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NIHIL NOVUM SUB SOLE

1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Poetry is soul medicine. (Ovid I)

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The 21st of March of each year it is celebrated the World Poetry Day . It is a day to sing the excellences of the poetic work. In this blog they are numerous times that I have talked about poetry.

I will remember just a couple of articles:

http://en.antiquitatem.com/poetry-is-a-godsend-horace-ovid-virgil

http://en.antiquitatem.com/aut-insanit-homo-aut-versus-facit-horace

Well, in this year 2017 it is commemorated  the bimillenary of the death of the Latin poet Ovid in his exile in Tomis, on the shores of the Euxine Pontus, then the Black Sea.  He was expelled there by a severe emperor Augustus, displeased with the poet.

I will also say as a curious detail that Ovid was born on March 20, 43 BC, the year before the assassination of Julius Caesar, the day before that than later, in 1999, the UNESCO set the day to celebrate the poets of the world and their creative ability.

Again and again Ovid tells us in his poems that he wrote in the exile, in his Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, (Letters from the Black Sea), that one of the causes of his sentence was to have written a booklet of erotic poetry , his celebrated Ars Amatoria  or Ars amandi ("The Art of Love"). The other, undoubtedly more serious cause was a certain indiscretion or vision of something prohibited that he does not clarify.

In that exile among half-savage barbarian peoples where he lacks all the comforts of his life in Rome, he has only the consolation of poetry, as he himself confesses. So if poetry was the cause of his ruin, it was also his comfort in difficult times. As the popular saying goes: "the one who sings his evils scares", also collected by Cervantes in his Don Quixote, I, 22.

"What are gurapas?" asked Don Quixote.
"Gurapas are galleys," answered the galley slave, who was a young man of about four-and-twenty, and said he was a native of Piedrahita.
Don Quixote asked the same question of the second, who made no reply, so downcast and melancholy was he; but the first answered for him, and said, "He, sir, goes as a canary, I mean as a musician and a singer."
"What!" said Don Quixote, "for being musicians and singers are people sent to the galleys too?"
"Yes, sir," answered the galley slave, "for there is nothing worse than singing under suffering."
"On the contrary, I have heard say," said Don Quixote, "that he who sings scares away his woes."
"Here it is the reverse," said the galley slave; "for he who sings once weeps all his life."
"I do not understand it," said Don Quixote; but one of the guards said to him, "Sir, to sing under suffering means with the non sancta fraternity to confess under torture; they put this sinner to the torture and he confessed his crime.
((DON QUIXOTE, by Miguel de Cervantes. Translated by John Ormsby (1829-1895))

El cual era un mozo de hasta edad de veinte y cuatro años, y dijo que era natural de Piedrahíta. Lo mesmo preguntó don Quijote al segundo, el cual no respondió palabra, según iba de triste y malencónico; mas respondió por él el primero, y dijo:
–éste, señor, va por canario; digo, por músico y cantor.
–Sí, señor –respondió el galeote–, que no hay peor cosa que cantar en el ansia.
–Antes, he yo oído decir –dijo don Quijote– que quien canta sus males espanta.
–Acá es al revés –dijo el galeote–, que quien canta una vez llora toda la vida.
–No lo entiendo –dijo don Quijote.
Mas una de las guardas le dijo:
–Señor caballero, cantar en el ansia se dice, entre esta gente non santa, confesar en el tormento.

The poet reiterates this idea again and again in his poems, but he has a poem  especially focused on this question, the first elegy of Book IV of his Tristia (Sorrows). As much of Ovid's poetry, this elegy is somewhat rhetorical, plagued in addition to references to Greco-Latin mythology, which can make its reading somewhat difficult and heavy in modern times. But it seems a good way to commemorate in this year 2017 the World Poetry Day, celebrating also the bimillenary  of the death of Ovid.

I transcribe, therefore, in full the elegy Tristia, IV, 1 ,with enough notes to clarify the meaning even at the risk of destroying the poem.

BOOK IV I. A PLEA FOR INDULGENCE

Whatever faults you may find -and you will find Them- in my books, hold them absolved, reader, because of the time of their writing. I am an exile ; solace, not fame, has been my object that my mind dwell not constantly on its own woes. This is why even the ditcher, shackled though he be, resorts to song, lightening with untutored rhythm his heavy work. He also sings who bends forward over the slimy sand, towing against the stream the slow-moving barge, or he who pulls to his breast in unison the pliant oars, timing  his arms with measured strokes upon the water. The weary shepherd leaning upon his staff or seated upon a rock soothes his sheep with the drone of his reeds. At once singing, at once spinning her allotted task, the slave girl beguiles and whiles away her toil. They say too that when the maid  of Lyrnesus was taken from him, sad Achilles relieved his sorrow with the Haemonian lyre(1). While Orpheus was drawing to him the forests and the hard rocks by his singing, he was sorrowing for the wife  twice lost to him(2).

Me also the Muse comforted while on my way to the appointed lands of Pontus ; she only was the steadfast companion of my flight -the only one who fears neither treachery, nor the brand of the Sintian(3) soldier, nor sea nor winds nor the world of the barbarians. She knows also what mistake led me astray at the time of my ruin, -that there is fault in my deed, but no crime. Doubtless for this very reason is she fair to me now because she injured me before, when she was indicted with me for a joint crime. Well could I wish, since they were destined to work me harm, that I had ne'er set hand to the holy service of the Pierian ones(4). But now, what am I to do ? The very power of that holy service grips me ; madman that I am, though song has injured me, 'tis still song that I love. So the strange lotos tasted by Dulichian palates gave pleasure through the very savour which wrought harm(5). The lover is oft aware of his own ruin yet clings to it, pursuing that which sustains his own fault. I also find pleasure in my books though they have injured me, and I love the very weapon that made my wounds.

Perchance this passion may seem madness, but this madness has a certain profit : it forbids the mind to be ever gazing at its woes, rendering it forgetful of present mischance. As the stricken Bacchante feels not her wound while in ecstasy she shrieks to the accompaniment of Idaean(6) measures, so when my heart feels the inspiring glow of the green thyrsus, that mood is too exalted for human woe ; it realizes neither exile nor the shores of the Scythian sea nor the anger of the gods, and just as if I were drinking slumber-bringing Lethe's draughts(7), I lose the sense of evil days.

‘Tis right then for me to revere the goddesses who lighten my misfortunes, who came from Helicon(8) to share my anxious flight, who now by sea, now by land, deigned to follow my route on ship or afoot. May they at least, I pray, be propitious to me ! For the rest of the gods take sides with mighty Caesar, heaping upon me as many ills as the sands of the shore, the fishes of the sea, or the eggs of the fish. Sooner will you count the flowers of spring, the grain-ears of summer, the fruits of autumn, or the snowflakes in time of cold(9) than the ills which I suffered driven all over the world seeking in wretchedness the shores to the left l of the Euxine. Yet no lighter since my coming is the lot of my misfortunes ; to this place also fate has followed my path. Here also I recognize the threads of my nativity, threads twisted for me from a black fleece. To say naught of ambushes or of dangers to my life -true they are, yet too heavy for belief in truth- how pitiable a thing is living among Bessi and Getae(10) for him who was ever on the people's lips ! How pitiable to guard life by gate and wall, and scarce to be safe-guarded by the strength of one's own position ! The rough contests of military service I shunned even as a youth and touched arms only with a hand intending to play ; but now that I am growing old I fit a sword to my side, a shield to my left arm, and I place a helmet upon my gray head. For when the guard from the lookout has given the signal of a raid, forthwith I don my armour with shaking hands.

The foe with his bows and with arrows dipped in poison fiercely circles the walls upon his panting steed, and as the sheep which has not found shelter in the fold is carried and dragged through field,through forest by the ravening wolf, so 'tis with him whom the barbarian finds not yet sheltered within the hedge of the gates, but in the fields : that man either follows into captivity and submits to the bonds cast about his throat or he dies by an envenomed missile. This is the place in which, a new colonist in an abode of anxiety, I lie secluded -alas ! too long is the period of my fate !

Nevertheless my Muse has the heart to return to rhythm, to her old-time rites, a friendly guest amid these great misfortunes. But there is none to whom I may read my verses, none whose ears can comprehend Latin words. I write for myself -what else can I do ?- and I read to myself, and my writing is secure in its own criticism. Yet have I often said, " For whom this careful toil ? Will the Sauromatae and the Getae read my writings ? " Often too my tears have flowed as I wrote, my writing has been moistened by my weeping, my heart feels the old wounds as if they were fresh, and sorrow's rain glides down upon my breast.

Again when I bethink me what, through change of fortune, I am and what I was, when it comes over me whither fate has borne me and whence, often my mad hand, in anger with my efforts and with itself, has hurled my verses to blaze upon the hearth. And since of the many not many survive, see thou readest them with indulgence, whoever thou mayst be ! Thou too take in good part verse that is not better than my lot, O Rome forbidden to me ! (Translated by Arthur Leslie Wheeler. (The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachussets Harvard University Press/London William Heibemann LTD.  MCM XXXIX

Notes:
1.  Briseis was the daughter of Brises, a priest of the city of Lyrnessus. Slave and spoil of Achilles, she was taken away by Agamemnon; Achilles, angry, abandoned the fight in the siege of Troy. It is called "Haemonian"  the lyre because Haemonia was a province of Thrace and it was the gift of Hermes to the Thracian Orpheus.
2. Orpheus is the musician and singer par excellence, who with his lyre and zither attracted the beasts and plants and rocks leaned in his path. He went down to the hells in search of his beloved Eurydice, killed by the sting of a snake when he fled Aristeo's harassment. Hades and Persephone agree to give him his wife on the condition that Orpheus should go ahead on his way out of hell and not look back to see her until the arrival to earth; But Orpheus doubts whether his wife follows him and turns to see her. At that moment Eurydice dies again, returns to Hell and Orpheus can no longer recover her.
3. The "Sintians" are inhabitants of Macedonia and by extension the name also designates the Thracians.
4. The Muses

5. It is allusions to the episode of Odyssey IX, 82 et seq. in which Ulysses or Odysseus and his companions stop in the country of the lotophages, or lotus eaters, plant that makes you forget. Dulichian  was an island neighboring Ithaca and that's because Ulysses and his companions are  called so.

6. By the relationship of the Phrygian hill Ida with the rites of the cult to Cibeles.

7. The Lethe  (from which derives "lethal") is a river of the Hells, whose waters made  forget to the dead his  previous life.

8. It is the sacred mountain where the Muses live.

9. They are examples of "adynata" or impossible facts (from the Greek ἀδυνατον, "impossible thing"), of α- (a- "without") + δύναμαι (dynamai, "power, to be powerful"). They are rhetorical resources to which the poet is so fond of.

10.  They are two of the barbarian peoples of Pontus.

Tristia IV, 1

Siqua meis fuerint, ut erunt, vitiosa libellis,
excusata suo tempore, lector, habe.
exul eram, requiesque mihi, non fama petita est,
mens intenta suis ne foret usque malis.
hoc est cur cantet vinctus quoque compede fossor,
indocili numero cum grave mollit opus.
cantat et innitens limosae pronus harenae,
adverso tardam qui trahit amne ratem;
quique refert pariter lentos ad pectora remos,
in numerum pulsa brachia pulsat aqua.
fessus ubi incubuit baculo saxove resedit
pastor, harundineo carmine mulcet oves.
cantantis pariter, pariter data pensa trahentis,
fallitur ancillae decipiturque labor.
fertur et abducta Lyrneside tristis Achilles
Haemonia curas attenuasse lyra.
cum traheret silvas Orpheus et dura canendo
saxa, bis amissa coniuge maestus erat.
me quoque Musa levat Ponti loca iussa petentem.
sola comes nostrae perstitit illa fugae;
sola nec insidias, Sinti nec  militis ensem,
nec mare nec ventos barbariamque timet.
scit quoque, cum perii, quis me deceperit error,
et culpam in facto, non scelus, esse meo,
scilicet hoc ipso nunc aequa, quod obfuit ante,
cum mecum iuncti criminis acta rea est.
non equidem vellem, quoniam nocitura fuerunt,
Pieridum sacris inposuisse manum,
sed nunc quid faciam? vis me tenet ipsa sacrorum,
et carmen demens carmine laesus amo.
sic nova Dulichio lotos gustata palato
illo, quo nocuit, grata sapore fuit.
sentit amans sua damna fere, tamen haeret in illis,
materiam culpae persequiturque suae.
nos quoque delectant, quamvis nocuere, libelli,
quodque mihi telum vulnera fecit, amo.
forsitan hoc studium possit furor esse videri,
sed quiddam furor hic utilitatis habet,
semper in obtutu mentem vetat esse malorum,
praesentis casus inmemoremque facit,
utque suum Bacche non sentit saucia vulnus,
dum stupet Idaeis exululata modis,
sic ubi mota calent viridi mea pectora thyrso,
altior humano spiritus ille malo est.
ille nec exilium, Scythici nec litora ponti,
ille nec iratos sentit habere deos.
utque soporiferae biberem si pocula Lethes,
temporis adversi sic mihi sensus abest. 
iure deas igitur veneror mala nostra levantes,
sollicitae  comites ex Helicone fugae,
et partim pelago partim vestigia terra
vel rate dignatas vel pede nostra sequi,
sint, precor, haec saltem faciles mihi! namque deorum
cetera cum magno Caesare turba facit,
meque tot adversis cumulant, quot litus harenas,
quotque fretum pisces, ovaque piscis habet,
vere prius flores, aestu numerabis aristas,
poma per autumnum frigoribusque nives,
quam mala, quae toto patior iactatus in orbe,
dum miser Euxini litora laeva peto.
nec tamen, ut veni, levior fortuna malorum est :
huc quoque sunt nostras fata secuta vias.
hic quoque cognosco natalis stamina nostri,
stamina de nigro vellere facta mihi.
utque neque insidias capitisque pericula narrem,
vera quidem, veri  sed graviora fide,
vivere quam miserum est inter Bessosque Getasque
illum, qui populi semper in ore ruit .
quam miserum est, porta vitam muroque tueri,
vixque sui tutum viribus esse loci!
aspera militiae iuvenis certamina fugi,
nec nisi lusura movimus arma manu;
nunc senior gladioque latus scutoque sinistram,
canitiem galeae subicioque meam.
nam dedit e specula custos ubi signa tumultus,
induimus trepida protinus arma manu.
hostis, habens arcus imbutaque tela venenis, 
saevus anhelanti moenia lustrat equo,
utque rapax pecudem, quae se non texit ovili,
per sata, per silvas fertque trahitque lupus,
sic, siquem nondum portarum saepe  receptum
barbarus in campis repperit hostis, habet:
aut sequitur captus coniectaque vincula collo
accipit, aut telo virus habente perit.
hic ego sollicitae lateo novus incola sedis .
heu nimium fati tempora longa  mei!
et tamen ad numeros antiquaque sacra reverti
sustinet in tantis hospita Musa malis,
sed neque cui recitem quisquam est mea carmina, nec qui
auribus accipiat verba Latina suis.
ipse mihi—quid enim faciam?—scriboque legoque,
tutaque iudicio littera nostra suo est.
saepe tamen dixi cui nunc haec cura laborat?
an mea Sauromatae scripta Getaeque legent?
saepe etiam lacrimae me sunt scribente profusae,
umidaque est fletu littera facta meo,
corque vetusta meum, tamquam nova, vulnera novit,
inque sinum maestae labitur imber aquae,
cum vice mutata, qui sim fuerimque, recordor,
et, tulerit quo me casus et unde, subit,
saepe manus demens, studiis irata sibique,
misit in arsuros carmina nostra focos,
atque ita  de multis quoniam non multa supersunt,
cum venia facito, quisquis es, ista legas.
tu quoque non melius, quam sunt mea tempora, carmen,
interdicta mihi, consule. Roma, boni.

   
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