ABSTRACT

Have you heard my name? Ovid? Am I still known? [ . . . ] Have I survived? (IL 19)

Thus addressed by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, protagonist and narrator of David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (1978), the reader will smile at the irony: this is one of the most infl uential poets of ancient times, whose works have been endlessly imitated, interpreted, and allegorized over the last two millennia; he was relegated to the imperial outpost of Tomis on the Black Sea, and his life (or more specifi cally: the “crimes” that determined his exile) and death (or: the location of his grave) have become literaryhistorical mysteries that hundreds of scholars have tried to solve, fans have tried to discover, so that he himself has become the subject of many literary works (see Ziolkowski 2005). Now this myth of Western culture asks us, hopeful and hesitant, whether his name is still known, whether his books escaped the censorship of the imperial decree that relegated him to the edges of the Empire and refused to let him return, whether he has survived! The survival of this “I” clearly means something other than the survival of his biographical person: it means the persistence of his fame as poet, the assimilation of his name and his works into common culture, the only form of survival that an “author”1 is ultimately interested in. The more informed readers may broaden their grin, since the historical Ovid himself had thanked the Muse who had bestowed on him, in life, the rare gift of a lofty name, usually granted only after death (Tristia IV.x, lines 121-122, pp. 204-205), and had done so in one of the letters that contains what has been described as “the fi rst poetic autobiography in world literature, a Wordsworthian Prelude avant la lettre” (Ziolkowski 2005, 20).