Love and loss, then and now: reading Ovid’s poetry of exile

This article was first published by The Norwich Radical.

Two thousand years ago this winter a heartbroken Roman nobleman died far from home by the frozen shores of the Black Sea.

The poet Publius Ovidius Naso, known to the world as Ovid, had lived a very different life from the millions of Syrian refugees who today find precarious asylum in nearby Turkey, or the Rohingya, further east, camped in the fields of Bangladesh. But he too knew the pain and bitterness of exile.

In Rome, together with his contemporaries Horace and Virgil, he had been lauded as one of the greats of Latin literature. He was certainly the most fashionable. Born into the Roman aristocracy and enjoying the patronage of the legendary benefactor Maecenas, Ovid had won fame with his sly, knowing love poetry, before writing one of the classics of world literature, the Metamorphoses.

Ovid’s great poem explored themes of mutability, flux and transience through the retelling of hundreds of tales from Greek and Roman mythology, including those of Actaeon and Venus, Perseus and Andromeda, the flight of Daedalus, and the quests of Herakles and Orpheus. The Metamorphoses shaped the subsequent course of Western culture, influencing Chaucer and other medieval poets, Renaissance humanists including Shakespeare and Montaigne, and moderns such as Benjamin Britten, Osip Mandelstam, David Malouf and Bob Dylan.

Ovid’s freeflowing tales of shapeshifting men, women and mythological creatures continue to inform and anticipate today’s controversies over the fluidity of gender and sexual identities. But his supercharged literary career was cut short with shocking suddenness when he was forced to leave his family, friends and extravagant townhouse in the heart of Rome’s Forum on the orders of the Emperor Augustus.

The reason, which Ovid took to his grave, referring to it only as his carmen et error – ‘a poem and a mistake’ – remains one of literature’s great mysteries. Perhaps the censorious Augustus could no longer tolerate the poet’s titillating verse, which in works such as Ars Amatoria taught the arts of seduction and love, mocking the Emperor’s efforts to impose a conservative moral code. Or maybe there is truth in the legend that Ovid was privy to some scandal concerning Augustus’s daughter Julia, who was herself exiled.

Whatever: sometime in 8 AD the poet was uprooted from high Roman society and transplanted to the small town of Tomis on the west coast of the Black Sea – present day Constanța in southern Romania – an outpost on the outskirts of the empire previously known to Ovid only as a place of ill omen associated with the mythological sorceress Medea.

By his own admission the raw, bleeding lines he wrote there lack the grace and wit of his Roman work. But they continue to stand today as the quintessential poetry of exile. His Tristia – ‘The Sorrows’ – recalls over and over how, ‘torn, as though I had left my limbs behind’, he had found it almost physically impossible to leave his home, despite the attentions of the soldiers who had come to take him away:

I touched the threshold three times, was called back
three times, even my feet slow to match my intent.
Often, having said ‘Farewell’, I spoke again at length,
and, as if I was going, I gave the last kisses.
Often I gave the same orders, and deceived myself,
eyes turning back towards my dear ones.

Like the hundreds of thousands of today’s refugees who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean he is haunted by the memory of voyage through stormy seas:

Ah! What a swift flame flashes from the cloud!
What a mighty crash resounds from the ether!
The blow on her planks from the waves is no less
than a siege-gun’s heavy thud against the walls.
Here comes a wave that overtops them all:
after the ninth and before the eleventh.
I don’t fear dying: but this way of dying’s wretched.
Save me from drowning, and death will be a blessing.
A natural death or dying under the blade, at least
your body rests on the solid ground, as you ebb,
and there are requests to others, and hope of a tomb,
not to be food for the fishes in the ocean.

And like so many of today’s exiles who survived the crossing he found himself in a bleak land, tormented by memories of home:

Still, while I was hurled, anxious, over land and sea,
the effort masked my cares, and my sick heart:
so, now the journey’s done, the toil is over,
and I’ve reached the country of my punishment,
only grieving pleases, there’s no less rain from my eyes
than water from the melting snow in springtime.
Rome’s in my thoughts, and home, and longed-for places,
whatever of mine remains in the city I’ve lost.
Ah, how often I’ve knocked at the door of my own tomb
and yet it has never opened to me!

Though he grew to love the ‘barbarians’ who kept ‘out the dreadful cold with sewn trousers and furs’, their hair ’tinkling with hanging icicles’ and ‘beards gleaming white with a coat of frost’, the memory of what had been lost stung even as winter turned to spring:

Wherever the vine grows, buds break from the stem:
but vines grow far away from these Getic shores:
wherever there’s a tree, the tree’s twigs are bursting,
but trees grow far away from these Getic lands.
It’s a time of ease there, and a string of festive days
succeed the noisy battles of the wordy forum.

Reading Ovid’s poems of exile will not furnish the kinds of facts usually deployed to cut through the mythologies surrounding those who seek asylum, such as that the UK harbours fewer than 1% of the world’s refugees, and no more than 6,000 of the five million who have fled Syria (with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon taking more than four million). But reading these old lines offers something no less valuable: imaginative sympathy for those who have suffered wrenching loss.

Ovid never returned to his beloved Rome, remaining a wanderer ‘among Sarmatian shades, a stranger forever among the savage dead,’ writing desperate poetry not of his choosing. But it is perhaps the tortured words he wrote by the Black Sea rather than those composed in his Roman garden that speak more urgently to today’s world, still riven by dislocation and dispossession.

All quotations are from AS Kline’s translation of Ovid’s Tristia.