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Years of Iron

Ovid's Poetry of Exile

Translated by David R. Slavitt

(Johns Hopkins University Press, 256 pp., $32.60, $12.95 paper)

The Last World

By Christoph Ransmayr (Grove Weidenfeld, 240 pp., $18.95)

Writers have often had to do their work in exile. Thucydides, Dante, Machiavelli, Byron, Heine, Hugo:the list is long and illustrious, and our century has seen it swollen to gigantic proportions by the mass emigration of German intellectuals in the 1930s, and by the flight of the dissidents from the Soviet empire in recent decades. Most of these writers exchanged a tyranny that could tolerate them no longer for a relatively free society; the exile could hope to obtain, in Gibbon's words, "in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint and perhaps the means of revenge." Such opportunities were denied those condemned to internal exile: Lenin in Siberia under the czar, Trotsky in Alma Ata under Stalin, Sakharov in Gorky under Brezhnev. Lenin and Trotsky eventually found their way to Western Europe, and even for Sakharov there remained the possibility that he might in the end, like Solzhenitsyn, be expelled (though he would probably have refused to go.)

For a citizen of the Roman empire, however, banishment was a dead end. "The empire of the Romans," Gibbon again, "filled the world, and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies." Beyond the frontier lay death at the hands of hostile barbarians; on the frontier itself, primitive conditions and constant danger. And it was to a troubled frontier that the emperor Augustus, in A.D. 8, banished one of the most famous citizens of Rome, the poet Publius Ovidius Naso—Ovid, to the English-speaking world, though in his poems, because of metrical constraints, he always refers to himself as Naso.

Ovid was not an exile, technically speaking, for exsilium normally involved loss of citizenship and confiscation of property. He was "relegated" (relegatus) to a particular place in the empire, where he was to stay at the emperor's pleasure. Others—some unruly members of the imperial family, for example—had been "relegated" to the Mediterranean islands close to Rome, but Ovid's fate was to languish, for the remaining nine years of his life, at Tomi, site of the modern Romanian city of Constanta. It was situated on the Danubian frontier of the recently pacified province of Moesia, facing east on the Black Sea. Moesia was the Siberia of the Roman empire. "I've stopped for a drink," Ovid writes, in David Slavitt's brilliant adaptation:

 ... and hardly even remarked as the innkeeper peeled away the wineskin to leave the wine standing, frozen, in what was the wineskin's shape. He backed me a chunk of wine to drink or, rather, suck on as it thawed in my mouth.

The emperor's choice of the place for Ovid's banishment was exquisitely cruel. The playboy of Augustan Rome, who had written the Amores, a witty, audacious chronicle of his fictitious love life with Corinna (not to mention her maid), who had followed that with the even spicier Ars Amatoria, a handbook for the seducer of Roman wives, and had recently used the epic hexameter of Ennius's Annals and Virgil's already classic Aeneid to sing the loves and changed shapes, the Metamorphoses, of legendary heroes and heroines—this was the man condemned to spend the last years of his life in a Roman equivalent of Fort Apache:

The country here is grotesque, the people savage, the weather awful, the customs crude, and the language a garble ... ... Tomi was once a Greek city but the Greeks are not stupid and most of them left. Then the Getae moved in, barely pacified, barely civilized. One sees them scamper about, bareback, quivers and bows on their backs, their arrows dipped in venom, their faces covered over with hair... ... They all carry knives at their belts and you never know whether they're going to greet you or stall you. ... Among such people your old friend, Ovid, the dancing-master of love, tries to keep from hysterical laughter and tears...

The reasons for Ovid's punishment are still a mystery, a favorite theme for scholarly speculation. We have no information except what Ovid himself tells us, or rather, hints at cryptically, in the poems he wrote at Tomi and sent back to Rome: the Tristia (Sorrows) and the Epistulae ex Ponte (Letters from the Black Sea). He speaks of two reasons' earthen, a song, and error, a word that can mean a simple mistake, a moral lapse, or a temporary derangement of the mind. The song, for which he ellen apologizes at length in the poems from Tomi, is the Ars Amatoria. It was a saucy defiance of Augustus's program of moral reform, his vain attempt to restore, by propaganda and legislation, the legendary family virtues of the early Roman republic. (The closing lines of the poem, for example, give explicit directions to the ladies on the position for intercourse best suited to their complexions and figures; and the preceding lines make it clear that the last person for whose delectation these positions are to be assumed is the lady's husband.)

But this poem cannot have been the immediate cause of Augustus's harsh sentence' the Ars Amatoria had been in circulation lot ten years or so. It must have been the error that brought the emperor's resentment to the boiling point and launched Ovid on the long journey to Tomi. All we know, from the poet's vague hints, is that his error was not anything that he did it was something he saw, should have reported, and failed to do so. In the year that Ovid's sentence was pronounced, A.D. 8, a conspiracy in high places against Augustus had been exposed. Ovid may have been tangentially involved. Whatever the nature of his error, it was clearly one that mortally' offended the imperial ruling family; Augustus remained deaf' to Ovid's eloquent appeals until his death in A.D. 14, and his successor, Tiberius, left Ovid to live, die, and be buried in the frozen snow of Tomi.

These poems of Ovid, the Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto, are unique in the literature of exile.They contain no protest against the regime that has imposed so cruel a penalty, no disclosure of its shameful secrets, no satire of its ruler or his ministers. The poems are all, from first to last, appeals, in one form or another, for clemency, or for help in obtaining it. They ask at first for permission to return to Rome, and later, as hope wanes, for removal to some more civilized place of exile. They contain fulsome compliments to Augustus and other members of the imperial family, contrite admissions of guilt (discreetly worded so as to conceal whatever state secret Ovid had stumbled on), and detailed rehearsals of the hardness of his lot in the brutal life of a barely pacified province.

The verdict of the critics has not been enthusiastic. Gibbon speaks of Ovid's "just, but unmanly lamentations." According to the authoritative Teuffel-Schwabe Geschichte der romischen Literatur, "His flattery and adulation surpass all bounds." A "delire d'adulation," says Boissier; and Mackail finds the poems "a melancholy record of flagging vitality and failing powers." But these complaints about flattery' and adulation do not sit well on the lips of scholars comfortably at home in their studies. "Our century," as Slavitt points out in his prefatory note, "has, to our shame, better prepared us to understand capriciousness and violence." And though Ovid's themes do sound repetitious in the later letters from the Black Sea, as hope for reprieve dims and finally dies, the verses are still elegant, and the matter often fascinating—as, for example, his account of the poem he wrote in the local Getic language and recited to an audience of tribesmen, who greeted it with prolonged murmurs and a rattling of the arrows in their quivers.

In the earlier poems, the Tristia, there are some of the best things Ovid ever wrote. Here he is no longer the dashing rake of the Amores, the drill sergeant of seduction of the Ars Amatoria, or the epic singer of changing shapes of the Metamorphoses. He writes in his own suffering person to friends in Rome, to Augustus himself (a poem of 578 lines), and, in compassionate tones of consolation and encouragement, to the wife, who had stayed in Rome, at his insistence, to safeguard his property and work tot his return. Among the many jewels of the collection are Ovid's account of his last night in Rome (1,3), his autobiography (IV, 10), and his many graphic descriptions of the climate, flora, fauna, and inhabitants of Total.

These poems are not just complaints and appeals for clemency. They are Ovid's weapons, the only weapons he has in his campaign tot reprieve, or at least for mitigation of his sentence, Dispatched to Rome at intervals, they were copied and widely circulated. Ovid was on the imperial blacklist—his books were removed from the three great public libraries of Rome—but he was still Rome's most Famous and admired living poet. His hope must have been that public opinion would eventually influence Augustus in the direction of clemency, and in this he may have been successful, for he tells us (E.P. IV, 6.25) that Augustus had begun "to forgive the fault that I committed in error." If so, Augustus died before he could act on his change of mood. But there is something more, in these exquisitely stylish poems, than a strategy to win public support and an imperial reprieve. There is, in these poems, a pride in the supremacy of poetry, in its independence of power, of time and change—a sort of quiet defiance of earthly power, even the power in Rome that ruled the entire civilized world, that had sent him to the end of that world, and that could, if is so desired, take Iris life at any moment'

 ...It's only the blessings of heart and mind that ever endure. In those you should put your trust. I offer my own example. You know how much I lost when I was sent away into exile. Ruined! But see what I still have, my mind, my work. Unless he put me to death, not even Caesar can take this from me or banish me from this.

"The Tristia," wrote E.J. Kenny in his splendid chapter on Ovid in the Cambridge History of Classical Literature, "have been criticized as abject' in some respects they show Ovid as bold to the point of foolhardiness."

Ovid wrote his poems from exile in the same meter that he had used for the Ars Amatoria, the characteristic elegiac couplet of Latin erotic elegy, the meter of Tibullus and Propertius. It is a meter that poses difficult problems for a translator a hexameter followed by a shorter line, the pentameter, the feet defined not by the incidence of stress but by length of syllable. Length of syllable is not a significant factor in English versification, and attempts to reproduce the Latin metrical pattern by marshaling stresses result in verses of mechanical rigidity. Coleridge's imitation of Schiller's famous elegiac couplet uses stress to accent the Latin metric:

 In the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column. In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

This is ingenious, but a succession of even twenty of such couplets (and Book II of the Tristia has over 200) would produce the effect of a hi-fi tone arm stuck on the same musical phrase. In the Latin, the pattern of long and short syllables is played off against the natural stresses of the words. In the hands of Ovid, the elegiac's grand master, the couplets are a virtuoso series of rhythmic variations.English translators, forced to work with stress alone, must at all costs avoid the lockstep of Coleridge's paradigmatic couplet.

Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius, parts of which were first published in 1919, took the bull by the horns. Two elegiac couplets of Propertius emerged as

 When, when and whenever death closes our eyelids, Moving naked over Acheron Upon the one rail, victor and conqueror together, Marius and Jugurtha together, one tangle of shadows

Magnificent as it is, this preview of the free verse of the Cantos is no solution; the Propertian spirit is there, but no lingering trace of the form. In any case, Pound's creative adaptation was greeted with such contempt and vituperation by the classical establishment that subsequent translators of elegy retreated to the eighteenth-century Augustan standby, the rhymed heroic couplet, which, as Guy Lee remarked in his 1968 translation of the Amores, "lacks the variety of elegiacs and is haunted by the ghosts of Dryden and Pope—not to mention the Pantomime Good Fairy." Lee chose what he calls "free verse." Sometimes he catches the tone and suggests the form with remarkable success, as in the opening distich of Amores ixb:

 Offered a sexless heaven I'd say No thank you women are such sweet hell.

But often the lines are much too short, and he even goes so far as to ignore at times the brute fact that in the Latin couplet the first line is always, and must always be, longer than the second. In 1982 Peter Green, with warm acknowledgment of Lee's pioneering effort, improved on the model in his Ovid: The Erotic Poems, a masterly translation of the Amores, the Ars Amatoria, and some shorter poems in the same category. He used a first line with "a loose six-beat (occasionally five-beat) line ...."representing the pentameter with "a variable, shortstopped line with anything from five to three main stresses":

 It was you, no doubt about it, Graecinus. I always remember How you said no man could possibly fall in love With two girls at once. I believed you. I dropped my defenses. Result—double love-life. Embarrassing. All your fault.

David Slavitt uses a similar metrical pattern of two lines with eleven stresses. It is, he says in his introduction to his earlier, separate version of the Tristia (1986), "the adaptation Auden used" (in "Prospero to Ariel," for example). Slavitt is comfortably at home in this verse form (he used it before in a translation of five elegies of Tibullus), and from the beginning to the end of the 250 pages of this version of Ovid's poems from Tomi, the lines retain their suppleness and variety. The voice of the speaker, moreover, remains consistent. This is a real, and fascinating, human being we are listening to.

A word of warning, however. Slavitt has assumed large powers as Ovid's twentieth-century voice."Ovid's habit of piling up mythological examples and parallels," he says, "can get wearisome tot the modern reader, and when this happens I invent what I need, usually reducing the number of references or sometimes enlarging upon something else in the poem." In order to achieve "urbanity and modernity," he claims, "a translator must have at least the illusion of parity, must suppose himself to be the collaborator if' not an actual pal of the poet who wrote the original work." Sometimes, however, the collaborator (perhaps it is the pal) grabs the ball and runs tar ahead of his partner as he races toward modernity. As in this version of part of Tristia l, 3, the account of Ovid's last night in Rome:

 The nimble hours skittered, turning us all clumsy and the simplest menial task onerous. Packing was either a nightmare itself or one of those cruel jokes you sometimes line in your worst dreams. Papers hid and even after we'd found them refused to stay put. We blamed ourselves for having wasted time trying to talk it out and ourselves into understanding what was going on, and not to impose what we were feeling. I'd made lists of clothing, equipment... But who had the composure? And pitiless time nudged us along forcing our minds to these cruel questions. Or was it, perhaps, a mercy? We managed to laugh once or twice, as my wife found in some old trunk odd pieces of clothing. "This might be just the thing this season, the new Romanian mode .." And just as abruptly our peal of laughter would catch and tear into tears as she dropped the preposterous shepherd's cloak and we held each other ...

The only basis in Ovid's text for this admittedly moving passage, however, is the tour lines 7-10, which run, in a bare prose version: "There had not been time for getting ready what was suitable, nor the mind lot it, either; our hearts had been numbed by the long delay,'. I took no thought tot the slaves, for selecting companions for the journey, or for the clothes and equipment a banished man would need."

Yet, though no one should quote this version as Ovid without checking the Latin text, Slavitt has done Ovid a service. He has brought back from the limbo to which insensitive critics had relegated it a book that cries out for translation. His version will win new readers for the poet who even in the depths of despair never lost his elegant facility,, his virtuoso touch for the rhythms of his medium or, above all, his proud conviction that his poetry would survive him:

 Now I have done my work. It will endure I trust, beyond Jove's anger, lire and sword Beyond Time's hunger... I shall be read, and through all centuries If prophecies of bards are ever truthful I shall he living always.

This prophecy, from the closing lines of the Metamorphoses, may well have been one of the final touches that Ovid added to his great poem in exile at Tomi.

Six of the letters from the Black Sea (and possibly two in the Tistia) are addressed to one Maximus Cotta, an admirer and close friend of the poet. He is the principal character of Christoph Ransmayr's strange and haunting novel, The Last World, which describes a fictional journey to Cotta to Tomi in search of Ovid, rumors of whose death have reached Rome. This is not, however, a conventional historical novel, as its deliberately flaunted anachronisms make clear. Slavitt allows himself an occasional playful modern touch—the Tomi Chamber of Commerce, for example, and Ovid expecting galley proofs—but in The Last World we very soon come up against bill boards, firing squads, newspapers, sauerkraut, diesels, projectors, and can openers; ships on the Black Sea have smokestacks, Jason's Argo has a gun deck, and Thiess, one of the inhabitants of Tomi, is a German veteran of the Wehrmacht's campaign in the Crimea who remembers the people crowded into the gas chambers.

Ransxnayr, born in Wels, Austria, in 1954, sees the Roman world of Ovid through the dark filter of Eastern Europe's twentieth-century agony. In the fifteen chapters of his novel (Ovid's Metamorphoses has fifteen books), past and present are fused in a timeless blur—just as they are at the end of Ovid's epic, when the transformations of primeval Greek and later Roman mythical figures culminate in the near-contemporary murder of Julius Caesar and the transformation of his spirit into a comet that blazed for seven nights while his adopted son Octavius, later to be Augustus, presided over the games that honored his memory in 44 B.C.

Cotta is searching not only for Ovid, but also for his magnum opus, the Metamorphoses. Roman audiences had so far heard only enigmatic excerpts read aloud by the poet himself; they had no conception of the work as a whole. And Ovid had burned the manuscript during his last night in Rome. (In fact, though Ovid does speak of burning the manuscript, he also mentions the existence of copies in circulation and claims only that they lack the author's final touches.) All Ransmayr's Cotta finds, in the end, are fragments of the poem, written on rags and inscribed on stones that are covered with slugs, but long before he makes any sense of these fragments, he comes to know the inhabitants of Tomi, a town that consists of crumbling, rusting ruins.

He never does find Ovid (who is presumably dead), but, though he does not immediately realize it, he has found in the strange characters that haunt the stones and hovels of Tomi the originals of the figures that appear in Ovid's poem. Ransmayr is playing games with his readers here. Cotta never finds more than tiny fragments of the poem, but we have it all, and can see that Ransmayr is transforming Ovid's mythical figures into denizens of his timeless, nightmare city. Pythagoras, for example, the Greek philosopher who in Ovid's poem proclaims the doctrine of eternal change and of the soul's passage through different shapes, is here a half-crazed man who used to be Ovid's servant and now stands outside the town butcher's shop preaching abstinence from meat. The brutal Thracian king Tereus becomes the town butcher; he drives Pythagoras away by pelting him with sheeps' hearts and guts. His fat wife, Procne, is stuffing sausages when she recognizes her raped sister Philomela. And so on.

In his stunning re-creation of this tale of Philomel—"so rudely forced. Tereu."—Ransmayr gives new and lurid life to the figures of what is perhaps Ovid's most influential story. Tereus still rapes his wife's sister and cuts out her tongue, Procne still discovers the truth and avenges her sister by killing his son Itys, and Tereus tracks the two sisters down through the ruins of Tomi, only to see them change into birds, swallow and nightingale, and to turn bird himself as he pursues them through the air. But Ransmayr's version is grimly realistic. The raped and tongueless woman who stumbles down from the mountains is mocked and tormented by the town children until Procne "recognized the disfigured, fly-covered face. It was her sister Philomela." Ransmayr does not, however, try to sidestep the tale's fantastic ending:

Tereus lifted his ax .... But the two women did not raise their arms to tend off the blows—instead, two startled birds spread their wings .... Yet even before they shot through the broken window into the open air and were lost in the blue night sky, the curved handle of the ax had become yet another beak. Tereus's arms had turned to wings, his hair to brown and black feathers. A hoopoe lifted in easy, billowing flight and sailed off in pursuit of the two escaping birds ...

This smooth blend of gritty detail and high fantasy, the essence of the novel's method, resembles the magic realism of Garcia Marquez and may indeed have been influenced by the Colombian writer's work, especially One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The novel's translator has added an "Ovidian Repertory," which, in parallel columns, poses the lives, loves, and transformations of the mythical characters against those of Ransmayr's world. Since this repertory was compiled on the principle of an index, only those figures named in Ransmayr's text are included. As a result, readers unfamiliar with Ovid or Greek mythology will search in vain for an explanation of the appearance of a white cow (Io), a herdsman with eyes all over his body (Argus), and a silent killer (Mercury), who slips into the room, slits the herdsman's throat, and leads the white cow away.

Ransmayr has transformed not only the mythical persons of the Metamorphoses, but also the world in which Ovid lived and died. In this world Ovid's exile is the result not or a carmen or an error, but of the workings of a repressive bureaucracy, the members of "the society of power, families whose pomp and luxury, safeguarded by dogs, glass-studded walls, armed sentries, and barbed-wire barricades, reflected the splendor of' the emperor." Invited to be one of eleven speakers at the dedication of a gigantic new stadium, before an audience of 200,000 people and the emperor Augustus, Ovid forgot to preface his speech with the mandatory fulsome compliments to the emperor.

As if that were not scandalous enough, his speech described, in hideous detail, the death from plague of the entire population of the island of Aegina and their replacement by ants that appropriated the organs of the dead to assume human form. This new race, said Ovid, was

docile and asked no questions and followed (heir new leaders, who were of the same descent, into the triumphs and miseries of time—without complaint ... an army of workers wherever ditches were to be dug, walls razed, or bridges built. In time of war they were a nation of warriors .... And yet, through all these transformations, they proved more tractable than any other race...

Ovid went on to prophesy that the new stadium would also be "a place of transformation and rebirth, a stone caldron in which from hundreds of thousands of the abandoned, the subjugated, and the helpless a new nation will be cooked..."

The story of the plague is based on a Long narrative in the Metamorphoses, but the import and the emphasis of the original have been transformed. The ants in Ovid become the famous Myrmidons, the warrior hordes of Achilles (the Greek word myrmex means "ant"). In Ransmayr's parable they become the docile, tractable working class of the bureaucratic state and in the vision of the future the dispossessed and abandoned who will finally come into their own.

Quite apart from the omission of the compliments to the emperor and the ill-omened content of the speech, Ovid's final words would have been enough to provoke the emperor's wrath. But Augustus had not heard a word the poet said. He was asleep. At the imperial court, however, there was set in motion the next morning "an apparatus of whispers, dossier entries, hints, and recommendations." Its movements "were slow, dispassionate, and void of... anger," but it "was not to be placated, nor could it be shut down. And so information concerning the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, verified now in files, gradually began to flow," ending in an indictment of the Metamorphoses, "the work of an enemy of the state, an affront to Rome, the document of a deranged mind."

There followed a visit of a functionary to the emperor, who, fascinated by the spectacle of a rhinoceros that had been sent him by the procurator of Sumatra, waved the visitor away with "an abrupt, curt motion of his hand, hardly more vigorous than if he were shaking off a housefly." The gesture was variously interpreted as it moved along the bureaus of the apparatus prison, labor camp, Sicily, and the stonecutters; an injunction against literary activity for a year; a forfeiture of royalties; merely a warning. When the emperor's sign finally "reached the bottom level—where the blows are actually inflicted and not simply decreed, where the cell doors really clicked shut," a judge gave a decision. "A wave of His hand meant Begone. Out of my sight. Out of the sight of the emperor, however, meant to the end of the world. And the end of the world was Tomi."

We are in Kafka country here. Or perhaps in Ceausescu's Romania, where, in fact, before the fall of the regime, a German-language periodical in Bucharest was denied permission to publish an extract from Ransmayr's novel. The sections of the novel that are set in Rome, under Augustus and his successor Tiberius, are a chilling vision of what happens when the "empire falls into the hands of a single person" and the world becomes "a safe and dreary prison for his enemies."

But Ransmayr's Rome and Tomi are also the "last world." In Tomi, metamorphosis is a phenomenon not experienced by human beings alone. The basic matter of the earth is being transformed. The iron town is turning to rust. "Iron shutters...crumbled like cardboard and disintegrated. Wrought-iron fences buckled. The decoration of metal lilies, spear-headed leaves, even the railings on the footbridges across the brook broke loose. Gratings rotted like plaited grass." The landscape too begins to disintegrate. "The landslides had not spared a single upland valley. Like primeval monsters clad in uprooted pines and heather, flows of gravel and mud had come down ... creeping over meadows, deserted huts, and the entrances to abandoned mine shafts."

In Ovid's great poem similar changes are described by Pythagoras in Book XV:

Nothing, no nothing, keeps its outward show For golden ages turn to years of iron... I've seen land turn to miles of flood-tossed waters, Or land rise up within a restless sea...

But in Pythagoras's famous speech the context of these changes is optimistic:

Nothing retains the shape of what it was, And Nature, always making old things new, Proves nothing dies within the universe But takes another being in new forms.

The process is one of continuous renewal and rebirth. In Ransmayr's book, however, the emphasis is on loss, on ruin, on decay. The world is running down, and it is the last world, die letzte Welt. We are not likely to be given another.

Bernard Knox was an American classicist whose books include The Oldest Dead White European Males: And Other Reflections On The Classics.

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