Friday, 21 March 2014

Metamorphoses, by Ovid.

Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy -
not Jupiter's wrath, nor fire or sword, now devouring time.
That day which has power over nothing except this body of mine
may come when it will and end the uncertain span of my life.
But the finer part of myself shall sweep me into eternity,
higher than all of the stars. My name shall be never forgotten.
Wherever the might of Rome extends in the lands she has conquered,
the people shall read and recite my words. Throughout all ages,
if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame.
- Epilogue of Metamorphoses.
From January 1st to 6th March I have been reading Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso. The original title, Metamorphoseon Libri ('the book of transformations') comes from the Greek word μεταμόρφωσις, meaning 'to transform', and it has associations with magic, sorcery, or divine intervention. It was completed around 8 AD, 2006 years ago, and has influenced the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Ted Hughes (Tales from Ovid is one of the best books I've ever read), and Émile Zola, as well as a great many painters such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Titian.

'Apollo and Daphne', by John William
Waterhouse (1908).
It was Ted Hughes that introduced me to Ovid with his Tales from Ovid, a collection of fourteen tales including Creation, Midas, Pyramus and Thisbe, Echo and Narcissus, Niobe, and Pygmalion. Ovid's Metamorphoses contains over 250 tales within its 15 books, in which he describes creation, establishment of a world order, the relationship of the gods and goddesses with humanity, the Trojan War, and recounts the stories of Medea and Jason, Venus and Adonis, Io, Apollo and Daphne, the Minotour, Icarus, Bacchus, Echo and Narcissus, and a great many other tales, a number of which may be familiar to the reader. It is vast, epic (though scholars argue that classifying it as "an epic" is problematic): around 12 000 verses of chaos, drama, mirth, violence, tragedy, everything. I can't help but feel that if one understands and really involves oneself in Metamorphoses, the bulk of the Western Canon will fall into place. For that, I will be re-reading Metamorphoses, possibly as soon as next year. It is one to be read a number of times: this is my first reading and so I am overwhelmed by it. It is impossible to review this in straight lines because there are no straight lines in Ovid. Metamorphoses leaps and crashes, it has a frenetic energy, and I allowed myself to be carried away by it, which was both thrilling and disconcerting. 

Jason and Medea, by John William
Waterhouse (1907).
The one thread that runs through, which goes without saying of course, is metamorphosis; change, transformation. Metamorphoses begins with these words,
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas 
corporadi, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen! 
[Changes of shape, new forms, are the themes which my spirit impels me
now to recite. Inspire me, O Gods (it is you who have even 
transformed by art), and spin me a thread from the
world's beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.]

Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903).
Change manifests in different ways: sometimes, a character quite literally morphs into something else: Daphne turns into a laurel tree to escape Apollo, who is trying to rape her (Book I). Scylla is transformed by Circe into a monster (Book VIII) and is set opposite Charybdis (Scylla and Charybdis appear in The Odyssey by Homer and later James Joyce's Ulysses), Io is turned into a snowy white heifer by Jupiter, seeking to hide his infidelity from his wife (and sister) Juno (Book I), who herself turn punishes Echo (from the Greek "ἦχος", meaning "sound") by making her unable to speak, save repeating the words of others (Book III). Callisto (in Greek "Καλλίστη", meaning "most beautiful") is also punished by Juno, who turns her into a bear and sets her amongst the stars (Book II). In other examples, Ovid is more subtle; there are metaphorical metamorphoses as it were, and it isn't only humans that change: in Pyramus and Thisbe, for example, it is a mulberry tree that undergoes the transformation.

Thisbe, by John William
Waterhouse, 1909.
Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe (Book IV) was a great source of inspiration for Émile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons (the first of his Rougon Macquart series). In Ovid, the two are frustrated by only being able to talk through the small chink, they conspire to pass the guards and meet face to face:
… after
their tale of woe, they made a decision: when all was quiet
that night, they would try to elude their guards and steal out of doors;
then once they'd escaped from their homes, they'd abandoned the city as well.
In case they got lost on their journey out in the open country,
their rendezvous would be Ninus' tomb, where they'd hide in the shade
of a certain tree – a tree which was tall and heavily laden
with snow-white berries, a mulberry – close to a cooling fountain.
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe ends with a kind of Romeo and Juliet tragedy: Thisbe is attacked by a wild beast, however survives, however Pyramus finds her blood-red cloak and plunges his sword in his side:
Mine is the guilty soul. Poor girl, it is I who've
destroyed you
by making you find your way at night to this frightening place,
without being there to meet you...
Thisbe finds his body and kills herself,
… then placing the tip of the sword close under her breast
she fell on the steely weapon, still warm with her Pyramus' blood
Those prayers, however, had touched the hearts of the gods and the parents:
the fruit of the mulberry tree, when it ripens, is now dark red;
and the ashes surviving the funeral pyres are at rest in the same urn.
Iin Zola, the two lovers are Silvère and Miette who meet when Silvère climbs the wall that divides their families' property. They open a door, which is part of the wall, which, on discovering this, brings back terrible memories for Silvère's Aunt Dide. Following this episode, Miette and Silvère resolve to meet elsewhere, in the old cemetery of Jas-Meiffren, Plassans. They climb up a mulberry tree and sit underneath (as Pyramus and Thisbe did before them) on the tombstone bearing the inscription “Here lies... Marie... died”, where, on the night of the coup d'etat, they wait to join the insurgents from La Palud and Saint-Martin-de-Vaulx.

And it was not only Zola who was inspired by Ovid. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and there are other references in Cervantes, Dumas, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Edith Wharton.

Of course, there is a great deal more to say on Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is densely packed with tales that have been inspired and gone on to inspire a great many. Ovid raises humanity and lowers the gods and goddesses, he inspires, he shocks with tales of incest and rape; it's dark and light and everything in between. And, as I say, it is the kind of book to return to. I don't regret being carried along by it as I was, but I think it would be fascinating and very enlightening to read it slowly and dwell upon each and every story. Pyramus and Thisbe is certainly one of my favourites, but I loved the tale of Midas, who is cursed by Bacchus with the "golden touch" (Book XI). And Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor who falls in love with his statue (Book X) and Aphrodite, who takes pity on him, is a source of inspiration for Edward Burne Jones:

The Heart Desires
The Hand Refrains
The Godhead Fires
The Soul Attains
Metamorphoses is a remarkable work, and a must-read not least because of the impact it has had on the Western Canon, but it is also thoroughly engaging and very readable. For years I'd been intimidated by it, but that was completely unfounded! I'm looking forward to reading it again and learning more about Ovid, and really involving myself in each tale.



  1. Oh my goodness, I have been waiting for this post and boy, is it good! Zola, Joyce, Shakespeare ………. it's pretty amazing when you think of how this work is mirrored in so many other works of literature and art.

    I must get the Ted Hughes version ……… I have the Penguin edition but Hughes' book seems to have really captured your imagination. And I must get back to reading Metamorphoses at some point, perhaps this summer. I only read a little of the beginning and got distracted.

    I'll be back to read your post again ………. and again ……… A great review!

    1. Thank you - it was a hard one to write about in some parts because there is just so much happening! But it's a hugely inspiring work and it is an essential read. And it's remarkably straightforward and easy to understand, though that said hard to keep track of everyone. I would LOVE to know Metamorphoses better. One read is not enough!

  2. Ive just put it on my reading list. I also think that if I read Ovids Metamorphoses, it'd be easier to understand all the allusion to Greek myths in western poetry. That's amazing.

    1. I think so, too. When I come to re-reading it I'm going to perhaps write a post a week on five of the tales and get into them more. It's a good entry into Greek and Roman myths.

  3. I bought a copy of Ovid's Metamorphosis last year, and I've dipped into it, but haven't really read it. I want to...might be a good summer read for me. We'll see. Great post!

    1. I think it'll be a great summer read :) Good luck with it if you decide to go for it.

  4. What an utterly gorgeous post, o. I love all the paintings you have included but your review is great, this reminds me of how you convinced me to read Clarissa with a single post. Now, I think its Metamorphosis, or perhaps Tales from Ovid. :)

    1. Thank you, Charlotte - and it's nice to hear from you :)

      Ah, Clarissa.... Reckon that might be my autumn / winter re-read :)


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