The fourteen elegies of the final book of Ovid's Amores are mostly occupied with the problems of sex and emotion in the relationship between the poet and Corinna. But Ovid never leaves off his own self-criticism for long. The first elegy is a debate with himself about whether or not he should turn away from the writing of his poems of sentiment to the production of tragic verse. The now well-worn joke about the unequal meter of love-poetry is brought out again in the form of the muse Elegia. In the poet's mind's eye he waits in a sacred grove and sees Elegia walking toward him. "And one, I think, was longer of her feet" (ln 8) he says, referring again to the unequal lines of Latin elegiac poetry (the play on a woman's feet and the dactylic poetic "feet" of the elegiac meter not being a surprise to the reader by this point in the poem, and it works both in Latin and in English.) Another personification appears in the form of the muse of Tragedy, and the two muses argue with Ovid over what type of poetry he should write.
Of all the elegiae in Amores Elegia II may strike the reader as the closest to the courtly love model of the Middle Ages. In it Corinna is watching a horse race, and the lover is watching her. The poet is more restrained and respectful in this poem, at least until the end. He admires her looks and manner from afar, as a troubadour might, but when Corinna has her "wish" (the chariot she has chosen wins, and she has won money by betting on it) the metaphor turns the coin in her palm into a payment of sex from her to him later on "Pay it not here, but in another place" (ln 84). The lover's high-mindedness only lasts so long.
Corinna has lied to her lover about something in the next poem. The beginning of this elegy poetically wonders how it is that Corinna has said something false, but has still retained all of her outward beauty. It is a psychologically interesting exploration of the nature of deceit between two people. The lover goes on to say that the gods must allow this, for women so often lie.
Ovid addresses the next poem to Corinna's husband, switching his position from Book 2, in which he despised the man for not guarding his wife better, to now saying that the husband's jealousy is killing Corinna's love for her lover! Hypocrisy is rife in these lines, and the debauched nature of Corinna's lover is plain. Adultery was common in Rome at this time, so the famously prudish Emperor Augustus passed various laws making illicit sex a crime. This poem seems a bit curious to a modern reader, in that it assumes that women are as prone to adulterous and deceitful behavior as men. This theme was continued in various ways by medieval poets.
The lover apostrophizes once again in elegy five, speaking now to the river. The lover is riding a riverboat to visit Corinna. This is another example of a lover's address to someone or something which cannot answer him. It serves mainly as a vehicle for Ovid's extremely erudite listing of rivers and river gods of mythology. At a certain point in the journey the snowmelt-swollen river impedes the lover's passage. This poem ends with another of Ovid's stunningly cruel curses (compare to the curse on the old bawd, Book I, Elegia VIII, lines 114-115.) "But for thy merits I wish thee, white stream/Dry winters aye, and suns in heat extreme." (lns 105-106.)
Sexual explicitness returns in the sixth love poem in this Book. The lover has visited a prostitute, and is eager to blame his impotence on some fault in her hygiene or dress. The poet uses very explicit imagery to describe his condition. The main metaphor in this poem is Tantalus, a man whom the gods punished by making food and water eternally visible but out of reach to him (from this name the English word "tantalize" is derived.) This encounter ends in a quarrel, with the woman spilling water on the bed to fool her maid.
Ovid makes digressions in the next two elegiae. The seventh elegy is a searingly ironic social commentary on the loss of learning and chastity in Rome. Elegia VIII is a sincere, heartfelt lament on the death of the poet Tibullus. Tibullus was also a poet of love-elegies, so, metaphorically Cupid "…knocks his bare breast with self-angry hands./The locks spread on his neck receive his tears./And shaking sobs his mouth for speeches bears" (lns 10-12) to express his grief at the loss of his poet. Neither of these poems advance the story of the lovers, but they are decorative poetic flourishes which were common in the poetry of Ovid's time. Again Ovid's extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology is shown to great effect.
It is the season of sacrifices to the harvest goddess Ceres in Elegia IX, and the lover is disappointed because sexual congress with his mistress is forbidden during this time. There were certain times of the year in classical Rome when women performed certain rites in temples of goddesses, ensuring good harvests, safety in childbirth, and other social concerns. This poem gives a history of the goddess, and recounts the myths of the introduction of agriculture to mankind. In the next poem, the tone is markedly tenderer than this Book's previous insults and ironies. It is at turns a bitter condemnation of his mistress's infidelity, but at the same time a reiteration of his love for her. He cannot stop loving her, he says, "Whatever thou art, mine art thou". The lover is resigned to continuing to love Corinna, no matter how she might deceive him.
Corinna is popular with the young men of Rome, it is learned in Elegia XI, not only because of her beauty but because the fame these love-poems have brought her. This is a rueful consequence for her lover, because by celebrating her charms he has given Corinna more opportunities to be unfaithful. The poet is once again in Corinna's power, for not the heroic stories of Thebes, Troy, or Caesar can inspire poetry in him; only Corinna can.
In the twelfth elegy the poet discusses the possibility of the region of Tuscany ("Tuscia" line 1) giving him a wife sometime in the future. This is a typically practical and clear-eyed Roman attitude. Though the lover has just waxed poetic (in Elegia X) about a mistress whom he says he cannot leave off loving, he still has every intention of having his own legitimate wife in the future, and celebrating the festival of Juno (a rite of fertility) with her. The story of Agamemnon's death and the arrival of Agamemnon's son Helesus to the area of Italy called Tuscany is then recounted. The legend is that this scion of the Homeric Argives (Mycenaean Greeks of the twelfth century B.C.E) founded the Tuscan people, and inaugurated the festival of Juno that the lover now celebrates.
Elegia XIII is another plea to Corinna, that she conduct her affairs with discretion. The shocking cynicism of Ovid's poetic tone is shown in the beginning of the poem: "Seeing thou art fair, I bar not thy false playing./But let not me, poor soul, know of thy straying." The lover is fully prepared to accept the idea that, because Corinna is attractive, she must then, indeed, have lovers other than him. The two-timing nature of the relationship is not only highlighted, but the lover is actually encouraging his mistress to deceive him about her other lovers. Marlow, interestingly, interjects a word Ovid would not have known: "puritan" in line 13. The lover is advising Corinna to appear to the world as chaste, and "walk as a puritan." The Puritans in the England of Marlowe's day were not only a subversive (and sometimes considered heretical) sect, but they were also famed for dressing and behaving very modestly, in contrast to the Renaissance love of sexual and sartorial display. The poem descends into explicit descriptions of the lover's opinions on how women should act in public and in private. The lover's instructions are for Corinna to be sexually adventurous with her lovers, but to appear chaste and modest in public. The lover lets slip some of his feeling for Corinna when he says that he knows what she has done with other men, and that it makes his "soul fleet[s]" (line 37). He is seriously conflicted about her infidelity to him. "Then thee whom I must love, I hate in vain." (ln 39).
The last Elegia of Ovid's Amores is a standard apostrophe to the goddess Venus. This short poem does nothing to end or explain the story of Corinna and her poet-lover; nor does the poet seem concerned that the reader is left not knowing the end of the story between the lovers. Ovid's audience was sophisticated enough to guess that the end of the affair was near. The poetic flourishes of Ovid were at least as important – if not more so – than the narrative.
Ovid was widely read by educated people in the Middle Ages, and many of his ideas of love and the relationships between men and women were adopted (and sometimes misunderstood,) and sometimes significantly altered by medieval poets. The yearning of the lovesick youth, the obstacles between them, and the resistance of the mistress, (among other ideas) were all brought into medieval poetry by Ovid. They mutated, however, into the Christian model of a "pure" love, (which became in some traditions an entirely platonic love.) The second elegy in this book shows this to good example. The scene of Corinna watching the horses, and her lover watching her and wishing her racer would win, is full of courtly-love images. Ovid, however, is coarser than most of the later European poets. He notes that the lover glimpses Corinna's legs, and compares them to a famous female runner, the Greek mythic Atalanta.
The thirteenth elegy in this book contains two interesting Marlovian flourishes, which could only have come from Elizabethan English (rather than translated from Ovid's Latin – from which, doubtless, the process of translation has removed much of the poet's wit, and especially the language-specific wordplay). Marlowe uses the world "wittol" in line 30, which meant, in his day, a fool, but also carried the slang meaning of a cuckold. This is a reference not only to Corinna's husband, but to the lover himself – for he, at least he believes, is being cuckolded himself by Corinna with her other lovers. Also, Marlowe leaves in an interesting reference to the Latin in line 49, in regard to what the lover wants Corinna to say if she is ever accused of infidelity. The English answer "I did it not" is four words, and the Latin "non feci" is two – and though Marlowe of course translates the answer into the required four words in English, he keeps the reference to "two words" rather than four. This kind of self-conscious reference to the original language would probably have been understood by most of his readers, as Latin was commonly (if not universally, at this time) known by educated people.
The ending lines of this elegy show the lover's underlying anger. In earlier lines the lover has seemed more desperate in his love of Corinna, but in lines 49 and 50 he shows that, while he tolerates Corinna's supposed infidelity (for it is only assumed in this poem – it is by no means certain) he is not absolving her of the transgression. "And being justified by two words, think/The case acquits you not, but that I wink." The central problem of the lover and Corinna's relationship is that, because it is adulterous to begin with, the lover has no real claim on Corinna's fidelity or honesty in any way. Since both of them have proved themselves false; Corinna by fist cheating on her husband, then lying to her lover and trying to extract money from him, among other things. The lover has not only participated in Corinna's adultery, but has even been unfaithful to her with her own maid (which he then lied about.) There is little possibility of honesty between Corinna and the lover about anything at all. This refers back to the earlier theme of the ridiculousness of Corinna's and the lover's relationship, and how it poisons everything around them.
The ending of the story of the lover and Corinna in the last elegia is not a conclusion of the kind Western readers have come to expect of narratives. The ending barely refers to the lovers discussed through the previous three books, except to the poetic form in which their story was framed. This alien approach to narrative shows the great gulf between Ovid's time and now – and the difference two thousand years can make in poetic outlook. Though Ovid's voice can seem so strikingly modern and free of the many intervening centuries' romantic conventions and vocabulary, he is still a poet of a time very different from our own. In Ovid's time slavery was an absolutely essential component of the Roman economy, Roman paterfamilias (the male head of the family) had the legal power of life and death over his children, the Western Hemisphere was only a myth, and criminals of all kinds were regularly crucified. No matter how sophisticated and contemporary Ovid's voice may seem to twenty-first century ears, his was an age that, truly, had very little in common with our own. In the last elegy of Amores the entire story of Corinna and her lover is dropped, and the poet addresses (and we know not if it is with sincere faith or only as a poetic convention, or with Ovid's renowned sarcasm) a pagan goddess, telling her that he will serve her no longer by writing love-poems. Sincere emotion, if it was ever expressed in the earlier elegiae is abandoned, and the poet has no compunction about dropping the story where he left it in Elegy 13, and abandoning any idea of resolution. It is possible that there was some resolution in the earlier five-book version of the poem (now lost) but since this three-book version was edited and published by Ovid we are to assume he was satisfied with this kind of narrative abruptness.
It is important to note that Ovid began Amores when he was only eighteen years of age. It is easy to understand why such a young man would have a preoccupation with love and sex, and a delight in rule breaking such as adultery. But the edition of the poem which Marlowe translated – the only extant one – is the reduced three-book poem which Ovid revised fifteen years after he wrote it. The progression of the lovers can be traced through the stages of initial excitement of first encounters, through to the inevitable end of an adulterous affair grown stale. It is generally agreed by scholars that the narrative can roughly trace Ovid's feelings about poetic form of elegia (love poetry). After the Amores Ovid never wrote a major work in this genre again.