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39: OVID REDIVIVUS

May 24, 2014

#39:  OVID REDIVIVUS.  Scholars must hate it when poets nip in and grab the glory.  There they work, in learned obscurity, and then Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf becomes a best-seller.  The scholars of classical Latin poetry are probably used to talking amongst themselves; Latin has fallen out of the curriculum, the older translations have petrified and Latin poetry has been stubbornly resistant to the aesthetics of twentieth-century verse.  So when Ted Hughes did his Tales from Ovid (Farrar, Strauss, 1999)—twenty-four selections from the Metamorphoses, including a great, rumbling creation myth—it too became a bestseller, probably because of Hughes’s rep, but also because for many readers it must have been the first experience of Latin poetry that had the thrill of an audible, living voice.  (An elderly gentleman in Blackwell’s in London, watching me cull through a pile of poetry books trying to figure out which I could afford, tapped the Hughes and said “You should buy this.  This really is something special.”  He was right.)  Another living voice is David Slavitt, a prolific and gifted translator.  In his collection Ovid's Poems of Exile (Johns Hopkins, 1990) these poems, written by Ovid near the end of his life in hopes of talking himself out of Romanian exile and back to civilized Rome, have a special poignance to them, because we know what he couldn’t: that his poems would fail, and Ovid would die still exiled from his wife, his friends and his beloved city.  Slavitt captures both the craft and the heartbreak.  Ovid’s banishment took place exactly two thousand years ago, in 8 AD:  with the help of Hughes and Slavitt, he speaks still.

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