Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.15

Gareth D. Williams, Banished Voices: Readings in Ovid's Exile Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. ix + 234. $54.95. ISBN 0-521-45136-1.

Reviewed by William S. Anderson, University of California -- Berkeley (

The title, inspired by the plural voices found in the Aeneid by Parry, Lyne, and others, indicates Williams' concern with the polysemic features of Ovid's exile poetry, with the tensions between and among voices, with planned duplicity and dissimulation. To what extent the voices are banished, in contrast to the man Ovid, or with him, is an interesting question that Williams does not touch. If the participle means anything special, it might refer to the way readers of the exile poetry have generally ignored, hence banished, a major aspect of Ovid's achievement in this remarkable verse, namely, his artistic duplicity.

This is a demanding book, written by a man who knows the exile poetry better than most Latinists, at a time when this material constitutes the last great area of scholarly opportunity in Ovid's oeuvre. I also find it a frequently frustrating book, because Williams does not seem to have made up his own mind about the purposes and meanings of Ovid's dissimulation. Sometimes he writes as though he has simply caught Ovid in a lie; at other times, he views the discrepancy between documentable fact and the evident artistic fiction developed by the poet as a positive aesthetic result that Ovid's audience in Rome would appreciate. Too often, however, he leaves us with a series of voices or possible meanings, regularly phrased as rhetorical questions, and lets us, with the original Roman audience, find our meaning, if we care to try. As for Ovid, well, either Williams does not want to risk a definite decision or he regards Ovid's meaning as indeterminate.

Although the elegiac mode likes to present a first-person speaker, we tend to distinguish today the poet from the lover dramatizing himself in the Amores and indeed from the expert teacher of the Ars Amatoria. But when it comes to the exile poetry, centuries of readers and subtle critics have refused to make that distinction between poet and pathetic exile. There have been some notable exceptions before Williams, but his book should largely end the predisposition to quarry the exile poetry for biographical facts about the last years of Ovid and for historical and geographical data about the remote part of the Empire on the Black Sea, where he went. He takes up the most obvious issues in his first chapter, on the "unreality" of the exile poetry, covering the topics of Tomis and the events recounted by Ovid that have wrongly been treated as historical. Thus, Ovid places himself in a geography of exile at Tomis that conflicts with what is known about the ancient region and even more with the tourist data on modern Costanza; his details come from literature about remote northern areas like Scythia, such as are found in Herodotus and Vergil's Georgics. He describes the people of Tomis as barbarians (following recognizable literary motifs) even though they had been in contact with Greek culture for more than five centuries. Williams argues that Ovid went to Vergil for topoi on barbarians, quarrying portions of the Aeneid where Vergil was not describing true barbarians, but only the rugged ways of the primitive Italians with whom cultivated Trojan Aeneas came into conflict. Thus, Ovid does not intend to contribute to scientific data on the Black Sea, its peoples, and climate; on the contrary, he wishes to represent a first-person Roman speaker who finds himself in a totally alien world, climatically different from the temperate regions of central Italy, peopled by uncouth Latin-less barbarians instead of the sophisticated companions he was used to in Rome. He is a kind of Aeneas sent to a world that he cannot master or colonize by himself.

Chapter One continues with an able analysis of some so-called "historical facts" that are often lifted by credulous historians and philologists from narrative sections of some poems. In P. 1.8, Ovid writes to Severus about the special wretchedness of his banishment, because he is continually subjected to war conditions (whereas other exiles relax comfortably on peaceful islands or the like). Then, he proceeds to describe a nearby city named Aegisos, which had earlier been seized by marauding Getae and then recaptured by siege by a local unnamed king. After fourteen lines on this bellicose episode, Ovid returns to his misery and contrasts it with idyllic memories and details of Rome and the peaceful agricultural countryside, lovingly developed for fifty lines. The historians pull the little siege out of this literary context and claim it as an unvarnished fact won for history. Williams points out not only how the siege of Aegisos functions thematically in the economy of Ovid's poem, but he also shows how the very details of the siege seem to come from the commonplaces of military narratives. Thus, it is risky to excerpt it from its poetic context as a pure fact in an otherwise admittedly artistic fictional construct. And the same could be said for another or the same siege of Aegisos narrated in P. 4.7. The last "fact" that Williams challenges may raise some protests, and I myself have my doubts that he proves his case. He argues that P. 2.10, the poem to Macer, in which Ovid fondly recalls a trip the two made together in Classical lands, particularly Sicily, is also more artistic fiction than historical or biographical fact. I can see how Ovid develops in the poem his typical contrast between himself, a wretched elegiac poet in barbaric lands, and Macer, a successful epic poet in Rome, and then how the remembered trip unites the two talented young men in areas that stimulated their poetic imaginations. But, though Ovid undoubtedly shaped the details of the "trip", I do not see the necessity of denying that it ever occurred. What is gained from such an argument other than the apparent denial of all "facts" in the exile poetry?

The second chapter investigates Ovid's pose of poetic decline, and, as the wording indicates, finds that the artistic evidence of the exile poetry, especially those poems in which Ovid laments his "decline", refutes the claim. This is not a new observation, as Williams knows. It has been the focus of significant work by both Nagel and Davisson (Thomson). It can be argued, as they do, that Ovid pursues a poetic strategy in so deprecating his talent: thereby, he calculates to earn the sympathy and even admiration of his Roman audience for the plucky poet who strives against serious odds in Tomis to live up to his former standards as Rome's most engaging and witty poet. But Williams does not care about such purposes or encourage us to imagine sympathetically the depressing situation which many exiles document for their creative efforts. He asks us to consider the poems as artistic compositions, and then he demonstrates that Ovid has at his disposal a full arsenal of effects. The most important, it would seem, is the ability to exploit intertextual references, but Ovid also shows his mastery at deploying a rich variety of similes, at exploiting mythological lore, and in general impressing us with his presence as doctus poeta. If, then, we can detect such art, it stands to reason that the original Roman audience found it even more obvious; and it then would seem to follow that Ovid aimed at this self-contradiction as an artistic effect. As Williams puts it, he means to show that "Ovid experiments with the poetic motif of self-depreciation, ... that his use of the motif can be viewed as an end in itself rather than as a means to the utilitarian end of arousing his reader's pity". (p.52)

To argue his thesis, Williams ably analyzes chosen poems, such as T. 4.1, P. 4.2, T. 1.7, and P. 4.13. And little by little his theoretical scheme emerges. He assigns to Ovid artistic dissimulation as an end in itself and to the reader of Ovid, notably himself, the skill to discern and enjoy this dissimulation. The potential for winning sympathy is all but dismissed; the pathos disappears; and what remains is a "dissimulating irony", "a subtle, self-mocking humour". That strikes my mind as too reductive. Ovid was not working in a comfortable university library or office, as modern scholars do, and the conditions of writing are all-important in the exile poems. It is certainly true that the final product belies his claims of lost ability and that there is some humor in the inconsistency or dissimulation. However, Ovid keeps insisting that the conditions for writing poetry are strikingly different from what he once enjoyed and his poet-friends still enjoy, that he is struggling to adapt to very unfavorable circumstances and to produce recognizably Ovidian verse. That the product does strike us as Ovidian, wit and all, has its playful aspects, I concede, but deconstruction is not where we are supposed to stop, and reading against the grain needs to be combined with a reading with the grain. I don't believe that Ovid meant the speaker of his exile poetry to be summarized as a dissimulator, merely amusing an unengaged distant Roman audience of sophisticates. His speaker is a human being in trouble, alienated unjustly from all that he loved, a poet whose inspiration came from the most exciting city in the world and now compelled to adapt his talents to remote Tomis. When he, then, proves to be able to continue his art in these unpromising circumstances -- let's not kid ourselves and claim that exiled Ovid is the same old scamp as the poet of the Amores and the Ars -- it testifies to his strength of character and his determination to continue rather than simply to his dissimulatio. Maybe that is only a poetic theme that the clever poet worked out in exile, but that is, I think, a theme of human value. Reading the exile poetry is somewhat more demanding than documenting inconsistencies.

The third chapter investigates what Williams regards as problems between friendship and the theme of artistic motivation. Whereas in the previous chapters he tended to regard dissimulation as a positive quality in a conscious poet like Ovid, here he manifests difficulty with the apparent conflicts between the ideal of honesty among friends (where dissimulation is deplorable) and the apparent motive to dissimulate in the poet. Can the dissimulating poet really be a friend? Can the people he addresses as friends and the Roman readers of these published books treat this frank dissimulator as a genuine amicus? What seems to be going on in Williams is an attack of moral compunction. Having reduced Ovid to a mere ironist, without any purpose but to display his self-mockery, Williams infers, I think, that this mockery is being extended to the sacrosanct realm of friendship; and that bothers him. He talks with evident disapproval of how Ovid's "exilic vox unashamedly rejects the license allowed to all poets at Am. 3.12.41-2:

exit in immensum fecunda licentia vatum,
obligat historica nec sua verba fide." (p. 101)
That is not very subtle. I do not know any place where Ovid rejects poetic license, un-ashamedly or otherwise. And what he wrote for a particular context thirty years earlier in Amores 3 should hardly become a stick with which a critic could belabor him as an exile poet. Well, notes Williams, what about a couplet such as 3.1.5-6:
haec domini fortuna mei est, ut debeat illam
infelix nullis dissimulare iocis.
In this poem, Ovid's book declares that he is so wretched that "he should not mask his misery with any amusing wit". Such a statement, Williams says, "seems to guide his ingenuous reader's response to his supposedly candid narrative." He dissimulates, yes, about his art; he dissimulates about the cold and the barbarity of the Tomitians. Does it mean, then, that he is not miserable? Does he actually undermine his tale of personal misery by self-mocking humor? The witty Ovid of the earlier elegies is a very changed man, I think, in the exile poetry, even if his artistic level remains high.

Williams suggests a way out of the bind he has defined, and that is to assume that friendship is little more than a dramatic opportunity for the poet: not a context in which Ovid could make vital contact across the miles of separation, but a means of congenial conversation among like-minded lovers of poetry. On the surface, Ovid pleads with his various friends to help him with Augustus, to intercede for him at various stages of the Roman administration, to keep writing and thinking of him, to re-assure him that he still is loved and admired. But Williams minimizes the importance of all those words and declares the essential motivation for writing his friends is "the gentle testing and ironic beguiling of his reader's perceptions." (p.103) Applying this insight to T. 1.5, he ably distinguishes fact from fiction, but then he cannot give us a coherent reading. Instead, he falls back on the postulated "select audience of loyal friends who are as refined in literary sensibility as they are personally dependable." (p. 115) They, we are to assume, could do what Williams shrinks from. In other analyses, he shows considerable dexterity and appreciation of different tones of friendship, but hangs back from a full reading. What concerns him is the rich tension between the ideally non-dissimulating friend and the dissimulating poet.

The goal of the final chapter is to describe the ambivalent treatment of Augustus in T. 2, Ovid's letter to Augustus about his character and poetry. On the surface, this seems to be a variant on the topics and methods of the earlier chapters: Ovid declares openly a strong position or asserts some very emphatic facts, and then his artistic dissimulation tends to undercut that position and weaken or deny the facts.

So the method of analysis is to fix on the passages where the inconsistencies occur and draw out the conclusion that Ovid dissimulates with Augustus. There is a major point of difference, however. In the other letters, Ovid affects to write to a friend, and, if he dissimulates, it is in a playful manner which amuses and charms his addressee and like-minded readers in Rome. That is, in spite of his proclaimed miseries, they realize that their witty old friend is still going strong in Tomis. But the letter to Augustus deals with an addressee who is not a friend: Augustus has sent Ovid into exile. And so the issue in the letter is not to make an old friend feel sorry for the exiled poet, but to make a virtual enemy realize that he has been too severe on a harmless dope. That is the obvious purpose of T. 2. When and if dissimulation occurs, it seems to convey a message to other readers, not Augustus, and to deny the words of respect for the princeps and to suggest that one cannot make a serious literary argument to a man in power because he simple does not know how to read and understand literature. The topic of discussion is poetry, Ovid's kind of poetry, but the dissimulation does not occur in the way the sophisticated poet establishes his presence in spite of his professions of misery and lost facility. Now, the dissimulation lodges in nuances of tone and detail that contradict a seeming respect for Augustus' political and literary acumen. Others have preceded Williams on this tricky path, and they regularly have had to assume that Augustus was a defective reader who could not get below the surface and so was unaware and unamused and unaffronted by the dissimulation that modern scholars detect in T. 2, by the survival of the incorrigible old Ovid, more impudent than ever. The people who enjoyed the dissimulation, then, are the familiar group of loyal friends in Rome and all subtle readers since then down to Williams and me. I wish things were so simple. I personally believe that Augustus could read the Aeneid in most of its Vergilian complexity, that he could apprehend the irony of Horace in his Epistle 2.1 to him, and that he would have been up to the trickeries of Ovid here. So we need to explain the operation of reading this letter in a more subtle way than by postulating two entirely different audiences.

Thus, in spite of his many acute analyses of individual passages and demonstration of inconsistencies, Williams has been unable to proceed successfully beyond the doctrine of dissimulation and a vague group of indulgent friends in Rome to give an adequate reading of the exile poetry. It is not enough to prove that Ovid was a skilled poet in exile, in spite of his self-pitying appeal. We need to know how to read him as a suffering, aging, lonely alien in a strange land as well as a still-amazing master of Musa iocosa.