Ovid's Erotic Poems: "Amores" and "Ars Amatoria"

Ovid's Erotic Poems: "Amores" and "Ars Amatoria"

Ovid's Erotic Poems: "Amores" and "Ars Amatoria"

Ovid's Erotic Poems: "Amores" and "Ars Amatoria"


The most sophisticated and daring poetic ironist of the early Roman Empire, Publius Ovidius Naso, is perhaps best known for his oft-imitated Metamorphoses. But the Roman poet also wrote lively and lewd verse on the subjects of love, sex, marriage, and adultery--a playful parody of the earnest erotic poetry traditions established by his literary ancestors. The Amores, Ovid's first completed book of poetry, explores the conventional mode of erotic elegy with some subversive and silly twists: the poetic narrator sets up a lyrical altar to an unattainable woman only to knock it down by poking fun at her imperfections. Ars Amatoria takes the form of didactic verse in which a purportedly mature and experienced narrator instructs men and women alike on how to best play their hands at the long con of love.

Ovid's Erotic Poems offers a modern English translation of the Amores and Ars Amatoria that retains the irreverent wit and verve of the original. Award-winning poet Len Krisak captures the music of Ovid's richly textured Latin meters through rhyming couplets that render the verse as playful and agile as it was meant to be. Sophisticated, satirical, and wildly self-referential, Ovid's Erotic Poems is not just a wickedly funny send-up of romantic and sexual mores but also a sharp critique of literary technique and poetic convention.


It is a strange though critical irony that Ovid (43 B.C.E.–17 C.E.), the ancient world’s greatest love poet, has a reputation for outstanding frivolity, particularly in his fundamental erotic works, the Amores (Loves) and Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love). Frivolity and romantic love don’t match up very well in our minds.

But from one angle that characterization makes sense. Ovid is one of our richest sources on otium, literally “leisure,” and in Rome the word was particularly suggestive of things that are extra, ephemeral, disposable—such as the love affairs a young man might indulge in as long as they did not involve serious infatuation that might distract him from duties and prescribed ambitions. Every relationship Ovid depicts comes under the heading of dalliance: any assertion of real, lasting emotional involvement is canceled out by the poet’s satirical wit.

His persona’s involvement with a woman whom he calls Corinna in the Amores amounts to little but a series of clichés brilliantly undercut: the lover constantly protests his helplessness, for example, but his superb rhetorical control in itself makes that protest ridiculous. He is far more interested in declaiming on stock themes such as the wickedness of sailing, and in creating dramatizations in which Corinna—or another woman, or more than one—is a mere prop. In Book II, Poem . . .

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