Love and the Romans, III

The central role of rhetoric in an educated Roman’s life cannot be overstated at this point. Schooled in it from childhood, every Roman male knew it was his duty to articulate the sentiments of the state, and in his best interests to argue for what advanced his own cause, morals, or status. Rhetoric was the art of memorable persuasion, and it was delivered with one eye on the case in hand, and the other on reputation. When it was applied to intimacy in the form of the poem, it had to both persuade the loved one, and appeal to a wider audience, indeed to posterity.

What the final two poets I’m looking at understood was that fame trumps femme. Horace and Ovid never give any sign of being caught in the actual torments of passion as their predecessors and rivals do. Ovid in fact claims he wasn’t in love at all when Cupid coerced him into writing love poetry: ‘No boy, no girl with long and lovely hair -/I’d made my protest. He drew instantly/an arrow from his quiver, chosen with care/to lay me low…’. Horace, in the first love poem in his first Book of Odes, crucially positions himself at a chilly distance to the agonies of love, both older and wiser:

What slim elegant youth, drenched in effusive scent,
Now sits close to your side, Pyrrha, in some recess
Rich with many a rose-bloom?
Who loves smoothing your yellow hair,
Chic yet daintily plain? How many gods profaned,
What indelible vows he will lament, and oh,
What dark hurricane-lashed seas
He will watch with a pallid cheek!
Poor fool, golden he thinks you will always be,
Heart-free always, he hopes, always adorable…

What Horace brings to the lyric then is at once maturity and philosophical perspective: he is not blown away by lust, indeed, the final book of odes, published in his fifties, begins with the grumbling of an old warrior putting on his harness again: ‘Must it be war again/after so long a truce? Venus, be kind, refrain…’

The old tensions between convention and passion are resolved for Horace in a single brilliant phrase, which cuts at a stroke through the Gordian knot of Catullus’ ‘odi et amo’: ‘carpe diem’ – pluck the day or even moment, as though it were a flower or a fruit. (Horace is, of course, our fruit course or even a sorbet.) The imagistic brilliance of this somewhat disguises the sheer difficulty of doing so: Horace’s wisdom is a product of long meditation on the famous Sabine farm, and therefore of looking at Rome from a long way off. As he says, ‘The choir of poets all loves woods and shuns the city’.

Horace was, of course, supported by Maecenas, the wealthiest man in Rome, which explains how he could afford to be so out of it. Ovid, as we know from his last works in Romanian exile, could not bear to be. His appetite for intrigue, or for the cataloging of it, plus his capacity for rhetorical invention and variation, led him to exhaust the tropes of the love elegy till, in A.D. Melville’s words, it could be said he ‘had dealt the genre its death-blow’. Certainly he wrote the love elegy’s elegy, in his poem after Tibullus’s death:

…if aught survives but shade and name,

Tibullus dwells in some Elysian glade;

And greeting him, their young brows wreathed with bay,
Come Calvus and Catullus and you too…
Gallus, who life and spirit cast away.

Your soul joins theirs, if souls survive at all…

That reservation sums up Ovid’s carefully poised positioning of his poetry. Ironically, apart from Catullus, we know almost nothing of either Calvus or, Ovid’s declared influence, Gallus.

Ovid’s brilliant insincerity can be summed up by the interplay between two poems, one to his mistress, the other to his mistress’s servant:

So I’m to face fresh charges every day!
I win, but all those battles are a bore.
If my eyes wander when we’re at a play,
You’ll choose one in the gods to make you sore.

A pretty girl gives me a silent look,
You claim that silent look some signed revealed…

And now a new offence. Your clever maid,
Cypassis, does her mistress wrong – with me!
Heaven grant me better, if my fancy strayed,
Than such a low-class slut for company…

Inevitably, after swearing his innocence by Venus, the next ode begins

Cypassis, so supreme in styling hair
(None but a goddess’ should by you be dressed,
In our sweet stolen joys so debonair
(You suit your mistress well, but suit me best),

What gossip whispered we were intimate?
How did Corinna hear of our amour?
Did I let slip some word to indicate
Our secret? Did I blush? Not I, for sure.

Nor does he blush in blackmailing Cypassis into sleeping with him again. All his manipulative guile is present in a contrast from which only his mistress is excluded: everyone else, especially his reader, is in on the secret. If Ovid is our pudding, he deliberately sprinkles the sugar of his wit to the point of sickliness – this is not a just dessert. It is at this moment we realise that the mistress hardly matters, could indeed be anyone, and that Ovid, as he says in ‘The Art of Love’, has defeated love itself: ‘et mihi cedet Amor’ (So love shall yield to me). The genre is at an end, though this final victory seems hollow at best.

From these five Roman poets spring almost all our conventional male literary lovers: Romeo, Shakespeare himself in his sonnets, young Werther, the Goethe of the Roman elegies, Casanova and Don Juan. From them too we get the idea of the heartless or unfaithful mistress, the discontented Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, as well as modern sexually and socially liberated female characters, and the present crises of gender and patriarchy which feminism argues we must resolve. Love appears in several familiar guises as obsession, madness, philosophy and game.

As such they oblige us to consider the cultural relativism of our assumptions, even those about our feelings. Their sheer vivacity after millennia are a tribute to the power and expressiveness of the poetic imagination. If that enables us better to appreciate kindness and affection as we encounter it here and now – remember, we will be as they are a long time dead – then they are not only a great counter to the general soppiness of the occasion, but pointers to its underlying value: our urgent and ongoing need to know the truth about love.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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