Ovid: Metamorphoses

March 17, 2020

Metamorphoses
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1987) [8 AD]
xxxvii + 480 p. Second reading.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the literary marvels of the ancient world: a roiling riot of tales clipped from the ripened Greco-Roman crop. It is a virtuosic performance in which Ovid revisits the ground previously plowed by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil, adding his own distinctive touches, not excepting the extra energy of wit.

The poem is about 12000 lines long, and includes a staggering 250 different tales, and hundreds of characters, woven together into one long narrative tapestry. Sometimes the thread is strained almost to the point of breaking, and sometimes he lingers to delve his narration several layers deep — tales within tales within tales — but always emerging again, winking, sure of his direction, even if the reader is somewhat dazed.

The principal organizing feature of this melange is right there in the title: transformations. In each of the tales, a character undergoes some sort of change, usually a miraculous change of shape: into a bird, into a fountain, into a monster, into a tree, into a bird (again), into a bear, into stone, or into a bird (for good measure). This is the golden thread that runs from start to finish. Often this gives Ovid’s tales a folky flavour inasmuch as the transformation serves also as an origin story: this is how a certain flower came to be, or how a certain river was first made, or how (surprise!) a certain bird was created.

His commitment to this idea sometimes leads to idiosyncratic treatment of stories, as when he glosses over the Fall of Troy in a few lines in order to focus on the tragic tale of Hecuba, the Trojan queen, but more often it delights. We begin each tale in a state of expectation, knowing that something, anything, might happen, and this helps to sustain the reader through what might otherwise seem merely an interminable series of short tales. To a reader encountering Ovid for the first time, there can indeed seem to be little reason to his rhyme, even granting the main recurring feature of metamorphoses, but a larger scale structure becomes apparent if we step back. The Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world and tales of gods (roughly Books I-VI), transitions to tales involving gods and men (roughly Books VI-XI), and concludes with historical, or quasi-historical, tales of Greeks and Romans, culminating in treatments of Julius Caesar and, Ovid’s own patron, Caesar Augustus, here made to appear — and appear might be just the right word, given Ovid’s impish playfulness — to be the man at whom all of history had been pointing.

Anyone who claimed to know all of the stories in the Metamorphoses should be viewed with suspicion, for it is a buzzing, swirling conglobulation seemingly calculated to confound even the most diligent student, and Ovid seems to delight to show off his learning. In this he was joined by other Roman poets, like Virgil and Propertius, though with Ovid the learning is worn lightly. But the point to stress is that so many of the stories are wonderful! Ovid gives us memorable versions of the stories of Apollo and Daphne, of Echo and Narcissus, of Pyramus and Thisbe, of Phaethon, of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Midas. Some of the tales are sweet, as in the hilarious story of how the cyclops Polyphemus fell in love with the girl Galatea, and some are gruesome, as in the horrific story of Procne and Philomela, which features [redacted]. Ovid’s virtuosity is flexible: grave or facetious or winsome, he can apparently do anything, and he doesn’t mind if we know it.

*

So the Metamorphoses is a brawl, a kind of circus, an anthology, a clamour. Does it have depth? Critical opinion has been divided on this question over the centuries.

Ovid’s talent was recognized by his contemporaries, and he was among the choice circle commissioned by Augustus to write an epic (ie. the Metamorphoses), but his reputation suffered as the Augustan age passed away. A century later Quintillian thought him lively but shallow; Seneca (the Elder) considered he had wasted his rhetorical talents in poetry. The early Christians generally viewed him warily, as being flashy and seductive but immoral and trivial, and this has been, if you want, one of the enduring poles of Ovidian reception: he was a trickster, a showman, an endlessly inventive and rhetorically gifted storyteller who nonetheless lacked profundity, a man without a chest, whose poems were mere clouds which a gust of strong Virgilian wind would disperse.  It was, as I’ve said, a common enough view in the ancient world, and it was the dominant view of Ovid from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century.

This judgment is not easily dismissed; there is something to it. If we stop to ask ourselves, “What did Ovid believe?”, or “What did Ovid love?”, we find answers hard to come by. For instance, in the early Books of the Metamorphoses Ovid tells us about the creation of the world: how there was a primordial chaos, and how divine powers shaped the world and then created man as the pinnacle. If there were ever a theme for sobriety and grandeur and confidence, this was it. But Ovid treats the whole affair quite casually, giving several different, contradictory versions of what might have happened, being quite nonspecific about exactly which god it was who did this great work, and then shrugging it off. And this basic orientation to his subject matter persists: Ovid may seem to be, here and there, in earnest, but then he pivots on a denarius and the mood is gone. He is like a curator of a museum who sets his artifacts in place, but then disappears, scrupulously avoiding any effort to tell us how to interpret what we see. For many readers down the ages this diffidence on Ovid’s part has been taken as evidence of superficiality.

Yet there is another school too. Ovid’s time bore certain resemblances to our modern world: as the Roman republic crumbled and then collapsed Roman culture experienced a loss of faith in traditions and its institutions became unstable; at the same time it underwent a major economic expansion and enjoyed new prosperity; and of course the Roman Empire was a vast geographical space in which cultures began to mix, with a corresponding loss of confidence in local cults and customs. All of these factors influenced Ovid, and have led some readers to see him as a particularly modern, or even post-modern, figure. To this way of thinking, Ovid is an antifoundational, non-dogmatic empty shirt who relativizes hierarchies of value and undermines meta-narratives.  This school of thought agrees with the previous one insofar as it sees Ovid as having no fixed positions, no doctrine, and no point-of-view, but it differs by thinking this good rather than bad.

The third major branch of Ovidian readers were those who dominated the high medieval and early modern periods. To them, Ovid was again not exactly a personality, but rather a portal. He was the great story-teller, the captivating conjurer through whom the whole tumult of ancient myth came tumbling into our world. From the multifariousness of his tales they concluded not that everything was relative or that nothing mattered — the pessimistic conclusions that have tempted modern lost souls — but that stories could be their own worlds, and that life was rich with possibility, and that a story could be enjoyed for its own sake. Ovid dazzled them with an excess of truth, rather than draining it away. And but for this strand of Ovid’s readers, our literature would have been immeasureably impoverished, for it would be that much harder to imagine Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Rabelais, to name only those who come first to mind.

I suppose it is obvious that my sympathies are with the latter group — Ovid is a great storyteller, and I am inclined to appreciate him simply on those grounds — although I feel a temptation from the first school as well, for the Metamorphoses does linger in the mind as a work whose parts are greater than the whole. All the same, it has been great to again grapple with it after an absence of some years. It makes a good wrestling partner.

3 Responses to “Ovid: Metamorphoses”

  1. redbear Says:

    I wish I could pivot on a denarius 😉


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