Friday, 12 January 2007

Exile

I'm going back to uni on Sunday. I don't want to go! Leaving all my family and friends to be surrounded by people who are, at worst, hostile and, at best, indifferent is... well, not great, really. I know that I'm privileged to be at university in the first place, and it's not really as bad as all that, but I'm still sad. It feels like exile. It's had me thinking a lot about Ovid and his exile in Tomis. I did my GCSE Latin coursework on the life and work of Ovid and Virgil and that was when I got my passion my Classical literature. Ovid, in particular, is great, and so versatile: the wicked wit of the Ars Amatoria and the imaginative force of the Metamorphoses. What I've been reading lately, though, are his Tristia and Ex Ponto (you can read them online here) which he wrote in exile. For some reason, it's comforting, when you're miserable, to read your own miserable sentiments put much better than you could put them. As Sylvia Plath said, "Don't talk to me about the world needing cheerful stuff! What the person out of Belson - physical or psychological - wants is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst, just what it is like."

Ovid can be a bit of a bore in some of these letters, like when he describes all his various ailments in detail to his friend Flaccus, and he does whinge. This, however, to Rufinus, from Ex Ponto Book I.III, I find very moving:


"When your advice has strengthened my low spirits,
when I’ve adopted your mind’s defences,
then love of my country, stronger than all reason,
undoes the work your letters have achieved.
Whether you wish to call it love or unmanly tenderness,
I confess my strength of mind is weakened by misery.
No one doubts Ulysses’ worldly wisdom, but even he prayed
that he might see the smoke of his ancestral hearth again.
Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not
what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.
Where’s better than Rome? Where’s worse than cold Scythia?
Yet the homesick barbarian will still flee the City.
Though Pandion’s daughter is fine, shut in her cage,
she yearns to return to her woodlands.
Bulls seek the pastures they know, and lions –
despite their wild natures – seek their lairs.
Yet you hope, by your palliatives, to remove
the pangs of exile from my mind.
Ensure that you and yours are not so dear to me,
then it will be that much less painful to miss you.
And, I suppose, though I’m distant from my native land
I’ve still managed to end among human society."

No comments: