal translation–sorry, I don’t write poetry–and the Latin lines are at the end of this post.)
If anyone does not know the art of loving,
let him read this, and by these lines let him love learnedly.
By art the swift vessels with sail and oars are moved,
By art the light chariots; by art Love must be ruled.
The opening of Book III, the women’s guide, shows that Ovid is not a woman hater. Parodying the Greek and Roman war epics, he explains women must also know the art. He has already “armed” the Greeks (the men) with advice, now he “arms” the Amazons (the women).
I gave arms to the Greeks against the Amazons; arms remain
for you and your troop, Penthesialea.
Go evenly matched into war; let them conquer whom nurturing
Venus favors, and her son who flies around the whole world.
It would be unfair for unarmed women to fight armed men.
It would be shameful thus for you to conquer them, men.
It’s a very silly early poem, far from Ovid’s best. And if the alt.right misconstrue Ovid, there’s nothing we can do.
Everybody loves a hero’s journey, a witch, monsters, sirens, and shipwrecks, but English translations of the Odyssey don’t always capture the tone and mood. Last year a new translation by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, became fashionable.
It may not be a best-seller, but it has gotten much attention. Wilson was profiled last year in The New York Times Magazine. A few weeks ago the TLS published “Beginning Our Odyssey,” in which Mary Beard and other contributors wrote about their first encounters with the Odyssey. And then there was a reading of Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey as part of the London Literature Festival.
Homer’s poem was meant to be recited, not read, and certainly Wilson’s lucid, simple verse is perfect for that. Here is her translation of the opening lines.
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
There are many translations of the Odyssey, something for everybody. I grew up on the Richmond Lattimore, which is very close to the Greek. Only after I read it in Greek did I appreciate its brilliance. He manages to correlate the number of English lines with the Greek–and since Greek is more economical than English, this is quite a task.
Lattimore’s opening lines:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
The paperback of Wilson’s translation will be released in November, so we can treat ourselves to a new book!
NOTES ON OVID: HERE are the Latin lines from The Art of Love, Book III, vv. 1-6.
Arma dedi Danais in Amazonas; arma supersunt,
Quae tibi dem et turmae, Penthesilea, tuae.
Ite in bella pares; vincant, quibus alma Dione
Faverit et toto qui volat orbe puer.
Non erat armatis aequum concurrere nudas; 5
Sic etiam vobis vincere turpe, viri.
Here are the Latin lines from Book I, vv. 1-4:
Siquis in hoc artem populo non novit amandi,
Hoc legat et lecto carmine doctus amet.
Arte citae veloque rates remoque moventur,
Arte leves currus: arte regendus amor.