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Ovid, Amores 1.1

Translation copyright © 2000 John Svarlien; all rights reserved.

        Weapons and war were my theme. I was ready to roll forth battlelines
     in meter to match my subject matter.
Ranks of verse stood in strict formation - when Cupid laughed
     (it's said) and stole a foot of hexameter.
5"Barbarous boy, who gave you leave to meddle in the art of poetry?
     It's the Pierides, not you, we bards flock to.
What if you caught Venus trying on the breastplate of blond Minerva,
     or blond Minerva fanning the flames of love?
Who would approve Ceres ruling over wooded mountains, or put
10     bow-bearing Diana in charge of farm work?
Should long-haired Apollo march and drill with a battle spear,
     while Mars sits drumming an Aonian lyre?
Your empire, boy, is enormous and far too powerful as it is.
     Why grasp after more? Let ambition rest.
15Or do you rule the whole world? Is Helicon now your private resort?
     Is Apollo in hock to you for his lyre?
I had just unfurled my opening line on the wide open page,
     when in the second you slackened my sails.
Don't you see I haven't the themes light verse is made of: no boy
20     or girl with her hair nicely done up."
So I complained. He just reached into his opened quiver
     and found the arrow meant for me.
He stoutly gripped his bow and bent it back against his knee:
     "Here's something," he said, "to make you sing."
25O unhappy me! That boy really knew how to use a bow and arrow!
     I'm on fire - Love's taken charge of my heart.
Now let my verse swell with one line and fall back with the next.
     Farewell war and iron-shod hexameters!
Muse, now bind your fair forehead with myrtle from the shore,
30     and prepare to dance to a different tune.

Notes by William W. Batstone

The first poem in an Augustan book of poetry is typically programmatic, and for Ovid's generation the poetic program harkened back to Callimachus. For these poets the choice was traditionally between epic and amatory verse. In one common Callimachean apology for not writing epic, the poet who attempts epic is reprimanded by Apollo, god of poetry, for attempting what is unsuitable to his slender talents. One may find examples of this scene in Propertius III 1 and III 3 and in Horace IV 15. Here, in Ovid's witty variation of the recusatio, or "refusal poem," not only does Cupid usurp the role of Apollo and the Muses, but the poet at first and uncharacteristically protests; then we discover that the poet cannot write love poetry because he is not in love. This is a playful inversion of what we take to be the normal sequence by which one first falls in love, then attempts love poetry. For the contrast between love poetry and epic, see also Propertius I 7 and I 9.

1. Weapons and war: A reference to the opening of Vergil's nationalistic epic, the Aeneid, which begins "Weapons and the hero I sing...."

2. in meter: Epic verse was written in heroic verses, called hexameters, which maintained a continuous rhythm of six feet, while amatory verse was written in elegiac couplets, which alternated six-foot lines of hexameter with shorter, five-foot pentameter lines.

6. Pierides: The Pierides were associated with the Muses primarily by Vergil and Ovid (in Vergil's pastoral poems and in Ovid's exile poetry). This is the only identification of the two in the Amores, and they are never associated in epic poetry.

6. bards: The Latin term, vates, denoted public poetry with political and religious seriousness. See Horace Odes I 1.35

7. Venus, Minerva: The poet protests Cupid's meddling with his epic project by reciting a list of incongruous and humorous reversals of divine roles. In the first, the goddess of love, Venus, changes position with the virgin goddess Minerva, who is associated with war.

9.10. Ceres, Diana: Ceres was the goddess of agriculture and as such associated with the stability needed for civilized life; Diana was the goddess of the wild and of the hunt.

11-12. Apollo, Mars: This reversal is not so sharp as those above. Apollo was god of youth, of music and the lyre, but he was also the god of archery who fought with the Greeks against Troy in Homer's Iliad; Mars, who is not associated with music, is the Roman god of war.

12. Aonian lyre: The Aonian mountains in Boeotia included Mount Helicon, sacred to Apollo and the Muses.

13-16. empire... rule the whole world: With these references Ovid draws in a comparison of his poetry with the proud and public ambitions of Augustan Rome.

29. myrtle from the shore: Myrtle was sacred to Venus. Ovid uses the myrtle here as symbolic of love poetry, but may also have in mind Venus's role as the divine ancestor of Augustus's family.

This translation first appeared in Diane J. Rayor and William W. Batstone (edd.), Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry: An Anthology of New Translations. New York: Garland, 1995. It has been republished in Diotima with permission.

Permission is hereby granted to distribute for classroom use, provided that both John Svarlien and Diotima are identified in any such use. Other uses not authorized in writing by the translator or in accord with fair use policy are expressly prohibited.

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