BMCR 2007.04.61

Ovid’s Lovers: Desire, Difference, and the Poetic Imagination

, Ovid's Lovers: Desire, Difference, and the Poetic Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 235. $90.00.

Table of Contents

(R)imell’s theoretically engaged and densely argued book explores the relationships between male and female as desiring subjects and creative forces in Ovidian amatory poetry, with her main focus on the Medicamina, Ars, Metamorphoses, and Heroides. Drawing on and developing recent work on gender, desire and the gaze,1 R takes Narcissus and Medusa as paradigmatic of male and female desire and as artist figures to be identified with Ovid himself; R’s focus on how male and female ‘interact and seduce each other’ allows her to make a new and valuable contribution to studies of Ovidian erotics and poetics. Along the way, there is much to be gained from R’s close reading of selected passages, up to the minute and frequently witty translations, and imaginative interpretation based on her engagement with the entire Ovidian corpus; scholars and undergraduate readers alike should find this volume valuable. One might perhaps expect a work entitled Ovid’s Lovers which explores the amatory works to provide an in-depth exploration of the Amores; however, as R’s introduction spells out, her interest in the interaction between male and female led her to Ovid’s work outside first-person subjective love elegy, where relations between the genders in all their complexity are thrown into greatest relief, and females are frequently presented as desiring subjects, and given their own—albeit always Ovidian—voice. Narcissus and Medusa as paradigms for desire and creativity recur throughout R’s discussion, and although, as R admits, their presence is from time to time only ‘faintly visible’ in some of the passages she considers, these contrasting yet complicit figures give the book a clear focus, as R explores sensitively the Ovidian interaction of male and female desire, sight and specularity, and poetic creativity, in a series of revealing texts.

The introduction lays out R’s thesis that Medusa is as important a figure for Ovidian poetics as Narcissus is usually taken to be. Chapter 1 examines the Medicamina, in a revised version of R’s contribution to an earlier volume;2 Chapter 2 treats the Ars; Chapter 3 is on the Met.; next come a chapter on Heroides 15 (revising R’s earlier work 3) and two on the ‘double’ Heroides; a short conclusion spells out R’s engagement with the entire Ovidian corpus, and the wider implications of her study.

The introduction stakes out R’s ground well, providing a convincing synthesis of R’s arguments for the centrality of Medusa with theoretical studies of erotic subjectivity and the gaze, and compelling arguments for widening our scope when studying Ovidian desire, by looking beyond the usual either/or focus on masculinity and femininity. R’s broad approach is well showcased here in her suggestive remarks on Medusa’s after-life in the exile poetry, and in her recognition that Ovid’s obsessive exilic mythological self-fashioning is a process that operates far beyond the level of immediate and obvious parallels (for example, in identifying the final line of the Ex Ponto as an allusion to the fate of Actaeon, which takes us back to Tristia 2.103 ff., and Ovid’s parallel there between Actaeon’s unwitting sight of Diana and his own error, another case of misdirected sight).

The chapter on the Medicamina is a full and useful discussion of the didactic poetics, imperial politics, and Ovidian cross-references of this often neglected work, an important parallel for the Ars, but a text with much of interest in its own right. R provides a text and translation, and mirrors her discussion of the treatment of women in the Medicamina well with Medusan and Narcissan parallels, and fittingly notes parallels between Ovid’s address to elegiac puellae and the way in which the modern cosmetic industry sells itself to women, as well as between the self-adorning elegiac woman and the men obsessed with their own grooming who try to attract her.

Chapter 2, on the Ars, takes the salutary approach (shared by recent criticism of the poem elsewhere4) of avoiding viewing the first two books (addressed to men) and the third (for women) as separate entities, and persuasively suggests that the readership cannot be narrowly gendered at any point in this poem (a problem for Ovid’s post-exilic reception of the Ars, given that it was charged with teaching adultery). R offers a mostly very convincing, balanced reading of shifting positions of power and mirroring between male and female lovers throughout the poem. In her useful study of the ends of Ars 2 and 3, where Ovid takes his desiring subjects (and readers) into the elegiac bedroom, R is right to emphasize the lack of erotic parity between male and female, but her translation of the instruction to men ( nec cursus anteat illa tuos, Ars 2.726) as ‘and never race ahead’ misrepresents Ovid’s striking even-handedness, as he shifts from the male focus of 725’s sed neque tu dominam uelis maioribus usus desere to consider that women may in fact reach orgasm before men.

R’s chapter on the Metamorphoses is the shortest of the book, and here Rimell briefly explores Met. 10’s Orpheus and Eurydice, sight, subjectivity, and power, and the Ovidian artist, with a focus throughout on Ovidian artistry, which destabilizes the certainties of some critics. The figure of Actaeon appropriately resurfaces again here, with a good analysis of the moment of sight as the ‘look between lovers’ so frequently revisited in Ovid’s poetry.

The chapters on the Heroides are some of the most illuminating of R’s study of how male and female desire is figured as a dialogue in Ovid. R’s exploration of how in Heroides 15 Ovid takes on the voice of Sappho is nicely balanced, as she considers how male and female poetic voices blend in Ovid’s ventriloquism and elegiac re-fashioning of Sappho; the only element that was lacking here was an analysis of Catullus’ earlier Sapphic poems and their effect on Ovid’s rewriting of Sappho. This chapter makes a well-chosen and argued contribution to R’s overall project of examining competing erotic voices and Ovidian poetics. Competing and mirrored male and female voices and creative powers are very much the focus of R’s study of the ‘double’ Heroides, and here R’s analysis works extremely well, although some of the Narcissus and Medusan material does have the faint air of having been tacked on to what is overall an undeniably revealing study.

Overall, then, R’s book takes further recent work on gender and artistic creation in Ovid, providing readers with much food for thought.

A few quibbles remain. I detected minor typographical errors at p. 27 (‘an’ for ‘a’) and p. 181 (‘that’ for ‘than’), and the layout of elegiac couplets on the page has gone awry on pp. 43 and 180.


1. On these issues in Ovid, see now also P. B. Salzman-Mitchell, A Web of Fantasies: Gaze, Image and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Columbus, OH 2005).

2. ‘Facing Facts: Ovid’s Medicamina through the Looking Glass’ in R. Ancona and E. Greene (edd.), Gendered Dynamics in Latin Love Poetry (Baltimore 2005), 177-205.

3. ‘Epistolary fictions: authorial identity in Heroides 15′, PCPS 45 (1999), 109-35.

4. See in particular J. Henderson, ‘In Ovid with Bed ( Ars 2 and 3)’ in R. Gibson, S. Green, A. Sharrock (edd.), The Art of Love: Bimillenial Essays on Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris (Oxford 2006), 77-95.