Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Love Poems, Letters and Remedies of Ovid

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Love Poems, Letters and Remedies of Ovid

Article excerpt

Love Poems, Letters and Remedies of Ovid TRANSLATED BY DAVID SLAVITT HARVARD, 384 PAGES, $26.95

David Slavitt is a prolific writer of poetry, translations, fiction, and criticism, though he is controversial as a translator. His 2009 version of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which riffed wildly off the text, omitted and summarized an increasing number of stanzas as it progressed, as if he wearied of translating.

Slavitt's prefatory note for Love Poems, Letters and Remedies of Ovid suggests that Ovid may expect similar treatment. He avers that Ovid and Propertius "invented" love, a claim that frivolously dismisses Greek love poetry from Callimachus to Sappho that inspired Ovid and other Roman elegists. Indeed, Slavitt seemingly forgets his text:

And Callimachus, too, even if

not by genius,

shall persist by the art and

excellence of his song.

(Amores 1.15.13-14)

Slavitt claims that Ovid has been "shortchanged" by academia, then concludes with a snobby shot at the South and rapid-fire pronouncements on feminism, "enlightenment values," social justice, gender equality, love, reason, and social order.

Michael Dirda's introduction, which provides a thoughtful overview of Ovid's Amores, Heroldes, and Remedia Amoris, is a welcome change. Although he overstates Ovid's "posthumous eclipse" during late antiquity and the early medieval periods, that small blemish barely mars an essay that does precisely what it should: make a reader eager to read Ovid.

Slavitt's translation starts well with a clever, fair version of the opening epigram. While these lines show us what Slavitt is capable of doing, nothing comparable follows. The tension between the hexameter and pentameter lines of the elegiac couplets, which is so much a part of Ovid's music, disappears in slack lines of unpredictable length. Many lines do not fit on the page:

To make away with Helen and

he and his crew had

gone down

in the raging water. …

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