Who but Ovid to read on this Valentine’s Day? Below, the fifth elegy of the second book of his Amores, from David Slavitt’s lively volume of translation, Love Poems, Letters, and Remedies of Ovid.
No love is worth this much. Cupid, take your quiver
and go. Get out of my life! My usual prayers
these days are for death, which seems a better option
than the torment in which I suffer from that girl!
The evidence is clear. I did not have to infer
from equivocal clues or see my uncertain way
through ambiguities. These are no mere suspicions,
and not even a fool would try to refute them.
Happy is he who can in good conscience defend
his darling, who can swear, “I didn’t do it!”
But stronger than I am in mind and heart is he who can be
satisfied by proving his mistress guilty,
winning the bloody battle and losing the damned war.
I saw what you did. You thought I was drunk and asleep,
but through my half-closed lids I watched you play the coquette,
nodding, flirting, and making that little moue
you sometimes use. I watched your fingers write on the table
messages that you once traced for me.
And your talk was full of suggestive jokes and double-entendres.
Then, when the party broke up and most had left,
and only a few of us drunks were still in the room dozing,
I saw you and him kissing, no mere pecks
of the kind a brother and sister might very well exchange
(Diana and Phoebus, say) but deep probings
as if you were trying to swallow one another’s tongues
(for example, Venus and Mars in the heat of passion).
“What in hell is this?” is what I shouted out.
“Why are you sharing the joys that should be mine?
I assert and will defend my rights. Those kisses are ours,
unencumbered by claims of any third party.”
(Elaborate, but remember I had been drinking a lot.)
She blushed. Of course, she blushed, crimson with shame
with the tint of Tithonus’s spouse, like the flush of a virgin bride
on her wedding night, like roses among the lilies,
or the moon as it sometimes shows itself when it is in labor,
or Assyrian ivory Lydians dye to preserve it
and keep it from turning yellow . . . But you see my desperate condition,
with metaphors running wild to describe her color,
which, I have to admit, was absolutely lovely.
She kept her eyes on the ground, which was also becoming,
and the grief and shame on her face made an appealing picture.
Still, what I wanted to do was tear her hair
and rowel her gorgeous cheeks with my desperate fingernails.
But as I stared at her face my arms dropped
as if she were wearing armor. No longer enraged but humble,
I begged her for kisses no less sweet than those
I had observed. She smiled at me and then she kissed me
in a way that would make great Jove let fall from his hand
his three-forked thunderbolts. Again, I was wretched, thinking
that he had enjoyed embraces just as sweet,
or, even more disturbing, these kisses she gave me
were better than before, inventive now,
or say that she had been taught and now knew how to please
voluptuously. I enjoy them, but they gnaw
at my vitals as I think how she was lewdly taught
and how much pleasure her tutor must have taken.