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Despite casual invocations of “Greco-Roman antiquity,” about as much time passed between the codification of Homer’s epics and Ovid’s composition of the Metamorphoses as between the writing of the Divine Comedy and today. As opposed to “Homer”—which names a body of poetry that is at least in part the collocation of an oral myth cycle whose tribal origins are lost in the night of time—Ovid was a writer not unlike ourselves in a phase of civilization not unlike our own. He lived in a republic-turned-empire rocked by culture wars over, among other topics, the meaning of sex and gender, the relative merits of the domestic and the exotic, and the necessity of social stability.
As for the poet himself, he was a young man from the provinces: the delicate, aesthetic offspring of a knightly family in the rough country of Abruzzo. Ovid, though, came from a fertile valley in that otherwise inhospitable region, while my own maternal forebears hail from the stony fastnesses of an Abruzzese hill village that was, when they left it in the middle of the 20th century, not a lot more developed than it had been in Roman times. Ovid journeyed from periphery to center to study law, but, in defiance of paternal advice, became a popular poet instead, one concerned primarily with a witty, amoral treatment of love and sex as he enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of Rome. Eventually, Augustus tried to roll back his time’s sexual revolution—one that witnessed a relaxation of erotic mores and more independence for women—and urbane Ovid, who was close to the emperor’s scandalous daughter and granddaughter, found himself exiled for life to the northern wastes of present-day Romania.
His largest work, the semi- or mock-epic Metamorphoses, written just before his exile, in the first decade of the first century A.D., famously went on to influence European literature and visual art more than any other classical text; its consequence for English literature alone extends from Chaucer to Ted Hughes, not to mention its enormous effect on Shakespeare. It remains the summa of a poetic imagination that regards the world as a chaos from which the artist fashions the only possible redoubt, not religious faith or political order but aesthetic design. This is at once its glory and its failure.
Often regarded as a counter-Aeneid, the Metamorphoses is an epic without a plot, a hero, or a moral. It winds from the birth of the cosmos out of primeval chaos through the establishment of the Olympian pantheon, the travails of Thebes, the Trojan War, and the founding of Rome before coming to a conclusion with the deification of Julius Caesar. Ovid’s theme is, as he writes in the invocation, “things that change,” and he tells a succession of stories—many of them stories-within-stories as his characters narrate to one another—about conflicts among gods, mortals, and creatures that resolve with the mutation of one or more parties into animal, vegetable, or mineral.
While Ovid doesn’t hesitate to trespass on traditional epic territory, on Homer’s primordial and Virgil’s belated subject matter, he treats it with a notable disrespect that reflects his generally ironical poetic sensibility. He dispatches the story of Dido and Aeneas in about four lines, while the two main events in his treatment of the Trojan War are a farcically long reminiscence from Nestor about a banquet-battle between randy centaurs and aggrieved men and Ulysses’s and Ajax’s puffed-up dispute over Achilles’s armor, a debate between a charlatan and an oaf. Not unlike Virgil except that he is more prepared to admit it in verse, Ovid’s main interests can be found down the dark alleys of the perennial urban aesthetic-decadent imagination: he cares not for politics or religion, but for sex and death. A blurb on the back of the Mandelbaum translation appropriately hails Ovid as having “the heart of Baudelaire.”
His vividly delectable description of chaos at the poem’s beginning, plus his blandly impious declaration that “God, whichever God he was, created / The universe we know,” sets the tone. An early narrative of that mythological staple, the apocalyptic flood visited upon the world early in history as divine punishment for human corruption or arrogance, shows Ovid’s love of perversion, his attraction to imagery of the world turned upside down, a love his theme of metamorphosis allows him to indulge over and over again:
And in flood’s desert one saw a creature,
Perhaps a man, swim toward a vanished hill
That once he knew; another rowed a boat
Over the acres of his plough; another sailed
The fields that were to be his harvest,
Over the roofs of his sea-buried home.
Another caught fish from the floating branches
Of the tallest elms; ships’ anchors dropping
In grass-grown meadows and swift keels sped
Over green hill and vineyard. Where yesterday
Thin-legged goats stepped on their way to pasture,
The bearded seal dozed through the deep sea hours,
And mermaids drifting with new-opened eyes
Gazed into cities that were walked by men.[*]
Nature in general is for Ovid a realm only partially freed from chaos and ever ready to lapse back into it. Forests, caves, and rivers have hidden depths and concealed threats, places where changes of state are almost guaranteed to happen. When Cadmus, under Apollo’s advice, ventures forth to found a city, he discovers a serpent in his path, belonging to the god of war; the rational advice of Apollo, the would-be schemes of colonists and founding fathers, not only of Cadmus but also of crafty Ulysses and pious Aeneas, can only over partially overcome the venom at the heart of things:
With piety in mind Cadmus prepared
Duties to Jove and sent his men to look
For running waters, sacred springs and rills.
The men arrived upon a trackless forest
And deep within it, fast with underbrush,
A cave. There, through a rock-hung arc rushed its
Welled waters; and the place was shared by Mars’
Serpent who wore a golden plume, who as
He rolled his body thick with bile poured fire
From his eyes; flashed from his triple teeth
His three-pronged tongue.
As Horace Gregory points out in the introduction to his 1958 translation, Ovid is the heir of Euripides: while he views desire as an irresistible and overmastering force from the chaos of nature and accordingly makes rape almost the key motif of his erotic tales (“But all the world is moved by mother Venus!” a character helplessly exclaims), he reserves his sympathy for his female characters, despite his otherwise distanced and amused tone in narrating even the most atrocious events. He often gives voice to women’s thoughts in anticipation, as Gregory again observes, of Shakespearean monologue or the interior monologue of the modern novel, as in the story of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne:
The girl, pale, frightened, shaken with tears, asked where
Her sister was, while he disclosed his need
And mounted her. Like any helpless girl,
Trapped and alone, she cried out for her father,
Then her sister, but, more than these, she called
The names of gods. She trembled like a lamb,
Which, torn and fearful, clipped by a grey wolf
Does not believe itself alive, or as a pigeon
Blood-winged and throbbing from the claws that pierced it,
Still fears the tearing of its beating veins.
When her mind cleared she plucked her hanging hair,
Tore at her arms like one who had seen death,
Then with her hands reached out she said,
“What have you done to me? O beast, O savage horror!
Have you undone my father’s will, his words,
His tears, my sister’s love, my innocence,
The laws of marriage? And all changed to madness!
I am a whore that turns against her sister,
And you are married to us both; now even Procne
Is my enemy; why don’t you kill me?”
Yet we shouldn’t assimilate Ovid’s imaginative sympathy for women into our contemporary attitudes, which derive from Protestant and Enlightenment assumptions that sex and gender can be wholly put under the mandates of reason and morality, a view opposed to the Roman poet’s vision of the metamorphic strife at nature’s heart dramatized in sexual conflict. For instance, as Philomela’s story goes on, Tereus’s rape of Philomela leads to Procne’s vengeful slaughter of her son; no relationship is stable enough to be managed by a coherent account of how power operates in society, because, for Ovid, nature, not society, is the locus of a power to which we are all subjected irrespective of gender:
The boy saw death within his mother’s face
And screamed, “O mother, mother!” reached his hands
As though to throw his arms around her neck,
And Procne, with no change of eyes or feature,
Ran a quick knife below his beating breast.
The boy died with one thrust, but Philomela
Stabbed through his throat; the body warm, still breathing,
Was cut and pared: some pieces turned on spits,
Others boiled in a pot. The room ran blood.
Likewise, because his interest in women is sexual and aesthetic rather than moral or ideological, Ovid appreciates evil women as well as good ones. He gives us Medea as a wicked witch in a long passage that anticipates and even outdoes Macbeth (I note that Ovid’s Medea bears some inverted resemblance to Angitia, the healer-goddess of the Marsi tribe native to his ancestral Abruzzo):
After three nights had passed and Luna’s horns
Joined in their circle to flood earth and sky
In silver splendour, loose-cloaked and barefoot,
Hair fallen over naked breasts and shoulders,
Medea stepped abroad in silent midnight.
Men, beasts, and birds were locked away in sleep;
No rustle of a whisper through the forest.
The leaves were voiceless and moist air was still,
And only stars flashed in moonlight above her.
Three times she raised her arms to stars and sky,
And three times wheeled about and three times splashed
Her hair with moonlit water from a brook.
Three times she screamed, then fell upon her knees
To pray: “O night, night, night! whose darkness holds
All mysteries in shade, O flame-lit stars,
Whose golden rays with Luna floating near
Are like the fires of day—and you, O Hecate,
Who know untold desires that work our will
And art the mistress of our secret spells,
O Earth who give us bounty of weird grasses,
Your wandering winds and hills and brooks and wells,
Gods of the dark-leaved forest and gods of night,
Come to my call.”
Everything in the Metamorphoses is fluid, including gender and sexuality: several characters go from male to female or vice versa and sometimes back again, while Orpheus, after his lucklessly uxorious katabasis, takes up pederasty (“he taught the men of Thrace the art / Of making love to boys”) until his sparagmos at the wild hands of the Bacchantes. Several stories are told by the daughters of Minyas who haughtily remain at their looms and neglect the Bacchic rites until they are punished for their dereliction by being turned into bats; meanwhile, Apollo and Diana and those mortals who follow them meet the fate of anyone who attempts to lead a life of reason, order, or chastity.
The gods are moreover the ultimate artists, as those who would compete with them—like “the daughters of landowner Pierus” who challenge the Muses and are turned into birds for their hubris; or Arachne the weaver, turned to a spider by Pallas for hers; or Daedalus with his fatal “craft” that drowns his son; or Orpheus with his evanescent musical gift—quickly learn. Pygmalion among mortal artists is rewarded when his sculpture comes to life to love him, though it’s hard to construe this, which seems like a metaphor for a pornographer masturbating to his own handiwork, as aesthetic redemption. Ovid repeatedly emphasizes that those who become animals lose the power of speech, of language, that distinctly human endowment the poet himself has mastered.
At the end of the book, a Pythagorean philosopher appears to preach against eating meat; it was when we began to consume flesh that we fell from the golden age of peace and plenty by degrees into the iron age of disorder and distrust, he argues. But then, in seeming defiance of his ethical injunction and historical narrative, so out of place in this otherwise unphilosophical poem, he sermonizes on the meaning of the tales we’ve just read:
“Nothing, no, nothing keeps its outward show,
For golden ages turn to years of iron;
And Fortune changes many looks of places.
I’ve seen land turn to miles of flood-tossed water:
Or land rise up within a restless sea;
Shells have been found upon a sanded plain
With never an ocean or a ship in sight,
Someone has seen an anchor turn to rust,
Caught among brushes on a mountaintop
Stormed by great cataracts, a wide plateau
Turns to a valley and Spring floods have swept
Far hills into the chambers of the sea.
And where a swamp once flowed beneath the willows
Is now a strip of sand, and where a desert was
A little lake sways under growing reeds.”
The imagery of beguilingly displaced artifacts—seashells in the desert and an anchor on a mountaintop—suits Ovid’s literary method. Not a Homeric bard of the oral tradition, but a bookish magpie and bricoleur among literary lore, Ovid assembles his own estranging variations on the already strange cosmopolitan traditions he finds in his learning. He didn’t merely anticipate and influence early and late modern writers like Shakespeare, Keats, Hawthorne, and Eliot; rather, his situation as a writer wasn’t all that dissimilar to theirs. He is, in a way, one of us, which makes his banishment by the guardians of cultural rectitude all the more hateful, at least to whatever writers remain in the English-speaking world who don’t construe themselves as keepers of social virtue rather than imaginative artists.
Yet there’s still something missing from the Metamorphoses, some absence that makes it feel—if an amateur reading in translation can be permitted this claim—like a minor work in the end. The missing piece isn’t faith or virtue or ideology or idealism: a writer doesn’t have to be a true believer, and the Aeneid really is marred by its forced piety and patriotism, as Ovid suggests with his mock exaltation of the imperial cult at his own epic’s conclusion. Comparing Ovid only to his own heirs—Shakespeare alone will do, with his tragic intensity—the problem is, I think, an absence of existential protest at the horrors his poem unfolds. He takes everything too lightly to persuade us anything matters.
The most poignant passages—the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, lone survivors of the flood, or Alcyone’s grief at the loss of her husband Ceyx, for example—are subsumed in a flow of narrative that makes any single story seem trivial and gives the whole panoply the air of a pageant. This is not an ethical objection but an aesthetic one, because Ovid’s manner and matter collide: this poem about chaos strangely never loses its urbane composure. As Camille Paglia observes, invoking the title of her own famous study, “Sexual personae, in flux, allow him to bring cool Apollonian study to bear upon roiling Dionysian process.” Much as I want to take Ovid’s side—the side of erotic freedom and aesthetic worldliness—against his moralistic enemies, I can’t help but wonder if the work and world of this exact contemporary of Christ’s weren’t so easily swept aside because of the very levity that is its initial appeal.
[*] Throughout this essay, I will quote Horace Gregory’s 1958 translation. I began reading the Metamorphoses in Allen Mandelbaum’s 1993 version after having admired Mandelbaum’s Dante. Unfortunately, Mandelbaum’s Dante sounds too much like his Ovid. The thick sonic textures and almost obtrusive iambic pentameter that work for a poem as tightly-knit as the Divine Comedy seem wrong for Ovid, however well it comes across as English poetry. I abandoned Mandelbaum a third of the way through for Gregory’s swifter style and subtler blank verse, as well as his enjoyable commentaries at the head of each chapter that discuss Ovid’s influences, innovations, and legacies. I also did much Shakespearean browsing in Arthur Golding’s famous 1567 version, celebrated by Ezra Pound as “the most beautiful book in the language”; I admired its liveliness and homeliness—as if Ovid came not from Rome’s provinces but from London’s—and will probably someday reread the whole book in Golding’s carousing couplets.