Ovid: Metamorphoses

September 30, 2012

Metamorphoses
Publius Ovidius Naso
(Norton, 2004) [8 A.D.]
Translated from the Latin by Charles Martin
623 p.

Of course I have known that Ovid is counted among the most important Latin poets, and I had planned, in a hazy way, to read him someday. Then, when reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, I was surprised to see Lewis remark that the most important sources for understanding the art and literature of the Middle Ages are the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid. At that, I bumped Metamorphoses forward in my reading queue, and at last I have completed it.

The organizing premise of the work is well-known: Ovid recounts stories in which the characters undergo some sort of change — usually, but not always, a literal change of shape. Since such stories were common in the annals of Greek and Latin mythology, the poem serves as an idiosyncratic whirlwind tour of the mythological corpus. Some of these stories were familiar to me — Orpheus and Eurydice, Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus, Midas — but most were not, and reading them has been a good, if steep, education.

While I wouldn’t describe Ovid as a comic poet, he does have a whimsical, irreverent sense of humour in some of the stories. There are several violent battle scenes reminiscent of Homer, but Ovid’s descriptions of the brutal deaths of the warriors are so extravagantly gory that they become something akin to a spoof. Similarly, there was a well-established technique in the epic tradition, inherited from both Homer and Virgil, of conveying descriptions using elaborate similes. Ovid follows suit, but not infrequently his similes have something peculiar or inappropriate about them. Consider this example, taken from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus, thinking that Thisbe has been eaten by a lion, slays himself with his sword. Then:

It was as when a water pipe is ruptured
where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:
a column of water goes hissing through the hole
and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;
splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grow dark;
blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye
the hanging berries purple with its color.
(IV.172-8)

It’s like a death scene from Monty Python. Similarly, he is sometimes irreverent in his treatment of the gods, as in this passage describing the homely vanity of Mercury:

He left the sky and came down to the earth
without disguise, so great his confidence
in his own beauty, which, though not misplaced,
was aided by the care he took of it,
smoothing his hair, which had been mussed in flight,
arranging his cloak so that it hung just so,
letting its pricey golden border show,
and making sure that the wand in his right hand
(with which he brings sleep on or drives it off)
was freshly shined, and seeing that the wings
were gleaming brightly on his shapely feet.
(II.1008-18)

At other times, however, he is sober in his telling, and he is well able to do justice to a tragic tale. Towards the end of the poem Ovid gives a long speech to Pythagoras in which he discourses on the mutability of all things — the apotheosis of the metamorphosis, so to speak. This, too, is written with dignity and without facetiousness.

Being but a middling Latin scholar, I am ill-equipped to judge the merits of Charles Martin’s translation. I can say that the English reads easily and gracefully, and sometimes rises to the level of eloquence. I have no desire to seek out another version (though I’d be interested to know if I should have such a desire).

[The house of Sleep]
There is a hollow mountain near the land
of the Cimmerians, and deep within
there is a cave where idle Sleep resides,
his special place, forbidden to the Sun
at any hour from the dawn to dusk;
the earth around it breathes out clouds of fog
through dim, crepuscular light.
No wakeful cock
summons Aurora with his crowing song,
no restless watchdog interrupts the stillness,
nor goose, more keenly vigilant than dogs:
no wild and no domesticated beasts,
not even branches, rustling in the wind,
and certainly no agitated clamor
of men in conversation.
Here mute repose
abides, and from the bottom of the cave,
the waters of the sleep-inducing Lethe
flow murmuring across their bed of pebbles.

Outside, in front, the fruitful poppies bloom,
and countless herbs as well, that dewy night
collects and processes, extracting Sleep,
which it distributes to the darkened earth.
Doors are forbidden here, lest hinges creak,
no guardian is found upon the threshold;
but on a dais in the middle of the cave
a downy bed of blackest ebony
is set with a coverlet of muted hue;
upon it lies the god himself, at peace,
his knotted limbs in languorous release;
around him on all sides are empty shapes
of dreams that imitate so many forms,
as many as the fields have ears of wheat,
or trees have leaves, or seashore grains of sand.
(XI.849-80)

[Ovid’s last word]
My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
nor sword nor fire nor futurity
is capable of laying waste to it.
Let that day come then, when it wishes to,
which only has my body in its power,
and put an end to my uncertain years;
no matter, for in spirit I will be
borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
immortal in the name I leave behind;
wherever Roman governance extends
over the subject nations of the world,
my words will be upon the people’s lips,
and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,
then in my fame forever I will live.
(XV.1099-1112)

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