“Shall they hoist me up and show me to the shouting
varletry of censuring Rome?”

—William Shakespeare

The true facts of the case will lie hidden in time forever. For our purpose here, we can accept the official version; that the emperor Augustus in the year 8 A.D. exiled the poet Ovid to Tomis, a harsh and barbarous town on the edge of the empire, because he had published his Ars Amatoria or Art of Love some 10 years earlier (and because of some mysterious error). Those verses were judged—perhaps during a secret hearing—to tend to corrupt the morals of the Roman people.

For the rest of his life, the poet’s whole output is devoted to attempts to regain favor, to regain his former carefree life at Rome. To this end he sometimes tries to defend his work and to justify the poet’s vocation. But Ovid, charming and graceful and mellifluous, is no man’s heavy thinker. Few artists are, though popular opinion often burdens them with that reputation. Still, the case is instructive in our decades when censorship has once more become a salient issue.

In Tristia II, the longest single poem of the series, we can count at least 18 separate defenses. The fact that they are often muddled, inchoate, and mutually contradictory merely makes them more poignant. Ovid presents them in this order: (1) powerless in itself, poetry makes nothing happen; (2) only part of the Art of Love is naughty, much more is decorous; (3) poetry, like the law, aids civilization; (4) the Art is addressed only to “licit” lovers; (5) literature is ironic and may be misunderstood; (6) all literary work offers some possible moral risk; (7) even the religious myths treat of salacious matters; (8) I, Ovid, must be seen as a trivial person, not to be taken seriously; (9) I am an incompetent advisor; (10) “My Muse is raffish perhaps, but not I”; (11) erotic literature is all the fashion nowadays; (12) the poet must speak of life as it really is; (13) though official morality changes, human nature does not; (14) other poets have written much more frankly; (15) and in fact I could have done so myself; (16) it is bad policy to make poets martyrs in the name of freedom of speech; (17) writers may change their bad ways, as I have done; (18) I have never abused poetic privilege by making personal attacks.

It is obvious that if Ovid’s first defense is true, that literature has no influence over events or behavior, most of the rest of his defenses are irrelevant. But this notion is contradicted by his third defense, in which he links himself with Caesar as a civilizing agent. It is impossible to have it both ways.

If the poet is truly irresponsible, merely at hire as an interior decorator, then he has no inner standards to appeal to. He is at the mercy of popular taste and official edict—and it doesn’t much matter what happens to him. We shall not blame him for his lively lines any more than we blame the Tiger Swallowtail for its vivid colors, but we can treat him, in all justice, pretty much as we wish.

But if literature is a force in civilization, if it does have influence upon the way we think and behave, then the writer has grave responsibilities. One of them is to tell the truth as he knows it: “The point is the general truth that poets sing / always of love and death, how one answers the other, / how each implies and even demands the other.” Yet simple description cannot be the end of his duties. Is he not constrained to render some account of the virtues and to paint them in attractive fashion? Must he not expose the lurid blandishments of the vices? Being responsible, he should answer to these causes.

But it is his sense of responsibility, rather than his irresponsibility, which is more likely to make the writer an enemy, or at least an irritant, of the state. His ideas of vice and virtue, of evil and of good, may not coincide with the ideas of the state. The truth he tries to depict dispassionately may be viewed by the state as indecent or inflammatory. Once the writer sees that it is his responsible thought which will be condemned and censored, he knows at once that every official program of morality is a cynical hypocrisy. It is a nice irony that the Latin tag we use to question the standards of those who would make our public standards—Quis custodiet?—is taken from the Art of Love, where the loyalty of the wife’s guardians to her apprehensive spouse is called in doubt.

Almost haplessly, Ovid puts his finger on the problem. Even the best intentioned program for public morality deceives itself about history and about human nature. No popular impulse for overwhelming moral reform will make any difference. “The human condition doesn’t change. The civis Romanus I is not a new and different order of man, / but the same old item, luckier, better governed, / a little more powerful, but begotten / the same old way. And we die just like anyone else.”

The poet who subscribes to an official morality subscribes to a mercurial party line. Today George Eliot is cynosure, yesterday she was anathema. Yesterday, St. Francis was canonized, today he is banned—or so Chesterton’s biography reports. The works most often censored in the English-speaking world are the Bible and Shakespeare. New and virid curricula arise from the ashes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Giordano Bruno.

There is a certain lack of imagination on both sides. The writer can depict no evils which have not already been committed times without number, and he cannot condone them without looking as ridiculous as, say, the Marquis de Sade. He can only condemn them in as powerfully dramatic a fashion as possible. The moralist who- is shocked by an artist’s depiction of immorality is too naive to be trusted; he is like a priest who has never heard of sodomy. And the hypocrisy is always transparent: Martial XI. 20 preserves an epigram by Augustus which is more obscene than anything remaining to us from Ovid. A censor censors, finally, only his own reactions.

David Slavitt’s usual practice as a translator is a loose and breezy one, and it does very well for the Tristia, which is often a redundant and self-pitying work. Slavitt labors to keep the tone light. He does not depart from the text so radically as in his intoxicated (and intoxicating) version of Vergil’s Eclogues, but he does offer some omission and compression in order to serve up a less weepy English than some of the poems deserve. There are lapses. “My love, fare, as I do not here, well” comes out auditorily as “My love fair as I do not hear well.” But the lapses are few; Slavitt’s version is easy and witty and as solid as need be. For many reasons it is most welcome now.


[The Tristia of Ovid, translated by David R. Slavitt; Cleveland: Bellflower Press]