Love in a Life – Andrew Motion

This is Andrew Motion’s sixth collection of poems and seemed an appropriate read for valentines day. Published by Faber and Faber in 1991, so eight years before he became Poet Laureate, it is a deeply personal selection of poetry largely telling stories from his two marriages (up until then) spread over multiple poems in a series of emerging themes. Again it is a book that has sat on my shelves for many years (presumably thirty as it is the first edition) and remained unopened until yesterday having constantly slipped down the ‘to be read’ pile for various reasons. Having now read it I am forced to wonder why it kept failing to make it to the top until thirty one years after I bought it. This was the first of Motion’s books to be published by Faber and Faber and they have gone on to publish most of his collections of poetry since then.

The wife referred to in the first verse is his second spouse, Jan Dalley, whom he had married in 1985 and had three children with including the twins mentioned, there are also poems referring to his first wife, Joanna Powell, that marriage ended in divorce in 1983. The second verse is considerably more tragic, Motion’s mother had a riding accident in 1969 when he was just seventeen and was in and out of a coma for the next nine years until she died in 1978, there are a few references to her in this collection. My favourite poem in the book is about his time with Joanna Powell and is called Toot Baldon where it is clear that he is still at work on his Masters degree when they married as he refers to himself as Edward Thomas, the poet whose work he analysed for this qualification and who he must have totally immersed himself in to get his MLitt after his first class honours degree from Oxford University.

The poems all have a strong narrative flow, he is definitely telling a story in each example particularly in the poem The Prague Milk Bottle which was written in spring 1989, so just a few months before the Velvet Revolution that saw the freeing of Czechoslovakia from the Soviet block, in this there is a repeated two line stanza

It’s not suppression
It’s humiliation

Those two lines appear four times in the poem and give a powerful tension to the work as he details the woes of living in the country at the end of the communist regime and dedicates the poem to the Czech writer, his friend Ivo Smoldas.

Motion was the first poet to refuse to accept the post Laureate as a life long role and stipulated that he would only take the position for ten years, a situation that the poets that have followed him (Carol Ann Duffy and currently Simon Armitage) have also stuck to. Before him just eighteen people had held the position of Poet Laureate since its creation in 1631.

Ars Amatoria – Ovid

Much better known for his work Metamorphosis, Ovid also produced this treatise on the technique for finding and importantly keeping the love of your life. That it also includes hints for hiding infidelity and some of the advice is a little too true to life for some of its readers two thousand years ago probably didn’t help when he fell out of favour with the Emperor and was exiled from Rome for the final sixteen years of his life.

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As the lovely Folio Society edition that I have is quarter bound in leather with a plain brown cover I have chosen not show the outside as it is rather dull but instead to have three extracts with the drawings by Victor Reinganum which decorate most of the pages, including the opening shown above where Ovid sets out what he hopes to achieve. The book was published in 1965 and uses the translation by B.P. Moore originally published by Blackie & Son Ltd. The font used is Poliphilus 13 point and I think suits the text admirably well. Unusually for Folio the book was reprinted just two years later which attests to its popularity.

The work consists of three short books, the first two are aimed at men trying to find a partner and get her interest (book 1) and then Ovid looks at how to keep her (book 2). The third book was written slightly later and is aimed at women looking for a man. Despite being over two thousand years old much of the advice given by Ovid is as good today as it was in Roman times. The first, and most obvious, but still got wrong many times, is that if you want to meet a woman then it is best to go to where they are, don’t hang around in places with your male friends, go to the parks or theatres. But remember you are not there just to watch the play.

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When you have found ‘the one’ then how to make sure she knows you are not only interested but are looking for more than just a friend is covered next, and then once a relationship has started make sure that she knows that she is the only one for you.

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The third book, for women hoping to secure a man, repeats the suggestion from the first book to go where they are although it point out that the sensible men that are also looking for women (and have read the earlier treatise) will be where she already is, so maybe start at the theatre. However there is also beauty advice, such as for make-up (basically don’t overdo it, use enough to enhance not redefine) and hair (pick a style that suits your face shape). The words about makeup are particularly poignant when you consider the very basic types available at the time which would degrade quite quickly in the Italian sun. I love the suggestion in the passage shown below that the morning beauty routine is best done away from the gaze of the man the lady is hoping to attract, after all why should he know what she has done to enhance her beauty.

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I don’t want to give the impression that Ovid is just covering beauty tips, there is much the same sort of advice given to the ladies as to the men in how to attract a mate and even what to do when you have got him. How to arrange messages between you when things are still not publicly known and you don’t want anyone else to know. This also applies to illicit trysts when secrecy is vital and he is not shy of making this clear in his text.

Overall the book(s) are a fun read and in places could be lifted straight into the advice columns of today. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an ancient past that perhaps is not that ancient after all.

A note on the translation used is probably useful here at the end of the review. Clearly Moore updated some parts, there are two references to cars for instance when leaving the vehicles as period would have been far less jarring. There are other lines where I felt the intrusion of the modern was out of place and disturbed the flow of the text. Having said that the translation is very readable apart from these examples and the deliberate attempt to keep notes to an absolute minimum (just two pages at the back which mainly name the character referred to when a reader in 2AD would have simply known who it was) makes it more a reading pleasure rather than an academic exercise. There is a translation available at Project Gutenberg which dates from 1885 but this is in prose rather than the verse employed by Moore and is a lot less fun to read so overall I’m glad I have this edition.