Amores 1.1 essay

“Ovid finds his muse.”

The first poem functions, as we might expect, as an introduction to the whole book: we are introduced to the aspiring poet, to the genre of his poems, and perhaps also to their subject. At one level the wit is easy to appreciate, but for me the poem gives the first example of a problem presented by many of the poems in this book: the question of coherence. Ovid’s poems, in my opinion, are supposed to be satisfying: when we get to the end, we should feel that we have seen the point, and that the poem is a coherent whole. Often, as in this first poem, we do not at first have that sense of coherence, and my suggestion is that, when that happens, we take it as a challenge to read more closely. manuscript

The poem begins with a metrical and generic joke. The poet was preparing to write epic poetry: his first word is the same as the first word of the Aeneid, and he would have continued writing in dactylic hexameter, except that apparently Cupid “stole a foot” from every second line (lines 3–4), creating elegiac couplets instead, the metrical form particularly associated with love poetry. We thus have a witty variation of a recusatio, a standard poetic theme particularly appropriate for the first poem of a collection: poets typically explain why they have to refuse (recusatio means “refusal” or “excuse”) to write the kind of patriotic poetry that their patrons or their public might be demanding.

The poet responds with a complaint, addressed to Cupid. He has no right to interfere in the serious business of writing poetry: other gods stay within their appointed spheres, and Cupid should do so as well. Like the good rhetorician he is, Ovid offers a few exempla to drive home his protest (lines 5–16). He then adds that he doesn’t like it when every second line is kind of feeble (lines 17–18), and on top of that adds that he doesn’t have anyone (boy or girl) to write love poetry about (lines 19–20). 

But Cupid responds to these objections by shooting the poet with one of his famous arrows, so that he is now a stereotypical wretched lover; love now reigns in his “empty heart” (line 26). Some scholars have taken this empty heart (in vacuo pectore) at face value: the poet is in love, but his heart is empty, so he must simply be in love with love itself. Others have argued, I think correctly, that this empty heart is one that had been empty, but is empty no longer; previously the poet had no one to write love poetry about, as we saw, but thanks to Cupid’s arrow he has now fallen in love.

On most readings, the last four lines are a little disappointing. Having become a lover, of whatever kind, the poet returns to his own poetry: he is now going to write elegiac couplets, with lines of six feet, the hexameters, followed by lines of five feet, the pentameters (lines 27–28). He concludes by invoking the muse of elegy, first in the poetic language we might expect, with talk of her golden hair and myrtle wreath (line 29), but then in language that is ironically pedestrian, emphasizing the mere numerical fact that an elegiac couplet has eleven feet (line 30).

I would argue that in fact the poet never loses sight of his new lover: thanks to Cupid’s arrow, as we saw, he is miserably in love, and with someone in particular. It is this new lover who is responsible for his change to elegiac couplets, the meter for lovers (lines 27–28). And it is this new lover who emerges triumphantly at the end: it is she who is the poet’s new muse, wearing a myrtle garland on her golden hair, and inspiring the poetry that is to come, written of course in elegiac couplets.

Suggested Reading

Moles, J. “The Dramatic Coherence of Ovid, Amores 1.1 and 1.2,” Classical Quarterly 41 (1991): 551–554.

Image: the first page of the Amores, from St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 864: Composite manuscript containing works of Horace, Lucan, Sallust, and Ovid. (http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/list/one/csg/0864)

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