Discovering the author of the epic Metamorphoses.
When biographer and poet Middlebrook (Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage, 2003, etc.) died in 2007, she was in the midst of writing a biography of Ovid, whose poetry she had taught in her literature classes at Stanford. Knowing she would be unable to complete the project, she wrote an introduction to the first four chapters, bringing Ovid to the age of 20. She focused on a few crucial points in his life: birth in a small town in the Apennines; his move to Rome for his education when he was 12; the toga ceremony that marked his status as a man; an early marriage that ended in divorce when he was 18, possibly as a result of his wife’s infidelities; and his embrace of poetry as a vocation, encouraged by an aristocratic patron. With no historical evidence for the particulars of Ovid’s life, Middlebrook relies on histories of society, politics and culture in ancient Rome, as well as the poet’s writings, to draw intriguing inferences about his experiences, personality and especially his motivation to become a poet instead of a magistrate, as his father intended. “The search for answers,” she writes, “requires establishing the psychological validity of speculation about emotional dynamics to be found in Ovid’s work.” Middlebrook’s speculations result in her fictionalizing some scenes, which account for about one-quarter of her narrative; half of the book contains annotated selections from Ovid’s poetry that have biographical relevance. Also included are excerpts from his early Amores, “urbane love elegies” that reflected his own relationship with a mistress; Tristia, written after he was exiled by Augustus; and especially the Metamorphoses, his longest and most innovative poem, about supernatural transformations.
In this inventive, hybrid biography, Middlebrook grounds Ovid’s poetry in an insightful reconstruction of his life.