17.12.06

Ovid in the Third Reich
















non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit
.
– Amores, III, xiv

The epigraph to Geoffrey Hill's famous poem -- from King Log (1968) -- translates as: "It's not a sin if you can deny it; only confession brings shame on you."

Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Interestingly, thirty years before the poet John Masefield published a book called A Letter from Pontus & Other Verse (1936) which included a reconstruction of Ovid's famous "fault" in a letter to a Roman acquaintance, a young legate who passed the winter with him by the Euxine:

He was unlike the Ovid in my mind,
(All graceful, wanton, charming, credulous,)
Being an old, bleak, broken-hearted man
Dressed in wool trowsers and a sheepskin coat,
Living in dire poverty on biscuit,
Salt mullet and the country vinegar.
The details in Masefield's poem come mainly from Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto:

Later, the snow fell, and the frost set in,
A silent, intense cold, night after night,
With starved birds dead upon the snow next day.
Mad savages, half starved, on starving ponies,
Came raiding down and shot their poisoned arrows
Over our crazy walls at us, and screamed.
The letter, though, entrusted to Ovid's young friend as he leaves on the first boat to Athens, contains an original explanation for his exile. It had, he says, "Two roots:—a book of verses about Love, / Which made me the delight of gallant Rome; / And Julia, the Caesar’s grand-daughter ...".

Julia was bright damnation to the young.
Greedy, as one consumptive, lovely, reckless,
Fevered, clutching at youth now swiftly fading,
Hating her grandfather, the Caesar’s self,
Hating (and mocking, too,) the Caesar’s wife.
But she was beautiful unthinkably.
The disaster itself stemmed from an accidental decision:

One midnight, when our company dispersed,
I recollected, as I hurried home,
That (for the first time since our party formed)
I had not timed the meeting for next day.
I thought, “I’ll hurry back, and catch them there,
(They will not all have gone) and name a time.”
...
I turned beside the fountain to my death.

The servant at the postern let me in,
With word that some of my companions lingered.
Though all the palace household seemed asleep,
I stumbled down deserted corridors
Until I saw our meeting-room ahead
Peopled, it seemed, well-lit, the door ajar.
Then, as I hurried to the lighted space,
I heard the clear voice of our Julia’s lover,
Saying, “So friends, we are agreed together?
We shall attempt no cutting short of Caesar
By one least minute; but when Caesar dies,
The Empress and Tiberius shall fall,
We’ll have Agrippa Postumus as Caesar.”
“We will,” the voices cried. Then my foot tripped
They had a cord across the corridor.
“Who’s there?”one called. There was no drawing back.
...

“Ah, gentlemen,” I cried, “You must not fear me.
“I’ll not betray you; follow your device.
What I have overheard is safe from me …
We are old friends.”

I saw the killers’ eyes
Turn towards Julia for confirmation.
She, who was watching me, laughed quietly.
“Of course,” she said, “we are old, proven friends.”
“Of course,” the younger of the killers echoed,
“We have no fear.”
“No,” said the elder killer,
“That goes without our saying: none at all.”
“Truly,” I said, “Here is my hand upon it.”

We all shook hands upon my trustiness.

There's really nothing else he can do. But it doesn't sound nearly so plausible after Julia and Silanus have been arrested, and the poet is summoned to the palace for an interview:

And what of all the godhead did I see
There in the whiteness of that sunny room?
I saw a little purple and some gold
A chair of bronze, a white robe, a white head
Which swayed the world a thousand miles away,
Turn where you would; a little cold white voice
Spoke to me without passion, finally.

“I have been looking at your Book of Love.
I need not tell the danger of such books
To all the many thoughtless of the young.
Nor need I warn you that its teaching runs
Counter to recent policies and acts
Not lightly framed and all too necessary.
It is no little matter to the State
When genius is linked with the disruptive.”
After that there's not much left to tell:

I wrote Medea in the savage tongue
And taught the savages to play the piece
With choral odes. I used to hope at first.
My miseries compelled me to beseech,
Beg, supplicate, with abject flatteries,
Whining for mercy. That is over now;
For I shall perish and be buried here.
After the summer season comes the winter.
I had the sunny city in my youth,
More happiness, more charming friends, more fame,
Than fell to any poet of the time.
Albert Speer? No, surely Virgil fulfils that role more accurately -- forced to hymn the divine antecedents of Roman imperium. Perhaps more like Furtwangler or the other great musicians who, in their own "sphere", tried to "celebrate the love-choir."

His exile, in retrospect, becomes his opportunity -- one final chance for exculpation before history.

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