Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ovid's Battered Love

I've been reading Ovid's Tristia and his Black Sea Letters, and this passage struck me in the beauty of its description of Love's decrepitude:

Sleep, that common repose from cares, possessed me,
my slack limbs were sprawled out the length of my bed--
when, suddenly, the air was vibrant with beating pinions,
and the window creaked softly open. In alarm
I started up, propped on my left elbow, slumber
gone, driven clear from my thumping breast.
There stood Love, one hand grasping the maple bedpost,
with a sad expression, not how he used to look,
no neck-chain, no hair-comb, locks in wild disorder,
not neatly pinned back as of old,
but hanging loose around his bristled jawline,
wing-feathers ruffled (or so it seemed to me)
like those on the back of some homing pigeon, fingered
by too many rough hands.
(Ovid, Black Sea Letters III.3.7-20)

His description of sleep as something that possesses rather than a state is what initially drew me into the passage, as if sleep is a spiritual entity, a god, that can possess you. Moreover, in these letters and poems, Ovid complains of chronic insomnia, so the sweet sleep coming over him must have seemed a relief, perhaps something as powerful as possession. Then, he awakes to see the god Love flying through his window; nonetheless, the poetry retains its dreamlike quality. It is like waking up into a dream--something that happens, for example, to Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment. I find that, in fact, as frustrating as insomnia--to wake up into a dream, to have nested dreams or dreams within dreams within dreams (I think I've had as many as four nested dreams--a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream--before I could get out of them into full consciousness--that is, if this is not also a dream). Ovid has had a long relationship with Love. His description indicates long familiarity--how he knows that Love does not look like his old self. He looks scruffy, feathers drooping, having wild hair, and general unkempt appearance. And what do we make of being "fingered by too many rough hands"? This familiarity, of course, comes from Ovid's famous Art of Love, the series of seductive poems that provided the reasoning (but probably not the true reason) for his exile. Love here mirrors Ovid's own self-descriptions of his own failing, increasingly emaciated appearance in other poems. Love mirrors Ovid, as, in fact, Ovid often equates himself with the books he writes. Is Love, too, in exile? Has Love felt the full force of Caesar's wrath? Been banished from Rome? Or, do we see, as Love awakens Ovid, as an unkempt Love awakens the emaciated Ovid, the source of Ovid's insomnia? If only he hadn't written that poem to provide a pretext for his relegation to Tomis on the Black Sea? Or is Love a prophet (III.83-4)

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