BMCR 1998.05.09

Ovid’s Literary Loves: Influence and Innovation in the Amores

, Ovid's literary loves : influence and innovation in the Amores. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. xii, 252 pages. ISBN 9780472107599. $39.50.

In this work, Boyd sets out to re-appraise Ovid’s Amores, taking the position that they are not “simply the replica of a tradition but rather a contribution to that tradition” (18). She argues throughout against two views that she sees as having dominated critical perspectives on the Amores: (1) that they are second-rate imitations of Propertius; and (2) that they are a parody of elegy, designed for “nailing down the lid of the coffin in which Roman elegy is to be interred” (5). She further argues against what she calls a “progressive fallacy,” which prefers either the beginning or ending of an artistic tradition, genre, or career. The Amores, according to Boyd, suffer from both versions of this faulty perspective: they are disparaged both because they come at the end of the Roman elegiac tradition and because they come at the beginning of Ovid’s literary career. But in Boyd’s view, Ovid expands the boundaries of elegy in the Amores by drawing on sources that previously did not appear in elegiac Alexandrianism and have not been recognized by scholars, and by creating an elegiac plotted narrative. According to Boyd, the Amores are poetic innovation rather than either poor imitation or parody in poor taste.

Boyd begins by noting correctly that most of the criticism on the Amores “involves a judgment about a given combination of humor and imitation in Ovid” (19) and often rests on a critic’s personal response to the Amores. In her first three chapters, she argues that in the Amores Ovid uses far more poetic sources than Propertius alone. Examining Amores 1.1, 1.2, 1.6., 1.7, 1.10, 1.14, 2.5, 2.11, 2.12, 2.16, 3.3, 3.5, and 3.10, Boyd finds echoes from and allusions to Catullus, Homer, Vergil (Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid), Gallus, Hesiod, Callimachus, Horace, Tibullus, Lygdamus, and Theognis (in addition to the list of Diggle for 2.11, which includes also Euripides, Medea and its translation by Ennius, as well as possibly the Argonautica by Varro of Atax), all on top of the obvious sources in Propertius. Having established that Propertius is not Ovid’s sole, or even primary, poetic referent, Boyd goes on to consider the intent, effect, and implications of Ovid’s literary borrowings, applying a criterion of Conte, which she calls “the memorability test,” attributing the phrase to Peter Knox (27). She concludes that Ovid uses the language of his literary predecessors mark his participation in poetic tradition, but that not every instance of an allusion/reference/parallel/formula/”borrowing” is necessarily significant: “more often than not in Ovid’s case, the allusion is the purpose of the allusion” (67; emphasis original), and is little concerned with its original context.

A standard complaint about Ovid is that he debases his originals when he employs them; particularly criticized is his apparently facetious re-use of “language or images that are highly charged in tone in their original context but are freed from their social or ethical particularity when reused by Ovid” (50). Hence the frequent charge of parody. Boyd’s solution is to argue that Ovid “attempt[s] to revitalize and renew Augustan poetry by substituting for its particularities and moral and political urgency a focus on his personal relationship to a literary tradition” (50). (Some might argue that such self-serving use of his predecessors still constitutes debasement, but Boyd never raises this point.) Equally criticized, according to Boyd is Ovid’s use of so-called “epic similes,” which she designates “extended” or “multiple” similes, but, as she rightly points out, “it is more useful to ask why his similes self-consciously draw attention to themselves than to be troubled by and thus dismissive of them” (103). Her solution: “Ovid finds the intellectual appeal of the multiple simile to be especially well suited to his intellectualized love” (110, emphasis mine). She concludes again that Ovid uses the extended similes to expand the generic boundaries of elegy, this time by adding an epic dimension, and that, as Ovid’s “similes are intellectualizing devices, so is his love affair a primarily literary endeavour” (130).

Chapter 4 takes on the problem that has bothered so many of Ovid’s readers: just who is that masked man in these poems? Boyd proposes “a reading of the Amores as a sort of plotted narrative with beginning, middle, and end, and with the embedding of one story within another [T]he dominant plot of the Amores is the poet’s conversion to elegy” (142). As Boyd rightly notes, Ovid is clearly not presenting even a superficially sincere love story in the Amores; she argues that “another theme besides love and another character besides Corinna are really of primary importance to Ovid: the theme of poetry writing and the character of the poet” (133), with the result that “poet and poetry take the place formerly held in elegy by lover and love” (138). This project requires not one, not two, but three Ovids: the historical poet Publius Ovidius Naso, and the two literary characters named for him: the elegist and the lover, intermittently called by Boyd “Ovid’s poet” and “Ovid’s lover”: “using the character of the poet to serve as intermediary between his audience and the lover he invents, he [=Ovid] draws his readers into the creative process even as he puts his amatory fiction at a second remove” (138-39). In a footnote, Boyd distinguishes these two characters: “In referring to the narrator or the poet in the Amores, I mean the first-person narrator-focalizer created (but only implicitly fictionalized) by Ovid to deliver the narrative of the Amores; when I refer to the lover, I mean the explicitly fictional identity Ovid gives to himself as a character or actor within his own poetry” (139). Boyd employs concepts from narratology to “recognize not only two narratives but also two central characters in the Amores: first, and hierarchically more important, is the programmatic or framing narrative, featuring the poet; entirely embedded within the first narrative is the amatory one, featuring the lover as central player” (140). Thus “Ovid the poet is not interested in having us believe in “Corinna” or even in her lover; but he does want to persuade us of the centrality of the poet and the poetry to the narrative of the Amores” (142). So, for instance, the exempla of Io, Leda, and Europa in 1.3 that have so amused and perturbed readers of the Amores are not an instance of generic parody but the result of “the continuing and intentional dissonance between narrator-poet and lover” (153). The literary intent of the Ovid-the-narrator-poet overcomes and inevitably undercuts the amatory one of Ovid-the-lover, because the literary plot is the dominant story of the Amores.

Chapter 5 argues that Ovid uses the Amores to establish his own poetic immortality through the double narratives of his lover-character and his poet-character. Boyd traces the theme of immortality-through-poetry in poems 1.15, 2.1, 2.6, 3.1, 3.9, and 3.15. At the end of Amores book 3, she asserts, “Ovid’s poet” no longer needs elegy to establish himself literarily: “The enterprise undertaken in Am. 1.1, to make himself into a lover and create a lover’s narrative, has been completed; the poet thus no longer speaks as a lover, and instead completes the framing narrative, bringing to a successful conclusion his own poetic education” (201). Boyd explains the diminishing importance of love (not to mention Corinna) in books 2 and 3 by arguing that the creative and literary interest of the poet-character increasingly turns away from his puella and toward poetry itself as a source of immortality.

Chapter 6 considers “how the Amores foreshadow Ovid’s future and are all of a piece with the successful career that culminates in the Metamorphoses” (203). Boyd argues that the Amores should be seen “as providing the program for much of Ovid’s subsequent productivity” (203). She reviews Am. 3.2 and its companion passage at Ars 1.135-62 (which has mostly been criticized as a shallow re-working of its original), rightly bypassing judgment to note that the contrast between the two is intentional on Ovid’s part and merits examination accordingly: Ovid wants his readers “to compare these two passages and learn something about each. For our purposes, the lesson is clear: the content of a given poem is only part of its meaning; much more telling are the ways in which this content is expressed and organized and the relationship of the narrator to his subject matter” (210). Again, content is subordinate to style, emotion to poetry.

Overall, this book performs some valuable services to the study of the Amores, particularly in assuming throughout that Ovid knew exactly what he was doing and that these poems will be better understood if readers look at them for what they are and not for what they aren’t (i.e., Propertius or Ovid’s own Metamorphoses). Boyd provides thoughtful, well-researched close readings and certainly demonstrates—if it really needed demonstrating—that Ovid does more with his literary inheritance than simply regurgitate Propertius ineptly and shallowly. Her view of the Amores as containing a narrative—a story with plot and characters—nicely recognizes, and begins to account for, some of the developments of book 3, which is less interested in love than readers of elegy expect. Above all, Boyd’s obvious appreciation for Ovid is refreshing, given that so much scholarship on his elegiac works seems to express a positive dislike for the man himself (not to mention his poetry). For this reason alone, Boyd’s work is to be commended.

My disputes with this study take place on two grounds: (1) its rhetorical stances; and (2) its failure to consider the contents of the poems, or the existence of Ovid’s other works in elegiac meter, as part of Ovid’s program to expand elegy. First, though Boyd is correct that scholarship on the Amores has suffered from the “progressive fallacy,” she overstates her case, particularly in claiming that the majority of recent scholarship on the Amores sees Ovid primarily as imitating or parodying Propertius (she cites a long list of scholarly works to support this claim, most from the 60s and 70s, none more recent than 1981, but rather oddly leaves out its most impassioned recent proponent, Arkins), and she never challenges the critical perspective that it is wrong or bad or forbidden to parody elegy, or that to do so necessarily means Ovid is mocking Propertius.[1] A critical problem of at least equal weight has been the problem of the character portrayed in the Amores and the relationship of that character, often called the amator, to Ovid himself. Inexplicably, however, Boyd waits until her fourth chapter to deal with this issue, and she disposes of it with mysteriously short shrift. In addition, there has been a great deal of recent feminist studies on Ovid’s elegiac works, which are often occupied with precisely this question (in the interests of full disclosure, I should note here that I am myself published in this camp, though too recently to have been available for this book) to which Boyd makes virtually no reference. Fair enough, if she is not interested in feminist issues (she is certainly not required to be), but by ignoring feminist scholars, she implies that their work isn’t part of the body of criticism on the Amores. It is, and it deserves mention.[2]

Second, though Boyd’s argument that Ovid intends, in the Amores, to expand the boundaries of elegy is certainly correct, she ignores two crucial points: (1) the same could be argued of both Propertius Book 4 and Ovid’s own first published work, the Heroides, which use the meter of elegy to create a new poetic function; and (2) the contents of the poems. On the first count, the relentless repetition of the argument about Ovid’s purely literary and intellectualized interests in poetry becomes a bit tiresome and raises the question of exactly what elegy was before Ovid; for myself, I find it hard to see Propertius, and Tibullus, poetry as purely emotional, rather than literary and intellectualized. (Further, the Ars and the Remedia expand the erotodidactic element of elegy into dimensions that merit comment, given Boyd’s emphasis on Ovid’s systematic expansion of elegy.) On the second count, the contents of the poems—which include the characters she identifies as “Ovid’s poet” and “Ovid’s lover”—also constitute part of Ovid’s attempt to enlarge elegy. So, for example, what is the relationship of poems about bad hair jobs, physical quarrels, inevitable—even necessary—infidelity, and abortion, to elegy as a genre? Not a word from Boyd on this issue, and very few words from her on those poems (except for the visual effects of 1.7 and 1.14). Boyd also ignores one of the dominant concerns of scholarship on the Amores: who is this lover-character? what kind of man treats women this way? what kind of man displays himself this way? what is the relationship between this insincere, self-serving character and the rest of elegy? Boyd asserts, correctly, I think, that the “poet” of the Amores “by book 3, is well on his way to becoming the praeceptor amoris of the Ars” (207); she also says that “as a participant in the internal narrative of the Amores, the amator can be an engaging character, of a sort that all but disappears in the comparison a shallow and cynical character (205). These comments, which clash interestingly, require elaboration, but there is none. Boyd’s usual, and extremely commendable, approach is to assume that Ovid knows what he’s doing and does it for a reason; on this issue, however, she is regrettably silent. Even if she is not interested in these problematic characters, their prominence in Ovid criticism merits at least some comment, and I personally would like to read her interpretation of Ovid’s purpose in creating them. Finally, Boyd’s terminology in differentiating her three Ovids is inconsistent and confusing throughout, as in these remarks: “we never learn what Ovid has seen” (46); “Ovid recalls the treachery of his puella” (64); “Ovid has wounded someone he loves” (123); “Cupid puts a speedy end to Ovid’s epic pretensions” (148). The inevitable question arises, which “Ovid” is invoked in these remarks—the historical poet, the fictive poet-narrator, or the lover? To leave the distinctions between these three until page 129 creates an enormous amount of needless confusion.

Overall, this book deserves praise for its appreciative and positive approach toward Ovid, as well as for its resolute conviction that Ovid knows what he’s doing, and that the Amores should be considered for what they are rather than what they’re not. Taken with a few grains of salt about the history of recent scholarship on Ovid, and with some uncomfortable confusion on the problem of who its many Ovids are, Ovid’s Literary Loves makes a useful contribution to the field; I hope it sets a precedent for appreciating, rather than denigrating, Ovid’s Amores.


Arkins, B. 1990. “The Anxiety of Influence: Ovid’s Amores as κένωσις.” Latomus 49: 826-32.
Conte, G. B. 1986. The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets. Ed. C. P. Segal. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Diggle, J. 1983. “Corinna’s Bed (Amores 2.11.7).” PCPhS 209: 21-22.
DuQuesnay, I. M. LeM. 1973. “The Amores.” 1-48 in Ovid, ed. J. W. Binns. London: Routledge.
James, S. 1997. “Slave-Rape and Female Silence in Ovid’s Love Poetry.”


[1] Contrast DuQuesnay, who states that Ovid’s parody of Propertius in the Amores “is, at least primarily, the kind of parody in which the laughter is directed at the parody itself rather than at what is being parodied” (7).

[2] If nothing else, Helios volumes 12 (1985) and 17 (1990), which showcase contemporary and feminist approaches to Ovid, deserve mention somewhere in Boyd’s review of recent scholarship on Ovid.