The Russian Chapter in the Reception of Ovid's Exile Poetry. Pushkin, Mandelstam and Brodsky

Master's Thesis, 2015

35 Pages, Grade: 71


Table of contents:


TO OVID, 1821


EX PONTO, 1965
Epilogue to Exegi Monementum (May 24, 1980)




In 8AD Ovid was relegated by Augustus’ imperial order to Tomis, a city today known as Constanta in Romania on the shores of the Black Sea. This is where he lived until his death in 17AD for his ‘ duo crimina’, that is his carmen, Ars Amatoria, and the much speculated-about but unidentified error. His so-called exilic corpus, Tristia (8-12 AD) and Epistulae ex Ponto (12-16 AD) are epistles addressed to his family, friends and Augustus, and together constitute a sort of chronicle of the debilitating effects of the exile on his psychology and ingenium. Arguably Ovid is not the originator of exilic poetry. Nor was he the first classical author to connect exile with death, which had already been explored by Cicero and can be traced as far as back as to Ennius’ Medea.[1] Yet in systematically adopting a monotonous lamenting tone and in casting himself as a mythical character destined to come to grief, Ovid curated the self-image of the persecuted poet.[2] And in so doing in a way he paved the way for the future reception of his exilic oeuvre.[3]

Thus, alongside the long-standing adaptations of his carmen perpetuum, Ovid’s exilic corpus has been susceptible to multiple reworkings through the ages by a long list of poets and thinkers.[4] These too either endured political exile or more broadly found themselves in situations of censorship and cultural alienation.[5] It is no accident that Ovid’s exilic art was revisited with the rise of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century; Carole Newlands and John Miller highlight that while Virgil was appropriated by nationalistic agendas, Ovid, by contrast, was reclaimed to challenge state power and autocratic repression.[6] There is a subversive aspect to Ovid’s exile poetry which, politics aside, was harnessed by authors eager to take to task ‘all sorts of literary, artistic and social conventions and norms’.[7] Jennifer Ingleheart is the editor of the only book to date to be exclusively concerned with the diachronic reception of Ovid’s exile poetry in western literature. She posits that authors have been engaging with Ovid in three distinct ways:[8] overtly, where Ovid’s authority is explicitly acknowledged, implicitly, by sketching parallels to a variety of Ovidian topoi schematised by Stephen Harrison as a tripartite scheme of displacement, politics and lamentation;[9] and lastly in outright antipathy to Ovid’s poetics, which is the case of Victor Hugo[10]. Moreover, in the introduction of the said study is raised a legitimate question: namely, to what extent the personal experience of exile informs the way authors engaged with Ovid[11].

In light of these issues, in this paper I single out three great canonical writers who are native of a country in which ‘exile was an occupational hazard’.[12] Thus, the Russian chapter is made up of the national poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the foremost member of Acmeism, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), and the Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Although they are not the only Russian authors to have engaged with Ovid, they did so by completely adapting Ovidian themes to their poetic idiom whilst they were in internal or inner exile themselves. First, the young Pushkin wrote the poem apostrophe To Ovid during his southern exile in Kishinyov (1820-1824). In addition, Ovid reappeared once again in a brief but memorable interpolation in Pushkin’s more complex work The Gypsies. Second, Osip Mandelstam accorded a privileged place to Ovid in many of his poems spanning the period 1914-1922 as well as in a late poem of his dated 1931. Last but not least, Joseph Brodsky in turn registered his fascination with the Roman poet, in a sequence of poems written during his two-year stint in Noreskaia (1964-1965) – Ex Ponto and Fragment – but also in his famous Epilogue to Exegi Monementum (May 24, 1980) in opposition to Ovid’s victimisation.

In terms of the existing bibliography, while Pushkin understandably monopolises the scholarly interest, both Mandelstam and mainly Brodsky are understudied[13]. In reception studies now, all three poets have been rightly covered in the context of the Classics in Russia by Zara Torlone (2011), since classical antiquity is integral to their poetics and ­more cursorily by Andrew Kahn (2009). However, how these three poets refashioned and adapted Ovidian motifs in their oeuvre to speak of their own exilic condition is a theme that has not been examined in detail by either scholar[14]. Thus I will set out to address the aforementioned queries based on two premises: firstly that reception is negotiated through its previous receptions,[15] and secondly, in agreement with Ingleheart, that the reception of Ovid’s exile literature occurs by way of explicit acknowledgement of Ovid’s authorship, along Ovidian lines, but also by opposition.

Therefore I will argue that the engagement of these three Russian poets with Ovid’s exilic literature somewhat transcends the remit of Classics, and is to be ascribed to the Russian tradition of cross-referencing (preemstvennosi); that is writers integrate the words of their predecessors into their work.[16] That being said, mutatis mutandis one poet follows in the footsteps of its predecessor and of all three we cannot overestimate the influence of Pushkin who was the first to engage with Ovid during his Southern exile. As David Bethea mentions with Pushkin’s exile ‘the notions of genius and national poet became associated with the notion of displacement from home’.[17]

Over three chapters, I shall explore each poet individually. I provide first information on their circumstances and generally how their interest in Ovid, the exiled poet, came to be. Subsequently, I probe what exactly was received from Tristia and Ex Ponto and how it was refashioned, focusing on their poems. Lastly I conclude by bringing all three poets into dialogue in order to demonstrate their interdependence. Because the Ovidian poems that Brodsky wrote in Noreskaia in 1965 have not been translated into English to date, namely Ex Ponto and Fragment, I commissioned their translation for the purposes of this paper.


The experience of exile in the south was instrumental in the formation of the poet who was to capture the national consciousness of Russians. However bitter may have been the displacement for the worldly young poet, it provided him with the impulse for ongoing creative activity, channelled into his so-called Southern oeuvre, but not least a broadened view of Russianness; namely what it means to be Russian on the southern border of the ever-expanding Russian state.[18] Pushkin acquired this experience by a twist of fate; initially, Alexander I was intending for the young poet to be displaced to the White Sea for alluding to the murder of his father Paul I as a lesson against tyranny in his classical poem, Ode to Liberty (1817) and openly attacking serfdom in The Village (1818).[19] Though following the intervention of high-placed friends in the tsar’s environment he was sent nominally in government service to the south whilst being under constant surveillance. For the next six years he lived in Moldavia (1821-1823), where he became aware of widespread myths regarding Ovid’s grave and afterlife,[20] later in Odessa (1823-1824), and lastly on accusations of atheism he was relocated to his family estate in Mikhailovoskoe in northern Russia (1824-1826).

From the outset the challenge facing the young poet, who had already made a name for himself in the capital, was twofold: how he could maintain his communication with his audience and, consequently, how he could speak of his exilic condition as well as of his liberal sensibilities.[21] Therefore Ovid is ‘the classical garb’ with which he veiled his criticism levelled at the Russian autocrat in keeping with the common practice of the poets allied with the Decembrist’s cause of political reform.[22] Pushkin had certainly known Ovid prior to his exile, but now in this specific location and circumstance he would discover him as the author of exile elegies via French translations, according to his friend Ivan Liprandi.[23]

In this section I shall examine To Ovid and The Gypsies, written in 1821 and 1824 respectively, in order to illustrate that Pushkin’s self-representation is intricately linked to the way he portrays Ovid, and consequently, with the sources from which he drew his material, namely French translations and Moldavian myths. It is noteworthy that Pushkin might also have had in mind The Ballade by Sergey Bobrov, who was in truth the first Russian poet, who established the link between the Bessarabian landscape and the transhistoric communion of poets while in civil service in Crimea in 1792.[24]

TO OVID, 1821

Composed of 104 thirteen-syllable rhyming iambic lines, To Ovid approximates to an elegy, but was published in 1823 anonymously as an epistle (poslanie).[25] Due to its synthetic character, today scholars view it as an early stage of experimentation that would lead a few years later to Pushkin’s long narrative poems.[26] In essence Pushkin addresses Ovid in an incantation-like fashion under the influence of Romanticism. Their encounter occurs as an interplay between nature, memory and emotions during which past and present fuse.[27]

Ovid, I live near the quiet shores

To which you once brought your banished native gods

And where you left behind your ashes.

Your joyous lament made these lands famous,

Your tender-voiced lyre has not gone mute.

This place is still filled by your words.

You have vividly imprinted in my imagination

The dark wilderness, a poet’s confinement,

Its hazy vaulted heaven, snow all around,

And the sun-warmed meadows, their warmth short-lived.

Have I followed you Ovid, with my emotions![28]

Pushkin reassures his ancient forebear of his enduring fame as he stands in approximately the same region that is shaped by Ovid’s exilic poetry: ‘the place is shaped by your words’. It is remarkable that he ingenuously shies away from stating that he happened to be in the vicinity of Tomis due to the very fact that he was himself banished. Instead he insinuated his exilic status by anchoring his apostrophe in chief themes drawn from both Tristia and Epistulae Ex Ponto. Thus in the following verses Ovid’s exilic poetry appear as stored memories that come flooding back to Pushkin’s mind in the guise of quotations; however, as Stephanie Sandler points out, they are ‘feigned quotations’[29] as they are not reproduced verbatim. Pushkin’s conceit of mapping his exile onto Ovid’s exilic motifs is ‘an act of ventriloquism’;[30] specifically, ‘the two tropes, apostrophe and quotation add to each other, especially since the quotation is itself presented as an apostrophe that is about an apostrophe’.[31]

Therefore the verses 11-13 –‘I would see your ship, a plaything in the waves,/ Its anchor dropped near the wild shores/ There are fields without shade, hills without grapevines ’ – echo Epistulae Ex Ponto 1.3. vv 49-52:

Orbis in extremi iaceo desertus arenis

Feri ubi perpetuas obruta terra nives.

Non ager hic pomum, non dulces educat uvas,

Non salices ripa, robora monte virent.

‘Born amid the snows for the horrors of war,/ Keep to themselves beyond the Ister and await tribute. / And they constantly threaten the villages with incursions./ They know no boundaries….’(vv 16-19) can be paralleled to Tristia 3.10.29-34:

miscetur uasto multa per ora freto, caeruleos uentis latices durantibus, Hister congelat et tectis in mare serpit aquis; quaque rates ierant, pedibus nunc itur, et undas frigore concretas ungula pulsat equi;

Similarly, ‘even as a child you preferred to crown your hair with roses’ (vv71-74) is a free rendition of Ovid’s claim that he did not participate in military contests:‘aspera militiae iuvenis certamina fugi,/ nec nisi lusura movimus arma manu’ (Tr. 4.1.49-50). The ‘pastiche of Ovidian imagery’, to use the words of Andrew Kahn,[32] culminates in the dramatisation of Ovid’s pleas to his friends:

‘O return me to the Holy city of my fathers

And the peaceful shade of our family gardens!

O friends, carry my supplications to Augustus

Bring my coffin back to my beautiful Italy’.

While the Roman poet did indeed express his wish that ‘his little urn be brought back to Rome’ (Tr. 3.3. 47), his ultimate wish to be recalled to Rome is not voiced in either work. For example, in Tristia II he addresses Augustus to request several times to be transferred to a milder and safer place: ‘tutius exilium pauloque quietius oro, ut par delicto sit mea poena suo’ (Tr. 2.2.58).

Following a set of rhetorical questions in vv 45-53, ‘who could read these last words and not feel emotion?’ Pushkin finally talks about his impressions of the south:

As a severe Slav, I have not shed any tears,

But I understand them. A self-willed exile,

Unsatisfied with the world, life and myself,

I, with meditative spirit, have now visited

This land where you once lived out a sad eternity.

And believed their sorrowful picture;

But my eyes were deceived by your reveries,

Your exile held me in thrall, mystified,

Since for me the gloomy northern snows were quite normal.

Here the heavenly azure is light for long periods of time,

Here the cruel winter storms reign only briefly.

The purple vines do gleam forth, sons of the south.[33]

He claims to be ‘a stern Slav’ and ‘a self-willed exile’. In other words, following the tradition of Byron he paints the self-image of the jaded Northerner in pursuit of the alluring south. In the verses 50-75, he elaborates on how pleasurable the south is, being somewhat mystified by Ovid’s description of the landscape. The points of reference are reversed and what is north to Ovid is south to Pushkin. By this token, ‘the heavenly azure is long for long periods of time’, ‘the purple vines gleam north’, he can feel the ‘warmth of the winters’, and so forth.[34] There is, however, subtext that sheds light on Pushkin’s stance. In a previous verse he contends that ‘nor submissive songs will touch Octavius’ (v.35). Likewise, in the excised concluding verses, he echoed similar sentiments,[35] namely ‘in glory not-in fate I was your equal/ But I never degraded by wayward betrayal/ Either my proud conscience or my unbending lyre’.[36] Evidently Pushkin perceives Ovid’s attitude towards Augustus as fawning, whilst today the majority of scholars adopt a more nuanced approach. For instance, Gareth Williams makes the case that Ovid is neither Augustan nor anti-Augustan, and depending on the perspective of the reader he can be seen as wavering between flattery, irony or even irreverence.[37] It must be noted though that Pushkin was exiled for purely political verses, and not a manual of erotic relationships such as the Ars Amatoria. Therefore, in constructing the self-image of the voluntary exile he sends a strong message; he does not intend to plead for mercy to the Russian autocrat, let alone renounce his work and lament his fate: ‘I have not shed any tears’.

After comparing his exilic status with that of Ovid, he addresses his counterpart for a last time:

Console yourself: the wreath of Ovid has not faded!

Alas, a lost singer in the crowd,

I will be unknown to new generations,

But if some belated descendant should discover me,

And come looking in this distant land

For traces of my lonely life near to these glorious remains

Then my grateful shade will flow down to him,

How, like you, submitting to a hostile fate,

Iwas like you not in fame but in our common lot.

Here, sounding the lyre of the northern wilderness,

I wandered in those days, when on the banks of Danube

The magnanimous Greek called people to freedom.

Not a single friend in the world listened to me.

But these alien hills, fields, and sleepy groves,

And the peaceful muses wished me well.[38]

In a rather condescending and didactic way he reassures Ovid again that his plight has provided him with enduring fame and potential for creativity: ‘the wreath of Ovid has not faded’. Moreover, he admits at last what he really shares with the Roman poet undermining thus his previous assertions of being exiled of his own volition; it is the ‘hostile fate’, that is the forced banishment. The 21-year-old poet whose major work lies ahead of him wishes to be share Ovid’s fame and understandably not his fate despite his claim that ‘I was like you not in fame’. Specifically, in projecting himself onto the future he wishes to commemorated in the context of the Greek war of independence which was sparked off in the neighbouring Danubian prinicipalities in February 1821; ‘the magnanimous Greeks’. It is thought to be a safe evocation of the theme of freedom as the Russian tsar had thrown its support behind the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire.


[1] Ovid is not the creator of exile poetry but according to Jo-Maries Classen he is the originator of the exilic autobiography. On the matter see Gaertner 2007:160 and Classen 2008:39.

[2] Tr. 1.19-20 ‘I would like to tell them that the aspect of my own fortune can be reckoned among those changed bodies’.

[3] Andrew Laird contends that ‘Ovid himself was a poet obsessed with his future reception and in all his works he attempted to control how they would be viewed by posterity’. Laird 2010: 356. In addition see Myers 2010:8-22.

[4] Ziolkowski 2005:185.

[5] Ingleheart 2011:10.

[6] Newlands & Miller 2010:4.

[7] Ibid and see Ziolkowski 2004:150.

[8] Miller and Ziolkowski treat Ovid’s exile literature in the context of his collective oeuvre. See Ingleheart 2011: 8-11.

[9] Harrison 2011: 207.

[10] Ingleheart 2011: 13.

[11] Ibid: 14.

[12] Bethea 2011:196.

[13] The English bibliography on the reception of Ovid’s exile literature in Brodsky’s poetry is nearly non-existent with the exception of Torlone (2011) and Kahn (2014).

[14] This dissertation relies greatly on Torlone’s study, which is by all accounts the most thorough and insightful to date. However, Torlone has a tendency to draw general conclusions based on a single poem. For instance, she states that Pushkin ‘put a positive spin on Ovid’s sadness’, but this is the case with ‘To Ovid’ and not with ‘The Gypsies’. See Torlone 2009:44.

[15] This is a key principle in Reception studies. See Martindale 2006:10-38.

[16] Bethea 2011:200.

[17] Ibid: 196.

[18] Sandler 1982: 1-20.

[19] Bortnes 2012: 228.

[20] ‘until this day Naso’s shade/ is searching in the banks of the Danube,’ he wrote to his friend, the poet Evgenii Baratynskii, in 1822. Wolff 1971:35.

[21] Ibid: 62.

[22] The Decembrists used to encode classical names with contemporary political meaning. See Iakubovich: 150-154.

[23] In Kishinyov, Pushkin befriended Ivan Liprandi, a colonel in the Russian army who wrote in his memoirs that ‘Ovid interested Pushkin very much; I do not know whether he had read him before, but I do know that the first book he borrowed from me was Ovid in French translation, and the books remained with him from 1820 to 1823.’ Liprandi 1950: 260.

[24] In Bobrov’s Ballade a visitor communicates with Ovid’s ghost on his grave in the vein of English Romanticism. See Kahn 2010: 402.

[25] Bortnes 2012:228.

[26] Kahn 2014:37.

[27] According to Ram this is ‘the very core of the elegiac sublime’. See Ram 2003: 183.

[28] Sandler 1989:58.

[29] Ibid: 46.

[30] Ibid: 47.

[31] Ibid: 49.

[32] Kahn 2014: 402.

[33] Sandler 1982:58.

[34] Ibid: 59

[35] His criticism towards Ovid is also manifest in his personal correspondence. In a letter to his publisher Nicolai Gnedich dated 24 March 1981 he says: ‘In the country where crowned by Julia and exiled by crafty Augustus, Ovid dragged out his gloomy days and meanspiritedly devoted his elegiac lyre… I am still the same as I was before. I don’t pay homage to an ignoramus, I argue with Orlov, I drink a little, and I don’t blinded by hope sing to Octavius my plights of flattery’[35] Cited in Wolff 1971:150.

[36] Kennedy 2011:191.

[37] Williams 1994:168.

[38] Sandler 1982:59.

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The Russian Chapter in the Reception of Ovid's Exile Poetry. Pushkin, Mandelstam and Brodsky
University College London  (Department of Classics)
MA in Classics
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Niovi Gkioka (Author), 2015, The Russian Chapter in the Reception of Ovid's Exile Poetry. Pushkin, Mandelstam and Brodsky, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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