There is always room in the temple of poetry for another voice, another perspective, another way of tackling the great themes of humanity. So listen to me, now, you who will grace this earth 2000 years after I’m dead and gone: Be the person you were created to be.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Ovid: On Finding Your Voice
Virgil is my hero; he always has been and he always will be. I’ve spent most of my life wanting to be him, wanting to reach his level of genius and write an epic as grand and eternal as the Aeneid.
But I’m not Virgil, and I never will be. Oh, I can write that to you now with a smile, but I couldn’t have done so ten years ago. It took me a long time to be happy, to be me, to let go of my mad ambition to rival Virgil and win the applause of Caesar Augustus and his court.
I tried so many times to write the next Aeneid. But every time I reached out to Virgil’s muse, Cupid appeared out of nowhere and hijacked me. I started out trying to write about heroes and battles and ended up writing about love. I so wanted my heroes to wrestle on the battlefield with their enemies, but they always ended up wrestling in bed with their lovers.
I think I was born too late. Virgil and Horace lived through the civil wars, and so they appreciated the peace and plenty that Augustus brought. As for me, I was born into that peace and plenty and I have, let’s be honest, taken it for granted: me, and all my friends with me. I guess we were just a bunch of leisure-loving city kids, bored and jaded and world-weary, making our way from one party to the next. I loved the food and the drink and especially the sex, but it got a bit tiresome after awhile.
Well, as I was saying, that darned Cupid wouldn’t leave me alone. First he had me celebrate erotic love and then he had me write a how-to manual on the best techniques for bedding imperious mistresses. Great stuff, and great fun to write (and research!), but it was hardly what you would call Virgilian.
There was one time that Cupid let me be somewhat more ambitious. He inspired me to write a series of letters from love-sick women to their absent lovers. You know, Helen to Paris, Dido to Aeneas, Ariadne to Theseus, Penelope to Ulysses; stuff like that. It did teach me to explore female passion, and I even got quite good at it.
It was about that time that I tried to write a tragedy in the Greek manner about Medea. After all, I had included a letter from Medea to Jason in my previous book. It couldn’t hurt to give tragedy a try.
It did. The play was an unmitigated disaster. Cupid laughed long and hard at me for that exercise in futility. “You’re a comedian, Ovid,” he said through his snorts of laughter, “stick with what you know.”
He was right, of course. Love, irony, and a robust zest for life. That’s what I’m best at; that’s where my gifts lie. Who was I trying to kid? I’m a cosmopolitan type, a citizen of the world who prefers to move in small circles. I don’t belong in the heroic world of Homer and Virgil.
And then I found my voice.
Listen to me, now, you who will grace this earth 2000 years after I’m dead and gone. I’m not just ranting here. I’m trying to teach you something about being the person you were created to be. About finding your niche. About being true, not to the self you think you are, but to the self you truly are.
I couldn’t be Virgil, but I could find a place for myself in his mythic world. I, too, could tackle a gigantic theme, but in my way, not Virgil’s way.
I just don’t have it in me to write huge, sweeping narratives like Augustus’s pet poet. I’m not even a tragedian like Sophocles. I’m a sketch artist. Give me a short tale that I can tell in a hundred lines, and I’ll tell it better than anyone else. Wit, parody, turns of phrase, painting with words: these are the tools in my arsenal.
So I would write an epic made up of a thousand sketches, but I would find a way to weave all those sketches together: to make them seem like linked episodes in a Virgilian narrative. In fact, I would go one better than Virgil. I would so arrange my sketches that they carried my reader from the chaos out of which our world was born to the great peace of Caesar Augustus.
And I would further weave everything together by coming up with an overarching theme that could unite all the sketches. That theme would not be the wrath of Achilles or the homecoming of Ulysses or even the founding of Rome. It would be the theme of metamorphosis, of transfiguration, of change from one form to another.
And, because I do satire better than any poet who came before me, I would find ways to pay comic homage, not only to Virgil, but to all those who preceded Virgil: Homer and Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Lucretius and Horace, and the sophisticated poets of Alexandria. I would do all the things they did in their poetry, but in my own way, with a wry and knowing smile and a bemused view of my fellow human beings in all their glory and folly.
I would end by praising Augustus, but on the road to that praise, I would delve every emotion, every passion, every desire that rages in the human breast. Along that winding, circuitous road, I would offer my readers bloody battles, epic sea voyages, tragic love tales, terrible betrayals, the rise of great cities, and the fall of great houses.
Not bad, my friends, for someone who could never achieve his dream of being Virgil. If the same happens to you, don’t kill your dream, just transform it into something different. There is always room in the temple of poetry for another voice, another perspective, another way of tackling the great themes of humanity.
So push off, and follow your poetic bark wherever the wind and the waves are leading it. They just may lead you to glory.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry” by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.