Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 37.

Genevieve Liveley, Ovid: Love Songs. Ancients in Action. London: Duckworth/Bristol Classical Press, 2005. Pp. 141. ISBN 1-85399-670-x. UK£10.99.

J.-M. Claassen,
University of Stellenbosch

Liveley’s brief overview of the most controversial (both then and now) of the Latin love poets is the fourth in the Bristol Classical Press’ series of six introductions to ‘Ancients in Action’. This introduction to Ovid as love poet is presumably meant for the last year of the British schools system, more probably for one of their fifth or sixth-form Classics-in-translation courses. It will do equally well as ‘background reading’ for South African matric Latinists (a rare and rapidly disappearing species) or a first year University Latin course in reading Ovid, either in the original, or, more probably, in translation. The strength of this work as an introduction to Ovid for younger readers is its consistent relation of his works with appropriate references to modern literary works or excerpts from cinema and pop music, from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (p. 7; the screen-play is listed in the bibliography) to songs by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and ‘Jarvis Cocker in Pulp’s love song, “Something Changed”’ (pp. 13f.), to quotations from Nicole Krauss’ apparently satirical The Future Dictionary of America (p. 25) and more. This is, however, also its weakness, as these allusions will date quite rapidly.

A comparatively long introduction (pp. 7-23) places Ovid’s elegiacs within the appropriate generic tradition. Six subsequent chapters are chronologically devoted to, in turn, ‘Loves’ (pp. 25-39), ‘The Art of Love’ (pp. 41-57), ‘The Heroines’ Letters’ (pp. 59-75), ‘The Calendar’ (sic, pp. 77-91), ‘Sad Songs’ (pp. 93-112), and ‘Ovid in the Third Millenium’ (pp. 113-17). Copious excepts in translation of poems from each work illustrate the author’s points. The names of Ovid’s works are anglicised throughout.

The introduction touches on matters such as Roman elegy as genre and Ovid’s place within it, as well as reconstructing his life story from hints he gives in his own works, notably Tristia 4.10. The author does not fall into the nineteenth- and earlier twentieth- century trap of accepting all Ovid’s autobiographical statements as necessarily true, especially after his relegation, but alerts her readers to the fact that Ovid’s works derive from a fallax opus and must be interpreted as such. She ends her introduction with the reminder that Ovid’s self-portrait is ‘an artistic construction and a literary persona no less than a living person’ (p. 23). This statement she proceeds to illustrate in subsequent chapters.

Liveley clearly has consulted recent scholarship and her discussion of each of Ovid’s works is up-to-date, with clear elucidation of critical problems, but without too much elaboration of nuances of interpretation. The chapter on the Amores goes first into the matter of the essential predictability of ‘lovers’ discourse’. The author clarifies the concept of Corinna as ‘Every-girl’. Amores 1.5 features as a ‘poetic striptease’ (p. 32), and serves to illustrate Liveley’s points about other poems as both fictional and non-prurient, showing the delicacy with which Ovid leaves the essentials of love- making to readers’ imaginations. Liveley does not avoid discussing the vexing question of violence in Roman love- poetry, relating it to both love as war and love as slavery. Equally puzzling to modern readers could be the relationship between duplicity and sincerity in the poems (and within Roman social life). Liveley is careful to show that the model of misogyny inherent in Ovid’s apparent objectification of the mistress is more complicated than may appear at first reading, and that it as difficult to pin down our author to one single attitude as it is to read a single mistress into the fleeting personae he parades for our entertainment.

Discussion of the Ars amatoria begins with a quotation from Robert Graves’ ‘Ovid in Defeat’, and ends with brief discussion of the exception Augustus probably took to the ‘immorality’ of Ovid’s advice as obsceni doctor adulterii. This latter concept is conveniently translated for Latinless readers.

I enjoyed Liveley’s discussion of the Heroides more than any other part of the book. She starts with a quotation from Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead (p. 59), explaining that Ovid is doing much the same: recreating the background of well-known works with focus on the ‘other side of the story’. Liveley’s analysis of Ovid’s re-presentation of over-familiar heroines such as Penelope and Dido encompasses both contextual and stylistic aspects, and she relates the work to the elegiac tradition. Liveley takes pains to emphasise the epistolarity of the work, with suitable reference to the appropriate modern theories, and the recent history of interpretation of the work. A discussion of the subtleties of Ovid’s play with time in the Briseis-letter, as involved both in the normal time-shifts of letter-writing and in readers’ pre-knowledge of the outcome of the Iliad, ends the chapter.

The next chapter begins with a quotation from Neil Sedaka’s song ‘Calendar Girl’ and continues with an unexpected reference to the movie of virtually the same name before pointing out the relationship, ‘But calendars featuring erotic -- and incongruous -- images, giving a playful and sexy twist to tradition, are nothing new. Ovid’s Fasti -- a playful mix of tradition and sex -- had given the Roman calendar a provocative new look two thousand years earlier’ (p. 77). The usual critical issues are touched upon, including the puzzle of whether six books had been lost or only six written, Augustus’ manipulation of the Roman calendar for his own ends, and Ovid’s possible irony in certain references to Augustus on inappropriate dates (for example, 1 February) or with inappropriate themes, such as Venus’ pre-eminence here as goddess of love rather than as ‘maternal and protective parent’ (p. 86). Ovid’s elaborations on this theme are extensively discussed, concluding the chapter. Again we are given a hint of looming catastrophe: ‘Ovid’s provocation of Augustus was not to remain unchecked for much longer’(p. 91).

For a young reader coming to Ovid for the first time and unfamiliar with his fate, such hints will serve to whet an appetite at last to be appeased with the beginning of Chapter 5, a quotation from Slavitt’s translation of Tristia 1.6. The usual topics relating to Ovid’s banishment are treated in order and our Latinless young reader will gain a fairly well-rounded impression of both the issues involved and the controversies that have raged until recently about the quality and focus of Ovid’s exilic poetry. Liveley dares to point out that a critic such as Paul Veyne, ‘one of Ovid’s most sceptical readers’ (p. 97) has been completely taken in by Ovid’s outrageous claims to be writing, in a totally changed tone, only monotonous laments. Liveley emphasises (a stance that this reviewer has consistently also taken in the last twenty years or so) that Ovid’s ‘essential poetic identity and familiar Ovidian character may still be traced in this new guise’ (p. 98). This statement is suitably illustrated with quotations that show Ovid’s consistency as both love poet and elegist, who has in the exilic poetry given elegy a new direction by returning to its roots.

The chapter on Ovid today is tantalisingly brief. Due recognition is given to our poet’s influence in the Middle Ages, and to the various collections of modern poems to a greater or lesser degree based on Ovid’s poetry. Ovid’s affinity with the ethos of modern love poetry is briefly mentioned. The quotation from ‘Nightfall on the Romanian Coast’ that heads the chapter is ascribed to Paul West (also in Liveley’s acknowledgements, p. 137), but in the bibliography David West is listed as its author. Not all modern works based on Ovid’s life listed in the bibliography are discussed in this chapter (for example, D. Wishart’s novel Ovid (London 1995)). I miss any reference to V. Horia’s God was Born in Exile (New York 1961), which is comparable in importance to C. Ransmayr’s post-modern novel The Last World (New York 1990) and better than D. Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (New York 1978) which are both listed and discussed.

The volume is completed with various aids to research; first a brief set of ‘Notes on Translations’, that is, translations available to readers, not the translations of Ovidian passages in the book (which one must assume are by the author, except where she occasionally acknowledges a translator like Slavitt). There are just over two pages of advice on ‘Further Reading’ (pp. 127-29),[[1]] followed by a formal bibliography (pp. 131-36). J. Frazer’s Golden Bough is inexplicably cited only with the 1994 date of an apparent recent reprint. The most recent titles are the two Companions to Ovid, both published in 2002.[[2]] A rather elliptic index (pp. 139-41) gives page references for ancient works cited, plus topics such as misogyny, politics or religion but also Germaine Greer, Diana Ross, and Ziolkowski.

A fairly exhaustive four-page glossary gives brief thumb- nail sketches of mythological figures encountered in the text, from ‘Achilles’ to ‘Vesta’ and rather simplistically explaining concepts such as ‘aetiology’ (‘A story telling of origins or causes’), consul (‘a Latin term: title given to the two chief magistrates of Rome’), ego (Latin term: the persona that speaks ‘I’ in elegy’), fasti (‘Latin term: ‘calendar’ -- but also ‘legal’, ‘allowed’, and ‘speech’). This reviewer would have appreciated elucidation of some of the pop singers used to illustrate points, but assume that these are crystal-clear to potential readers a quarter of her age.

The examples cited above indicate the almost-non-existent level of previous knowledge of Roman life and literature assumed of the book’s target readership. Hence the jaunty first reference, in the introduction, to ‘Ovid’, without contextualising by means of date, genre, or patronymics, comes as a surprise. Any disquiet a discerning teacher may feel about insufficient background priming of her innnocent, Ovidless young charges is, however, soon dispelled by the unfolding of the long introduction and the subsequent brief but comprehensive display of issues relevant to each of Ovid’s elegiac works. Despite its minor flaws, this is a useful work for any school library or undergraduate Classics reading room, and would not come amiss for any young readers of modern literature.


[[1]] The suggested readings briefly discuss two recent Companions: B. Boyd (ed.), Brill’s Companion to Ovid (Leiden 2002), and P. Hardie (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Ovid (Cambridge 2002). Also discussed are works such as D. Kennedy, The Arts of Love: Five Studies in the Discourse of Roman Love Elegy (Cambridge 1993), P. Veyne (tr. D. Pellauer), Roman Erotic Elegy: Love, Poetry and the West (Chicago 1988), R. Barthes (tr. R. Howard), A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (London 1990) and others.

[[2]] See [1] above.