On Friday March 20, the Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) turned 2062. In the last decade of his life he was exiled by the emperor Augustus for offences known and unknown to a small frontier town on the Black Sea. There he knew all about the disappointments of spring – and of a spring birthday – in a time of social isolation. Tristia 3.13:
Lo! to no purpose – for what was the use of being born? – my birthday god is here on time.
The previous poem (3.12) had seemed to begin in a happier frame of mind, imagining the joys of spring in Rome, before recalling how different life was in Tomis:
Wherever grows the vine, the bud is breaking (but the vine grows far from the Getic shore). Wherever grows the tree, the branch is blooming (but no tree grows on the Getic plain).
Now, there were writers in Rome who could use the isolation of exile as a source of consolation. But not Ovid. Relegated to Corsica, Seneca wrote a consolatio to his mother; relegated to the Black Sea, Ovid writes a collection of Tristia: poems of sorrow, poems of bitterness.
So how can Ovid’s exile poems help us now? There are no reflections such as that by Seamus Heaney now gaining traction throughout Ireland: ‘If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere’. More characteristic of Ovid’s frozen life in Tomis is the sense of time itself grinding to a halt and ceasing to run its cycles. Tristia 5.10:
You’d think that time stood still, it moves so slowly; with lagging steps the year pursues its way … Or does universal time run its usual course, and only for my harsh life does time stand still?
His isolation is, however, mitigated by the consolations of literature and an awareness of friends and book-lovers who, though absent, may be thinking of him. Tristia 5.3:
This is the day, Bacchus, when poets honour you … So let one of you raise the glass to his lips, drink a toast in Ovid’s name, and, remembering me, look round at all to say, ‘Where is Naso, who lately was of our company?’
Moreover, telecommunication is a way to lessen separation. Where the poet himself cannot go, his book of verse missives can, through the triumph of infrastructure that is the Roman mail. Tristia 1.1:
Little book, you will go without me (and I do not grudge it) to the city, where, alas, your master may not go.
Conversations about shared pleasures can be initiated, as with (perhaps) a poetry-writing step-daughter, even if the only way to accelerate a reply, over distance, is through some exercise of the imagination. Tristia 3.7:
Go greet Perilla, quickly written letter, and be the faithful bearer of my speech. You’ll find her sitting with her charming mother, or among her books and Muses dear. When she hears of your arrival, she’ll drop whatever she’s doing, and ask you why you’ve come and how I fare.
Like Ovid we are for now exiles, making the best of social distancing, communicating with each other remotely, unable to party with our friends (unless through Zoom), but perhaps finding some comfort in literature. Unlike Ovid (and here is our crucial point of consolation), we can have some confidence that our exile will be commuted: for most of us, the separation from our past and future lives is a temporary one. In the meantime, we can honour the memory of a poet’s isolation two millennia ago by recalling, from the same poem, one of those few moments in the Tristia when, putting on a brave face for his young addressee, Ovid does sound a proto-Senecan note of Stoic self-sufficiency – an expression of defiance not, as in our case, against a calamity of nature but against a vindictive human hand:
Look at me, deprived of country, and you, and home, robbed of all that could be taken: yet my poet’s mind remains my comrade and my joy: over this Caesar could have no right.
STEPHEN HINDS is Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, Seattle. One of his two current book projects for Cambridge University Press is a ‘green and yellow’ commentary on Ovid, Tristia Book 1.