Ovid

The Art of Love

“What moron gives a sweetheart declamation?
Strong language often leads to consternation.
Keep speech convincing, words familiar,
and flattering, as if you spoke to her.”

If Erich Fromm’s 20th century masterpiece, The Art of Loving informs us in grand, universe-wide terms we must adopt a personality of love, a method of selflessness in order to truly love, then Ovid (March 43 BC – 17/18 AD) The Art of Love tells us, the exact opposite.

“Eat with grace – ” Ovid advises females, and to males “Play while you can.” The Art of Love is a rather comical, rather genius, how-to book of seduction, passion, intrigue and ingenuity.

Written, naturally, in verse.1

Love is a type of war. Sluggards, at ease.
Keep standards by the strongest strategies.
Night, winter, work, long marches and intense
suffering lie in Cupid’s gentle tents.
You’ll often bear the cold, having to lie
on naked ground, and rain dropped from the sky.
We’re told Apollo fed Admetus’ cows
and hunkered down inside a bijou house.
What suited him suits you: don’t show disdain
if you’re eager to make romance remain.
your straightforward, safe advance is halted
because the door in front of you is bolted,
If then slip yourself down from an open roof;
you’ll find that windows, too, aren’t burglar-proof.
She’ll know it’s her for whom you were imperilled,
and see that it’s true love your gestures herald.

P Tardieu's etching "L'Espoir de Retour" circa 1790
P. Tardieu’s etching “L’Espoir de Retour” circa 1790. A time of missing beaux, miniature portraits and scented love letters. Isaac & Ede Collection.

In “The Art of Love”, subtlety is key but only for a time. Ultimately it is the mastery of one’s longing in the face of one’s desired;

Tears work; for crying, adamant gives way;
if possible, put damp cheeks on display.
Still, tears don’t always happen on demand;
if not, then wipe your hand with moistened hand.
To mix kisses with flattery is wise –
if she won’t give, then take what she denies.
She’ll fight at first, call you a ghastly chap;
she wants, though, to be conquered by a scrap.
Only, ensure that snatched kisses don’t scuff
her tender lips; she’ll say you were too rough.
A man who takes the kisses, and no more
doesn’t deserve the things she gave before.
How close was he to something still more pleasant?
It’s not because he’s modest, but a peasant.

Ovid’s rather prolific advice, divided into three books, the first for males the last for females (and often contradictory of the first two), comes ostensibly from personal experience. Ovid was married three times and divorced twice before he turned thirty. “I’ve tried these things, I know what I’m talking about.” I imagine he writes with a knowing smile.

It is hard to imagine that the author of lines such as “make her afraid…”

Make her afraid; reheat her tepid mind;
let her blanch at some evidence she’ll find;
four-plus times happy is the man for whom
an injured, grieving woman will succumb:
who, when her stubborn ears hear these complaints
loses her voice and colouring, then faints.

Is the same one who advises men respect women when they speak to them with thoughtful words and phrases.

It is these frequent contradictions that make Ovid’s advice so modern, so down to earth, grounded in the rich loam of love (rather than some divine or muse-like romantic wiling with only an imagined object).

“Love Muse, why hold us up with magic art?” Asks the poet rejecting the traditional concept of love as a divine gesture or gift laid upon us by rosy cherubs.

Francois Davide Soiron's stipple engraving "St. James's Park" circa 1790.
Francois Davide Soiron’s stipple engraving “St. James’s Park” circa 1790. A time of park ambles, milk alfresco and the shapely male calf. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Does it get any more practical than this advice on taking a break: “And if you want a break then keep it brief/ in case the wait makes rage out of her grief.”

Or what about Ovid’s lines on pitching woo;

What moron gives a sweetheart declamation?
Strong language often leads to consternation.
Keep speech convincing, words familiar,
and flattering, as if you spoke to her.

If you strip back the words (and Ovid’s rather jaunty charm) you find a deep joy of writing and the need to reflect society back itself.2

Love as a social thing, anchored in the social fabric. This book could well be called “Love in the time of Ovid,” or rather, … In the Time of Caesar Augustus. Yet there is a brilliant contemporariness to the lines.

In 8 AD Ovid was banished (those who went against emperors usually were, looking at you Seneca). No one is entirely sure why but it had something to do with adultery (encouraging it, witnessing it, partaking in it…).

The Emperor had outlawed adultery in 18 BC but with the expected male-enabling provisos: if the woman was a prostitute, it was ok.

Jazet's engraving "Judith and Holofernes" 1850 after Horace Vernet's oil painting.
Jazet’s engraving “Judith and Holofernes” 1850 after Horace Vernet’s oil painting. Oh for the time of boozy love-making followed by decapitation. Print from Isaac & Ede Collection.

Like all great art, Ovid’s The Art of Love functions as a mirror to the social mores of the times and a light to its prevailing hypocrisy.

In modern times we seek fame from a shag,
and all we’re after is the power to brag.
You probe women wherever and, what’s sadder,
it’s simply so that you can say, ‘I’ve had her.
Is there no shortage of the girls you handle,
then point at, offering some tale of scandal?
Worse; some fake what, if true, they can’t
accept-
claim that there’s none with whom they haven’t
slept.
If they can’t have the bodies then they clutch
at names, and shame people they didn’t touch.41
So put a hundred bolts upon girls’ doors
and shut them up, you baleful janitors.
What’s safe now, if adulterers can claim
what didn’t happen, and besmirch a name?
Me, though, I hardly ever kiss and tell –
my mystic pleasures are protected well.

Ovid might be read lightly but his advice (some of it anyway) should be followed deftly. “Love is not a sentiment easily indulged in by anyone,” Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving “Regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. All his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries to actively develop his total personality.”

Perhaps Ovid would agree after all.

Practices and policies of love are always rooted in the cultural and fabric of our times. Read more in Mary Oliver’s open-hearted hymns to the loves of her life, Rebecca Solnit’s study of love in disaster, and these considerations on marriage in current times and how we love things.