The Art of Love by Ovid


Before I can review Ovid: Robert Heinlein once said that “every generation thinks that they invented sex”-that’s certainly true of both the generation that idolized Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land, and their intellectual progeny that rule the roost today, albeit in radically different ways. Say what you will about the Boomers in the 60s, at least they were having fun with their frivolous sexuality-and truth be told, I do envy their lifestyle a little bit.

In contrast, today’s generation are so sexually maladroit, it’s almost impossible to define a concrete sexual profile for it: from MGTOWs to MRAs, to PUAs and sex-negative feminists and the rainbow-haired harridans urging women to be sluts, sex today is terrible, but at least it’s unique, right?

Having read The Art of Love recently (the Rolfe Humphries translation from the University of Indiana, 1957), I can safely say that much of the content of this book from pre-Christian Rome is relevant to modern life, both in romance specifically and day-to-day life in general. In many ways, there is nothing new under the sun:

The book is divided into four books: The Loves, the Art of Beauty, The Art of Love, and Remedies for Love, but before Ovid’s text actually begins, the translator makes a statement that members of the ‘sphere will instantly recognize (and by that I mean it’s a statemenet I made it in the first paragraph)-that sex today is taken “too seriously”, and it’s not frivolous and fun like it was in the past: “The elegance of past sexuality imposes a considerable burden on us, for our language is…very much unlike Ovid’s. At best we employ the idioms of Freud and Jung, and at other times, even in University circles, affecting a very non-university vernacular indeed” (Page 6).

And with that, Ovid’s text begins: The foreword of the book has a breezy, self-deprecating quip to set the mood, showing that this particular literary device is also older than dirt: “Five books we once were…Ovid saw fit to cut us down a bit. Now there are three, and if we still give no pleasure, try taking two of us away” (Page 14).

It is here that you’ll notice the biggest problem with this translation-it doesn’t have much poetry in it. While I’m sure the Latin-To-English translations have retained the meaning of the words, grammar, and syntax, the lyrical qualities are lacking. While they are all written in the stanza format, the translation only rhymes whenever it feels like it-occasionally you’ll get some excellent lines:

“[lord apollo],  let the laurels be mine

to wear from the purest fountain pour,

water for my thirst, let lovers find

pleasure in me, envy stirs no more

When men to dust and ashes are consigned

I shall live after my final breath,

and a part of me survive my death”(p. 39)

But most of the stanzas have each line just be a sentence without rhyme or rhythm:

“Don’t hold out the crimes of Medea and Procris, women who murdered their sons in rage.

They had motives of perfidious husbands, who is your Tereus, who is your Jason?

Tigresses in the Armenian Jungles wouldn’t do this, nor would the lioness do a deed…” (p.60)

I admit, I’m not an expert on Rome, and certainly not its poetry and musical stylings. But I’m pretty sure poets of antiquity weren’t writing formless, rhyme-less run-on sentences (er, I’m sorry, “Free verse”) and then chopping them up arbitrarily into stanzas, Sherman Alexie style. And yet, despite this clunky translation, Ovid’s bastardized free verse is still better than, say, Richard Blanco’s. 

But I have come today not to analyze the form of the poetry, but it’s substance-in other words, the message it seeks to convey, and how it is relevant to life today. And in that respect, Ovid hits it out of the damn ballpark.

Before he even discusses love, he discusses how being a professional poet, especially one who wrote about love, was seen as something “frivolous” as opposed to a more hardy profession like the military or farming. This is of course similar to debates over the uselessness of college degrees today. In this same poem, he discusses how love is something that is submitted to, and is not necessarily positive: “Modesty and conscience are love’s prisoners…folly, illusion and madness are love’s lieutenants” (page 16)

As Book 1, “The Loves”, continues, we see several poems that subvert the modern paradigm of “the past was a brutal patriarchy and modernity liberated us with organized cuckoldry and debauchery”:

Ovid has a bout of casual sex with recurring sexual partner Corinna, illustrating that women of antiquity sought-and enjoyed-sex without commitment: “Noon it was and I was on my bed…and there Corinna entered, with her gown loosened a little…I pulled the dress away, pro forma she resisted more or less, it offered little cover i must say, why resist to save this dress. Soon she stood there naked…” (Poem 5, page 21)

Poem 7 is a poem from the perspective of a domestic abuser wracked with guilt, completely destroying the “rule of thumb” narrative and similar nonsense that “everybody knows”: “I saw her quiver in fear, as the aspen sakes in the breeze…then I knew myself for a scoundrel…I wanted to fall to her feet and beg forgiveness, claw at me, spare neither eyes nor hair…” (page 25)

Humorously, Poem 8 shows that the bane of neomasculine men everywhere is far older than we think: it deals with an elderly spinster telling a young beauty to, essentially, jump on the “cock carousel” and embrace “hypergamy”-“That young fellow is stuck on you, he has plenty of money, but you don’t have nice enough clothes…Get an idea of a man out of the presents he gives to you. Pretty girls ought to have fun, purity is for wallflowers…Don’t think one or two will satisfy you, the more the better…After a while, play them, and let them think you love them, then take what you can from them”.

Even more shockingly, this old woman advises the girl to, in essence, do a shit test: “What did Penelope mean when she gave Odysseus’ bow to the suitors? She tested their strength and virility”. The poem ends with Ovid leaving the room in disgust, invoking the gods to give her a long and painful life, which is, admittedly kind of an impotent response.

Poem 14 is about a woman who ruins her beauty with dye and a bad haircutand so on.

At this point, you will probably notice that, despite more than a few poems dealing with complications of romance caused by the machinations of slaves and eunuchs, many of the issues Ovid deals with are identical to issues men today struggle with:

From a man’s willful denial of his own cuckoldry (The Loves, Book 2, Poem 2), to suffering from “one-itis” (“If it a shame to be enslaved to a woman by love, then I am convicted of shame”), to not being able to get an erection (The Loves, Book 3, Poem 7), to desperately arguing that your education is worth something (throughout the book), Ovid is a kindred spirit to many of those reading his book, and this review.

In addition to just writing about love, he advises readers on how to cultivate it-“for love is an art that can be trained, like fencing or horsemanship” (page 140). Here too, much of his advice is similar to the common sense advice you’d find on any Game site worth its salt: A woman won’t come down from heaven, you have to go hunting for one; you must be confident amongst women, for women don’t like simps; a man should not be a frilly dandy, but also not a slob; and, most importantly, it’s no big deal if they say no, for it costs nothing to try.

Ovid also gives advice to the girls on beauty, and this advice too sounds similar to what neomasculine writers advocate: He admits that some women are more blessed than others, but to an extent all girls can cultivate beauty with time and effort, “just as a grove of olives is cultivated” (page 100). He also advocates cultivation of a beautiful character, as physical beauty is fleeting but a beautiful soul lasts for life, before launching into a long poem about different liniments and hair dyes women can use. Advice on conduct is also given, such as “not laughing like a braying jenny” (p. 161), learning domestic skills, etc. While this passage will likely rankle Current Year readers, it is worth pointing out that the fact he is advising girls in general on sexuality, especially with lines such as “the key to good sex is for both parties to feel good”, is remarkably, for lack of a better term, progressive.

Having admitted his susceptibility to one-itis, and being overly devoted to a woman, he then details his methods for overcoming this in Remedies For Love. Separate yourself from the object of affection, busy yourself (be it with work, study, or sex), look at other women and compare them favorably to yours, and if all else fails, stare directly into the vagina after sex and realize how disgusting the act is.

As the work comes to an end, Ovid confidently states that he will be heralded as a great poet: “Soon you will pay your vows to the poet, men and women healed by my songs”. Judging by the fact that it’s 2016 and I’m reviewing his book of poetry on a machine he couldn’t begin to comprehend, I think he achieved it.

In the end, The Art of Love hits many of the same points that we discuss, and is thus worth reading. While it’s not perfect (namely, the translation issues detailed above, and how in a few poems, Ovid comes off as a bit of a beta orbiter), it just may teach you a few things, whether it be about romance, sex, or how the past was not what you think it was. Indeed, I will likely come back to The Art of Love at some point to refer to specific passages.

You can buy it here