Amores 1.12 essay

"Shooting messengers"

This poem, as we have said, forms a pair with Amores 1.11. In the first poem we learned about the tabellae the poet sent to his girl, and in this one we learn that he has failed. 

The most immediate point of the poem is to show that the poet takes this rejection hard. We are treated to a display of invective, humorously directed at the innocent vehicles of this communication, with particular attention to the tabellae themselves. The poet attacks the hairdresser Nape for letting him down; she seems now to be a drunkard, like Dipsas in Amores 1.8 (lines 3–6). He then directs his wrath at the tabellae themselves, which he hopes will come to a disgraceful end (lines 7–14). He supplements this with an attack on the man who cut the wood for the tabellae (lines 15–16), and on the tree that produced the wood (lines 17–20). He was, in fact, crazy to entrust his amores to tabellae, which are really only suitable for legal and financial documents (lines 21–26). The tabellae are “two-faced,” in both senses of the word (lines 27–28). And he hopes they grow old and gray, and waste away.

It is human nature to curse an inanimate object when we lose our temper, and the literary version of such an attack was a recognized form of literary humor, exemplified most famously in Latin in Horace’s Ode 2.13, attacking a tree. (Horace’s poem, along with Propertius 3.23 on tabellae, are two important predecessors for Ovid’s poem.) But this does not mean that our poet is being reasonable. The girl has turned him down, and instead of facing facts he lashes out at innocent intermediaries.

It is also worth suggesting that, as with Amores 1.11, the tabellae refer not just to simple messages, but also to poetry. The poet tells us, after all, that the tabellae have been entrusted with “his amores” (line 21); even if this is not quite his Amores, the word had been associated with love poems from the time of Cornelius Gallus (for the title of Ovid’s collections see McKeown vol. 1, 103–107). 

Moreover, this double sense of tabellae provides, again, a much-needed point to the final couplet. On the face of it, the poem ends simply with a final curse: I want you, tabellae, to be ground down with a burdensome old age, and I want your wax to whiten with an ugly disuse (Dipsas was cursed in similar terms, Amores 1.8.113–114). The personification is striking, but is not in itself enough to provide the poem with much punch. But if the tabellae refer to poetry, things get more interesting. The poet relied on his poetry to work its magic on the girl: poetry could bestow immortality on a poet and his girlfriend, because good poetry is immortal. That was the premise of Amores 1.3, and the poet reverted to it in Amores 1.10; the girl could reasonably ask for a poem. In Amores 1.11 the poet has sent her tabellae: a note, but also a poem. We now see why the poet is so upset: the poem he sent didn’t actually do the job, because it wasn’t good enough. Far from claiming that it will be immortal, the poet in the final couplet says the opposite: he wants it to disappear without a trace.