Reading Ovid – The Lover is Not a Fighter

{First in a Series}

Ovid is a Comedian. That’s the best way to read him. Taking him seriously will wear on you after a while. It’s impossible to wind yourself up, in text, to the extent he does, without at least a notion of self-overhearing. Someone does not spend that much time arguing that it’s all Cupid’s fault that he’s a crying simp, without intending that it be found funny.

I was about to sing, in heroic strain, of arms and fierce combats. ‘Twas a subject suited to my verse, whose lines were all of equal measure. But Cupid, so ’tis said, began to laugh, and stole away one foot.

Ovid, Elegy I

This is how he begins, and what I want to draw your attention to is how meta it is. The first sentence is an obvious reference to the Aneid. The second and third are primarily about the kind of verse that is used in epic poetry. Greek Roman epics were usually written in dactylic hexameter, that is to say, six dactyls in a line. Dactyls have a long syllable and two short syllables. But elegaic couplets, supposedly introduced by Quintus Ennius in the 3rd Century BC, shaved one of the dactyls off every other line. That’s what “stole away one foot” refers to.

So he’s starting with clever references. Which, who could blame him. We all sprinkle allusions into our writing and even everyday speech. This is no one-off, however, he runs through this for an entire chapter lamenting the surrender of all other gods to Cupid, and ending with the same joke.

Farewell fierce War, Farewell the Measure too. Only with the myrtle of the salt sea’s marge shalt thou bind thy fair head, my Muse, who needs must tune thy numbers to eleven feet.

Ovid, Elegy I

It’s a callback, and for all its poetic formality, it reeks like the salt sea’s marge of irony (“marge” is an old way of saying “margin” or “edge”, and myrtle is a plant or flower sacred to Venus). Ovid embraces his un-Roman subject knowingly, with a frisson of stagey passion barely masking a sly wink. You want to roll your eyes at him, and you will, but you’ll know that he’s in on the joke his making of himself.

Worth the study.