Every word you’ve read in this whole book was written
during the anxious days
of my journey: scribbling lines in mid-Adriatic
while December froze the blood,
or after we’d passed the twin gulfs of the Isthmus
and transferred to another ship,
still verse-making amid the Aegean’s savage clamour
(a sight, I fancy, that shook the Cyclades).
In fact, I’m surprised myself that in all that upheaval
of spirit and sea inspiration never flagged.
How to label such an obsession? Shocked stupor? Madness?
No matter: by this one care all cares are relieved.
Time and again I was tossed by wintry tempests
and darkly menacing seas;
time and again the day grew black with storm-clouds,
torrents of wind-lashed rain;
time and again we shipped water; yet my shaky
hands still kept writing verses – of a sort.
Now winds whistle once more through the taut rigging,
and massy-high rears up each hollow wave:
the very steersman, hands raised high to heaven,
his art forgotten, turns to prayer for aid.
Wherever I look, there’s nothing but death’s image –
death, that my split mind fears
and, fearing, prays for. Should I come safe to harbour
terror lurks there too: more hazards on dry land
than from the cruel sea. Both men and deep entrap me,
sword and wave twin my fear:
sword, I’m afraid, hopes to let my blood for booty,
wave wants the title of my death. Away
on our left lies a barbarous coast, inured to rapine,
stalked every by bloodshed, murder, war –
the agitation of these wintry waves is nothing
to the turbulence in my breast.
All the more cause for indulgence, generous reader,
if these lines fall short – as they do –
of your hopes: they were not written, as formerly, in my garden,
while I lounged on a favourite day-bed, but at sea,
in wintry light, rough-tossed by filthy weather, spindrift
spattering the paper as I write.
Rough winter battles me, indignant at my presumption
in ignoring its fierce threats, still scribbling away.
Let the storm have its will of the man – but let storm and poem
reach their end, I pray, each at the same time!
[translated from the Latin by Peter Green]
In the winter of AD 8, Publius Ovidius Naso was relegated by the then Emperor Augustus, condemned to perpetual exile in the Black Sea port of Tomis – an inhospitable, almost barbaric place where Ovid would live out the last years of his life and die, still cut off from his beloved Rome, in AD 17. 
The product of those bitter years is what must be one of the earliest examples of a now familiar genre – the exile poem. Ovid’s Tristia (available in a 2005 translation by Peter Green) is a monumental and heartbreaking work, one that I’ve always preferred, for instance, to his Amores. It’s a work that covers a continent of emotions – Ovid is whiny and conniving, witty and eloquent, hopeful and despairing. Sorrow and loss are certainly the keynote here, but what you get is not a portrait of a man defeated but of a mind in turmoil. Part wish-fulfillment, part plea, Tristia is also, in a very real sense an assertion of power – the only kind of power that poets have. Ovid writes with one eye on Augustus, but the other on eternity, knowing that if the one does not relent then the other may still give him the reward he so richly deserves. Other people write Defenses of Poetry, Ovid has written a Defense of Ovid, and as with many other Defenses, the points that Ovid makes are, frankly, irrelevant – in the end poetry must speak for itself.
And speak for itself it certainly does here. Ovid, in his newly acquired humility, repeatedly informs us that he has fallen on hard times and is not now as good as he used to be – but this is a lie, as every page of Tristia bears witness. This is not the work of some old master in his dotage, this is the work of a poet at the height of his powers, the skill of his craftsmanship joined to the urgency of his situation. And if it seems sometimes that Ovid clings to his poems the way a drowning man clings to a plank of wood, if they become, for him, a way of holding on to his sanity in a new and hostile place, the “one care by which all cares are relieved”, then I can think of nothing better, or more apt, for him to have fallen back on.
This poem, that closes Book I of the sequence, is easily my favorite of the lot. It’s a stunning portrait of the artist in adversity, of the struggle to create, out of despair and isolation, something both beautiful and true. So vivid is Ovid’s description of a poet writing on the storm-tossed deck of the ship, and so powerful the image and metaphor this evokes, that one may be forgiven for believing that Ovid is giving us a literal description of how he wrote – though if you think about it, this seems unlikely. At any rate, in its exploration of the almost dialectic relationship between the artist’s work and his life, as well as the balance Ovid strikes between despair over his situation and pride in his work, this is a grand and strangely triumphant poem, and a reminder of how alive the ‘classics’ can seem, 2,000 years after they were written.
Original Latin Text (courtesy of the Latin Library):
Littera quaecumque est toto tibi lecta libello,
est mihi sollicito tempore facta uiae.
aut haec me, gelido tremerem cum mense Decembri,
scribentem mediis Hadria uidit aquis;
aut, postquam bimarem cursu superauimus Isthmon,
alteraque est nostrae sumpta carina fugae,
quod facerem uersus inter fera murmura ponti,
Cycladas Aegaeas obstipuisse puto.
ipse ego nunc miror tantis animique marisque
fluctibus ingenium non cecidisse meum.
seu stupor huic studio siue est insania nomen,
omnis ab hac cura cura leuata mea est.
saepe ego nimbosis dubius iactabar ab Haedis,
saepe minax Steropes sidere pontus erat,
fuscabatque diem custos Atlantidos Vrsae,
aut Hyadas seris hauserat Auster aquis,
saepe maris pars intus erat; tamen ipse trementi
carmina ducebam qualiacumque manu.
nunc quoque contenti stridunt Aquilone rudentes,
inque modum cumuli concaua surgit aqua.
ipse gubernator tollens ad sidera palmas
exposcit uotis, inmemor artis, opem.
quocumque aspexi, nihil est nisi mortis imago,
quam dubia timeo mente timensque precor.
attigero portum, portu terrebor ab ipso:
plus habet infesta terra timoris aqua;
nam simul insidiis hominum pelagique laboro,
et faciunt geminos ensis et unda metus.
ille meo uereor ne speret sanguine praedam,
haec titulum nostrae mortis habere uelit.
barbara pars laeua est auidaeque adsueta rapinae,
quam cruor et caedes bellaque semper habent,
cumque sit hibernis agitatum fluctibus aequor,
pectora sunt ipso turbidiora mari.
quo magis his debes ignoscere, candide lector,
si spe sunt, ut sunt, inferiora tua.
non haec in nostris, ut quondam, scripsimus hortis,
nec, consuete, meum, lectule, corpus habes.
iactor in indomito brumali luce profundo
ipsaque caeruleis charta feritur aquis.
improba pugnat hiems indignaturque quod ausim
scribere se rigidas incutiente minas.
uincat hiems hominem! sed eodem tempore, quaeso,
ipse modum statuam carminis, illa sui.
 Ovid’s exile is also the subject of a fairly enjoyable David Malouf novel called The Imaginary Life.