Amores 1.15 essay

"Poetic immortality"

The final poem of a Greek or Roman poetry book typically offered some kind of closure (for details see McKeown’s discussion of this poem). A sphragis (Greek for “seal”) would say something about who the poet was (Propertius 1.22), or about the nature of the poetry (Horace, Odes 3.30). Such poems were typically short—more epilogues than formal conclusions—but they did not have to be. And such poems often proclaimed that the poetry in question would survive long after the poet’s own death: in Odes 3.30 Horace claims that he “built a memorial” (exegi monumentum), which would survive as long as Rome did.

Ovid’s readers would have come to this poem with the sphragis and its various possibilities in mind. They might, at first, have thought the poem was going to be about who the poet is and how he leads his life. The poem begins with an address to a personified Livor (“envy, malice, spite”), who has supposedly been complaining about his avoidance of more patriotic careers, specifically the army, jurisprudence, and (closer to poetry) public speaking (lines 1–6). But at lines 7–8 it becomes clear that the focus is on poetry and immortality. 

The bulk of the poem consists of a long list of poets, Greek and Roman, who have achieved immortality (lines 9–30). The conclusion is simple: things of this world are impermanent (lines 31–34). They are valued only by the common crowd (vulgus), whereas our poet has been favored by Apollo, will wear (as a love poet) a garland of myrtle, and will be read by lovers in difficulty (lines 35–38). Livor operates only on the living; when people die they receive their just deserts, so Livor is no longer possible (lines 39–40). And so our poet will live on even after his body is burned on his funeral pyre, and a large part of him (parsque ... multa) will survive (lines 41–42).

One reaction, reading these lines some 2000 years after they were written, might be simply to note that what they say is true, at least so far. But should we encounter similar claims by a contemporary poet, even a successful one, we might be more skeptical. If contemporary poets were to point out that Homer’s poetry is immortal, it would be hard not to wonder whether their own poems were comparable to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is true that Amores 1.15 dials the claim down a little: we end up with Tibullus and Gallus, to whom even the youthful Ovid could probably be compared favorably, but that long list of poets, from Homer down to Ovid’s own day, is surely meant to seem excessive (see Vessey 1981). We might also wonder if it is not supposed to be conspicuously pedestrian. Pleasant though they are, those twenty lines listing poets that achieved immortality lack much of the verve of Ovid’s preceding fourteen poems, which make the claim for immortality all the more jarring. Our poet, in short, has delusions of grandeur.

On top of that, our poet is (again) strikingly self-absorbed. This is the only poem in the book that is not about the poet’s relationship with his girl. Of course a shift to the poet’s identity and output is exactly what we would expect in a sphragis. But the focus on the immortality of the poet himself, alone, contrasts sharply with his insistence, especially in Amores 1.3, that his poems will bestow immortality on the girl. Given that history, the poet’s focus on himself seems downright inconsistent (in toto semper ut in orbe canar, line 8), or at least forgetful. And it is at least tactless to end his long list of immortal poets with the claim that it is one of their girlfriends, Gallus’ famous Lycoris, who will be famous (line 30). In Amores 1.1 he ended up promising a garland of myrtle (sacred to Venus) to his muse, his inspiration, his Corinna. Here, selfishly, he’s planning to wear it himself (line 37). Lovers will be reading about him, not her (line 38).

Even if we read the poem as self-mockery, the final couplet at first seems disappointing, merely summing up the basic proposition about poetic immortality. But it is worth suggesting that there is a literary joke at work here, consistent with our picture of a poet at once self-important and self-absorbed. The two poets most conspicuously absent from the list of immortals are Horace and Propertius, both older contemporaries who had an enormous influence on Ovid. And both poets are invoked, I suggest, in the final couplet. When Ovid speaks of the funeral pyre that will finally consume him (cum me supremus adederit ignis, line 41) we are to remember that Propertius was obsessed with his own funeral and his own ashes, and obsessed with the contrast of his ashes with the immortality of his poems (e.g. Prop. 3.1.35–36: “Rome will praise me among its later generations, and I predict that that day will come after my ashes”). And Ovid’s last line alludes unmistakably to Horace’s famous poem about his own poetic immortality (Hor. Carm. 1.30.6–7: “I will not die completely (non omnis moriar) and a large part of me (multaque pars mei) will escape Death.”)

This, I argue, is self-mockery with a vengeance. Our poet has made a pretentious claim for the immortality of his own poetry, comparing himself to a long list of poets that omits two of his most immediate influences. But the last couplet shows that it is the poetry of Propertius and Horace that will survive, despite his clumsy attempt to write them out of his story. We wonder whether his own poetry will be equally resilient.

Suggested reading

Vessey, D. W. T. “Elegy eternal: Ovid, Amores 1.15,” Latomus 40 (1981): 607–617.