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Life of Ovid

After a lapse of more than eighteen centuries little can be expected to be added that is new to former accounts of a Poet so well known and so highly esteemed as Ovid. The reader of this slight sketch, therefore, must not look for any novelty of information in it, for such has long ago been unattainable, but must be satisfied if the facts which it contains are taken with due fidelity and diligence from the accounts of preceding writers. This all that has been attempted in the present case; and as the best authorities on the subject have been consulted, it is presumed the Life of Ovid which follows will be as full and correct as any that have gone before it.

Publius Ovidius Naso, one of the finest poets of the Augustan age, was descended from the ancient family of Nasones, who had preserved the dignity of Roman Knights from the original institution of that order. He was born at Sulmo, a city of the Peligni, on the 14th of the Calends of April, in the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa, who were both slain at the battle of Mutina, against Antony, being the year of Rome 710, and forty-three years before the birth of our Saviour. From his earliest youth he was much addicted to poetry, in which he soon evinced an excellent fancy and great natural powers; but being continually reproved by his father for following so unprofitable a study, he, though with an unwilling mind, forsook the pleasant walks of the Muses to travel in the rugged paths of the law. For this purpose he became the pupil of Aurelius Fuscus and Portius Latro, of whose learning and eloquence he was a great admirer. Seneca records the improvements he made under these eminent masters, Ovid being named by him among the principal orators of those times. His speeches were witty, brief, and full of persuasion; yet still the poet so predominated over the orator, they might be called rather poetic prose than rhetorical declamations. He passed through the minor forms of the forum with credit, and was advanced to be one of the triumviri, a post of great dignity and importance, having cognizance of capital causes.

At this period he was noticed by Augustus, who honoured him with permission to wear the laticlave, a distinction peculiar to senators and persons of consular dignity. Had he continued at the bar, the favour of the emperor might probably have been further instrumental in promoting his welfare; but inheriting an easy fortune by the death of his father and elder brother, he grew impatient of the toil of legal studies and the clamours of litigious assemblies. He therefore retired from all public affairs, and in that leisure in which he so much delighted pursued those beloved studies which he had with such reluctance abandoned. Yet so great was the mutual affection between him and Varro, that in a short time after he accepted of a command under him, and served in the wars of Asia, from whence, returning by the way of Athens, he remained at that celebrated city until he had attained the Greek language in its utmost perfection.

Returning from Greece to Italy, his fine parts were soon distinguished by the Roman wits, and introduced him to Horace, Tibullus, Macer, Severus, Gallus, and other eminent poets and wits of the day. He himself enumerates these writers among the number of his friends, and says, that some of them communicated their writings to him, but tells us that he had only seen Virgil, Ovid being only twenty-four years old when that great poet died. His conversation was affable and agreeable, and his manners so polished that he was said to be the most accomplished gentleman in the Augustan court, where he was so well received, that not a few of consular dignity, and ladies of the highest rank, honoured him with their friendship, and, to show their estimation of his genius, wore his picture in rings cut in precious stones.

Ovid had an ample patrimony in the territories of Sulmo, but he resided mostly at Rome, or retired to his pleasant gardens in the Appian Way, where he was accustomed to recreate himself with the Muses. He was three times married: his first wife probably was not his own choice, he having married her while he was yet a youth, and therefore he soon afterwards repudiated her; nor was he more fortunate in his second wife, for, as was frequently the custom among the Romans, he divorced her also soon after their marriage, although she was a lady of noble birth and unexceptionable conduct. His third wife, Perilla, he has often celebrated for her beauty and virtue; he instructed her in poetry, and, till his death, held her in the highest esteem and regard: nor was her affection in the least inferior to his, for during the time of his banishment she lived like a sorrowful widow, and continued an exemplary faithfulness to him to the end.

The best part of our poet's life was passed in the enjoyment of his friends and the Muses; but, in his declining years, by some indiscretion, or the accidental discovery of some passages at court, he incurred the displeasure of Augustus and by him was banished, at fifty years of age, to Tomos (now Tomeswar), a maritime town in Lower Moesia, on the coast of the Euxine or Black Sea, about thirty-six miles from the most southern mouth of the Danube. The cause of his banishment is not precisely known, and various conjectures have been started on the subject. By some it has been asserted, that he was banished for the too great freedom of his Elegies and his Art of Love; but this seems an improbable conjecture for neither the age in which he lived, nor the court which he adorned, were very remarkable for severity of manners or correctness of morals. Another conjecture is, that he was banished for some favors which he received from Julia, the daughter of Augustus, whom he is supposed to have celebrated under the name of Corinna in his Elegies. But that this conjecture is unfounded, is proved (as Aldus Manutius has shown) by Ovid's saying, that his exile was owing to two causes, his writing amorous verses, and to his having been an undesigned spectator of the guilt of others. His banishment not having taken place till he was fifty years old, although his acquaintance with Corinna commenced when he was about twenty; and his avowed attachment to Corinna, even in those verses where he deplores his misfortune and disgrace, are circumstances utterly inconsistent with the suggestion that he had a criminal intercourse with Julia, or that Julia was shadowed under the name of Corinna. It may be gathered, also, from the whole contexture of the verses that are made to that mistress, that Corinna was not a woman of the highest quality.

Whatever his fault was, Augustus continued inexorable, nor could the most submissive importunities and flattering addresses of our poet, though often repeated, get him recalled, or even so much as removed to a better place of banishment. He praised the Emperor with such an extravagance as bordered upon idolatry, and made an idol of him literally, as soon as he heard of his death, for he not only composed his elegy, but consecrated a chapel to him, where he went every morning to invocate him. The successor, no doubt, had his share in this adoration, and was probably the real motive to it; but all proved ineffectual. The court continued as inexorable under Tiberius as it had been under Augustus, and the unhappy Ovid died in exile at near sixty years of age. His death, according to Apuleius, happened the same day with that of the historian Livy. He was, as he has described himself, of a pale complexion, middle stature, slender, and not large-limbed, yet strong and nervous. The barbarians among whom he died so greatly honoured and respected him, that they made a general mourning at his death, and buried him in a stately monument before the gates of their city. The territory of Tomeswar now forms part of the vast empire of Russia, and a few years ago the remains of our Poet's monument were discovered. It was then designed by the Empress Catherine (a princess of magnificent intentions), to have built a city on the spot, which was to have borne the name of the bard; but as it is easier to design than to perform, to intend than to execute, the imperial suggestion of building a town in honnor of the poet, like a romantic vision fell to the ground.

It now only remains for us to say something of our author as a writer. If the imitation of nature be the business of a poet, Ovid is unrivalled, especially in the descriptions of the passions. His thoughts, which are the pictures of those passions, are such as naturally arise from those disorderly emotions of our spirits. It is not speaking of his wit too partially, to observe, that such was the copiousness of it, and such its exuberance, that he often writes too pointedly for his subject, that he often makes his personages speak more eloquently than propriety of character will admit of. Yet this is only the fault of a great and polished genius, and he seems to have discovered this imperfection in his riper years, for his later productions are free from it But this alloy in Ovid's writing is sufficiently recompensed by his other excellencies; and, indeed, the fault itself is not without its beauties, for the most severe critic can scarcely but be pleased with the prodigality of his wit, though, at the same time, he could have wished that the master of it had been a better manager. "Every thing he does," to quote the language of a great poet of our own country, Dryden, who studied and translated Ovid with equal care and elegance, "becomes him; and if sometimes he appears too gay, yet there is a secret gracefulness of youth which accompanies his writings, though the staidness and sobriety of age be wanting. In the most material part, which is the conduct, it is certain that he seldom has miscarried."

The Art of Love has been generally admitted to be one of the most perfect pieces of Ovid. Indeed it was a subject to which the whole business of his life was devoted, and therefore it was scarcely possible he could fail of treating it in a masterly manner.

So gentle was our poet's Muse, that he was never known to write but one severe poem, and that was against Cornificus, (under the feigned name of Ibis,) who solicited his wife in his absence, and laboured against the repeal of his banishment.

The works of Ovid are well known, and his poetical talents have justly ranked him among the first of Roman poets. But it is not necessary here to speak at length of any except such as compose the present volume. With regard to the "Art of Love," it may justly be styled a correct and finished poem, abounding in graceful thoughts and happy allusions, and the whole exquisitely polished. It is recorded of the Emperor Aelius Verus, that he was so delighted with this work that he often read it in bed, and laid it under his pillow when he went to sleep. Latter critics are equally profuse in their praises of the same work; and Ciofanus says, that Ovid was so excellently skilled in the Latin tongue, that if the Roman language was utterly lost, and nothing left but his works, they alone would be sufficient to retrieve it. Some over-scrupulous persons have affected to perceive danger in some of the maxims inculcated in the Art of Love, but their greatest offence seems to have been in the title of that work; and they have overlooked the circumstance, that our author has prescribed a Remedy for Love, which may serve to correct any of the mischiefs that are likely to spring from the first named treatise. Indeed, some ingenious commentators have supposed, that Ovid designed, under the allegory of physical and sensual love, to recommend to his disciples excellent rules to acquire the virtues and science represented under the name of the Muses, or ladies of various beauty, who were to be met with everywhere, especially in great academies, in the schools, in courts, in walks, and in holy places, figured by the theatres, galleries, porticos, and temples of the Roman deities, where great assemblies were held. By putting this interpretation upon the Art of Love, it will then be easy to make the reading of it not only agreeable and innocent, but profitable.

Of his Elegies it may be observed, that some of them are tender and delicate, others witty and sprightly, and a few more free and unreserved in their expression. The best are those which have a pathetic character, for as they were composed, for the most, to alleviate the melancholy hours of our poet's banishment, it was natural to suppose that his Muse would find more relief in tender and soothing strains than when employed on gayer subjects, which would only serve to remind him of his former condition, and aggravate his unhappiness, by fruitless comparisons of his present with his past situation. The style of them varies according to the rank of the person to whom they are addressed, or the subjects on which they are composed. The style of those addressed to his mistress is tenderly passionate and courtly; that of the Elegies to Nape and Bagoe, his mistress's waiting-women, is in a lower style, and more suitable to the conditions of the persons to whom they are addressed. When Ovid treats of the immortality of the Muses, as he does in the last elegy of the first book, or pours out a mournful strain to the memory of Tibullus, we are equally delighted with the grandeur of his ideas, and melted with the tenderness of his sentiments. In a word, Ovid is, throughout, a perfect poet, and, as such, will always give delight to readers of sensibility and taste. His views of nature are so clear, his delineations of the passions are so just, and his reflections upon them so correct, that he must be a reader frigid, even to indifference, whose fancy is not delighted, whose heart is not warmed, or whose judgment is not improved, by his writings.

We shall conclude this brief sketch of a man whose name will endure as long as poetry exists, with the following epitaph, which he composed for himself, and which is exquisitely beautiful for its simplicity: “Here Ovid lies, who sung of tender love,
Yet liv'd the danger of his wit to prove;
To you, true lovers, he makes one request,
As you pass by, to say, - May Ovid rest.


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