“When a Text Isn’t Funny Anymore: Ovid’s Art of Love

Given that some of its humor is no longer funny for modern readers, what is the pedagogical value of humor in Ovid’s Art of Love today? In particular, portions of the poem depicting and even endorsing rape pose challenges for teachers who wish to acknowledge and share Ovid’s humor in Art of Love with their students. By situating portions of the Art of Love that are especially troubling for modern readers in the broader context of the poem’s dominant comic mode, I hope to show how our modern disquiet over those parts of the poem addressing rape can point us productively toward critiques inherent in Ovid’s poem itself.

As David Malouf suggests in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Ovid’s Art of Love, much of the humor in the poem comes from “comic disproportion” (xi), the utter mismatch in tone between Ovid’s lighthearted love advice and his many serious metaphors and examples. When advising his readers on how to word love letters, for example, he suggests they send “a cargo of flatteries” and “pile / the entreaties on” (33), explaining the efficacy of these strategies with reference to the Trojan War: “By speaking fair / Priam made Achilles give back

Hector’s body” (33).1 Accounts of Priam’s attempts to ransom his dead son Hector’s body almost invariably emphasize the deep pathos of his loss and also his humiliation in having to plead with his son’s killer. To have this very serious story put in the service of reminding lovers to use flattery and “pile…on” pitiful pleas shocks a reader into surprised laughter by its sheer incongruity. Similarly, in exhorting lovers to keep sending letters even if their love interest does not respond, Ovid offers overly serious metaphors: “A drip [of water] can hollow rock. Don’t forget, / Troy took a long time to fall, but it fell: / Persist and you’ll take even Penelope’s citadel” (35)2. Not only is the reference to the Trojan War absurdly inflated, given the intimate context of a private seduction in Ovid’s Rome, but the example of Penelope runs counter to the supposed goal, as she never did give in to her suitors. The connection between supporting example and stated aim is persistently, and amusingly, off throughout Art of Love.

Ovid’s technique of comic disproportion appears especially audacious, and perhaps most attractive to modern readers, when its target is the Roman emperor Augustus. A long passage prophesying the future triumphs of Caesar’s young son heaps on praise: “And so the day will come when you, our Roman / Hero, an adored, resplendent sight, / Will ride in gold, drawn by four snow-white / Horses, behind their [Parthian] chiefs—neck-fettered now” (17)3. Not only will this young Caesar be “an adored, resplendent sight,” but in addition “justice and right shall go / Ahead of [his] standards” (17)4. The descriptions could hardly be more laudatory of young Caesar’s person or his cause. Yet Ovid swiftly turns this exultant vision of Rome’s future triumph over an enemy that had successfully defied Augustus to the service of his love advice. At the very moment of the Roman triumph he depicts, with the captured Parthian chiefs walking in chains before the Roman populace, he turns to picking up girls. “When some girl asks the names of the kings and foreign parts— / Towns, mountains, rivers etcetera—on the pageant carts, / Answer all her questions” (17)5, he advises. The sudden turn from patriotic fervor to private seduction is dizzying, and made more so when he goes on to suggest that it does not really matter what the triumph is celebrating. He advises lovers to “volunteer (though you’re guessing) with a straight / Face” (19)6 and “Give them each a name— / Right, if you can; if you can’t, give them one just the same” (19)7. In one swift move, Ovid undercuts the seriousness of the Roman political and military victories he has been lauding. The shift away from seriousness is made all the more audacious by the way he slathers on the praise of Caesar’s son earlier in the passage; one result is that the depiction of Caesar’s young son and of Roman victories appears, in retrospect, over-the-top and even a little silly. As Robert Hanning notes, “The cultural cheek of all of Ovid’s amatory poetry—Ars and Remedia as well as Amores—enacts disrespect for authority” (3), particularly Roman imperial authority, in favor of private pleasure. This disrespect for state authority is appealing in part because of the “unavoidable reality of imperial power and authority” (Hanning 9) that is its target. Ovid’s is a humor that points out the ridiculous in those who not only take themselves too seriously but who have the power to use this seriousness to harm others; readers today might think of humor directed at modern dictators. This anti-authoritarian streak is a side of Ovid’s humor that is still easy to admire and relish.

Comic disproportion is also evident when Ovid turns to women’s sexual desire in Art of Love, a target for humor that is far more complicated for readers today than antiauthoritarianism. What he wants, he states, is for his readers to “feel confidence that all / Girls can be caught” (21)8. To prove this, he turns to a list of examples to show that “Men’s sex-urge is less primitive, less raw” (21)9 than women’s. The examples of women’s sex drive that he goes on to give, however, are hilariously inappropriate for the conclusion he draws for his readers—

Why doubt / That you can succeed with any / Woman in the world?” (25)10—because every example he gives is distinctly off-putting. He starts with incestuous desire through the examples of Byblis and Myrrha, and then goes on to bestiality in an extended description of Pasiphaë’s infatuation with the Cretan bull. None of these three women, with their unnatural passions, supports the idea that “all / Girls can be caught”; in fact, they represent the opposite, three women who could not be caught by lovers of the kind Art of Love is ostensibly addressing because they are focused on unnatural love objects. He includes also two women who turn to murder because their husbands are philanderers, Clytemnestra and Medea. Agamemnon “escaped with his life / From land battles and sea storms / Then fell to his wife” (25)11 when she killed him in retaliation for bringing Cassandra home from Troy as a second wife. And, Ovid asks, “Who hasn’t been horrified / By the tale of Jason’s wife [Glauce], who died / In a flaming, poisoned robe [by Medea’s hand], and Medea, red / With her own children’s blood?” (25)12. As if his examples so far have not been off-putting enough for a would-be lover, he ends his list with a male victim, Hippolytus, who was killed because he refused the advances of his stepmother Phaedra. When Ovid ends this catalogue of dangerous women with the cheery, “Willing or unwilling, / They all find it equally thrilling / To be propositioned. Just chance your arm: / If you make a mistake and get snubbed, where’s the harm?” (26-27)13, readers cannot help but laugh, having just been regaled with a catalogue of the possible “harm” that could come to them from engaging in love affairs with women.

Comic disproportion is, then, an important context for analyzing portions of Art of Love that just are not funny to us today because of suggestions that women like to be forced into sex, suggestions that are quite explicit in the poem. Ovid tells would-be lovers to “Mix… Kisses with your sweet talk, and if she tries / To deny them, simply take what she denies. / She may struggle at first and call you a sinner, / But she doesn’t really want to be the winner” (47)14. He urges his readers to go beyond kisses, telling them “Some force is permissible—women are often pleased / By force, and like what they’re giving to be seized” (47)15. He suggests, further, that women are often disappointed when they are not forced: “the one who could have been attacked / And taken by force but escapes intact, / Although she affects to look glad, / Feels let down, a little sad”

(47)16. And, in a catalogue of women glad to be raped that follows, he claims that though “indeed she was ‘raped’ (one’s bound / To accept tradition, of course),” Deidamia “wanted to be taken by force” (49)17 by Achilles. For modern readers, there is much to deplore here, especially the persistent dismissal of what the women in the poem indicate they want. Even though a woman may “struggle” to prevent a rape and may “affect to look glad” if she is not raped, the poem suggests, these actions do not reveal her true feelings. And even if “tradition” maintains that a woman was raped, such tradition is not to be trusted. “No” does not mean “no.” But the context of comic disproportion in Art of Love should alert modern readers to the likelihood that these statements about women’s will and desire should not be taken straight, any more than the poem’s obsequious celebration of Caesar’s son’s supposed future triumphs should be.

When we look in the poem for ways in which Ovid undercuts the notion that his readers should force women into sex, we find many. As so often in Art of Love, some of the examples he provides undermine his supposed claim that men should not hesitate to rape women because they are all willing. He gives the example of Helen, whom he describes as Paris’s “fatal prize” (49)18. Raping Helen (willing or no) leads to terrible bloodshed, as “fatal prize” reminds the reader, and thus Helen’s rape is hardly an example of why rape is a good idea. Ovid also employs his characteristic insouciant inconsistency, as this section of the poem suggesting women enjoy being forced is followed by contradictory lines suggesting a lover should back off if not accepted: “But if you find your pleas only produce disdain, / Stop, take a step back, think again” (51)19. Moreover, Ovid brackets this entire section of Art of Love with a focus on various strategies men should employ so as to appear pathetic to women and thus garner their sympathy. He suggests that “Tears, too, can be helpful” (47)20 and that “all lovers should be pallid” (51)21 so as to appear as suffering suppliants, choosing as his absurdly incongruous closing example Jupiter, who “When [he] wooed a heroine, he went to her / As a suppliant” (51)22. Such inconsistencies in how Ovid represents the power dynamic between men and women in Art of Love—male lovers as suffering suppliants or as eager rapists, women as powerful and dangerous agents like Clytemnestra and Medea or willing victims like Deidamia—emphasize the extent to which readers should not take any one representation of men, women, and sex in the poem straight.

As readers and as teachers, we should be troubled by sections of Art of Love that suggest women enjoy being raped not only because such an attitude is offensive on its own merits but because of the real harm seeing such material endorsed in a classroom setting can cause to students who have been victims of rape. But Ovid’s constant questioning of the status quo of his own time through humor in Art of Love, especially through humorous undermining of established social conventions, suggests a productive way forward for modern readers. Like Ovid, we can take the many still-recognizable stereotypes of seduction as a war between the sexes in the poem (including everything from the idea that women are always angling for expensive presents to the idea that women should always be available for sex if men want them) not as an ending point but as fertile and even necessary ground for questioning and ultimately undermining all that works against the private sphere of individual happiness.

Works Cited

Hanning, Robert. Serious Play: Desire and Authority in the Poetry of Ovid, Chaucer, and Ariosto. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Malouf, David. Introduction. The Art of Love, translated by James Michie, The Modern Library, 2002, pp. xi-xvi.

Ovid. The Art of Love. Translated by James Michie, The Modern Library, 2002.

1 Blanditias ferat illa tuas imitataque amantem / Verba; nec exiguas, quisquis es, adde preces. / Hectora donavit Priamo prece motus Achilles (I.439-41)

2 Dura tamen molli saxa cavantur aqua. / Penelopen ipsam, persta modo, tempore vinces: / Capta vides sero Pergama, capta tamen (I.476-78)

3 Ergo erit illa dies, qua tu, pulcherrime rerum, / Quattuor in niveis aureus ibis equis. / Ibunt ante duces onerati colla catenis (I.213-215)

4 Stabit pro signis iusque piumque tuis. (I.200)

5 Atque aliqua ex illis cum regum nomina quaeret, / Quae loca, qui montes, quaeve ferantur aquae, / Omnia responde (I.219-21)

6 Et quae nescieris, ut bene nota refer (I.222)

7 et erunt quae nomina dicas, / Si poteris, vere, si minus, apta tamen (I.227-28)

8 Prima tuae menti veniat fiducia, cunctas / Posse capi (I.269-70)

9 Parcior in nobis nec tam furiosa libido (Liber I.281)

10 Ergo age, ne dubita cunctas sperare puellas (I.343)

11 Qui Martem terra, Neptunum effugit in undis, / Coniugis Atrides victima dira fuit (I.333-34)

12 Cui non defleta est Ephyraeae flamma Creüsae, / Et nece natorum sanguinolenta parens? (I.335-6)

13 Quae dant quaeque negant, gaudent tamen esse rogatae: / Ut iam fallaris, tuta repulsa tua est (I.345-46)

14 Quis sapiens blandis non misceat oscula verbis? / Illa licet non det, non data sume tamen. / Pugnabit primo fortassis, et “improbe” dicet: / Pugnando vinci se tamen illa volet. (I.663-66)

15 Vim licet appelles: grata est vis ista puellis: / Quod iuvat, invitae saepe dedisse volunt (I.673-74)

16 At quae cum posset cogi, non tacta recessit, / Ut simulet vultu gaudia, tristis erit (I.677-78)

17 Viribus illa quidem victa est, ita credere oportet: / Sed voluit vinci viribus illa tamen (I.699-700)

18 mala praemia (I.683)

19 Si tamen a precibus tumidos accedere fastus / Senseris, incepto parce referque pedem (I.715-16)

20 Et lacrimae prosunt (I.659)

21 Palleat omnis amans (I.729)

22 Iuppiter ad veteres supplex heroïdas ibat (I.713)

Meg Lamont

Meg Lamont

Meg Lamont is Director of Instruction at Stanford Online High School (SOHS), an independent school serving students in grades 7-12 through real-time, seminar-style classes that meet online. SOHS is a part of Stanford University. Before that, she was an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University, where she specialized in medieval literature. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2007.
Meg Lamont

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Author: Meg Lamont

Meg Lamont is Director of Instruction at Stanford Online High School (SOHS), an independent school serving students in grades 7-12 through real-time, seminar-style classes that meet online. SOHS is a part of Stanford University. Before that, she was an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina State University, where she specialized in medieval literature. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2007.