Sunday, May 3, 2009

sending notes to Corinna

We remember from the first example of Ovid's art, published not long ago, that his devotion to Corinna was anything but platonic. I deliberately chose that poem to make it clear to anyone, that his poetry may seem akin to the musings of medieval troubadour love ideals -and the Victorian romanticism they inspired- but that the spirit of his poems probably spark more recognition with minds tuned in to depravity. Which is odd, as the ideal of Courtly Love did look for its justification in Ovid's lines. And indeed, in some nice elegies he does seem to put the object of his adoration on a pedestal. One cannot help but to be tricked by this, but make no mistake : Ovid was a playboy, and lust his prime motivation.

Book I Elegy XI: His Note to Her
Skilled at gathering unruly hair and setting it in place
Nape’s not just an ordinary lady’s maid,
she’s known to be useful in the secret service
of night: clever at carrying messages between us:
often exhorting a hesitant Corinna to come:
often faithfully labouring to find things out for me –
here take these wax tablets by hand to my lady
and be sure to avoid obstructions and delay!
There’s no stony vein or harsh metal in your breast,
older than the others, there’s no foolishness in you.
It’s easy to believe that you’ve felt Cupid’s arrows –
see the traces of your battles in me!
If she asks how I am, say I live in hope at night:
you’ll carry the rest in your hand, flattering waxen words.
While I speak, time flies. Give her them when she’s free,
Make sure though that she reads them straight away.
Watch her eyes and brow as she chews them over:
and know that a silent face may show the future.
When she’s read it I need a long reply, and no delay:
I hate it when the clear wax is mostly empty.
Let her squeeze the lines in ranks, and hold my eyes
with letters that graze the edges of the margins.
Why should she weary her fingers holding a pen?
One word can take up the whole tablet: ‘Come!’
I won’t hesitate to wreathe the victorious tablets with laurel
and set them up in the centre of Venus’s temple.
I’ll write: ‘Naso dedicates these loyal servants to Venus,
these tablets that till now were worthless maple-wood.’

And with this poem entered the Roman playboy's accomplice in crime : the maid of the lady of his adoration. She was his prime line of communication. "Why not address the lady herself", you might wonder. Was Ovid shy after all ? Well, not on this matter. It isn't evident yet in these lines, but later on we will see poems where Ovid gives us the answer : Corinna was a married woman.
Can you feel his anticipation , gentlemen ? The sexual conqueror, confident that he has the lady firmly hooked to his attentions, having seen the evidence of her own desire. He smuggles in a letter, smiling at the gullability of his rival, her husband. This is a man that would love to take the lady with a snoring husband next door.
But alas for him :

Book I Elegy XII: Her Reply
Weep for my misfortune – the miserable tablets returned
with a wretched message saying: ‘Can’t manage today.’
Omens mean something. Just now when she wished to leave
Nape stopped when she stubbed her toe on the threshold.
Remember next time you’re sent out, crossing the doorsill,
pick your feet up, carefully and soberly!
Away with these surly tablets of funereal wood,
and you, wax, filled with your negative message! –
Extracted I bet from honey of long hemlock flowers
made by the infamous Corsican bees.
Just as if you’d blushed, steeped in deep dye –
that colour indeed was truly bloody.
Useless wood, I’ll throw you out at the crossroads,
so the weight of a passing wheel can smash you!
Even the man who carved you for use, from the tree,
I’m convinced the man had impure hands.
That tree held some wretch hung by the neck,
it offered itself as dread executioner’s crosses:
it gave vile shade to the screeching owls,
and carried their eggs and vultures in its branches.
Madman, did I give these to my lady, trusting
my love to them, to carry my gentle words?
This wax is more fitted to garrulous words of bail,
to be read aloud by some hard mouthed attorney:
or better to throw these tablets among the accounts,
where a miser goes weeping for his lost wealth.
So I judge you, two-faced things by nature.
The number itself is in no way auspicious.
How to curse you, in anger, other than crumbling age
might rot you, and whiten your wax in a filthy place?

Poor Ovid.
There are things to keep in mind here : first off, conqueror he might be, but Corinna clearly had the choice of keeping him at bay. She was not a slave to his passions. Note that the man curses the tablets on which her refusal was written, but not her. He doesn't seem to consider her reaction as an insult to his masculinity. His reaction is akin to a courtier's, who has been denied access to his Lord. In this, it does approach the medieval courtly ideal, that broke with the tradition that women were lust objects.
Knowing Corinna from other poems, I cannot help but wonder about her motivations for her refusal. It might be, that her husband was in the way, as Ovid seemed to accept. Just as well, she might already have had an appointment with one of her other lovers. Roman matrones liked the sexual freedom of those days just as well and lived it to the fullest.

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