Amores 1.3 essay

“Just give me a chance.”

The first two poems have made it abundantly clear that the poet has fallen head over heels in love, and we also assume that things are not going well: lovers whose affections are reciprocated might speak of their passion (uror, 1.1.26), but they do not exclaim me miserum! and complain about Cupid’s arrows (1.1.25), or talk about being wounded (factum modo vulnus habeo, 1.2.29).

Thus as Amores 1.3 opens we are not suprised to find the poet speaking of himself as the stereotypical unrequited lover, in ways that strongly remind us of Catullus and Propertius in their more abject modes. The poem begins with a cry of unrequited love: the poet prays first that the girl will love him or at least not reject him outright, but then even that second hope seems too presumptious, and he is reduced to hoping that she will at least allow him to love her (lines 1–4).

This diffidence does not keep him from making his case: he’s looking for a long-term relationship (line 5), and his love is the real thing (line 6).  He may not be rich and he may not be an aristocrat (lines 7–10), but he has other qualities which should work in his favor: he’s a poet (line 11), and, as he’s already said, he’s in it for the long haul (lines 12–18). He doesn’t flit from girl to girl (line 15, non sum desultor amoris) and, looking far down the road, he wants her there when he dies (lines 17–18). Readers may find him sincere and persuasive, but they may also wonder whether he does not protest too much.

And there is a more immediate problem. The speaker’s status as a poet is offered as the first argument in his favor (line 11), but then it seems to get dropped, as he turns instead to the long-term relationship argument. And although the two arguments are not obviously related, he writes as if they are, listing his “supporters” without any suggestion that they are in different categories: Apollo, the Muses, and Dionysus (line 11); Amor, fides, mores, simplicitas and pudor (lines 12–14). It is poetry that in fact turns out be the crucial argument. After claims to fidelity, culminating with his dramatic "till death do us part” argument, the poet suddenly returns to poetry. The logic seems to be that the relationship, and especially the girl’s part in it, will be the kind of thing that inspires poetry (lines 19–20).

Ovid, ever the rhetorician, drives this point home with three exempla, all heroines made famous by poets (lines 21–24). But the poet’s choices are spectacularly inappropriate, given the case he is trying to make. A girl interested in declarations of fidelity and commitment will not want to be compared to three (no less!) of Jupiter’s one-night stands. And the poet’s language makes it hard to take this mythology seriously: Io is afraid of her new horns (line 21), Leda is deceived by her “riverine adulterer” (line 22), and Europa holds on with her “maiden hand” (line 24). The poet’s persuasive skills, which at first seemed so powerful, seem now to have deserted him.

The final couplet offers us useful guidance on how to read this poem. After offering his poetry as an inducement to the girl, as it is she who will be immortalized, the poet ends up focused on himself: “we” (nos) not she, will be sung throughout the world, and it is his name, now, that will always be linked to hers (lines 25–26). A person, of course, can be passionately in love with someone else and completely self-involved at the same time. But if what other people see is the self-absorption they’re not going to be very sympathetic.

Moreover, once we see that our poet is more interested in himself than in the girl he offers to write about, his claims to sexual fidelity look even more suspicious. The poet knows what to say to women: they love all that talk about sincerity and commitment, perhaps even more than they want poetic immortality. But, we learn, the arguments are just that: the rhetoric of persuasion rather than the language of love.

Suggested Reading

Curran, Leo. “Desultores Amoris: Ovid Amores 1.3,” Classical Philology 61 (1966): 41–49.

Holleman, A. W. J. “Notes on Ovid Amores 1. 3, Horace Carm. 1. 14, and Propertius 2. 26,” Classical Philology 65 (1970): 177–180, at 177-179.