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or much of the nineteenth century Ovid seems to lurk uneasily in odd corners, given generous hospitality by John Keats but by few others. Shelley the champion of Hellas dismissed him along with Horace and Catullus as a mere imitator of the Greeks, though he did not disdain to draw on him for 'Arethusa' and 'Song of Proserpine', lyrical interludes in Mrs Shelley's drama Proserpine. Nineteenth-century Hellenism, taking its tone from Shelley and Arnold, looked askance at Ovid but did not completely annihilate him. Stray reflections from the glory that was Greece could place him, however fitfully, in a new and warmer light. Walter Pater, in Greek Studies, noted the distinctiveness of Ovid's version of the Proserpine story in the Fasti as he considered the Greek 'Hymn to Demeter'. He paid tribute to the delicate sadness and 'pathos caught from humble things' which characterizes Ovid's narrative. In a sense this romantically constructs Ovid as Wordsworth, but it is a suggestive comment which serves to remind us that Wordsworth himself had found in Ovid a sympathetic imagination.

Ovid was part of the romantic and Victorian literary consciousness, but a small and conveniently detachable part often concealed behind intermediaries. Wordsworth and Keats were drawn to him, and yet in different ways and with different success tried to establish their distance from his world. For Byron he was an alter ego, casually annexed and easily disowned, the impudent rogue he sometimes liked to appear him- self. Browning and Swinburne identified in him a challenge to conventional pieties which they exploited for their own ends. Poets, painters, librettists all found in Ovid a useful imaginative resource which they seldom troubled to acknowledge. Time which devours all things, as Ovid tells us (Metamorphoses 15.234), did not destroy Ovid in the nineteenth century. It changed him as his Arethusa was changed into a fountain from which wayfarers could drink without always recognizing the source. [174]


Vance, Norman. The Victorians and Ancient Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Last modified 15 January 2007