Redressing Exile: Seamus Heaney and Ovid's Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto

Matthew McGowan

College of Wooster

For the contemporary Irish poet and Nobel prize winner, Seamus Heaney, the poetic act is fundamentally informed by "the idea of counterweighting, of balancing out the forces, of redress – tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium" (The Redress of Poetry, [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995], 3). Heaney's remark relates to Ovid's exile poetry, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, because it recognizes that the Roman poet's appeal to posterity is no mere perfunctory nod to ancient convention on the immortality of verse. It is rather an integral part of Ovid's immediate response to the painful predicament of exile. The present paper uses Heaney's idea behind "the redressing effect of poetry" to interpret Ovid's elegies from the Black Sea as a challenge to the power of the princeps to banish the poet and silence his voice at Rome.

In "The Redress of Poetry," his opening lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Heaney notes,

The redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances. And sometimes, of course, it happens that such a revelation, once enshrined in the poem, remains as a standard for the poet, so that he or she must then submit to the strain of bearing witness in his or her own life to the plane of consciousness established in the poem. (1995, 4)

Ovid's "revelation" in the exile poetry is the recognition, whether "glimpsed" or gradual, that his individual circumstances as a Roman poet at the end of the Augustan era are not particular to himself, that exile (and its alternative, death) is a potential that threatens all poets from Homer to Heaney. He thus enshrines this revelation in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto by becoming in verse what Augustus has forced him to become in life: his life is exile, banishment to the outer reaches of the empire; his poetry is sad, unfailing elegiac laments for the fate of a beleaguered poet in the opening two decades of the first millennium CE. In representing his own wretched state in exile Ovid also bears witness in these poems to a picture of the princeps – now also "enshrined" – as an autocrat whose anger knows no bounds.

This paper analyzes Ovid's representation of Augustus in the exile poetry as a mythic god of violent retribution, a composite of Jupiter and Neptune most often characterized by the term ira (anger). In pursuit of this analogy Ovid likens himself frequently to Ulysses, the wandering exile of the Greco-Roman literary tradition. Ovid's ability to endure banishment on the Black Sea drives the poetics of exile in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. As in the poet's own day, these poems continue to offer a counterweight, indeed a redress, to the forces of history that allowed Rome's first emperor to banish Ovid until his death. His elegies from exile belong to the enduring lament – a new kind of carmen perpetuum – of the universal exile, whose plaintive voice can still be heard today.


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