BMCR 2002.11.21

Ovid: The Poet and His Work

, Ovid : the poet and his work. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. xiii, 217 p. ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0801437547 (cloth : alk. paper)

Niklas Holzberg’s Ovid: The Poet and His Work (translated from the German by G. M. Goshgarian) takes the reader through each of Ovid’s major works, serving as a good introduction to the poet’s whole output. The book goes along with the current trend of re-framing the old complaint that Ovid is too clever by half as a positive attribute: for Holzberg (as for many of us), Ovid is a poet whose first (and often, it would appear, only) love is poetry.

After two introductory sections, each of the book’s chapters deals with a different Ovidian work, taking a variety of interpretative lines as suggested by the variety in the poems themselves. A brief overview of each book is given, together with concise but clear accounts of the structures to be seen (e.g. the division of the fifteen Heroides into groups of five, and the tripartite structure within each book of the Ars Amatoria). The whole book is given unity by the repeated observation and elaboration of several over-arching themes which Holzberg argues can be found in all (or almost all) of the poet’s productions.

Rightly, to my mind, the book emphasises the paramount importance in Ovid’s oeuvre of erotics, or the ‘elegiac system’, as the cluster of aesthetic, social and even political positions which inform the poet’s entire corpus. (This system, developed in the earlier love poetry of Catullus, Propertius and Tibullus, exalts the importance of love and the lover, often placed in direct opposition to the more traditionally ‘Roman’ concerns of war and politics.) Holzberg begins with a clear account of the ways in which Ovid adopts and adapts his predecessors’ code in his own love elegies. Throughout the rest of the book, he highlights various times when the author’s history as a love-poet, his adoption of the elegiac system, shows through, leaving us, for example, with a distinctly elegiac Lucretia in book 2 of the Fasti, who stands in marked contrast to Livy’s more ‘Augustan’ heroine. However, Holzberg’s contention (p.42) that Ovid’s elegiac erotics, unlike those of Propertius et al., are not set in the context of unrealistic counter-cultural protest but are rather purely a game played within the literary tradition may not be accepted by everyone. The fact that Holzberg himself often examines the possible political implications of Ovid’s ‘literary games’ might imply that he too would not cling too tightly to such a generalisation if challenged.

Just as Holzberg views the ‘elegiac system’ as an important element running throughout the poems, so he considers the figure of the poet ‘himself’ to be a source both of continuity and variation within Ovid’s works. Having established that, despite what we might think after a cursory (and rather na├»ve) reading of, say, the Amores, we can know very little for sure about the life of the historical Ovid, Holzberg concentrates on the (more interesting?) issue of the persona (or personae) which the poet constructs. Ovid presents us with an image of a poet at work, not with a self-portrait. This is an interesting and important, if not unusual, tack to take, which eases the reader into an examination of fairly complex ideas about self-referential poetics. The book deals particularly well with the cross-over between the activities of the poet and those of the lover in the Amores : Holzberg attractively characterises the poeta/amator as a Don Juan of poetry as well as love, who threatens to jilt elegy in favour of tragedy and who talks of his other poetic activities, just as the lover threatens (or vainly tries) to leave his domineering puella behind and brags about his uncontrollable sexual urges towards anything in a dress. The book also deals well with the differences and similarities between the narrative personae of the various works, as ‘Ovid’ develops from amator in the Amores to praeceptor amoris in the Ars Amatoria, and on to the insecure aetiologist of the Fasti. Due to the constraints of space and scope, Holzberg is unable to approach in much detail the complicated subject of the fragmentation of the narrative voice in the Metamorphoses. He does, however, point to the importance of Orpheus and Pythagoras in particular as narrators within the poem who make the reader think again about the project of the narrator throughout. Nevertheless, he is resistant to readings which make Pythagoras’ speech the key to interpreting the Metamorphoses. Perhaps such scepticism is sometimes necessary in the tangled field of metapoetics. At any rate, Holzberg has described the metapoetical games which he does deem to be played in Ovid’s work in such a way as to be easily understood even by those who do not breathe the rarefied air of meta-Helicon and drink from Callimachus’ purest streams.

Another of Holzberg’s running themes is the idea that it is possible to read most of Ovid’s works as ‘novels’, and usually ‘erotic novels’. There is, he argues, an over-arching plot in many of the poems which corresponds to the narrative structures of various types of novel, both ancient and modern. This is an approach which finds some justification in a work like the Amores, which openly invites the reader to see narrative connections between the different poems. Even so, it seems to me that Holzberg gives the impression that the narrative line of the ‘Experiences of Love’ (as he translates the collection’s title) is rather smoother and more intelligible than it in fact appears (at least to this reader). I have to admit that I find the ‘novel’ analogy rather less convincing when it comes to the Metamorphoses : comparing the set of erotic stories scattered through the first five books to the tripartite structure of a Greek erotic novel, Holzberg assigns to Apollo (as seen in Book 1) the part of the young man just fallen in love, and to Perseus (as seen in Book 5) the closural part of the young bridegroom. Holzberg himself admits that the union of Perseus and Andromeda, cemented in bloodshed, does not exactly conform to our expectations of a ‘happy ending’. I am not sure that picking a couple of erotic episodes (which, after all, each have their own beginnings, middles and ends) out of a whole range of other stories to fit into the straight-jacket of ‘the novel’ is a useful way to look at a poem of such narrative complexity as the Metamorphoses. Nevertheless, it is an interesting idea and one which prompts the reader to think about the variety of possible connections to be made between Ovid’s ancient work and more recent productions.

A further theme which weaves its way throughout the book is that of the importance of metamorphosis to Ovid’s work as a whole, not just to the Metamorphoses. This is, perhaps, a commonplace of Ovidian scholarship but one well worth emphasising in what is, after all, an introductory overview of the poet’s work. Holzberg also takes the idea of the Ovidian obsession with change into the political realm, making the thought-provoking suggestion that such a stance goes against the grain of the Augustan social and political reforms, which were advertised emphatically as a preservation of the old values. The suggestion that something as pervasive yet apparently neutral as the theme of change could actually be politically subversive is appealing. However, as so often happens in the game of detecting pro- or anti-establishment elements in Augustan poetry, it seems equally possible to regard Ovidian metamorphosis in a different light. As Holzberg elsewhere gladly acknowledges, Ovid is a great one for repeating images and episodes as well as changing them. Perhaps his ‘changes in the same thing’ could actually be seen (in a funny way) as parallel to the Augustan project which, after all, was as new as it was old.

Speaking of Augustan projects, there is one area where poetics and politics collide that I feel could have been given a little more air-time in this book: Ovid’s relationship with Vergil. Holzberg gives a brief account of the overlap between the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses (pp. 137-8), but limits his comments (and strongly implies that Ovid would support this limitation too) to issues of intertextuality. These issues are clearly important, but it seems odd that this chapter on the Metamorphoses ends with a section headed Augustus and the Power of Metamorphosis which contains no reference to Ovid’s treatment of a ‘canonical’ Augustan text beyond a mention of Jupiter’s prophecy in the Aeneid of Roman imperium sine fine. The political significance of Ovid’s ‘continuation’ of the Aeneid via the story of Anna in Fasti Book 3 is similarly neglected. I would not bring up these absences as ‘omissions’ were it not for the fact that Ovid’s precarious relationship with Augustus and the Augustan regime is a subject which Holzberg himself raises periodically and which, naturally, achieves particular prominence in the final chapter on the exile poetry. It was not necessary, perhaps, for Holzberg to treat such things in much more detail, but fuller references to the work of other critics who take politics as a more central focus to their interpretations might have been in order.

In sum, ‘Ovid: The Poet and His Work’ for the most part fulfils its remit as a lively overview of Ovid’s poetry, and is a volume which will be of great interest to the student and general reader alike. Above all, Holzberg exhibits a real (and contagious) delight in the poet’s humour as well as his cleverness. If at times his statements can be rather too sweeping for the pedantic tastes of a library-bound academic, his confidence and clarity of style make this an eminently readable book.