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Tempus ad Hoc: Synchrony in Ovid’s Ibis

Ursula Poole

Columbia University

The inscrutable temporality of Ovid’s Ibis has received little scholarly attention, though it is one of the most remarkable features of his work. In this paper, I argue that Ovid skews the contours of time in the poem in order to enact a cognitive dissonance that is endemic to exilic experience. That is to say, the carefully constructed poetic persona we encounter in the Ibis performs a temporal confusion that is indicative of his psychology as a displaced person: the collapse of time into a continuous present is symptomatic of his vituperative rage qua poeta exclusus. This paper is part of a larger project on the relationship between temporality and exilic trauma, of which the Ibis’ altered vistas of time are a clear instantiation. 

Since the dawn of Ibidic scholarship, critics have largely focused on the poem’s discontents as a work of literary merit or the historical facticity of its eponymous addressee (Schiesaro 2001, et al.). Gareth Williams’ influential monograph shifted the conversation away from historicizing accounts by elucidating the psychological dimension of the author’s poetic persona (Williams 1996). Following Williams, Stephen Hinds—in the only study to date on time in the poem–explores how the Ibis transgresses the temporal order established by the pre-exilic Ovidian oeuvre (Hinds 1999). However, Hinds stops short of connecting this intertextual inconsistency to exilic psychology. Most recently, Darcy Krasne’s trifecta of impressive articles on the Ibis have excavated the unique structure of the catalogue and its polyvalent engagement with the mythic tradition, pointing out several features of the text that I invoke in my analysis (Krasne 2012, 2013, 2016). Building on these valuable contributions, I hope to add a new strain to the critical chorus by considering the poem’s striking compression of chronology and its intimations for exilic experience.

I first discuss the relationship between synchrony and the emotions. Recent publications in cognitive psychology have shown that altered affective states elicit a distortion in time-perception (the so-called ‘time-emotion paradox’; Droit-Volet 2009, 2013). Ovid explores a similar premise in the Ibis, where his manic rage against his adversary elicits an intense focalization of the present moment. This exacting synchrony is evinced in the atemporal structure of the Ibis’ mythic catalogue. Rather than a continuous tapestry of myth à la the Metamorphoses, the catalogue’s fusillade of invective couplets registers as synchronic: each curse takes place in a specious present, revising the one prior. In one instance, he is figured as the cannibalized sons of Tantalus and Tereus (433-36), while just a few lines later, he meets with the penalty of Perillos’ brazen bull (437-8).  This revisionist cycle continues for several hundred lines. Nonetheless, in the closing couplet of the poem, Ovid insists that his cursing will continue thereafter in perpetuity. His arae are, so to speak, ever present. This compressed temporal mode contravenes the confident teleology expressed by the programmatic, pre-exilic works, particularly the Fasti—it is distinctly post-Augustan.

Finally, I consider the consequences of Ibidic time in terms of reader response. Ovid not only models his subjective experience of atemporality in his narrative, but also effectuates it through a carefully curated reading experience. His oblique references to marginal myths and elaborate relational webs slow the assiduous reader down significantly as he tries to decode them. Ultimately, the continual revision of curses, relentless allusivity, and pervasive periphrasis halts the narrative, giving the illusion of atemporality as one reads. We are caught in a negative feedback loop of maledictions, whose content is, with each curse renewed, purged of its meaning.

To my knowledge, there has not yet been a single analysis of the relationship between time and the emotions in Ovid’s exile literature. Through this reading of the Ibis, I hope to illustrate the vitality of this relationship in Ovid’s singular curse poem.

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After the Ars: Later Ovid

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