Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.5

Gareth Williams, The Curse of Exile: A Study of Ovid's Ibis. Cambridge, Cambridge Philological Society Supplementary Volume 19, 1996. £15/$36 (members £12.50/$30). ISBN 0-906014-18-2.

Reviewed by Martin Helzl, Department of Classics, Case Western Reserve University,

Gareth Williams has here tackled probably the hardest poem in the Ovidian corpus. His aim is a reading of the poem qua poem rather than as a string of recherché mythical exempla addressed to a friend whose identity remains open to speculation. In a sense, Williams is trying to do what Niall Rudd recently did for Horace's literary epistles: rather than focussing of the factual details contained in the poem he is giving us his interpretation of the poem as a whole and in this he certainly succeeds. He also succeeds in rescuing the Ibis as an integral part of Ovid's exile-poetry where others, myself included, have taken it as 200 verses of exile-poetry with a long catalogue of Callimachean mythical doctrina attached to it.

Williams starts with a brief introduction which I would call "Zum Stand der Forschung", i.e. a survey of the scholarship on the Ibis. Next comes a chapter on the identity of Ibis and within this, he commences with a section on the Hellenistic background in which his main concern is to downplay, even reject the importance of Callimachus' eponymous poem and the Hellenistic tradition of Arai. In light of this section one may read with some surprise that he calls Ovid's debt to both "undeniable" on page 89. However, the "real issue" for Williams is: "what (if anything) can now be gained in the way of real insight into the Ibis by merely speculating on the nature of its lost Greek counterpart?" The implicit and in fact the safe answer is "nothing". Williams' stance may sound radical, but it is actually the only prudent position to hold unless one feels one is a scholar of the same caliber as Eduard Fraenkel. The balance of the chapter tries to resuscitate Housman's theory that there is something behind the pseudonym "Ibis." Williams concedes that Housman's idiosyncratic style does not yield the best arguments for his hypothesis, but does modern literary theory really do the job any better? "Any attempt to put a name to Ibis or to identify him as the collective embodiment of all Ovid's enemies presupposes that the poem has an underlying, extra-poetical 'reality'. As soon as that 'reality' is acknowledged to be irrecoverable from the poetic evidence, Ibis can have no proven existence outside the realms of Ovidian imagination, either as a real person or as the symbolic embodiment of enemies whose existence can only be surmised -- and this despite the seemingly realistic list of charges which Ovid levels against his enemy in lines 11-22" (20). Where others have recently stressed that elegiac puellae have only a reality in the text, so Williams scuttles any reality behind Ibis and posits that the only Ibis that exists is a scriptus Ibis. I agree with Williams that the poem has to be read without considering the addressee simply because nobody has figured out who he is. That, however, does not necessarily mean that we should "kill off Ibis with a finality which is beyond even Ovid's curses" (Williams about Housman p.18) nor is Williams' patronising tone about the "identity seekers" (20) or "the likes of Andre" (21) at this point very attractive. Williams is right in asserting that "to establish a biographical profile of him from such 'evidence' is perilous" (22). It would, however, take a lawyer no longer than 30 seconds of cross-examination to get Williams to admit that it is still possible that there is a real person hiding behind Ovid's Ibis.

The second chapter, entitled "Needing to scream: restraint and self-abandon in the Ibis "goes on to focus on the futility of Ovid's curses and the author's awareness of this very pointlessness. The Ibis is read as a letter, compared to the Heroides, in which Ovid essentially reveals his psychological state in exile. A reference to ancient epistolary theory which sees the letter as an EI)/KWN TH=S YUXH=S would not have gone amiss here. Both Thraede and Koskenniemi are also missing in the bibliography.1 The Ibis is seen as part of a consistent need for the poet's self-revelation in the exilic corpus: "The exile-poetry, we are constantly reminded, is undertaken not as a matter of free choice, but ... as an emotional outlet of the most urgent and desperate kind... Nothing is allowed to deflect our attention from that long, piercing, monotonous cry, least of all the thought that it may have reached a sympathetic ear" (20). In view of recent scholarly work on Ovid's exile-poetry it seems very odd indeed to hear one of the youngest and most cutting-edge Ovidians stress the monotony of the exilic corpus. As far as I knew, Norden's opinion that the exile poems "zu dem Inhaltsleersten der ganzen römischen Literatur gehören"2 had been discredited decades ago. Furthermore, if Ovid was not trying to reach a sympathetic ear, why did he change his addressees significantly after the demise of Augustus? One begins to wonder at this point if Williams, instead of killing off the author whom he needs for his reading (I am astonished to read the word "intention" on p. 46!), has not succumbed to the temptations of modern theory by instead killing off all of Ovid's addressees.

Anyway, Williams goes on to draw a comparison between Coleridge's The Three Graves, Shakespeare's King Lear as well as Thomas Mann's Tod in Venedig and Ovid's Ibis. Although I have also on occasion indulged in such comparisons with vernacular literature and/or music, I find them ultimately less than helpful and even somewhat mannered.

At this point I wish this were Gnomon and I could communicate some of my minor gripes in smaller print: The commentator in me would like to be fed some meaty footnotes on details such as "the following couplet does little more than reiterate the point" (39) -- theme and variation.3 Further down the page: "Ovid's imitatio of Callimachean ambages, ostensibly a slavish manoeuvre" -- How can imitatio/aemulatio ever be slavish in view of Gian-Biagio Conte, Memoria dei poeti es sistema letterario, Torino 1974? Page 40: "Force of necessity obliges him to portray the Ibis as a negative, self-limiting exercise" -- The humility of the poet is topological in programmatic statements. And again "his appeal to any god who will hear him" (41) -- isn't this just a typical escape clause in a prayer (cf. Eduard Norden, Agnostos Theos, 4. Aufl., Darmstadt 1956, 144-147)? Now I can switch back into larger print.

Chapter three starts by reading Ovid through his translator David Slavitt which, like the readings through other modern literature, leaves me totally cold. Williams to my mind is trying to outdo Persse McGarrigle who, in David Lodge's Small World, proposes to assess the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare. While there is a connection between Eliot and Shakespeare, Williams' modern works can only be taken as parallels or maybe metaphoric reflections of what he trying to tell us about Ovid. The remainder of the chapter is much more illuminating since here Williams looks at some of Ovid's curses and especially the kinds of roles in which he depicts himself. The poet casts himself as Dido, as a banisher, as Aeacus, Clotho and vates.

The next chapter tackles the catalogue and sets out to "discern features of sociological as well as psychological relevance" in the Ibis and the Metamorphoses. By "sociological" Williams means the Roman predilection for cruelty and blood-sports. He draws a parallel between the detached descriptions of grotesque details in the Metamorphoses, the Ibis catalogue and the gladiatorial games. This connection is undeniable, but Williams would have benefitted from John K. Newman The Classical Epic Tradition, Madison 1986, who talks about Roman society as a "circus" or "carnival" society. Nonetheless, Williams is absolutely right in reminding us of the connection between Ovid's split pipe simile (Met. IV 119-124) -- a passage which I relish annually when I introduce yet another batch of students to the delights of Ovid -- and the insensitive entertainments of the Roman circus. The next step, of course, would be to critique the cruelty which our own society consumes or glosses over, whether it be gang-violence, mindlessly violent films and TV-serials or just the institutional violence of sports like American Football, rugby or soccer, where the violence has become part of the goings on among the audience. Williams, of course, is writing about Ovid's Ibis and therefore leaves these conclusions up to his readers.

Having said this, let me return to pure aesthetics and point out that insatiabilibus at verse 172 "prolongs the mutilation" (p. 85) also metrically since it is a penthemimeral word and re-enforces indeploratum in the same position in the pentameter at verse 164.

Williams goes on to argue in this chapter that the mythical catalogue constitutes a new kind of carmen perpetuum that employs the characteristically Callimachean lack of symmetry. Williams shows how any reader of Ovid's mythical exempla can be fooled. He offers a new and, I think, interesting interpretation of lines 303-4 as referring to Pyrrhus as Achilles' son Neoptolemus. His analysis of the initial passages in the catalogue concludes with what, to my mind, is the most valuable insight in the entire book: "Ovid's obscurities are no less intimidating for that reason, but a show of knowledge by which he ... asserts his 'superiority' over his daunted victim. As for the triteness of some of his allusions, we should not settle just for the explanation that Ovid's extreme obscurity 'cannot be sustained consistently'; the maze-like sequence of arcane exempla is interspersed with occasional flashes of easy recognition further to unnerve the targeted reader. A subtly malicious tactic" (97). This very insight, however, presupposes that the Ibis does have a live addressee. In fact, it presupposes that it has an addressee who has an interest in either myth or literature who is clearly put in his place in this poem. My money would be on Ovid's soldalis Sabinus, who imitated Ovid's work while he was still in Rome but who, unlike the other friends from the Amores, is never addressed in the exile poetry. He would be the most likely candidate for a poetaster friend who let Ovid down badly. This would also explain the underlying theme of the first section of the catalogue (255-420) which I perceive to be betrayal by family or friends. Here are some of Williams' paraphrases: "the patron he had betrayed through rebellion" (94), poisoned by ... his mother (94), "committed fratricide out of passion for his brother's wife" (95), "killed by his wife" (95), "killed by those he trusted" (95), "abandoned by his followers" (95). Ovid trusted his friend and now feels utterly betrayed. One does not need to deconstruct anything to realise that Ovid feels like screaming and cursing. But, of course, Williams goes on to indulge in this very intellectual ploy of the disillusioned '68 revolutionaries to present their -- and anybody else's -- failure as a triumph. On page 102 Ovid is presented as a torturer whose obsession ultimately backfires on himself. I can go along with Williams and see Ovid's obsession with torture as symptomatic of the Roman "circus" culture. But I cannot see how Ovid's obsession with torture becomes "self-damaging" (102).

The last chapter on melancholy, mania and exile, however, is the hardest for me to swallow and will, I dare say, not find many fans. Here Williams argues that Ovid's state of mind in exile conforms to both ancient and relatively modern analyses of melancholy and manic depression. On page 115 he does admit that he is only dealing with the exilic persona, but this paragraph is blatantly ignored in the following argument. Ovid is presented as succumbing to melancholy punctuated by manic outbursts of which the Ibis is the most noteworthy. The only support for this thesis is the fact that Ovid's persona is not always consistent. Other than that, he clearly does not exhibit most of the symptoms listed by Freud (cited p. 120): "profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity ... self-reproaches and self-revilings". How painful Ovid's dejection was, we have no way of telling. He has clearly not lost interest in the outside world because he celebrates the news that reaches him from Rome and adapts to Tiberius' accession. His letters to his wife contain some very private and tender moments that suggest that he has not at all lost his ability to love. The fact that we have five books of Tristia, four books of ex Ponto and the Ibis demonstrates that there was plenty of activity in Ovid's life, and the poet's self-denigration of his own poetry is no more than a rhetorical pose as Williams should admit on p. 126 when he finds him to be astonishingly assertive as regards his poetic powers. On page 124 Dr. Williams basically comes close to contradicting his earlier diagnosis when he finds that Ovid "loses himself in his irrational imaginings" and "like the deranged who see clearly enough but misread their own perceptions ... Ovid vividly pictures Ibis as a victim of all kinds of incredible persecution; and yet, he cannot see the futility of his posturings." This seems to suggest that the poet is delusional and therefore suffering from a psychosis rather than from manic depression. In the absence of a live patient, either diagnosis is impossible to make. A "discharging of pent-up frustrations" (p.125), however, is quite different from mental illness and does not qualify Ovid for being medicated.

In short, Williams generally succeeds in placing the Ibis within the context of Ovid's exile-poetry and in reading the work as a poem in its own right. Unfortunately, some detailed observations and especially his psychiatric -- not psychoanalytical! -- reading suggest that Williams is nimium amator ingenii sui as well as nimium amator doctorum Galliae.


1. H. Koskenniemi, Studien zur Idee und Phraseologie des griechischen Briefes bis 400 n.Chr., Acta Ac. Sc. Fennicae 102, Helzinki 1956, Karl Thraede, Grundzüge griechisch-römischer Brieftopik, Zetemata 48, München 1970).

2. Eduard Norden, Die römische Literatur, 5. Aufl., Leipzig 1954, 75.

3. E.g. J. Henry, Aeneidea, Bd. I Dublin-London-Meissen 1871, 206-7, 745-51, E.J. Kenney, Lucretius. De rerum natura Book III, Cambr. 1971 25, E.J. Kenney in J.W. Binns (ed.), Ovid, London-Boston 1973, 132, Christiane Wanke, Seneca, Lucan, Corneille. Studien zum Manierismus der Römischen Kaiserzeit und der französischen Klassik, Heidelberg 1964, 139-140.