Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Anxiety of Fidelity by Marina Macklin

The Anxiety of Fidelity in Roman Love Poetry
From the Desk of Corinna: Reflecting On Her Affair With Ovid

I have thought to set it all down in writing, to immortalize a different account of what happened back then, an account that I could dictate, not one dictated to me and of me. It seemed a sort of golden time, when life teetered on the edge of something heartbreakingly incredible, when teenage roses might burst forth into astounding, earth-shattering beauty that would last only for a few ephemeral days before fading away into the swirling leaves of autumn. But that autumn came, and love was not true, or perhaps love was not love. In any case, that man who wrote such pretty poems to my beauty and charm left on an autumn wind, and I fell forward into the rest of my life, immortalized in verse but tethered to the uncomfortable remnants of a very earthly existence.

He wrote what he wrote, he said what he said, he spoke of Cupid stealing away a foot from his lines, that god of love's exacting of mischief; he expressed that anxiety of fidelity that surely stalks behind the happy steps of all lovers. But I never did. I never had the chance to write my own account, and I hope to remedy that herein. My old daily journals have proved true to time, and I can still vividly remember the emotions that I described in such great detail in those days.

After he published the first poem, after he sent his maidservant Nape to my window with tablets professing love, I wrote this: "Will this man ever cease writing poetry to me? His elegies are flattering, his attention is welcome, but I have begun to fear that never will I be able to free myself from the attention that follows each published poem. I have read every one, unhealthy for my ego though it might be."

He had then decided that was perfectly appropriate to address a poem to my husband. Looking back, that particular book of poems only elucidates further the inconstant nature of Ovid. He talked to me for weeks only about my husband's loose hand in relation to my conduct in our marriage (and outside of it), and then he decided to switch his view and accuse my husband of being far too jealous. He wrote of how my husband prevented me from "loving my lover."   I know now that he was simply a maker of excuses; a man that had to find reasons for things that I could not fully explain. Even now, I ask myself, would it have been so difficult for him to understand that, perhaps, I simply could not maintain a charade of this magnitude, even if my husband already knew, even if he, my lover, thought that I had no shame? But therein lay the problem, I can see it now, clear as day: 1 did have shame; it had simply lost itself in his eyes, in his slow but burning smile, in his youthful arms. I might not have been able to write poetry dedicated to these things as he once wrote poetry dedicated to me, but I still felt these things, that passion, just as he did! Yet my instinct was to murmur, "No" every so often. For he was just a baby, really. My husband might have been ancient and dry and lifeless in comparison, but I was still married to him, not to Ovid, that man I loved, and I knew that this was a fact I could not change.

I could never fully ignore, thought I might have been able to cast it from my mind for short and blissful periods of time, the measure of hypocrisy that took root in his poetry: his inconstancy of position, his fear of my further infidelity juxtaposed with his inability to see how my affair with him was infidelity in itself. As I read my old journal, I can see a change in daily entries that had once concerned themselves with the household, the gossip, and the interesting whispers that floated around Rome like leaves on a windy day. That little book, intended to keep an account of my day to day goings-on, became a reflection of the core of my life at that point: that illicit relationship that somehow became the very opposite of illicit, that public renown, that public shame that was somehow not shameful, but still managed secretly to shame me to my very core. And it revolved around that man, about whom my younger self simply could not make up her mind.

My very reaction to his eleventh poem could not illustrate my mixed feelings more fully. After its publishing, I wrote, "He has written another poem, of course. It is his eleventh. It seems he has realized how his poems have brought attention upon me. How is it such a shock to him that the young men of Rome find me intriguing, and not solely for my personal charms but also for the notoriety that his poems of love have given me? In this latest poem, he spent his verses regretting every pretty phrase and lovely metaphor with which he feted my beauty and allure. He has entirely made up his mind that this new renown will lead me to infidelity!  Yet he remarks too that I still hold him in my power, that only I can stir the poetry in him. I cannot say for sure how I feel about this." Our relationship was constantly haunted by the low hum of a threat on the horizon: ironic, perhaps, considering our very relationship itself was a threat to the traditional values of love. We were never married to each other; I had a husband; the affair still managed to be very much a public one; and yet he still worried about the attentions I paid to other men. Oh yes, I was never the most faithful of women, that I will readily admit. But, you see, I will readily admit it. I would never subscribe to some pretence of virtue; I would never pretend that I had always been faithful. He rather crucified me for that, of course; he wrote those poems, he made sure that Rome knew all about my doings. But he already knew I was an unfaithful woman; after all, I had cheated on my husband with him, hadn't I? But he, I never knew about him. I never really knew if he held himself to the standard that he lambasted me with in that poem, that standard that engulfed him with jealousy when it threatened to deprive him of me, yet was of no concern when it gave me to him and released me from my husband. Oh, but there were rumors. I never asked him forthrightly, and I rue that now, for if I could only know whether or not he remained faithful, oh it would be such a relief. He wrote poems about other women later, of course, but that was after he had gone from my life, half willingly and half defiantly, caught in some fit of jealousy and, though he would not care to admit it, confusion. For ultimately he was confused: I betrayed the fidelity inherent in love simply by loving him, yet he could never accept it as a betrayal; he could never see the anxiety that my infidelity had surreptitiously brought into our relationship, the anxiety that would ultimately bring about our love's demise.

This is the second time that the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition international category winner has been Marina from Highland School, Virginia, USA. Last year as an eleventh grader, she wrote an epistolary tale based on the letters of Pliny the Younger, entitled Letters to Procula. Now in her last year of high school, doing Honors Latin, she used book 1 of Ovid's Amores as her primary source. Bene fecisti, Marina! For those who are interested, here is a translation of the eleventh poem referred to in Marina's story. 

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