The society into which Ovid was received after his refusal of the quæstorship, and in which he gained that intimate knowledge of women which make his love poems such masterpieces of feminine psychology, was one of the most brilliant that the world has ever known.
Out of the welter of conflicting forces and rival ambitions which had so long distracted the Roman State, the crafty and patient Augustus had emerged triumphant. The era of bloodshed, of political strife and social insecurity was over. The shadow of civil conflict which had so long oppressed men's minds had at length departed, and, even if the last vestiges of political freedom had vanished with it, the loss was forgotten, at least temporarily, in the joyfulness with which the dawning of what promised, and indeed proved, to be a long era of peace and settled government was universally acclaimed.
The age in which Ovid flourished was singularly favourable to the cultivation of the arts. It was a luxurious, pleasure-loving age if you will, but at the same time it was an age of extraordinary elegance and refinement, and Ovid was one of the choicest and most typical of its products. He flung himself with zest into this brilliant and witty society, a society which he was destined to immortalize in his verse, and its members, recognizing in him a rare and congenial spirit, welcomed him with open arms. He was, in fact, an immediate and an immense success. Being a man of breeding and education, as well as the possessor of brilliant natural gifts, no door, however exclusive, was closed against him. He was a delightful companion, a brilliant talker, a tremendous favourite with the women, as well as a most observant and penetrating student of their psychology. "The Loves," the first of the three poems included in this volume, was also the first work published by Ovid. Originally, as the poet himself tells us, it consisted of five books, subsequently compressed into three, and the "elegies" of which it is made up are for the most part written to or concerned with his mistress. Who the Corinna was whom he celebrates in his "Loves" is, as we have stated, unknown. She was clearly a woman of some social standing. In an early elegy he commends himself to her favour by the merits of his poetry
the purity of his morals, and by the vow he makes to her of his unchangeable fidelity. "I am none of these," he avers, "who love a hundred women at a time; I am no fickle philanderer. Whatsoever the tale of years the fates may spin for me, I will pass them at thy side, and dying be lamented by thee." At length, after a long siege, she surrenders, and Ovid is in the seventh heaven. Alas for the frailty of lovers' vows! We turn but a page or two, and we find him cursing himself for laying violent hands upon her in a fit of rage. But amantium iræ! It's soon made up; they are fast friends again, and in a poem of singular beauty he upbraids the Dawn for hastening her coming, and so tearing him from her side.
Women in Ovid's time were no less slaves to fashion than they are in ours. In these days of bobbing and shingling and permanent waving and henna dyeing, what a note of actuality rings in the reproaches he addresses to Corinna for dyeing and crimping her hair till she has nearly lost it all, and is compelled to conceal her baldness with a toupet made from the tresses of a German slave-girl! How many a lover in these days has had to deplore that his Corinna, or his Neobule, or his Cynara has wilfully deprived herself of the aureole with which the gods had endowed her.
A little while ago he was vowing eternal fidelity to Corinna, yet a few pages further on, incorrigible rogue, he is confessing that every type of beauty sets his heart on fire. Here is a girl who is shy and demure. That's enough, the flame's alight. Here's one that's out for prey. Good! She's bound to be an adept at the art of love. Here's one that's learned. He loves her because she's clever. And this one's quite unlearned. Her naïveté enthrals him. This girl tells him he's a better poet than Callimachus. How nice of her! This one says he's no poet at all. Yet he longs to have her in his arms. And so, dark or fair, short or tall, slim or
plump, the girlish novice, the woman of experience he adores them all. "In a word, of all the beauties they rave about in Rome, there's none whose lover I am not fain to be."
But if men were deceivers ever, it is no less certain that
"Souvent femme varie,
Bien fol qui s'y fie,"
for in the very next elegy we find him upbraiding his mistress, whom he has detected acting falsely towards him. "I saw you making eyes at him. I saw what you wrote in wine on the table. I saw you kiss him, when you thought I was asleep. And what a kiss it was! Not the sort of kiss a girl gives her brother, but such as a loving mistress might bestow upon her eager lover." And then they make it up and she kisses him; kisses him so voluptuously that all his old suspicions are aroused again, for he wonders where she learnt the art to such perfection. "Was it that fellow who taught her?--And in bed too, perhaps!"
And now Corinna accuses him of carrying on an intrigue with her maid Cypassis. He is very indignant and swears by all that's holy that he's innocent of the charge. How could she imagine he would do such a thing, with a mere servant-girl too! And then, no sooner is he alone with Cypassis than he asks her in tones of amazement: "How ever did she find out? Who, or what, could have given us away? Anyhow, I satisfied her and she thinks it's all right. I got you out of a nice scrape, and now in payment for that good deed, my dusky Cypassis, grant me your favours to-day. What, you refuse? Nay then, in that case I shall turn King's evidence and tell your mistress all that we have done, when and where and how." We may be sure that Cypassis did not persist in her refusal.
And so it goes on to the end of the chapter. Ovid
[paragraph continues] "could resist everything except temptation," and temptations were so plentiful in Rome. He loved Corinna--in his fashion. But there were many interludes--on his part and on hers. She came to consoling herself, and that liberally. He knew, poor fellow; and yet he could not give her up. "I have had a lot to put up with," he exclaims one day, "and I've put up with it a great deal too long! I am completely out of patience with you. I've done with you. No, no more kisses; it's no good talking like that any more; your words don't move me now. I'm not the madman I used to be." Brave words these. But no sooner are they out of his mouth than something catches at his heart. And forthwith he begins to chant his palinode. "Oh, this wavering heart of mine!" he cries. "How it is wrenched this way and that, torn simultaneously by love and hate. And love, I think, is winning. . . . I can live neither with you nor without you. Helpless, indeed, am I!" And then he surrenders completely. "Forgive me," he implores her, "by all the gods who lend themselves so often to thy false oaths; by that face that seems to me a thing divine, and by thine eyes which have made captives of mine."
A striking contrast this with the sane, smiling, softly ironic philosophy of Horace. "Boy, fetch the unguents and the garlands and the wine and then go round to Neaera's; tell her I want her and bid her make haste. But if the janitor's surly and you have any fuss, give it up and come away. Passion grows cool when the hair turns grey. I shouldn't have stood such a thing, though, in my young days, when Plancus was Consul." Heart-whole Horace had managed to remain, even when jilted by Pyrrha, who, reclining on her couch of roses, shines down the ages with the clear-cut perfection of the cameo. "Who's the happy youth now, Pyrrha? For whom are you braiding your fair tresses, you model of simple grace? Poor fellow, he little knows what's in
store for him who thinks you will always be sparkling and lovely as the sunlit sea. He'll find out to his cost how suddenly the squalls come on. I was nearly done for once, but thank heaven I escaped." For Horace women were an interlude, a pastime. If he felt inclined for Lydia, or Glycera, or Neobule, and she was free to come, so much the better. If not, he just shrugged his shoulders and thought of other things.
But Ovid, despite his own peccadilloes, and her passades, could not live without his Corinna. He had not yet acquired the wisdom which came with later years and which he set forth in such masterly fashion in his Remedia Amoris. Home is not home without her. "Behold me," he writes to her from the land of his birth, "behold me at Sulmo, in the land of the Peligni. It is a little spot, but bright and clear with its streams of sparkling water. Though the scorching sun may crack the earth, though the dog-star shines its fiercest, limpid streamlets wind their way across the fields of the Peligni, and there the grass is always green. The land with corn is rich and with the vine is richer still. The olive, too, flourishes in profusion on the light, loose soil. The rivulets, meandering among, the meadows, clothe the moist earth with shadowy verdure.
"But here my love is not. Or stay--my love is here, but not the object of my love. I would not live in heaven itself without you." He seems, he tells her, to be dwelling not in the fair land of the Peligni, not in the familiar home of his ancestors, but in the heart of Scythia, or among the grim Cilicians, or the Britons who smear themselves with green stain--and all because she is not there beside him. The conclusion is charming: "If thou hast any pity for me in my lonely state, begin to make thy words bear fruit in deeds." She had promised never to quit his side:--"Quick, up with you into your little chaise, and with your own hands shake the reins about your horses' flying manes. And you, ye
swelling hills, abase yourselves before her as she comes; ye paths in the winding vales, be smooth beneath her feet."