Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.01

Ovid, The Love Poems. Translated by A. D. Melville. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Pp. xxxvi + 264. ISBN 0-19-814762-7.

Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy.

This book's dust jacket greets the reader with the proclamation that "Ovid's love-poetry ... was original and innovative," and E. J. Kenney's excellent introduction (p. xiii) reinforces the point by praising the Roman's "originality and independence of mind." It is thus worth noting that this translation published in 1990 includes, with only minor adaptations, B. P. Moore's version of the Ars Amatoria, published in 1935, and Christopher Marlowe's versions of Amores I.5, III.7, and III.14, first published at some time before 1599. In pages, then, rather more than one-third of the translation in this volume is anything but original.

Those older versions presented Ovid in heroic couplets, a traditional form which translators since Marlowe have chosen to reflect the closure and balance of Ovid's elegiacs. For his own two-thirds of this translation, Melville has chosen in addition to heroic couplets a variety of forms, all of them variations on the rhymed iambic pentameter line. His favorite, which in his view "more closely than any other gives the feeling of Ovid's couplets," consists of iambic pentameter quatrains in which feminine line-endings alternate with masculine and the latter rhyme. Here is Amores II.17, 7-10 in this scheme:

Beauty breeds pride. Her beauty makes Corinna
Stormy. Alas, how well she knows her face.
She gets her pride from what her mirror shows her --
But doesn't look till everything's in place.

This is not bad at all. The first line catches the repetition in dat facies animos: facie violenta Corinna est, and the last comes closer to the sense of Ovid's conpositam than does the Penguin version's "and never / Looks at it till she's made up." Now here is what Marlowe does:

Beauty gives heart; Corinna's looks excel;
Aye me, why is it known to her so well?
But by her glass disdainful pride she learns,
Nor she herself, but first trimm'd up, discerns.

Melville has not improved on Marlowe, but he is at least easier to understand. His readers will not have to struggle with words used in obsolete senses, like "heart" for "pride" and "glass" for "mirror," or unravel inversions like that in Marlowe's last line.

Amores II.17, 7-10 is fairly typical Ovid, and the lines just quoted are fairly typical Marlowe. Both poets do better, and neither will be found doing much worse. Melville, unfortunately, never exceeds the level of verse-making displayed in his lines quoted above; in fact, he never writes a line as good as Marlowe's sibilant and haughty "But by her glass disdainful pride she learns."

Marlowe's line works because he knows that there is more to writing iambic pentameter than getting ten or so syllables with the stresses more or less alternating. Melville can pass off lines like these from Amores II.13 as verse:

She's often sat to serve you on your feast days,
When the priests wet your laurel's greenery.

The first line, clotted with monosyllables, needs a definite caesura, like the one after Marlowe's "Aye me," to shape it, and the second betrays Melville's lack of concern for the interaction of syllable length with stress accent. These things matter in classical English verse almost as much as in Latin.

Melville does not seem at ease in his attempts to snare Ovid's shimmering couplets, and he seems uncomfortable as well with some aspects of the content of Ovid's erotic poems. They are not always innocent, he tells us in his "Translator's Note," and he prefers innocence. He dissociates himself from Ovid's attitude towards women, which he finds "offensive." He had not intended to translate Ovid's erotica but was moved to undertake the distasteful task by his dissatisfaction with Peter Green's Penguin translation, which he describes as "wholly unsatisfactory." I suspect that he objects not only to Green's verse, which is not so much free as out on parole, but also to the breezy vulgarity of Green's translation. But "Ovid's a rake, as half his verses show him" -- breezy and, if not exactly vulgar, certainly not overly concerned about good taste.

Ovid is also learned, witty, and master of a strict and elegant verse form. A translator intending to catch Ovid's wit and virtuosity with a net woven of English iambs and couplets must produce poems with the qualities that Auden demanded of light verse, which, he declared, "observes the most exact laws of rhythm and metre as if by a happy accident, and in a sort of nonchalant spirit of mockery at the real poets who do it on purpose." In default of this happy nonchalance, breezy vulgarity spiced with mythological allusion will at least resemble something in Ovid. Melville's decorous, slightly fumbling version, Ovid in a bowler hat, does not. Give me Green, still.