Ovid On The Immortality Of Literature

Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), a poet from ancient Rome, wrote about how Roman society tried to push him down the path toward several specific professions. His passion was verse and storytelling, and although poets were lauded in ancient Rome, Ovid’s devotion to his poetic craft evidently garnered some criticism from his peers, at least at the beginning of his career. One must keep in mind that Ovid came from a prominent family of the knightly equites class in Rome’s social hierarchy, and this upbringing primed Ovid for potential careers in the military, the law courts, and the government bureaucracy. Indeed, Ovid was sent by his parents to learn statesmanlike rhetoric in Rome, and he dabbled in low government office appointments for a time, but he ultimately left public office behind in order to pursue poetry. He may have received pushback over this decision, and these criticisms were likely channeled into Ovid’s first published poetry collection, The Amores. In Amores 1.15, Ovid wrote:

“Why dismiss the poet as a drone?
What’s your complaint? That I’ve failed (though young and healthy) to follow
Tradition, or chase the dusty rewards
Of a soldier’s career? That I haven’t mugged up dull lawsuits,
Or sold my eloquence like a whore
In the courts and Forum? Such labors are soon forgotten.”
(Ovid, Amores, 1.15.2-7)

Passion and enjoyment aside, Ovid supported his decision to pursue poetry by pointing out the immortality of great literature. Most warriors, lawyers and bureaucrats are forgotten with time—and those who are remembered owe much of their name recognition to the storytellers and writers who preserved a record of human achievements in their written works. Ovid, if his own sentiments matched the philosophy put forward in the Amores, was a man drawn to the lasting legacy that literature could provide. He wrote:

“What I seek is perennial fame,
Undying world-wide remembrance. While Ida and Tenedos
still stand, while Simois still runs swift to the sea,
Old Homer will live, While clustering grapes still ripen
And wheat still falls to the scythe
Hesiod’s works will be studied. The verse of Callimachus—
Weak in imagination, strong on technique—
Has a worldwide readership. Sophoclean tragedy
Is safe from Time’s ravages.

Though time, in time, can consume the enduring ploughshare,
Though flint itself will perish, poetry lives—
Deathless, unfading, triumphant over kings and their triumphs,
Richer than the Spanish river gold. Let the crowd
Gape after baubles. To me may golden Apollo proffer
A cup brimming over, from Castalian spring
And a wreath of sun-loving myrtle.

So when the final flames have devoured my body, I shall
survive, and my better part live on.”
(Ovid, Amores, 1.15.8-42)

Ovid obtained his wish. He would go on to write masterpieces that greatly influenced Roman literature and even shaped the public perception of his subject matter, such as the mythological tales covered in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In that regard, many paintings of Greco-Roman myths that one might see in an art gallery were likely painted with Ovid’s verses in mind. Two thousand years later, Ovid is still a household name. His poems remain existent, and copies continue to be published and circulated around the globe.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Bacchus and Ariadne, painted by Gerard de Lairesse around 1680, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).


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