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Ovid's defects no less than his excellences are curiously modernThose most insisted on by hostile critics are the over-elaboration of details, the indulgence in discursive episodes, the accumulation of trivial conceits, strained metaphors, and far-fetched illustrations. In a word, he is charged with an unrestrained exuberance of fancy, feeling, and expression. But this very exuberance helps to make him the most picturesque and interesting, if not the most poetical, of Roman poets. Niebuhr's opinion, that, excepting Catullus, Ovid is the most poetical of the Romans, is well known, and there is a good deal to be said in its support. Of course, Ovid has not the severe beauty and concentrated epical art of Virgil. Even his best work wants the perfect unity and proportion, the dignity and grace, the mingled reserve and finish of the Georgics and the AEmeid. But in Virgil you feel everywhere the lima, labor. He works as a conscientious artist, impressed with the magnitude of his task, and ever striving with a noble perseverance after a lofty ideal, which he spares no pains to reach. And as a work of art the result is almost perfect, although you never lose the sense of effort, of cumulative and painful effort, involved in its production. Ovid, on the other hand, seems to sing from an irresistible impulse of nature. The moment he strikes his lyre, the numbers appear not only to come, but to control in their melodious course the most intractable materials of his art, as the fabled harp of Orpheus did the stocks and stones of nature. There is a dash, sparkle, and spontaneity in his writing, which indicates the most genuine native inspiration, and the fullest enjoyment of the work. With his temperament and position indeed, nothing but a love of poetry, amounting to a passion, could have induced him to devote his life to its production. He had a joyous pleasure-loving nature, which his circumstances and surroundings enabled him to gratify to the full. His rank and independent position introduced him to the society of the capital, while his social qualities, his genius and accomplishments, made him heartily welcomed by its highest circles. He was the child of his age, and thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant society, the multiplied luxuries and refinements, of Imperial Rome. But it is clear from the result that he had a still keener delight in his chosen work. He could sacrifice personal and social gratifications for the sake of giving form and substance to the visions inspired by his ardent poetical feeling. And his enthusiasm for the poetical art was supported by the rarest literary gifts. Foremost amongst these must be ranked his power of vivid conception. In his productive moods, the pictures that come within the eye and prospect of his soul seem as full of life “as though they lived indeed.’ The visions that fill his imagination have the colour, movement, and complex detail of the breathing world. Next to his vigorous and prolific fancy comes his unrivalled mastery over the vehicle of his art, musical and expressive diction. His facility of expression has been the subject of critical eulogy from
exquisitely musical versification, indicate the union of consummate literary skill with inborn lyrical genius. Every thought, feeling, and image, as it arises, is perfectly reflected in the magical mirror of his harmonious verse. Language, music, and imagery seem as plastic to his touch as Nature herself in the hands of his transforming deities. This power of vivid conception, mastery of expressive speech, and command over descriptive detail give to his separate pictures a concrete reality and completeness that fascinate the mind, and produce almost irresistibly a momentary belief in the truth even of his wildest fictions. There is a grave and artless, or intense and passionate, circumstantiality about his narrative that carries conviction captive, and forces you to believe that what you so vividly see and feel must be the reflex of an actual experience. There can hardly, for example, be a wilder fiction than the story of Phaeton; but the narrative is so full of life and reality that after the glowing lines have once impressed it on the mind, it becomes almost impossible to think of the zodiac without a vision of the splendid chariot with its fiery steeds breaking impetuously away from the unsteady driver, and carrying ruin, conflagration, and eclipse down the western steep of heaven.
Stories and episodes almost equally impressive and memorable might be selected from each of the marvellous fifteen books. The best qualities of Ovid's muse are, indeed, concentrated in the Metamorphoses,' and they have conspired to make it one of the most attractive and entertaining books ever written. The actual popularity of the poem, too, has been immense. Ovid is almost the one classical author whose light was never extinguished even in the darkest ages of ignorance and barbarism. By a curious fate the brilliant compendium of heathen mythology was often the only monument of antiquity to be found in monastic libraries, and it seems to have been thoroughly enjoyed by monkish scholars. At least it was often copied with zealous industry in the scriptorium, and moralised with pious ingenuity in the cell, when a profoundly serious and even religious author like Virgil was uncared for or unknown. In the middle ages the poem supplied a perfect storehouse of materials for the pictorial uses of the fine and decorative arts. Half the looms of Europe were busy working stories from Ovid into webs destined to brighten with life and colour the gloom of many a baronial and civic hall, as well as to protect and adorn many a noble lady's bower. After the revival of letters Ovid was read in all the schools and colleges of Christendom, and at the rise of vernacular literatures the ‘Metamorphoses' was amongst the earliest translations made from the classics into the mother tongues of Europe. I need hardly refer to the high estimation in which Ovid was held by many of the greatest modern poets, and especially amongst ourselves by Chaucer, Spenser, and perhaps most of all, by Milton. In his youth, at all events, Milton preferred Ovid to Virgil, and maintained that great as Homer. The lines from the well-known Latin elegy, in which this opinion is expressed, may be quoted from Cowper's version :
If peaceful days, in letter'd leisure spent
And, Virgil ! thou hadst won but second praise. To the list of appreciative poets Shakespeare must certainly be added. The higher qualities of Ovid's genius and work were indeed precisely of the kind to attract and fascinate the youthful author of - Venus and Adonis.' The life and colour, the passion and pathos, the endless variety of magical changes in the . Metamorphoses,' with their exquisite verbal combinations and metrical harmonies, would have an irresistible charm for his opening fancy and ardent poetic feeling.
But there is still another quality of Ovid's genius which, perhaps, affected Shakespeare at the outset of his career more than all the rest. Ovid is, I venture to think, the most dramatic of Roman poets. This is, perhaps, a more disputable claim than any already made on his behalf. At least, it is one which many critics would be indisposed to allow. They often speak of his tender and passionate scenes as though they were rhetorical exercises rather than outbursts of genuine feeling; but, although many artificial and rhetorical passages are to be found in Ovid's writings, the remarkable fact about the more important appears to me to be the wonderful freshness, variety, and even depth of real feeling they display. In the appreciation of his characteristics, Ovid has fared better at the hands of the poets than of the critics, and I cannot but think Dryden right, both as poet and critic, in the judgment he pronounces :— Though I see many excellent thoughts in Seneca, yet he, of them (the Roman poets], who had a genius most proper for the stage, was Ovid; he had a way of writing so fit to stir up a pleasing admiration and concernment, which are the objects of tragedy, and to show the various movements of a soul combating betwixt two different passions, that, had he lived in our age, or in his own could have writ with our advantages, no man but must have yielded to him. It is true that we are deprived of the best and more direct means of estimating Ovid's dramatic faculty in the loss of his one great tragedy, the Medea. But from the favourable judgment of not too friendly contemporary critics we may fairly conclude that it was a work of real and even remarkable dramatic power. In the most considerable of his extant works, the “Fasti' and · Metamorphoses, both the subject and form chosen are less fitted, and but for the result, one might have said least fitted, for the display of Ovid's peculiar
the subject of a serious epic than the national mythology, as it had already lost, or was fast losing, all real hold on the cultivated intelligence of the Roman world. In Ovid's day it had reached the stage of sceptical criticism, and was at many points exposed to popular ridicule and contempt. With regard to form, the natural bent of Ovid's mind was, as I have said, towards lyrical and dramatic poetry. In the earliest period of his career the poet himself had the clearest perception of this. At the beginning of the third book of his' Elegies' he says that, when meditating bis future work, he was visited by the rival muses of the buskin and the lyre, and that the former upbraided him with wasting his poetic gifts on trivial love ditties instead of concentrating them on the nobler task of depicting imperial woes in tragic verse. In reply to this appeal he pleads for a slightly extended indulgence of the lyric mood, intimating that when he had completed his . Elegies? he would betake himself to tragedy, for which, as he elsewhere tells us, he felt he had a special turn.
This early promise was not, however, redeemed. In after years, when be resolved to undertake more serious work, instead of devoting himself to the drama, he was led by the courtly and literary influences of his time to attempt an epic. The Emperor, in his desire to restore the older and more robust conditions of national life, favoured this more solid form of the poetical art, and Virgil's recent success had given it a temporary supremacy. With Virgil, however, the choice of the epic form was perfectly natural. It was in thorough harmony with the .. seriousness of his disposition and aims. But Ovid bad little of Virgil's : profound and absorbing interest in the conditions and continuity of national greatness, in the past and future of Rome as the instrument and representative of law, order, and progress in the world. He had still less of that brooding and almost oppressive sense of the mystery and burden of life which solemnised Virgil's mind, and becomes audible at times in the touching minor key of his verse. He is separated from Virgil, too, by position, as well as by temperament. During the interval between them the Roman world had passed from the deep shadows and destructive violence of the Republican conflict to the sunlight and repose of the Imperial day. Ovid lived in the sunlight and rejoiced in its warmth and brilliance till the sudden winter of his exile came. The ease and gaiety of this congenial urban life are well reflected in his minor writings. But alike in the subject and form chosen for his greatest works, there can be little doubt that he had originally a serious purpose in view. Among his other reforms, Augustus was anxious. to restore the old reverence for the national deities, and Ovid was evidently desirous of giving the Emperor's policy that kind of literary support of which the Æneid is the most brilliant example. He wished to do for the ritual and mythology what Virgil had done for the legendary history and antiquities of Rome. In other words, his aim was to revive popular interest in the deities and ceremonial of the national religion. He states at the beginning of the Fasti' that this was his design in dealing poetically with the national calendar.
And the Metamorphoses' opens with the gravity and earnestness befitting a religious poem. But if he ever seriously thought himself capable of producing a sacred epic, he certainly formed an erroneous estimate of his literary aptitudes and poetical gifts. In any case his joyous temper and dramatic genius soon triumphed over the original design, and instead of bringing the gods down from heaven and exhibiting them as objects of awe and reverence to men, he simply carried his contemporaries to Olympus, and filled the august seats with lively representatives of the morals and manners of the Augustan age. This has sometimes been urged as a fatal objection to the poem. It is said that in its treatment of the national mythology, instead of maintaining their antique majesty, Ovid had not only modernised the gods, but represented them in the most literal, if not in the lowest, sense as being of like passions with ourselves. The reply of course is, that after warming to his work the poet treated the subject naturally, under the inspiration and according to the impulses of his own genius. He could not help vitalising the stories, and he filled them with the only life he knew, that of human passion and mundane activities. Instead of a sacred epic, we have accordingly a series of brilliant stories and vivid dramatic sketches, often pathetic enough in their tenderness and tragical in their intensity. Although not dramatic in form, most of his longer and most important works are, in this way, thoroughly dramatic in substance. This is true not only of the Fasti'and · Metamorphoses,' but of the ' Heroic Epistles,' in which Ovid's dramatic genius is often displayed with singular vividness and power. The objections sometimes urged against them on the ground of anachronisms and external incongruities, such as, in the case of Ariadne, the want of any means of communication with Theseus, the absence of writing materials, and possibly her ignorance of the art, are ludicrously wide of the mark. The real question is whether, realising in essentials the character and circumstances of the heroines, the poet expresses with vividness and truth the poignant internal conflict of grief and hope, of tumultuous passion, agonising dread, and tender desire. It will hardly be denied that this is strikingly true with regard to many of the Epistles, and especially the best. On this ground they might well be described in the phrase of a modern poet as . Dramatic Lyrics.' But the “Metamorphoses' contain a number of powerful sketches that might appropriately come under the same heading. Dryden, with his usual critical sagacity and poetical insight, has noted this. Referring to a theory, since disproved, about the . Medea’ of Seneca, that it might possibly be the lost tragedy of Ovid, he says:
I am confident the · Medea' is none of his : for though I esteem it for the gravity and sententiousness of it, which he himself concludes to be suitable to a tragedy, ‘Omne genus scripti gravitate tragedia vincit,' vet it moves not my soul enough to judge that he, who in the epick way wrote