Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.29

Ovid, Amores II. Edited with translation and commentary by Joan Booth. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd., 1991. Pp. x + 198. ISBN 0856681741.

Reviewed by A.M. Keith, University of Toronto.

Ovid is the only major Augustan elegist to lack not only comprehensive scholarly commentaries but even modest student editions of much of his amatory elegiac verse in English. While both Propertius and Tibullus have been well-served by twentieth-century commentators, the considerably larger body of Ovidian amatory elegy has only very recently begun to garner the attention that it deserves.1 The three books of Amores contain some of Ovid's wittiest, sexiest and most sophisticated poetry, and the publication of Booth's text, commentary and translation of Amores II is therefore welcome, all the more so in that it is directed not only to professional Classicists but also to "the less experienced Latinist and the ever-increasing number of classical enthusiasts with no Latin at all" (Preface, p. iv). I shall address issues related to each of these potential audiences in the course of this review, and since B.'s commentary is most likely to be used as a text in undergraduate Latin classes I shall also consider my experience of the commentary in a senior undergraduate course in Latin Elegy.

B.'s edition includes a basic bibliography of the scholarly literature on Augustan poetry in general and Ovidian elegy in particular; an introduction in six parts; a new text; B.'s translations; a brief "discussion" of individual or paired poems following text and translation; an apparatus criticus (after text, translations and discussions); a commentary keyed to the Latin text; and a general index containing "items of general literary and linguistic interest" (p. 196). The bibliography is not extensive but provides a useful starting point for investigating the standard questions of Latin literary history and textual criticism. The scholarship that B. cites is mostly English and German, and some interesting American-authored work has been either overlooked or omitted.2 In the introduction, B. supplies an overview of Ovid's life and poetic career, anchoring her discussion in Tristia IV.10 (sec. 1); reviews the tradition of elegy, focusing especially on elegy's earliest Roman practitioners, Catullus and Gallus, and Ovid's contemporaries, Propertius and Tibullus (sec. 2); discusses the Amores' divergence in content and structure from earlier Latin elegy (sec. 3); analyses Ovid's elegiac style in the Amores (sec. 4); surveys the manuscript tradition of the Amores (sec. 5); and closes with a very brief account of the principles guiding her practice in making the translations (sec. 6). The best parts of the introduction are sec. 4 and 5. B.'s discussion of Ovid's elegiac style in sec. 4 makes good use of examples to illustrate Ovid's elegiac diction, syntax, metrical practice, use of rhetorical figures, Alexandrianisms and verbal wit, while her summary of the manuscript tradition in sec. 5 is concise and useful. The first three sections of the introduction are indistinguishable from the standard literary histories, in which poets' lives are relentlessly reconstructed out of their poetic fictions. While the preface suggests that the book is for a wide range of interested readers, I can't help but wonder what a Classical enthusiast with little or no Latin would make of the introduction, which reads as though written in a critical vacuum as B. asks questions and supplies answers that have remained unchanged over two millenia.

Unlike other Aris & Phillips commentaries, B.'s commentary supplies notes that are keyed to the Latin text of Amores II so that the book can be used in teaching undergraduate language classes. Indeed, the commentary is best suited to such an audience for again it is difficult to imagine how much use the Latinless "Classical enthusiast" can get out of this organization of the notes, especially since the commentary includes extremely detailed discussions of textual problems and grammatical difficulties, and engages in a certain amount of scholarly polemic. Moreover, B. quotes copiously from Greek and Latin literature, not always with translation, in order to illuminate Ovid's elegiac diction, handling of poetic convention, deployment of rhetorical figures, etc. These features of the commentary may well seem daunting to the Latinless reader, although they make it quite useful to serious students of Latin literature. Certainly the students in my senior Latin elegy class found B.'s commentary the most useful text on the course reading list.

The class had read widely in Roman erotic elegy (selections from Catullus 65-116, Propertius I-III, Tibullus I and II, Sulpicia's Elegidia, and Ovid's Amores I) before concluding the semester with selections from Amores II (1, 4, 6-8, 10, 15-18). The five students' backgrounds in Latin, however, varied greatly: one graduate student had four years of Latin; there were three very well-prepared undergraduate majors each of whom had had at least eight years of Latin; the single non-Classicist who enrolled in the class was an undergraduate English major with two years of Latin. Yet when I solicited their reflections on B.'s commentary I was surprised by the uniformity of their observations. All the students found it a very useful textbook. They felt that the introductory essays were helpful in contextualizing Ovid against his elegiac predecessors, and several commented specifically on how helpful they found B.'s discussion of Ovid's elegiac style (Introduction sec. IV) in particular. The students found the bibliography thorough and up-to-date. They were in general agreement that B.'s translations were good, and not too closely bound to the Latin. The commentary also met with their broad approval, although (as usual) some reservations were expressed. They were especially interested in the wealth of historical information supplied in the notes about lowly features of Roman life often left undiscussed in commentaries; they were pleased with the fullness of B.'s references to earlier Latin elegy (although one student remarked on a paucity of references to Catullus); and they also commented favourably on B.'s thorough discussion of rhetorical figures in the poems. Several of the students wished for more detailed grammatical assistance, however, and some were irritated by the number of cross-references between poems since they had not always read the poem to which the notes referred them.

Only in one area was there an apparently impassable divide separating the Classicists from the lone student of English literature. The Classics students were unanimous in their favourable verdict on the discussions of single or paired poems which B. includes after each text and translation; by contrast the English student disdained the discussions as "not particularly enlightening." The Classicists praised B.'s discussions for tieing up loose ends and pointing to the unifying themes of the poem or pairs of poems, while the student of English literature described the discussions as plot summaries, offering little beyond a prose paraphrase of the Latin poem. The students' disagreement points to the wide range in quality of B.'s discussions, sometimes within a single piece. Thus the discussion of Am. II.6, for example, includes an excellent survey of the ancient literary and rhetorical traditions of the epicedion, or funerary lament, while the discussion of Am. II.10, by contrast, simply rehearses the plot and adheres to a critical stance long since abandoned in the scholarly literature on Latin elegy: "Those who look for romance in love-poetry will find nothing here -- no real anguish, no real affection and no believable beloved: all Ovid has to offer is a witty and entertaining celebration of the joy of sex" (p. 57). The discussion of Am. II.15 exemplifies the strengths and weakness of B.'s method; it opens with a wealth of information about the ancient use of rings and poems as love-gifts, but closes with the hackneyed observation that "for all its sensuality, there is an unromantic detachment about Ovid's elegy in that the beloved is unnamed and unappreciated for any personal qualities other than her sex-appeal, and Ovid offers her little but his lust in return, his professions of 'love' and 'fidelity' seeming largely formulaic" (p. 75). I wonder why should we look for "romance" in Latin elegy at all -- let alone "real" anguish or affection (why not look for "poetic" anguish and affection) and a "believable" beloved.3 B.'s implicit assumption -- that what matters in a "love-poem" is a poet's "sincerity" -- was called into question over forty years ago in a celebrated article on the Latin elegiac poets.4

My reservations about the usefulness of B.'s discussions are related to the probable interests of informed readers outside the field of Classics. They will look in vain here for something akin to the analytical commentary on Shakespeare's Sonnets by Stephen Booth, which includes -- in addition to the kind of material B. offers -- full discussion of syntactical ambiguities and their symbolic resonance; concise notes on words that set up "metaphoric undercurrents" informing both individual and paired sonnets; and some discussion of developing relations among poems in a sequence (beyond the self-contained unit of a pair of poems).5 What is missing from B.'s discussions is any sense of the Amores as aesthetically complex poetry: B. presents them as catalogues (of women, II.4; of birds, II.6; of sources, II.10), as rhetorical exercises (II.7, 8, 15), and as geometric patterns (Am. II.16 has a Chinese box structure that can be diagrammed ABCDC2B2A2 + coda, p. 79).6

Nonetheless, there is much of value in B.'s commentary on Amores II and I shall assign it again as a textbook in undergraduate Latin classes, with the caveat that the discussions are much less useful than the detailed notes in the commentary. Advanced students will have to look elsewhere to understand and appreciate the complexity of Ovidian elegy.


  • [1] Ovid, Amores I, edited with translation and running commentary by J. Barsby (Oxford 1973; reprinted, Bristol 1979); Ovid, Ars Amatoria, Book I, edited with an introduction and commentary by A.S. Hollis (Oxford 1977); P. Murgatroyd, Ovid with Love, selections from Ars amatoria I and II (Chicago, 1982). J.C. McKeown's magisterial commentary on the Amores is in progress, and two volumes have been published thus far: Ovid: Amores Text, Prolegomena and Commentary, Volume I: Text and Prolegomena (Liverpool 1987); Volume II: A Commentary on Book One (Leeds 1989).
  • [2] Thus, e.g., B's discussion of the arrangement of poems in Amores I-III (pp. 10-11) includes speculation about the programmatic nature of Am. II.19, but she neglects to mention D. Lateiner's work in this area until the conclusion of her discussion of II.19, much later in the volume (p. 92); she omits any mention of Helios 12 (1985), an issue devoted to Ovidian elegy; and her discussion of the mistress figure ignores the contributions of both American and feminist scholars (J.P. Hallet in Arethusa 6 [1973]:103-124; M. Wyke, "Reading Female Flesh: Amores 3.1," in A. Cameron, ed., History as Text [Chapel Hill, NC and London, 1989a]; ead., "Mistress and Metaphor in Augustan Elegy," Helios 16 [1989b]: 25-47).
  • [3] B. is defensive about her use of the adjective "romantic," and justifies its usage by reference to two recent articles employing the terms "romantic" and "romance" to characterise Latin elegy -- in two different ways (pp. 5-6 with n. 36). She thus begs the question.
  • [4] A.W. Allen, "'Sincerity' and the Roman Elegists," CP 45 (1950): 145-160; Allen treats the question again in "Sunt qui Propertium malint," in J.P. Sullivan (ed.), Critical Essays on Roman Literature (London 1962): 107-48. On Ovid's mistress, see J.C. McKeown 1987.19-24; contra, Wyke 1989a and 1989b.
  • [5] Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven 1977).
  • [6] I assume that the text as printed on p. 79, ABCDC2BA2+coda, is simply a misprint for ABCDC2B2A2+coda.