The first poem functions, as we might expect, as an introduction to the whole book: we are introduced to the aspiring poet, to the genre of his poems, and perhaps also to their subject. At one level the wit is easy to appreciate, but for me the poem gives the first example of a problem presented by many of the poems in this book: the question of coherence. Ovid’s poems, in my opinion, are supposed to be satisfying: when we get to the end, we should feel that we have seen the point, and that the poem is a coherent whole. Often, as in this first poem, we do not at first have that sense of coherence, and my suggestion is that, when that happens, we take it as a challenge to read more closely.
The poem begins with a metrical and generic joke. The poet was preparing to write epic poetry: his first word is the same as the first word of the Aeneid, and he would have continued writing in dactylic hexameter, except that apparently Cupid “stole a foot” from every second line (lines 3–4), creating elegiac couplets instead, the metrical form particularly associated with love poetry. We thus have a witty variation of a recusatio, a standard poetic theme particularly appropriate for the first poem of a collection: poets typically explain why they have to refuse (recusatio means “refusal” or “excuse”) to write the kind of patriotic poetry that their patrons or their public might be demanding.
The poet responds with a complaint, addressed to Cupid. Cupid has no right to interfere in the serious business of writing poetry: other gods stay within their appointed spheres, and Cupid should do so as well. Like the good rhetorician he is, Ovid offers a few exempla to drive home his protest (lines 5–16). He then adds that he doesn’t like it when every second line is kind of feeble (lines 17–18), and on top of that adds that he doesn’t have anyone (boy or girl) to write love poetry about (lines 19–20).
But Cupid responds to these objections by shooting the poet with one of his famous arrows; the poet is now a stereotypical wretched lover, and love reigns in his “empty heart” (line 26). Some scholars have taken this empty heart (in vacuo pectore) at face value: the poet is in love, but his heart is empty, so he must simply be in love with love itself. Others have argued, I think correctly, that this empty heart is one that had been empty, but is empty no longer; previously the poet had no one to write love poetry about, as we saw, but thanks to Cupid’s arrow he has now fallen in love.
On most readings the last four lines are a little disappointing. Having become a lover, of whatever kind, the poet returns to his own poetry: he is now going to write elegiac couplets, with lines of six feet, the hexameters, followed by lines of five feet, the pentameters (lines 27–28). He concludes by invoking the muse of elegy, first in the poetic language we might expect, with talk of her golden hair and myrtle wreath (line 29), but then in language that is ironically pedestrian, emphasizing the mere numerical fact that an elegiac couplet has eleven feet (line 30).
I would argue that in fact the poet never loses sight of his new lover: thanks to Cupid’s arrow, as we saw, he is miserably in love, and with someone in particular. It is this new lover who is responsible for his change to elegiac couplets, the meter for lovers (lines 27–28). And it is this new lover who emerges triumphantly at the end: it is she who is the poet’s new muse, wearing a myrtle garland on her golden hair, and inspiring the poetry that is to come, written of course in elegiac couplets.
Moles, J. “The Dramatic Coherence of Ovid, Amores 1.1 and 1.2,” Classical Quarterly 41 (1991): 551–554. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s0009838800004766
Turpin, W. “Ovid’s New Muse: Amores 1.1,” Classical Quarterly 64 (2014): 419–421. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/s0009838813000876
Arma gravī numerō violentaque bella parābam
ēdere, māteriā conveniente modīs.
pār erat inferior versus; rīsisse Cupīdō
dīcitur atque ūnum surripuisse pedem.
“quis tibi, saeve puer, dedit hōc in carmina iūris? 5
Pīeridum vātēs, nōn tua, turba sumus.
quid, sī praeripiat flāvae Venus arma Minervae,
ventilet accensās flāva Minerva facēs?
quis probet in silvīs Cererem regnāre iugōsīs,
lēge pharetrātae virginis arva colī? 10
crīnibus insignem quis acūtā cuspide Phoebum
instruat, Āoniam Marte movente lyram?
sunt tibi magna, puer, nimiumque potentia regna:
cūr opus adfectās ambitiōse novum?
an, quod ubīque, tuum est? tua sunt Helicōnia tempē? 15
vix etiam Phoebō iam lyra tūta sua est?
cum bene surrexit versū nova pāgina prīmō,
attenuat nervōs proximus ille meōs.
nec mihi māteria est numerīs leviōribus apta,
aut puer aut longās compta puella comās.” 20
questus eram, pharetrā cum prōtinus ille solūtā
lēgit in exitium spīcula facta meum
lūnāvitque genū sinuōsum fortiter arcum
“quod”que “canās, vātēs, accipe” dixit “opus.”
mē miserum! certās habuit puer ille sagittās: 25
ūror, et in vacuō pectore regnat Amor.
sex mihi surgat opus numerīs, in quinque resīdat;
ferrea cum vestrīs bella valēte modīs.
cingere lītoreā flāventia tempora myrtō,
Mūsa per undēnōs ēmodulanda pedēs. 30
Listen to the Amores 1.1
Notes on Amores 1.1
1–2: Arma: a weighty and tradition-laden first word, given Vergil’s famous Arma virumque canō (Aeneid 1.1). gravī numerō: numerus here means “meter” (of verse). The meter in question was dactylic hexameter, which as the meter for Greek and Latin epic poetry was considered the most serious of the meters. ēdere < ēdō -ere -idī -itum, “to emit, bring forth, produce”; also “publish.” Barsby observes that it is unlikely that Ovid was really planning to write an epic, even though he elsewhere talks about his subject, the battle of the gods and giants (Amores 2.1.11–16); his claim about epic owes more to the traditions of the recusatio poem, in which poets of “lighter” verses explain their reasons for avoiding epic. māteriā: scansion reveals that the final a is long, and that the word is therefore ablative; it frequently happens that scansion is essential to establishing the meaning of a line. modīs: modus can mean “rhythm” or “meter”; dative, with conveniente.
3–4: par … versus = inferior versus erat pār. inferior: here the “lower” verse; Ovid had been writing dactylic hexameters, so that his second line was equal (metrically) to his first. dīcitur: “is said” + infin. rīsisse. ūnum … pedem: pes here means “foot” in its metrical sense; in elegiac verse the second line of each couplet is a dactylic pentameter: it is similar to the dactylic hexameter of epic poetry, but shorter by a foot.
5–6: in carmina: “over songs”; for in + the accusative with words expressing power or control, see OLD 11b. hōc: the o of hoc is actually short, but can be treated as long for purposes of scansion, since it was originally spelled hocc. iūris: partitive genitive, with hōc (AG §346.4). Pīeridum … sumus: the emphasis here is on Pīeridum and tua: “we poets are the Muses’ entourage, not yours.” Pīeridum < Pīeris -idos f. “daughter of Pierus,” i.e. a Muse. vātēs < vātēs -is, m. “a prophet”; “a poet” (here plural). A vātēs was a more formal and religious kind of poet than a mere poēta.
7–8: quid: interrogative; understand dīcās or something similar; quid thus provides the apodosis of the condition introduced by sī praeripiat. flāvae … Minervae: dative with praeripiat, indicating the person forestalled. Minerva (Athena) is called “golden” (flāvus, a, um) because she was proud of her golden hair; she had turned Medusa’s hair into snakes for boasting about hers. arma: Minerva/Athena was often depicted wearing breastplate and helmet and carrying a spear. ventilet: a second protasis, connected to praeripiat by an adversative asyndeton (i.e. the absence of a connecting word), indicating high excitement and/or a strong contrast. facēs < fax, facis, f. “torch”; a symbol of Venus.
9–10: probet: potential subjunctive (AG §447.3). Cererem < Cerēs, -eris, f. Ceres, the goddess of grain and agriculture in general. lēge < lex, lēgis, f. “law,” but here perhaps “jurisdiction”; notice that (as in line 8) the clause is in asyndeton, to express excitement. pharētrātae: the reference is to Diana (Artemis), the goddess of the hunt. colī < colō colere coluī cultum, “to cultivate, till, farm.”
11–12: crīnibus: ablative of respect, with insignem; Apollo was famous for his flowing locks. acūtā: “sharp” in two senses; Apollo is often said to sing acūtā vōce, but the adjective is transferred to Mars’ spear. instruat: instruō can mean “equip” (+ abl.); potential subjunctive, AG §447.3. Āoniam < Āonius -a -um “of Aonia, Boeotian”; Aonia was a region of Boeotia, in which was situated Mt. Helicon,1 home of the Muses. movente: another double meaning, since moveō is used for the wielding of weapons and for the playing of musical instruments
13–14: tibi: dative of possession (AG §373). ambitiōse: another example of the necessity for scansion; the e is short, not long, so ambitiōse is vocative, not an adverb.
15–16: an: a particle introducing a direct question, usually indicating some surprise or indignation (AG §335b). quod ubīque, tuum est?: i.e., id, quod ubīque est, tuum est? “Do you own everything everywhere?” Helicōnia < Helicōnius, -a, -um: “of Mount Helicon” (see note on Aoniam above). tempē is an indeclinable neuter pl.; originally a proper name, for the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly, but used for any pleasant valley. Phoebō: dative of reference AG §376). sua refers to Phoebus, even though the subject of the sentence is lyra; suus -a -um can be used to place emphasis on the fact that a thing belongs to one person rather than another (AG §301c).
17–18: surrexit < surgō -ere surrexī surrectum, “to arise,” used also of the beginning or expansion of literary works; there is probably also a sexual double entendre: “is aroused.” We would expect the present tense of the indicative in a temporal cum clause, but the perfect emphasizes that the action is a completed one, in contrast to that described in the main clause (AG §473a). Translate, perhaps: “each time a new page has gotten going nicely with a first verse” (i.e. the first line of an elegiac couplet). attenuat: more double entendre; the poet gets going (the hexameter line), but then goes all weak (in the pentameter). nervōs … meōs: nervī can be “strength,” “the strings of a lyre,” and “penises.” proximus ille: refers either to the inferior versus of line 3, or less probably to Cupid.
19–20: mihi: dative of possession (AG §373). numerīs: as in line 1, numerus means “meter.” aut … aut = nec … nec, because the nec on line 19 has made the whole sentence a negative one. puer … puella: Ovid can assume that the elegiac meter and love poetry go together, thanks to his predecessors Catullus, Gallus, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, Catullus and Tibullus (as well as Horace, though not in elegiac couplets) wrote poems to both male and female lovers. longās … comās: the so-called Greek accusative (also called accusative of part affected, accusative of specification, and accusative of respect), AG §397b. compta < comptus, a, um “adorned, done up” or cōmō, cōmere, compsī, comptum “adorn,” (of hair) “arrange, ‘do’” Note the chiasmus, here reflecting the meaning: the words for long hair surround those for the well-groomed girl.
21–22: pharetrā … lēgit = cum ille, pharetrā solūtā, legit. ille: referring back to Cupid. solūtā < solvō solvere solvī solūtum, “open up”; Cupid’s quiver had a top on it. lēgit: lēgō can mean “select, choose” (OLD 6a). in exitium: in + acc. can express purpose. spīcula < spīculum, ī, n. “point, tip”; “arrow”; Ovid will regularly use singulars for plurals and vice versa, often with no obvious significance for the meaning.
23–24: genū: ablative of means (AG §409). Cupid used his knee to help with bending the bow: when stringing a composite bow you push the bow away from you with your knee (or thigh) to break the initial stiffness. (I am grateful to a former student, David Stifler, for his advice on composite bows.) sinuōsum: Cupid’s bow (a composite bow) looks wavy rather than crescent-shaped when unstrung. quod … canās: relative clause of purpose (AG §531.2), or characteristic (AG §534). The line is written with intentional staccato to reflect Cupid’s abrupt and violent response.
25–26: mē miserum: accusative of exclamation (AG §397d). in vacuō pectore: the author’s heart had been empty, up to this point. Amor = Cupīdō.
27–28: mihi: dative of advantage (AG §376). surgat … resīdat: hortatory subjunctives (AG §439; also called jussive subjunctives). sex … numerīs, in quīnque: the reference, as in lines 1–3, is to the elegiac couplet, consisting of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. ferrea … bella: vocative. modīs: as in line 2 modus means “meter.”
29–30: cingere < cingō cingere cinxī cinctum “to encircle, to wreathe”; second person singular passive imperative. lītoreā < lītoreus -a -um “of the seashore.” Notice the scansion, which reveals that lītoreā modifies myrtō (on which see below). The chiastic word order reflects the meaning, with the words for the myrtle surrounding those for the Muse’s hair. tempora < tempus -oris, n. “the temple” (of the head), “forehead.” Greek accusative/accusative of specification, as above in line 20 (AG §397b). myrtō: the myrtle was sacred to Venus, who was born out of sea foam (hence lītoreā). The names of trees in Latin are regularly second declension, but feminine (AG §32). Mūsa: vocative. per: for per + accusative to indicate instrument see OLD 15. undēnōs: an elegiac couplet has eleven feet in all, whereas two lines of hexameters would have twelve. ēmodulanda: the word is used only here in Classical Latin.
1 See http://pleiades.stoa.org/places/540808. Historical maps for the location marked in blue are available at the Pleiades website.