Amores 1.14 essay

"Bad Hair"

This poem, like Amores 1.7, is hard to like. Here the poet is not violent, but he seems to be conspicuously unsympathetic. There are moments of wit and cleverness, but taken at face value the poem is unpleasant, and it is difficult to see any satisfactory point in the end. I will suggest a reading that makes the poem more appealing (perhaps), and reads the poet as a less (or at least differently) annoying character.

As with Amores 1.7, we have to decide whether or not the poet is exaggerating. If we take the first couplet literally, we have to believe that all the girl’s hair (we may assume she is Corinna) has fallen out. If so, we also conclude that our poet is astonishingly heartless: a major cosmetic disaster of this sort is no time to be saying “I told you not to do it.” But what if he’s exaggerating? He didn’t want her to get her hair done, and now that there’s a slight problem he overreacts. Could it be that she simply got it cut shorter than either one of them had expected?

Our poet goes on to talk at length about how much he liked Corinna’s hair the way it is (was) naturally: very long, very delicate, a beautiful color (lines 3–12). It was also easy to manage, needing no pins or combs, which could hurt anyone who messed with it (lines 13–18). In fact Corinna had looked wonderful with her hair left loose, like a Bacchante (lines 19–22). Again, if her hair really fell out, this is pretty tactless. But comparison with a Bacchante points in a very different direction: for a girl to have long and messy hair, as we saw with Amores 1.5 and 1.7, suggested that she was (or had been) ready for sex.

This leads to a more explicit discussion of the process that has done so much harm (lines 23–26). The emphasis is on the use of hot curling irons, which are perhaps the instruments most immediately responsible for any hair loss. The poet had warned quite explicitly about their use, on the grounds that he liked Corinna’s hair the way it was (lines 27–30). Tellingly, his interest in her turns out, again, to be sexual: her hair had been as nice as that of Apollo and Bacchus (Dionysus), but it was also as nice as that of the wet and naked Venus (lines 31–34).

At this point our poet returns to his initial and problematic proposition of “It’s all your fault.” There’s no point complaining about the lost hair, and no point in looking in the mirror; the only remedy is to forget about her appearance, indeed herself (lines 35–38). Is this because what he really wants is for her to think about him?

Moreover, it wasn’t some external force, such as witchcraft or illness, that caused the hair loss. Corinna put the “poison” on herself (lines 39–44). So now she has to wear a wig, and she feels sad when people praise her fake hair instead of the real thing (lines 45–50). In fact she’s in tears (the poet is now sympathetic), just sitting with the old hair on her lap (lines 51–54).

The poet ends with words of encouragement: everything will be alright in the end (lines 55–56). This makes sense, at some level, if we take the story at face value: hair usually does grow back, even if it all falls out. We can also, on this reading, see the final couplet as to some extent redeeming the poet: Corinna, he says, will look great when her real hair grows back, and, we infer, he will be supporting her during the long months before that happens.

But I want to suggest that the point is somewhat different. Corinna is sad because she doesn’t like her new cut, and will be wearing a wig to compensate. Her long messy hair had been sexy, and now it’s shorter, and covered up by a wig, and thus not sexy at all. But wigs are easy to remove, and he is hoping to remove it soon: postmodo (line 56) can mean “presently” as well as “later.” She will be back in his bed, and her hair will still be the way he likes it: nativa conspiciere coma (line 56).

Suggested Reading

Boyd, Barbara Weiden. Ovid’s Literary Loves: Influence and Innovation in the Amores. Ann Arbor, 1997. See pp.117–122.