‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ deals with a challenging topic, and presents several challenges to the reader. The poem was first published as the opening poem in Geoffrey Hill’s second collection, King Log (1968). Before proceeding to our analysis of the poem, you might want to read ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ here.
The Third Reich: as Geoffrey Hill’s title immediately announces, this is a poem dealing with Germany under the Nazis, a topic that Hill did not shy away from addressing in his work (he died in 2016, but was born in England in 1932: as he was growing up, the world was becoming aware of the terrible atrocities the Nazis had committed). ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ invites us to think about not only those atrocities but also how a poet might go about writing about such recent horror in their work. This partly explains why Ovid has been chosen as the speaker of a poem which verges on dramatic monologue (indeed, some have made the case for the poem being an out-and-out dramatic monologue; the case is certainly arguable). Ovid was a poet writing under a totalitarian regime: the Roman Empire at the time of Augustus. Nazi Germany was another totalitarian regime: to speak out against either would lead to possible imprisonment and death. Indeed, as it was, Ovid was exiled from Rome later in his life (although not for his political views: supposedly because he saw the Emperor’s wife naked, although this is not known for sure!).
Hill’s bold use of anachronism – which he elsewhere puts to such playful and provocative use in his sequence of thirty prose-poems or ‘versets’, 1971’s Mercian Hymns – here makes us think about history as a cycle, and while Hill does not suggest that the recent horrors of Nazi Germany are exactly comparable to what happened in Augustan Rome, it is easy to see history, particularly recent history, in isolation and to forget that human suffering and atrocious acts of murder and genocide have long been features of political and military regimes, especially totalitarian ones.
The Third Reich was so named because it succeeded the First and Second Reichs, and the First Reich was the Holy Roman Empire, that Christian successor to the pagan Roman Empire of Augustus and the other emperors. So there is already a sense of historical continuity, that we have seen much of this before if we read deeply enough, embedded within Hill’s title, ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’.
For some critics, such as Christopher Ricks in The Force of Poetry, ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ is a poem which tries to inhabit the minds of those millions of Germans living under the Nazi regime, but who were not the victims being persecuted under the Nazis. What about all of those good Germans, who love their work and their children, who had to live with the knowledge that some of their fellow Germans were slaughtering babies and gassing millions of people simply for being Jewish? How would a good, moral person reconcile themselves to the fact that they were, to an extent, turning a blind eye to the atrocities being carried out, because they felt they were powerless to speak out against such tyranny without endangering themselves and their family? (Here the opening words of Hill’s poem, about Ovid loving his children, provide the first clue: to challenge Nazi rule might be to put not only oneself but one’s whole family at risk.)
In this regard, it’s worth complementing any analysis of ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ with a consideration of another Geoffrey Hill poem, ‘Christmas Trees’, which focuses on somebody who did speak out against the Nazis, and ended up paying with his life: Diedrich Bonhoeffer, the priest who opposed the atrocities of the Final Solution, was imprisoned and executed shortly before the end of the Second World War. ‘Christmas Trees’ shows a figure very different from Hill’s Ovid, who, rather than making excuses for his own act of perceived moral cowardice, did the right thing and stood up to what he knew was morally reprehensible.
But this is not to imply that Hill invites us to condemn Ovid for his refusal to stand against Hitler. One of the most challenging, but artistically triumphant, aspects of ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ is the extent to which Ovid’s own utterances reveal a man who is uneasy with the act of casuistry he is performing, but who is at once apologetic and unapologetic for refusing to oppose the horrors of the Final Solution. The epigraph from Ovid’s own Amores – the choice of this text over his Metamorphoses foregrounding Ovid as a love poet, as he makes clear in the final line of ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ – is often translated as ‘it’s not a sin if you can deny it; only confession brings shame on you’. The only way to live with oneself while countenancing such acts of barbaric murder and genocide, if you were a good German who was internally horrified by what was being carried out in your country, would be to avoid identifying such acts as barbaric, to make excuses.
This is why ‘the damned’ in the second stanza of the poem probably refers not to the victims (who were ‘damned’ or condemned to death under the Nazis) but to the perpetrators, those Nazi officers who carried out such acts of cruelty upon the innocent (thus damning themselves in the eyes of God) before going home to be loving fathers to their own children. Innocence is not an earthly weapon against the iron fist of the Nazis, but the use of ‘earthly’ invites us to consider the flipside, the ‘divine’ which is mentioned in the second stanza: the people brutally murdered in this life may be rewarded for their innocence in the next.
At the same time, that final line of the first stanza might be analysed as a quiet self-condemnation of Ovid’s own lack of resistance: ‘I’m innocent of these murders myself, but I know that this is no excuse’. But Hill’s twisting of the usual saying (‘innocence is no excuse’) opens up a fissure of doubt: is Ovid saying that ‘saying I’m innocent does not absolve me of involvement, I know; turning a blind eye makes me almost as bad as the murderers’ or Ovid making more excuses for himself here, i.e. ‘my own innocence is no match (or weapon) for the mighty evil of the Nazis, so there’s little point in taking a stand against them’? As with so much of this short poem, the language is slippery, ambiguous.
The reference in that second stanza to the ‘damned’ harmonizing surprisingly with ‘the divine / Love’ is one of the most troubling parts of Hill’s poem. Is Ovid here trying to justify his decision to write love poetry (i.e. Amores) rather than political poetry which speaks out against tyranny? Is he effectively saying, ‘I know my writing love poetry while such things are going on seems like I’m putting my fingers in my ears and ignoring the suffering of countless fellow human beings; but actually, the two things have more in common than you might think’? In the last analysis, there is no easy answer: critics are divided over how to read this utterance, as with the rest of ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’. A challenging poem, it encourages us to think about the near-unthinkable and to ask difficult questions. What Hill rightly does not do is propose easy answers.