This is the original version

of an essay published elsewhere, with editorial changes. Read the other version and tell me which one you like better.

I taught for many years at a mid-sized state university in the American south. The courses I offered included sophomore surveys of pre-Enlightenment world literature in translation designed for the general student as well as classes devoted to early modern British authors for English majors and minors who planned to become public schoolteachers.  The community of 15,000 in which the institution locates itself doubles in population with the students included, most of whom hail from the exurbs of the two major metropolitan areas three hours from campus in different directions.  The town itself features eighteen Baptist churches along with an approximately equal number of other Protestant denominations and their sects. It is also the seat of the sole county within a one hundred mile radius in which one may legally buy alcoholic beverages. Those who read English paraphrases of Ovid with me in these somewhat unlikely circumstances were not classics majors, nor did they enter my courses with an abiding interest in the ancient world or literary study. By and large, they were there merely to fulfill a requirement. This was hardly their fault.

This environment poses special problems for the instructor who teaches material with erotic content such as the Ars amatoria. Some students of a conservative Christian bent, like the devout in other cultures, express puzzlement and outrage when class texts do not reflect or validate their perspectives. Many have no idea that the Bible has historical, artistic, and editorial traditions, or that scriptural literalism is itself a type of theology. Most find medieval religious literary conventions incomprehensible and hypocritical: that lyrics addressed to the Virgin and to the domina of fin’ amors may draw mildly sexual imagery from the same wellspring; that some cathedral schools used flores (lines excerpted for memorization and study) from the Ars amatoria, a few quite graphic (Hexter 72, 77), and that the first partial English translation of the Ars was a book of precisely this type, The flores of Ouide de arte amandi with theyr englysshe afore them (1513); that Petrarch could be a practicing Christian who nonetheless admits in a poem that his passion for Laura outweighs his sense of the Passion during Good Friday mass; that his fourteenth-century French contemporary, the author of the Ovide moralisé, allegorizes the brief account of Jupiter, Danaë, and Perseus in the Metamorphoses as typological precursors of the Holy Ghost, the Blessed Virgin, and the baby Jesus.  At the same time, to stereotype these students as intolerant is of no pedagogical value and therefore downright counterproductive. Actually, many Bible readers, as a result of their studies, have learned valuable inter- and intratextual hermeneutical skills unknown to their peers: the ability to read texts closely; a tolerance for simultaneous and contradictory interpretations within a literary work; and a patience for allowing meanings to manifest themselves gradually to the individual, as well as the knowledge that communities of readers together negotiate and make meaning. They know, therefore, that group discussion of literary texts is necessary and exhilarating.

Other problems are gender-related though universal. No instructor would wish his or her praise of Ovid’s subtle poetics in the Ars to be mistaken for an endorsement of the rogue masculine ethos of seduction, or for the work to be misunderstood as entirely about physical love. The conscientious female professor would naturally not want to appear to invite a type of attention that she surely wishes to avoid. Her male colleague needs to use complementary tact so that he does not create, however inadvertently, a classroom atmosphere that some of his female students might perceive as hostile to them.

Yet the greatest pedagogical problem may well lie with the nagging perceptions that even the most dedicated faculty member may find herself sharing with her less conscientious peers. That is, students who take a course for compulsory distribution credit should not be condescended to because of their lack of respect for learning, an attitude that professorial negativity only exacerbates. Many of the young men and women I taught were products of test-oriented public school systems with rigidly unimaginative curricula that were just inches from violating church-state separation, whose governing boards, with the happy endorsement of the communities they served, firmly committed their budgets to football instead of academic programs or teacher salaries. Worse, a majority had parents who had not encouraged them to become independent readers in their formative years and who certainly did not encourage critical thinking. On arriving at the university, furthermore, these students received uninspired advising and therefore had no idea why they were doing what they were doing. 

Empathy, patience and humility are therefore required for one professing Ovid in such an environment, and for other reasons besides those above. Students are often forced to learn in an academic milieu in which virtually everything has been predetermined—“radical determinacy,” if you will, that stifles the critical thinking so crucial to independent learning. The only writing model that the members of a given class may have previously learned is the reductive tripartite list thesis that fuels the mechanical five-paragraph essay. The sole reading model: learn the plot of the “story” (a term that can also mean “play” or “poem”) and summarize it so that the act of meeting the page with the eyes can be verified. Students must sometimes also unlearn more pernicious educational vices, conceptual in nature: the idea that moral questions are simply solved and unambiguous, e.g., adultery is always wrong; that writers always have a hidden message that they alone know, which the instructor, as the sole authority in the classroom, should reveal; or, if the notion of radical indeterminacy one proposes as a counterweight to their previous experience is truly operational, the validity of everyone’s opinion, including the instructor’s, is arbitrary; and, most important, that a student should finish a given academic task as hastily as possible because it is at best boring, at worst, worthless.

My institution fostered this unhappy paradigm.  I therefore concluded that my primary task was not to promulgate the study of Ovid per se to those who elected my courses or to prepare them for elite academic careers. My ethical perception of my job dictated that I use any means to encourage critical thinking and to teach analytical-argumentative writing skills. Assigning texts that were controversial and even offensive to some of my students was salutary for these purposes. My approach was (and is) broadly heuristical, learning by discovery: large-class discussion, group work, student presentations, and writing, writing, writing.

The Ovid of the Ars (the praeceptor Amoris) and of the Amores (the desultor Amoris) provides a paradigm of writerly indeterminacy in any language, eminently useful as a teaching tool. How does one resolve the early statement of the desultor that he is not a circus-rider of love (Amores 1.3.15) with his subsequent revelations (e.g., 2.4) that this is exactly what he aspires to be? He seems to follow much of the advice that the praeceptor offers both men and women in the Ars, which proves disastrous for his attempt at a love life. Some of the material in this latter text contradicts itself or otherwise cancels itself out. How much efficacy, then, does the sage counsel of the learned doctor actually have?  Many medieval writers, most notably Chaucer and Jean de Meun, speak reverently of the Ars as a trustworthy, even infallible guidebook to love, a position that few moderns would be likely to hold. Does this suggest that people from the distant past read differently? Did Ovid actually “mean” any of this? Is he the same person as the praeceptor? Although such questions may appear naïve and jejune to those steeped in the lore of the site, they can be fresh and invigorating to the novice, especially when he or she is challenged to find textual evidence as support for arguments that must be logically structured to be credible for an academic audience.

That Ovid might not be writing autobiography or expressing his own deeply held opinions surprised my students, especially when I made available to them his famous disavowal of the Ars from Tomis (Tristia 2.353-58): “I assure you, my character differs from my verse (my life is moral, my muse is gay), and most of my work, unreal and fictitious, has allowed itself more licence than its author has had. A book is not evidence of the writer’s mind, but respectable entertainment; it will offer many things suited to charm the ear” (Wheeler-Goold 81). They asked why a writer should not be what he writes.  Isn’t this just special pleading, considering the circumstances? We discovered that they shared some critical perceptions with early commentators: “Of Ouidius Naso his banishmente, diuers occasions be supposed, but the common opinion and the most likely is, that Augustus Cæsar then Emperour, reading his bookes of the art of loue, misliked them so much that hee condemned Ouid to exile”(Churchyard tpv). This critic, like my students (and Augustus), identifies a writer with his work, especially that composed in the first person. What he writes about might not have really happened, but in some sense must be true. As a result, he bears responsibility for what he says and must accept the consequences of self-expression. Therefore, the named object of affection in the Amores must also be real, albeit pseudonymous, a concept that the commentator E. K. in Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearedes Calender (1579) explains: “Ovide shadoweth hys love under the name of Corynna, which of some is supposed to be Julia, the [e]mperor Augustus his daughter, and wyfe to Agryppa” (Shorter Poems 34-35). The concept of the persona be damned, regardless of the anguished statement of Ovid from exile. “Corinna” was a real person, and  her admirer’s love for her was true. My students suggested that there was no other reason to write about her.

Some moralized that a poet whose verses recommend adultery and celebrate sexual freedom deserves what he gets, regardless of subsequent, convenient disavowals. We should judge a writer on what she says, and surmise what she thinks, the consequence of her professed ownership of her text. Although I did not think it my duty or place to challenge my students’ moral tenets, such a reductive argument struck me as worth answering, in one case with an essay assignment.  If I, the instructor, ask you to choose a passage from the Ars amatoria to analyze in a short paper, and then circulate the finished product to your peers, should they be able to make assumptions about your character and morality, based on the excerpt you select and your analysis of it? Would it be fair to say that your piece of the poem can be read as a kind of horoscope, revealing something secret and unknown (even to yourself) about you?

Naturally, I did not expect such discussions and writing prompts to produce a result from students that would magically convert them to a liberated and capacious position about life and literature. Indeed, I would have been disappointed if their textual interpretations had interacted with my criteria like the ingredients of a foolproof recipe, producing a pan of twenty-four perfectly symmetrical brownies. I hoped for some outrage. Some students applied themselves with enthusiasm and others resisted. Some produced good essays and some did not. Yet the act of thinking itself and the writing process were valuable, I hope, to them and immensely so to me, germane experience for future intellectual challenges. This constitutes the real value of confronting, through writing and discussion, a complicated text such as the Ars. The instructor may learn how to be a better teacher for her future students.

This Ovidian exercise in indeterminacy can also be useful in the English literature classroom. In an early modern survey course, it seems criminally negligent not to remind students that a syllabus of canonical texts constitutes only one interpretation of the period. They need to know about other authors besides Shakespeare, other forms of writing besides sonnets and tragedies, and other writers from different epochs and cultures whom the syllabus authors read, imitated, and emulated in the complicated nexus that we call intertextuality. To enable my students to explore these issues and broaden their perspectives as well as my own, I explain and illustrate one motif that Ovid repeats in three texts in different forms, the secret seduction of a married woman in front of her husband, which includes the humorous device of writing on the table in wine.  The praeceptor Amoris explains his strategies for executing this feat in the Ars amatoria (1.571-72); the desultor Amoris recounts his performance of it in the Amores (1.4 and 2.5.17); Helen chides Paris for the same behavior in the Heroides (17.75-90).

The first exercise asks students to compare and contrast these repetitions of the same material and to ask them to note certain differences. Is his praeceptor serious about this as a romantic strategy? How successful, ultimately, is the desultor in his adulterous relationship with Corinna, especially in his use of this device? Why should Ovid also ventriloquize himself as a female speaker, Helen of Troy, no less, and then have her show mild disapproval of the same behavior?  How do we square these conceptions of morality—not so different from those of Augustus, as legend has it—with our own? Again, I did not expect simple answers to such difficult questions.  I just wanted my students to see that authors are not always consistent in their ideas and opinions and, more radically, that this does not often matter to them.

After we discovered the immense ambiguity beneath what seems to be a simple problem or question of influence, we turned to Spenser’s very obvious, even showy manipulation of all three Ovidian uses of the material in the 1590 version of The Faerie Queene 3.9-10. His allusively named adulterers, Paridell and Hellenore, carry on in front of her husband, the despicably possessive and jealous Malbecco, conveniently (from his wife’s perspective) blind in one eye. Spenser knows that adultery is wrong, too, yet does not entirely castigate Paridell as he seeks “to intimate / His inward griefe, by meanes to him well knowne” with “all that art he learned had of yore” (29), ostensibly the advice of the praeceptor:

            Now Bacchus fruit out of the siluer plate
            He on the table dasht, as ouerthrowne,
            Or of the fruitfull liquor ouerflowne,
            And by the dauncing bubbles did diuine
            Or therein write to lett his loue be showne;
            Which well she redd out of the learned line,
            A sacrament prophane in mistery of wine.

The parochial Protestantism of my students at my former institution tended to prevent their recognition of the significance of this final line, at least potentially blasphemous to any pious Roman Catholic. Yet they certainly noticed how Hellenore then very suggestively spills her own wine in her lap, not so much quenching her ardor as demonstrating the futility of cooling it off, “Shewing desire her inward flame to slake” (31), obviously aroused by Paridell’s deployment of the Ars. She later deserts her husband and, after her lover in turn abandons her, takes up with a herd of satyrs who proceed to enjoy her with her full cooperation, which her cuckolded mate secretly witnesses as he pursues her (3.10.43-53). I then ask students to write an essay in which they consider two problems: how does Spenser transmute his profane material, and to what purpose? Why does he, a Christian author in other contexts, use it so approvingly? He shows an amusingly critical, even heartless attitude toward Malbecco and does not seem to condemn Hellenore, as a vintage observation by Helen C. Gilde implies: “there is nothing perverted about her sexuality—only about what causes her to express it in such ways” (235).

A seventeenth-century survey course could well feature a less specific conjunction of the Ars with English literature as a classroom motif. I found some success with the type of poetry classified under the carpe diem tradition that exemplifies the aforementioned rogue masculine ethos of seduction: John Donne’s “The Flea” and “Elegy: On His Mistress Going to Bed”; Thomas Carew’s “A Rapture”; Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”  These authors, thoroughly steeped in Ovid’s erotic works, fashion speakers who adopt the amorality of the praeceptor and desultor. However, rather than facetiously addressing a group of ignorant pupils in the ways of love or recounting their experiences to a neutral third party as their classical predecessors do, they speak directly to women with amorous condescension and supercilious logic to persuade them to feel privileged in submitting to their advances, as in Ars amatoria 3. An assignment can be crafted using virtually any section of the Ars or any one of the Amores as a prompt to explore how writers such as these emulate their predecessors.

Just as instructive is to ask one’s students to go back a half-century and read the soon-to-be canonical Isabella Whitney’s “The admonition by the Auctor, to all yong Gentlewomen: And to al other Maids being in Loue” (1567):

            Some vse the teares of Crocodiles,
              contrary to their hart:
            And yf they cannot always weepe,
               they wet their Cheekes by Art.
            Ouid, within his Arte of loue,
              doth teach them this same knacke,
            To wet their ha[n]d, & touch their eies:
              so oft as teares they lacke.
            Why haue ye such deceit in store:
               haue you such crafty wile:
            Lesse craft the[n] this god knows wold soone
               vs simple soules begile.
            And wyll ye not leaue of: but still
               delude vs in this wise:
            Sith it is so, we trust we shall,
               take hede to fained lies.
                                                (sig. A6)

This example was particularly piquant for the many students in a course I once taught who were, like Whitney, young women reared in morally conservative households, themselves the objects of unsolicited masculine attention. This author had enough Latin to read the Ars and identifies herself as a recipient of exactly the same kinds of blandishments that carpe diem poets proffer. Some of my readers found Whitney’s sarcasm amusing. Men who use the Ars as a guidebook for the seduction of impressionable, love-starved maids deserve to be mocked, because their prey would be seduced just as easily with less effort. Some feminine voices, my students were pleased to discover, were raised against the monolithically masculine poetical beast.

Some of my students still resisted the idea that a text such as the Ars is worthwhile or appropriate material precisely because it contains sexual content, even when presented with maximum professorial caution and empathy, and for one good reason that may be invisible to one reared in the 1950s in northern, more secular climes. They have been inundated with the concept of the significance of physical love. Those born during the Reagan presidency, or after, and who have come of age in the last decade have learned that sex is the most important thing in the world, an idea promulgated, somewhat grotesquely, by two cultures that wash over them: Protestant fundamentalist on the one hand and celebrity-driven popular “culture” on the other. From these sources, the contradictory, even psychotic message they receive about sexuality is one that those of us who remember Willie Mays or how Jacqueline Kennedy sounded on television did not get during our own adolescence. They must participate in sexual congress to gain the love of their peers and take pledges of abstinence from it to ensure the love of their parents. To them, Ovid’s intimations that the physical component of sexuality can be comical and supremely unimportant may sound subversive indeed. For one teaching his erotic poetry in this milieu, then, it is advisable to cull one of the flores that Renaissance schoolboys knew from the Metamorphoses and to use it as an emblem: “ars adeo latet arte sua” (10.252): so did his art conceal his art.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The flores of Ouide de arte amandi with theyr englysshe afore them: and two alphabete tablys. London: Wynkyn de Worde, 1513.

Churchyard, Thomas, tr. The Thre first bookes of Ouid De Tristibus, translated into Englishe.  London: Thomas Marshe, 1572.

Gilde, Helen C.  “Spenser’s Hellenore and Some Ovidian Associations.”  Comparative Literature 23 (1971): 233-39.

Hexter, Ralph. Ovid and Medieval Schooling: Studies in Medieval School Commentaries on Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria,” “Epistulae ex Ponto,” and “Epistulae heroidum.” Munich: Arbeo-Gesellschaft, 1986.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. Text ed. Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. London: Longman, 2001.

The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser. Ed. William A. Oram, Einer Bjorvand, Ronald Bond, Thomas H. Cain, Alexander Dunlop, and Richard Schell.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Wheeler, A. L. ed. Ovid: Tristia  [and] Ex Ponto. 1924. 2nd rev. ed. G. P. Goold. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

W[hitney]., I[sabella]. The copie of a letter, lately written in meeter, by a yonge gentilwoman To her vnconstant louer. London: Richard Jones, 1567.