A MAN’S life is bounded by the triangle of heredity, education and environment.” So runs a famous saying which contains some truth for me. Yet I have often wondered how much of the line of environment should be assigned to birth-place. We know something of the effects of topography and climate on racial and national characteristics, but who has made a careful investigation of the possible results of early surroundings on individual character? Walter Pater has essayed an exquisite imaginative study in his “Child in the House” of those many gossamer filaments attached to our first home that over and over again in after-life brush across the face so delicately. For myself, I surmise that the peculiar restfulness for me of small azure lakes surrounded by gently curving hills and a glimpse of blue water through stirring leaves goes back to the fact that all my childhood picnics were on the shore of one of the Finger Lakes of Central New York. And if place associations have such hold as they surely do for animals and for ordinary people, how much more must it be significant that Mantua rejoices in Vergil, Verona in Catullus and that Ovid is called the glory of the Paelignian race? For poets, surely the sights and sounds of which eyes and ears first become aware must be a creative force in future personality.
Partly for this, partly because I love the Very Young, I am more interested in beginnings than in endings and I defy old Solon’s sententious maxim : “Count no man happy until he dies.” For that reckoning, waiting is too dangerous and I would rather rush out with my basket to cull the flowers of childhood. So when I read of “Ovid among the Goths” by that Naturalist of Souls, Gamaliel Bradford, my mind reverted at once from old Ovid beside the Black Sea to young Ovid in the Abruzzi.
Some time I am going to spend a few weeks between Pescara and Sulmona, walking in the mountains and reading the poetry of Publius Ovidius Naso and Gabriele D’Annunzio to see if I can find out why those snow-capped ranges produced two such romantic and hybrid poets. Meanwhile I have journeyed to Sulmona for these snapshot impressions. The way of approach which I happened to select was peculiarly preparative for beauty, as I came up from Brindisi along the eastern coast of Italy to Castellammare-Adriatico and then turned across country towards Rome and the long day had given me first the sea, then the mountains. My mind carries many pictures : the great, fertile, Apulian plain stretching level and unbounded like the Roman Campagna; the surprisingly small and quiet Aufidus which Horace from his child-memories had led me to suppose would be a roaring flood; Horace’s Monte Gargano, stretching out into the sea, not a great jutting crag as I had pictured it, but a long level ridge with one crater-like crest slightly elevated; and all the way north here and there olive groves and over their tops (except as we rounded Gargano) glimpses of the divine blue of the Adriatic and flitting across the sea, bright, pointed sails of white and crimson and gold. Then when we turned sharply away from the coast at Castellammare, there were at once the magnificent mountains.
And it was here between Pescara and Sulmona that I thought of D’Annunzio’s dedication of “La figlia di Iorio, ‘To the land of the Abruzzi to all my people between the mountains and the sea’ and I remembered that here was laid not only the scene of that tragedy but also of another, “La fiaccola sotto il moggio,” which I had seen given in Rome, so full of the immemorial traditions of these hills, the snake-charmer and his witch-daughter going back even to Vergil’s epic. From this country too came those strange stories of his birth-place “Le novelle della Pescara,” at once so vigorous and so haunting. All these seemed the legitimate children of these rugged and barren rocks but D’Annunzio’s other writings, many of them, and the man! How could this hard and barren district, fit for the dens of lions and for the huts of hardy, simple peasants, have suckled so febrile, complex, sensuous and sensitive a highly-strung twentieth century organism as the author of “Il Fuoco”?
And the other poet-son of the Abruzzi, Ovid, had a career no less romantic and spectacular than D’Annunzio’s. Towards the end of the day as the train jogged on through the dim landscape of the twilight, I brooded over these strange anomalies, wondering what Sulmona could have thought of the meteor-like apparition of her son in Rome. Ovid tells us in a poetic letter his own story or at least he tells us all except the Great Mystery at which he vaguely hints. “If I were king,” as the saying runs, in my benevolent despotism I should decree that all my subjects should be educated enough to write truthful autobiographies, and I should have these constitute the state archives. This would remove all need of a secret service department, would enhance the value of the work of librarians, at least for cataloguing and reference, would check the careers of professional psycho-analysts, would increase power as each person would have to evaluate his own life while setting it down on paper, and would develop a clear English style from practice in writing on a familiar subject. I am sure that at least Socrates with his dictum “Know thy-self” would approve of my fundamental, national regulation.
Now Ovid, I think, knew himself and he knew how to tell a story, witness the Metamorphoses, in fact that was, I believe, his greatest literary power, but he chose deliberately to be obscure or mysterious about the crucial point of his life. It is as though a drama rose to its dénouement and subsided from it, but never explained what the dénouement was.
Ovid lived in a post-war period when, after one hundred years of civil struggle had culminated in the death of Julius Caesar, a golden age of peace was achieved, a time of reconstruction, of great building activity, large literary output, growing luxury. Ovid was the child of this age of peace and plenty, a product of a society in which the younger generation, knowing nothing of political struggle, and little of military service, revelled in amusement, coquetry, and all the joys of the light of heart.
The autobiography of course begins with his birthplace: “Sulmo is my native place, a district very fertile from its cool streams, and ninety miles distant from Rome.” Then very proudly though with feigned indifference he shows that he belonged to an important family in the little town, was a knight as a whole line of ancestors had been. The affection of his childhood centered in the brother one year older than himself whose birthday came on the same day, and there is a good deal about their education, how when very young they were sent by their careful father to the most distinguished teachers in Rome, and how the older boy seemed born to be a lawyer, but young Naso was his father’s despair for he would write poetry instead of studying oratory. “Why,” demanded his practical parent, “Why do you pursue a useless calling? Homer himself left no wealth!” So Naso tried valiantly to reform, but in the midst of efforts to write rhetorical speeches, like Pope, he lisped in numbers, for the numbers came. Perhaps he endeavored still more conscientiously to please his father after his brother’s death at twenty, the shock that stole from him part of himself, for he did hold some minor political offices. But the sight of the senate ahead and a long and honorable career made him certain that neither his body nor his mind could stand so strenuous and ambitious a life, and once for all he made his great decision for dear leisure under the Muse’s sway. Now he was one of the company of poets of the day, and soon his own light verses about a certain Corinna set all Rome agog to find out the identity of his fair innamorata. One can imagine what rumors reached Sulmo of his affairs, as his light and elegant poems became the joy of Rome’s gayest and most fashionable circles. For thirty years he was the poet-laureate of pleasure for the Roman world.
Meanwhile, unlike Catullus, Vergil, Horace, he married, or experimented in marriage, let us say, as he did in office-holding, for he seems to have taken his marital relations as lightly as he did his public career. Three wives he had: the first a woman not worthy of him (he says) and barren, hence divorced; the second, above reproach, but not destined to be with him long (no reason assigned) ; the third a member of the distinguished Fabian family, and always loyal and devoted to him if we can judge from his letters to her, for as Bradford wittily points out, we have none of her letters or diaries for the other side of the story. His one daughter, Perilla, he seems to have loved.
In poetry, at first, as in education, career and marriage, Ovid followed his own bent and in the first period of his literary output produced iuvenilia which in various forms all treated the theme of love: the light and graceful Amores which celebrated Corinna, the He-roides or love-letters of ancient heroines, the absurd skit on the care of the face with directions fit for a beauty-parlor, and the two didactic poems on the Art of Love and the Remedy of Love which are so brilliantly unmoral and seductive. If Ovid had stopped writing here, he would have been notorious, but not great, but he did not stop, for either growing up or perhaps receiving a hint of the Emperor’s disapproval (and there is abundant evidence of Augustus’ indirect yet coercive influence on the poets of the day), Ovid now turned to narrative poetry and wrote the Meta-morphoses, those sparkling stories which retell the old Greek mythology, and the Fasti, a religious calendar with accounts by months of the Roman festivals to the gods. This, his most serious work, was his occupation when the Great Blow fell upon him.
There are no remarkable events in Ovid’s life from 43 B. C. to 8 A. D. It is simply the story of a Roman gentleman in comfortable circumstances who had been completely weaned from his simple birthplace in the cold mountains, who had made a stir in the Roman literary world, was a friend of all the writers of the day, and who, moreover, because of the gaiety of his temperament and the brilliant immorality of his poetry was a social lion in the fashionable fast young set in the capital. Then suddenly he was sent into exile.
The blow fell without warning. Ovid was in Elba, when an imperial edict ordered him to Torni, a small town in a barbarian country on the western coast of the Black Sea, a twelve month journey from Rome. The sentence was technically one of relegatio not exsilium so that he did not lose his property, nor his rights as a Roman citizen, but these were slight compensations for the separation from the gaiety of Rome. The sentence changed the dashing poet to a dejected valitudinarian, transformed his trifling love verses and his brilliant narratives into gloomy elegiacs with but three themes, apology for his fault, pictures of his dreary lot, prayers for his restoration.
Although in his writings Ovid alludes to his banishment time and again, he never drops the slightest cue as to the certain reason for it. Once he declares that the reasons for his unhappiness are a poem and a mistake, and there can hardly be a doubt that his poem was “The Art of Love” although it had been published six years before, but its seductive and immoral instructions in coquetry, directed to both men and women, were against all the principles of Augustus’ moral reforms, and the Emperor must have looked long with suspicion upon a poet who could so completely disregard even the conventional morality of the age. To fathom what ‘the mistake’ was is difficult enough to demand the talents of a Sherlock Holmes or Scotland Yard. Although all manner of conjectures have been made, the most probable theory is that Ovid was involved in some way in the affair of Augustus’ grand-daughter, Julia, who was exiled for adultery the very year that Ovid was banished. An Emperor whose sternness spared neither his own daughter, nor his grand-daughter would hardly have forgiven a poet whose lax moral tone had already offended him in case the poet was found guilty of connivance with the lovers.
Whatever the cause, the sentence of exile fell and after a dreary year of travelling, Ovid reached the desolate land of his banishment. He was a prey not only to the loneliness of separation from family and friends but also according to his letters to the depression of a severe and exhausting climate. Yet the distinguished Scotch geologist, Sir Archibald Geikie, says he finds it difficult to repress a smile when “the poet writes of Tomi as if it lay in the Arctic regions, and speaks of hard Fate ordering him to die under the icy pole. It is true that the temperature in the coldest part of win-ter falls there below the freezing-point, but so it does in the uplands of the poet’s Abruzzi. On the other hand, the summers at Tomi are as warm as in the centre of France.” So some of the miseries of exile were perhaps a poet’s pose, but still I believe that Ovid never wanted to go back to Sulmo just because of that cold air which he often decries. And here in Tomi the language too was strange, a rugged Getic which repelled him as he learned it, so he had no audience who could listen to his poems, worst of fates for a literary egoist. As long as Augustus lived, Ovid hoped for a mitigation of his sentence but with the succession of the harsh, uncompromising Tiberius he gave up hope and in three years died of a broken heart.
What did Sulmo think of Ovid’s exile? It was very human and right that when the blow fell, Ovid thought first of all of his parents and rejoiced that both had died before the pain of this news came to their ears. Then with a sudden fear, he exclaims :
“Yet if aught but names remains to the dead, and if the delicate spirit escapes the funeral pyre, if my story has reached you, O shades of my parents, and the charges against me are noised abroad in the forum by the Styx, know, I pray, that the cause of my enforced exile it is right that you should know is a mistake, not a crime.” So solemnly he swears to the dead. But how in the forum of Sulmo must the country gossips have discussed what could have been “the mistake.” I can imagine how at the end of their conjectures some genial old greybeard would say : “Well, Ovid belongs to us. I knew his father and mother and they were very nice people. Too bad the older son, who was such a promising young lawyer, died. Ovid was always a little wild and only a poet, but they say he has made a great stir in Rome. And he i always spoke well of Sulmo. I think the Emperor is a trifle severe.”
And little by little, as the years went on, the feeling would grow that the son of the Paelignian country had been made a martyr and the aroused sense of injustice would canonize Ovid in his birthplace. So saints are often made. Hereupon, I took out my Ovid and looked over the echoes of Sulmo in his poetry. Its cool air and its many streams, he sings, and the fertility of well-watered earth for grain and grape and olive and the deep lush grass by the rivers, but in this youthful poem (Amores 2, 16) which purports to have been written in Sulmo and contains his longest description of his birthplace, he has naught good to say of the two magnificent mountain-ranges on either side of the valley, only upbraids them as barriers between himself and his absent Lady. When he begs her to mount her pony-carriage and hasten to him, he adds :
“But you, ye towering mountains, when she shall come, subside and be easy roadways in the sloping vales.”
Some pride in his town Ovid shows, for he boasts that Sulmo is a third part of the whole Paelignian district and he would give it, as well as Rome and Tibur and Tusculum, a Trojan founder, “Solymus, Aeneas’ one companion from Phrygian Ida, from whom the walls of Sulmo take their name, cool Sulmo, my country. Woe is me! How far is Sulmo from this Scythian land 1”
One touch of homesickness for the little town ! Usually in his exile it is great Rome, the City for which he longs, and even on his sad birthday-anniversary in Tomi, he thinks of his first birthday in Sulmo only to wish, from his misery, that it might have been his last. But for Ovid’s temperament people had more hold than places and with father, mother and brother dead, and wife and daughter in Rome, his thoughts fly to that second home as well as to all his more general satisfactions in the life of the great city, and sincere and simple at last, he writes a letter to Perilla (we believe she is his daughter) that is most touching.
I had in my mind both Ovid’s feeling for his daughter and her youth, and his own boyish affection for his brother, and for his Sweetheart across the mountains, as in the light of a full moon the train stopped in the tiny station of Sulmona. I had not gathered from Ovid or from anything I had read that the beauty of the spot would be its own reward, but as I drove up the long road from station to town, I drew an enraptured breath over the two snow-capped ranges and the two poplar-bordered rivers between which the long narrow town stretched out before me in the radiant, white moonlight. My delight was prosaically complete when I found that the modest hotel Italia had steam-heat to ward off ‘Paelignian chills.’
It was molto caratteristico of Ovid’s birthplace that it seemed full of courteous young Italian men who were ready to act as my guides and answer my inquiries, and I saw the country that first evening in a glorious walk under the kind escort of a Tenente of twenty-three on his way to Aquila, where he had been transferred for the sake of his health, I conjectured, as on the train I watched his worn face and listened to his story of fighting at Monte Grappa, the Corso, the Piave, and of his five wounds. Then the next morning a stunning lad in a black cape hunted up for me the house of the Professor who held the keys of the little Museum and when he saw my disappointment on learning that the Museum could not be opened because the Professor was very ill, he invited me by way of compensation to walk twenty miles over the mountains with him to Scanno. I could hardly bear to postpone that pleasure.
The town of Sulmona even by daylight is as picturesque as its setting is romantic, a city of beautiful doors, I dub it, as I look over my photographs of the Gothic portal of the Cathedral of San Panfilo where two Roman-Ionic columns standing on beasties support bishops, and the Gothic-Renaissance door of the Palazzo S. Maria Annunziata, or the lovely rounded arch of the chiesa of S. Francesco which is only a door now, all the church destroyed except this beautiful portal opening into the meat-market, and the door in the Palazzo Tabassi which bears so proudly the maker’s name:
“Mastro Pietro da Como fece questa porta 1448.”
And as interesting as the doorways and more magnificent is the great Piazza Garibaldi with its aqueduct of the pointed arches across one end, at the other, out-lined against snow-capped mountains, the exquisite little church of S. Agostino, and in the center the great Renaissance fountain. The Piazza was full of color for on the steps going up to the Aqueduct the market is held and country women in picturesque costumes were selling oranges from piles of brilliant fruit massed on long stands. Yet all the beauty of mountains, rivers and picturesque buildings had not so much charm for me as a rather dilapidated school house with an inscription above the door that read “Collegio Ovidio.” I went into the courtyard and there to my joy found Ovid himself, a fifteenth century Ovid in long straight robe, very prim, virtuous and saintly, clasping to his breast the city’s emblem, a tablet with the letters S. M. P. E. for his own words,
Sulmo mihi patria est.
I photographed him above a group of vigorous little smiling school-boys, potential Ovids, who might some day go to Rome to make of life success or failure. Would they, I wonder, plunge from the cold, bracing Paelignian air and the hardy life of the Abruzzi into luxury and frivolity and dissipation which would enervate them to less than their best? What can Italy, what can America do to protect in city life the vigor and the virtue of her country sons?
Even in that reflective moment, I seemed to belittle the right that Sulmona has to be proud of her brilliant alumnus who in his greatest work re-vivified the Graeco-Roman myths and through the Metamorphoses was preeminently the Latin poet who influenced the art and literature of the Renaissance. I will confess that I love best of all in Ovid the traces of the country that remain, the picture of the river in flood that kept him from his Love, the prayer of the shepherd to the Italian goddess Pales, and the account of the pious old couple who unaware entertained a god. To me none of Ovid’s other works has the charm of the Baucis and Philemon story and I think that picture of the simple home, the life-long devotion, and the religious faith of two old peasants was created out of the heart of the Abruzzi mountains. Re-reading that, I am more than willing to fulfill Ovid’s wish to confer glory on Sulmona by his fame and to quote his words :
“May some stranger looking at the walls of well-watered Sulmo which enclose few acres of land exclaim : ‘O walls which could produce so great a poet, however. little you are, I call you great.’ ”