“I am the man, whose brisk and gamesome Muse
By Love’s command this subject still pursues;
Far hence be all profane! Approach not here,
Matrons of virtue rigid and severe,
Lest those loose numbers should offend your ear.
Come all ye virgins of a soft desire,
And amorous youths touch’d with an unknown fire;
One in my state among ye may be found,
Who, conscious of the nature of his wound,
Will wonder by what strange prophetic art
The poet touch’d the secret of his heart. – Book Two, Elegy I.”
The Amores consists of three books that are a collection of elegies. In these poems, Ovid pines away for Corinna and records their love affair. Corinna holds a similar place to Laura in Petrarch’s sonnets and Beatrice in the poems of Dante. In some poems, Ovid colludes with servants to help him win over his mistress and not report him to their master (the cuckolded husband). In other poems, he addresses mythological figures like Venus and Cupid who force him into this sorry state. In one such poem, he begs Aurora, the morning light, to halt her arrival so he can spend more time with his lover. Throughout he explores introspectively the intense feelings of love and passion. In the very first poem he justifies his project, explaining why he has chosen not to write epic and defending love poetry as the equal of those massive war poems.
“For mighty wars I thought to tune my lute,
And make my measures to my subject suit.
Six feet for every verse the muse design’d,
But Cupid, laughing, when he saw my mind,
From every second verse a foot purloin’d.”
These lines refer to the meter of epic poetry: dactylic hexameter, which would’ve consisted of six feet. The elegiac form is one line of dactylic hexameter, followed by one line of dactylic pentameter, thus in the second verse a foot is purloined or taken away.
For him love is superior even to Jupiter’s thunder.
“Forgive my hasty passion, mighty Jove,
There is no thunder like neglected Love;
By verse the hissing snake shall burst, and die,
and the horn’d moon drop from the starry sky;
Verse can recall the chariot of the sun;
And make the streams back to their fountains run – Book Two, Elegy I”
Like in Shakespeare’s sonnet, many of Ovid’s love poems develop into defenses of the power of poetry. In Book 3 Elegy 12 he complains how other men are trying to seduce Corinna due to his poetry.
“She, who so much my faithful passion wrongs,
Was known, and first made famous, by my songs.
I lov’d her first, and lov’d her then alone,
But now, I fear, I share her with the town.
Am I deceiv’d? Or can she be the same,
Who only to my verses owes her fame?”
In his state of jealousy and annoyance at Corinna’s ingratitude and unfaithfulness, he warns that he exaggerates her qualities and it’s his poetry that makes her special. After going through many examples of mythological figures, he writes:
“But none did credit to these fictions give,
Or for true history such tales receive.
And though Corinna in my songs is fair,
Let none conclude, she’s like her picture there.
The fable she with hasty faith receiv’d,
And what so very well she lik’d, believ’d.
But since so ill she does the poet use,
‘Tis time her vanity to disabuse.”
He warns not to trust that Corinna in reality will match the idealistic portrait found in his poetry. Even Corinna believed his “lies” because it flattered her vanity. The last couple of poems in the Elegies deal with their disintegrating relationship due to Ovid suspecting she is having affairs with other men besides him, which ends with Ovid swearing off love poems. While most of the poems deal with his love affair or feelings for Corinna, a handful of the poems tackle other topics like Book Three, Elegy 9, in which Ovid honors his poetic predecessor, Tibullus.
In the Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), Ovid writes a guide for seducing a lover in poetic form. Basically it presents in poetic form Ovid’s advice for getting a lover, where the best places to begin flirting, how to act, and how to gain your lover’s attention. The first two books are dedicated to men seducing a woman and giving strategies for doing so, while the third book is dedicated to advice for woman who are interested in being seduced by a paramour and gives them advice on things they can do to successfully encourage a lover and things not to do that may turn him off. While wealth can be useful for seducing a woman, his major advice for men is to write women poetry!
Many people only ever bother to read Ovid’s Metamorphosis, one of our main sources for the Greek Myths, which I think is a shame. His love poems, too, are considered major works and often make allusions to characters and events from Roman-Greco mythology. Indeed, reading the love poems sheds new light on Metamorphosis, which not only is a collection of Greek Myths seen through Roman eyes, but the lascivious nature of many of the Greek Myths that Ovid chooses to recount is a reflection of his earlier poetry on love and lust.