LECTURE ON OVID’S METAMORPHOSES
[The following lecture by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University is a revised version (2011) of an earlier lecture given to Liberal Studies students at Malaspina College in November 1997. Quotations from Ovid’s poem are taken from the translation Ian Johnston, available here. This document may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, other than for commercial publications. For questions and comments please contact Ian Johnston]
A useful starting point for any discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the extraordinarily long-lasting, influential, and widespread popularity of the poem. It has delighted readers and inspired storytellers, dramatists, poets, painters, and sculptors from its first appearance right down to the present day. And it has done so even in cultures which, at first glance, would seem rather odd places for such a pagan and playful work, since the poem often seems to mock or cavalierly flout the officially approved literary taste of, for example, imperial Rome or Medieval Christianity. Given that Ovid draws virtually all of his material from other sources and in many places leans heavily on well-known predecessors (especially Homer, Virgil, and Lucretius), we cannot ascribe this popularity and influence merely to the stories in his great poem, important as the work has always been as source of classical myths. To appreciate his wonderful achievement we have to explore Ovid’s style—the ways in which he appropriates and transforms the tradition he inherited.
The Metamorphoses is a collection of well-known Greek and Roman legends, folktales, and historical events placed between two reference points, the creation of the world and the triumphs of Augustus Caesar, Ovid’s contemporary. Ovid pays little attention to a strict chronological sequence (the order of many of the stories is relatively unimportant). Although there is some overall organization to the sequence, the poem is not held together by any firm historical narrative. It starts with the gods and the creation myth, moves from there to the fabulous divine or semi-divine heroic characters (Cadmus, Pentheus, Bacchus, Perseus) and then closer to recognizable (but still legendary) human beings, like Medea, Daedalus, Icarus, and Orpheus, then to the great historical sagas of Troy, the wanderings of Ulysses and Aeneas, and finally comes to a close in recent modern history (the achievements of Julius Caesar and Augustus). However, there is no sense of a continuously unfolding historical pattern to the narrative, except in the final books, where the story of Rome takes centre stage.
Thematically most of the stories (about 250 in all) are linked by the notion of change, beginning with the physical transformations which created the world (and, we later learn, continue to change it) and with the ways in which the gods, in their desire to interfere with life on earth, are constantly altering their own appearance and form. But the most famous transformations in the book are those remarkable moments when a living being is changed into something else (a rock, a tree, a bird, a flower, a spring, a cow, and so on) or is physically altered in some way (given horns or asses’ ears) or when something non-human (alive or otherwise) is transformed into something very different (e.g., when teeth become armed warriors, ants become people, ashes and smoke become birds, and so on). There are, by my quick reckoning, about 175 different cases in this group of transformations, some dealt with in great detail (like the story of Daphne) and some casually mentioned in passing with no details provided (like Smilax and Crocus).
Most of the more detailed stories of transformation involve intense suffering. This gives to virtually all them an inherently dramatic quality, since they frequently focus on a helpless and protesting character suffering from divine or human cruelty or from her own complex psychological distress. Evidence for the character’s change of form usually remains in the landscape or the heavens (for example, as a mountain or spring or constellation or new species of bird or flower). The subject matter of many transformations typically involves violence or sex (frequently both), topics which, then as now, are of great interest. The central characters are often innocent females, pursued by divine or human rapists or punishers, and the narrative repeatedly calls attention to the dramatic pathos of the moment of transformation, when the suffering victim, like Daphne or Myrrha, metamorphoses into something else, almost as if the pressure of her suffering has become too much for human capabilities (some victims, after desperately trying to cope with their suffering, beg to be transformed).
So, to put the matter in the very simplest terms, we might describe the Metamorphoses as a catalogue of well known Greek and Roman stories, most of which involve violence, suffering, and miraculous changes of form, organized in a loose sequence. Now, there’s no doubt that the work has often served as a useful catalogue for authors in search of a classical allusion or two (Shakespeare, among others), and the work has been immensely influential as a source of popular tales or arresting images.1 But most readers, I suspect, would immediately object to that word catalogue, simply because Ovid’s presentation of his many stories strikes one as considerably more than a simple list. For the poem has a strong momentum driving one through a succession of stories without any sense that this is a little more than a collection of separate items. In fact, Ovid’s ability to create and sustain this momentum, one key feature of his style, quickly erases any sense of stopping and starting again and injects instead a sense of narrative continuity—the adventures continue. Few readers, I suspect, ever find the poem tedious.
One highly admired technique Ovid uses to maintain the momentum of his poem is the way he handles transitions from one story to another or establishes connections between apparently separate tales. When he moves from one story to the next, there is frequently a link of some sort so that what we are now about to hear follows naturally from what has gone before: a character in one story will move off somewhere else into a new episode or some friend or family member of the central figure in a story which has just concluded will react to it in a way that introduces the next transformation, or a child born in one story will now become a central figure in the next, and so on. Ovid will sometimes create a dramatic setting which involves people telling each other stories, and at other times he will have someone tell a story which involves characters who tell stories. Tales which appear in different places are sometimes linked by an overarching theme (for example, Juno’s anger at the family of Agenor or her hostility to the Trojans, or Bacchus’ ruthless treatment of those who oppose his worship, or Venus’ concerns for the future of Aeneas’ family, and so on), so that very different stories often have features in common. These connections weave what otherwise might come across as a disparate collection of tales into something with little if any sense of discontinuity.
But the most important reason for rejecting that notion of a catalogue is the way in which Ovid’s style so often transforms the relatively simple details of a well-known tale into a compelling, intensely dramatic, and often complex narrative. To use Northrup Frye’s terminology, we might say that Ovid is a genius at turning “and then” stories (in which events simply happen one after the other in sequence, a common feature of myths and folk tales) into “hence” stories (narratives in which the next event arises plausibly out of the previous events by the logic established in the telling). In many cases, Ovid does this by attending to the passions and conflicting emotions driving the main characters—the lust or anger of a god, the confused feelings of a young girl in love for the first time, the pride of a character in her own achievements or appearance, the desire for revenge, and so on. These feelings he repeatedly illuminates in one of the most impressive features of the poem, the long dramatic utterances where a character wrestles with her feelings or puts her own sense of self-worth on display. The inner monologues of Medea or Myrrha or Scylla or Byblis, for example, are justly famous dramatic utterances, which bring the reader into close contact with the inner workings of a young girl uncomfortably confronted with the complexities of her own emotions, caught between her sense of what she ought to do and what her feelings are inexplicably driving her to do, and resolving her acute distress, as often as not, with a moral evasiveness which, although disastrous, is psychologically compelling. Such perceptive and delicately rendered moments bring an intense and immediate vitality and pathos to the traditional tales. We can assess how important this aspect of the poem is by noting how much our interest in a particular transformation is diminished when such dramatic immediacy is absent (as in, for example, the transformations of the first Cycnus or of Ino’s companions). Dramatic speech is, of course, an important part of all classical epic, but Ovid’s use of it gives many of his characters a psychological complexity and eloquence generally lacking in his illustrious predecessors. Homer’s and Virgil’s characters, with the exception of Achilles and Dido (perhaps), may speak a great deal, but their speeches reveal few, if any, inner complexities of the sort Ovid explores. When I read such passages, I am struck by the notion that Shakespeare may well have learned a good more from Ovid than useful classical allusions and dramatic plots.
The dramatist in Ovid likes to let his characters speak to us, so that we can find out what they feel, not by being told, but by listening and making up our own minds. Yes, the narrator informs us that Juno hates Antenor’s family, but the power of her hatred and our interest in her feelings emerge far more convincingly from those moments when we hear her talk about it (in the process Juno becomes an interesting and at times amusing character). The cruelty latent in many of the stories (an important element in the poem) manifests itself most fully in the frequent cries of suffering and pleas for help. The fame of Hecuba as a pathetic victim, for example, owes more to the speeches Ovid puts in her mouth, than to any other treatment of her story.
A number of Ovid’s rhetorical set pieces are justly famous, too, none more so than Medea’s incantation (7.313-353) which so fired Shakespeare’s imagination that he appropriated parts of it for Prospero in The Tempest. The famous debate between Ajax and Ulysses over the arms of Achilles (which has nothing to do with Ovid’s major theme of transformation) brings those two heroes alive in a way that helped to define their characters for future generations. The consummate ease of each speaker’s delivery and the way their distinct styles reveal intriguing character traits and turn the contest into such an unequal test of oratorical skills that it makes this passage sound as if it could have come straight from a Roman law court. And the long speech in which Pythagoras delivers his lecture about the nature of the world is an enthralling portrait of an impassioned philosopher, whether seriously intended or not, a picture in which our interest in the details of his teachings is matched by our curiosity about his character.
A second readily apparent and widely praised element of Ovid’s style, apart from the riveting dramatic speeches, is its extraordinary visual quality. This manifests itself not merely in the extended descriptive set pieces, like the Palace of the Sun or the much-anthologized House of Rumour but also in his ability to set an unforgettable image of a grotesque or suffering character before our eyes:
had coarse hair and hollow eyes. Her face
was pale, her lips were gray with dirt, her throat
was lined with scabby sores. She had rough skin,
through which one could make out her inner organs.
Dry bones protruded from her hollow groin.
She had no stomach, just a place for one.
Her sagging breasts seemed to be hanging down,
with nothing to support them but her spine.
She was so thin her joints appeared enlarged,
with puffed up knee caps and huge ankle bones,
swollen beyond the normal size. (8.1244-1254)
wastes no time in trying to rid himself
of the fatal shirt. But where he tears it,
it rips away the skin or—the details
are disgusting to describe—sticks to his flesh,
so all attempts to get it off are futile,
or else it shows his mutilated limbs
and massive bones. His very blood sizzles,
boiling from the searing venom, just like
red-hot metal plunged in freezing water.
His pain goes on and on. Voracious flames
suck in his stomach, from his whole body
black sweat keeps oozing out, scorched sinews crack,
and hidden poison liquefies his bones. (9.273-9.285)
Ovid is also a master at inserting sudden apparently minor details, which instantly bring a moment into sharp focus:
he moves one arm and then the other,
he gleams in the clear water, just as if
someone had enclosed an ivory figure
or beautiful white lily in clear glass. (4.520-4.523)
at being abducted, the girl
looks back to the shore she has abandoned,
clutching one of his horns in her right hand
and bracing the other hand along his back.
Winds keep tugging at her trembling garments. (2.1297-1301)
The image in the second quotation above is an old one from a familiar story, but here the descriptive precision (the placement of Europa’s head and hands) and that last brilliant extra detail fusing the young girl’s fear with her clothing and the wind evoke a vivid, memorable picture. Ovid is particularly adept (here and elsewhere) at infusing his pictures with erotic tension (Europa’s garments, after all, are about to be removed when she reaches land), usually by providing details describing a young girl’s hair or clothing, a young man’s hot breath on exposed female flesh, an unexpected blush, or a more explicit sexual detail:
observes her eyes, like bright fiery stars,
gazes at her lips—but the sight of them
is not enough—and praises fingers, hands,
her arms, and shoulders (more than half exposed!),
imagining those parts which lie concealed
are even lovelier. (1.729-734)
flinging all her clothing to one side,
she jumps into the middle of the pool
and grabs him. He resists. In the struggle,
she steals kisses, and her hands caress him
down below and touch his unwilling breast. (4.525-529)
This remarkable visual quality in the poem has occasioned much criticism, too, for Ovid’s style often moves beyond such moving delicacy or graphic vividness to a visual extreme, where it piles on excessive details to the point where one wonders whether the poet has any idea of restraint:
screamed in pain,
but Peleus (who stood quite close to him),
seeing him struck like that and overcome
by such a vicious wound, hit Dorylas
with a sword thrust right below his belly.
The furious centaur charged at Peleus,
dragging his guts along the ground, but then,
while trailing his own entrails, stepped on them,
and, as he did that, ripped them all apart
and got his legs entangled. He collapsed
with nothing left inside his abdomen. (12.601-611)
Rage made her strong.
She plunged her hands, stained with the murderer’s blood,
inside the holes and sucked out, not his eyes
(for they were gone) but what was in the sockets. (13.908-911)
She stretched out
both her arms
wrapped in knots of vipers, and shook her hair.
The snakes hissed with the motion, some coiling
across her shoulders, some around her breast,
making whistling noises, vomiting gore,
and flickering their tongues. (4.725-730)
Tereus seized her tongue
with pincers, and using his savage blade
he sliced it out. The bottom of her tongue
still quivered in place, but the tongue itself
lay trembling on the dark earth, muttering.
It wriggled about (the same way a tail
from a snake will commonly keep moving
when it has been cut off), as if, in dying,
it was seeking some trace of its mistress. (6.908-6.916)
For some readers a little more than a little of this is much too much. Yes, the pictures are certainly vivid, but at times there’s a distinct whiff of a certain decadence which suggests that the poet is less concerned here with his characters and their stories than with indulging his own love of excess or (more charitably perhaps) his poetic exuberance. Whatever the reason, the effect is significant: the detailed exaggeration of the horrible and grotesque images well beyond all narrative requirements raises questions about how seriously we are meant to take the story. At some point, after all, such a style, for all its vividness, becomes amusing rather than moving. As with an “over the top” horror film, we become more caught up in the special effects than in the fiction itself.
Ovid’s tendency towards excess in such passages points to a much-debated issue central to understanding and appreciating his style: Is he using his poetic genius to illuminate the stories or, by contrast, are the stories there to illuminate his poetic genius? More simply put, is Ovid a true poet or a show off? There is, of course, no simple answer, because Ovid is both: sometimes his style is so wonderfully appropriate to the story that we simply do not stop to wonder why the poetry is so riveting; at other times, his tendency to push the demonstrations of his linguistic skills beyond the requirements of the moment interrupts our contact with the tale. Most of time he skillfully navigates a path between the two possibilities, so that readers are caught up in the drama of the tale and yet amused at its improbability. The delight we experience in reading the poem emerges from this ironic tension at the heart of the style.
This point applies not simply to the descriptive vocabulary, but also to a much commented upon aspect of Ovid’s style, his fondness for sententiae. This word, in the most general sense, refers to expressions or turns of phrase which call attention to themselves as demonstrations of the poet’s rhetorical skill; they are, if you like, moments when the reader’s attention tends to direct itself more at the cleverness (or brilliance) in the language than at the content of the poem. A sententia might be a striking expression of some general truth or a succinct and apparently paradoxical idea. Evaluating the poetic effects of such moments is not always easy (and invariably somewhat subjective). Sometimes the sententia sounds entirely appropriate, for the idea and the statement of it arise naturally out of the story—for example, when the Sibyl observes, “There is no path which virtue cannot tread.” (14.174)—at other times, however, the phrasing may seem unduly clever, a sudden complexity in the style which does not match the character or context: “[he] fed his body/ by eating it away” (8.1362), “Those arms/ are seeking Ajax, not Ajax the arms” (13.157); “Without me there, the sea has taken me” (11.1072), “My riches have made me poor./ O how I wish I could divide myself/ from my own body!” (3.715-717).
One of the best examples of a sententia in English is Shakespeare’s famous line, “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile,” an arresting line which, more than anything else, celebrates the poet’s skill at including so many multiple instances of a single word in one line. One might note here, in passing, that since sententiae depend on the skillful use of the full resources of a particular language they are often very difficult to translate without losing the effect. Hence, this feature of Ovid’s style might not be so readily apparent a particular English translation.
These aspects of Ovid’s poetry raise an important and enduring question (and Ovid is the first major epic poet whose work puts this issue firmly on the table): to what extent is a work of art primarily a celebration of the particular style, a striking demonstration of artistic skill, and to what extent should the poet’s skill not call attention to itself but rather serve the demands of the work more unobtrusively? Or, stated another way, in the best art, form and content are fused and cannot be separated (for the way one says something helps to define the content). Hence, when the form deliberately detaches itself from the content, the work is inevitably affected, for now the central emphasis is on the language itself, rather than on what the language is meant to convey (the integrity of the fiction, if you will). Readers, as one would expect, respond in different ways. Those who demand from art a serious commitment to illuminating important truths, see such linguistic excess as a significant default—a trivializing and self-serving interruption in the work.2 Others derive enormous enjoyment (and sometimes) inspiration from seeing the language used in such striking ways. My own sense of this issue in Ovid’s poem is that his style works to have it both ways: it draws us into the story, earns our imaginative assent, and then (deliberately or not) distances us so that we do not get too caught up. It is, if you like, a form of delightful teasing. We cannot resist reading, for we want to know what happens next, and yet we cannot take what we are reading entirely seriously. Such a style can be immensely popular, because, to put the matter as simply as possible, we get the thrill of the story without having to explore any wider significance to the drama, violence, and suffering (more on this later).
This sense that we are being teased by the narrator is strongly reinforced by his attitude to his own creation. For in the Metamorphoses, the speaker (who clearly identifies himself as the poet) is constantly calling attention to his own sense of the absurdity of the fictions he is telling. Sometimes he does this quickly and casually in phrases like “Men say,” “People claim,” and so on, frequently reminding the readers that this story has no authority other than popular belief. At other times he will coyly call attention to the dramatic implausibility of an event with generous use of expressions like “Lo and behold” or “amazingly”). Occasionally, he makes his attitude much more explicit:
. . who would ever think this true,
if old traditions did not confirm it? (1.585-586)
say (though this I hardly dare believe)
that even after this abhorrent crime
Tereus, in his lust, violated
her mutilated body many times. (6.917-920)
has a young girl’s face and (if those tales
the poets left are not all just made up)
once long ago she was a virgin girl
whom many suitors courted. (13.1168-1171)
Now, this is, on the face of it, rather curious. In the very process of telling us a series of enthralling stories, the storyteller apparently want to undercut the credibility of his own fictions. It strikes me that what Ovid is doing here is mocking, not the story itself (which he obviously enjoys passing onto us), but the reader’s credulity, almost as if he knows we will be taken in by his wonderful storytelling and is gently laughing at us for being so easy to dupe. His skill is so consummate, he can seize our imaginations quickly with yet another story in spite of the fact that the story is (as he keeps telling us) wholly fictitious, even ridiculous. It is as if he places an obstacle in his way in order to highlight his ability to overcome it and invites us to enjoy the result:
will now sing
of horrifying events. You daughters,
keep far away from here and parents, too.
Or if my song does captivate your heart,
do not accept my story, and assume
it is not true. Or, if you do believe it,
believe also how the act was punished. (10.455-461)
How is one to interpret these lines? The sense I get is that Ovid here is revealing, more than anything else, his confidence in his own art. Daughters and parents will, of course, not be able to resist his fictions. The prohibition is simply an ironic invitation to continue reading. Myrrha’s story may be a fiction about the “horrific” moral and legal crime of father-daughter incest, but people will not be able to forgo the pleasure of reading Ovid’s rendition of it. And the notion that the punishment at the end will somehow turn the story into a moral parable is a sly joke (as if Ovid is providing the reader a feeble excuse should any scruples challenge her decision to keep reading). More subtly, perhaps, Ovid may be suggesting that the truth or falsity of a story or its moral content is simply irrelevant: what matters is the delight the reader derives from the way the story is told.
Whatever Ovid’s precise intentions here, the effect is clear. In the very process of enjoying the stories, we recognize their inherent lack of wider significance. However much we may be interested in the events, they are merely fictions which the narrator himself does not take very seriously. Hence, we are not encouraged at all to see any wider implications. How could we sense such possibilities when the narrator’s style and his frequent presence in the poem deny their existence? An exploration of this issue, I think, leads to the curious but very interesting point that the strength of this poem may very well rest on the fact that it does not attempt to do what is central to the epic and tragic works of Ovid’s great predecessors: it offers no particular vision of life and has no particular interest in such a high ambition. It is, by contrast, a celebration of the literary genius of the writer, a frequently self-conscious demonstration of the pure pleasures of fiction without recourse to any high moral seriousness. It is as if Ovid wishes to demonstrate Lady Bracknell’s famous observation: “In matters of utmost importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
Consider for a moment the following apparent paradox. Much of this poem concerns intense suffering and often horrific cruelty (human and divine). If we were tempted to see these events as the very stuff of life, what should emerge from the poem would surely be a very bleak picture of human actions and possibilities, something much closer perhaps to the dour pessimism of Hesiod or the cosmic fatalism of Sophocles. But the really curious feature of this poem, for which it is really famous, is that no such despairing vision of life emerges. For all the brutality and pain, this poem comes across as a delightful read. Ovid, in other words, takes the most potentially horrific material and turns it into the stuff of comedy. We witness the suffering and can enjoy the dramatic passions involved, to say nothing of the powerful combination of erotic, violent, and pathetic details, but we are not moved by the literal depiction of what we are reading. We are kept a secure distance away and invited to enjoy the brutality from a very different perspective.
Now, I want to dwell on this point for a moment, because it marks a significant departure from the styles of many other important earlier epic and dramatic tales. Whatever the story of, say, the destruction of suitors in Homer’s Odyssey, or Dionysus's treatment of Thebes in Euripides Bacchae, or Aeneas’ treatment of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid is finally about, those dramatic moments are intended to be taken seriously. When we try to understand such moments, we have to explore some wider understanding of the world. For example, however we read Hesiod or Homer or Sophocles or Virgil, we are most unlikely to say that the nature of the divine is not all that important; the process of reading the works reveals to us that the nature of the divine is an essential (perhaps the essential) thing the work is seeking to illuminate.
But this does not seem to be the case with Ovid. The rape of Proserpine or the deadly anger of Medea or the deceitfulness of Ulysses or the nature of the Olympian deities and so on do not appear to reveal anything significant about the nature of the world. They are just good stories, entertaining because of the way Ovid tells them. They are, if you like, simply literary inventions. What I mean by that phrase is not necessarily something demeaning, but rather that these stories exist to display the literary inventiveness of the poet and to provide for us the delight which comes from reading brilliantly told fiction which does not require us to reflect upon any wider understanding of the world: the style is privileging the aesthetic experience over any moral insight.
This notion that Ovid’s poem is not interested in exploring issues beyond the nature of fiction itself is brought out again and again. Consider, for example, the early story of Daphne and Apollo. There's more than enough dramatic tension here to sustain interest, and the story is a splendid example of Ovid’s poetic genius. Yet the celebrated story does not lead to any illumination or exploration of anything beyond the famous incident itself.
The daughter of Peneus
with timid steps ran off, away from him,
as he was on the point of saying more.
Though his speech was not yet over, she left,
and he was by himself. And even then
she seemed so beautiful. The winds revealed
her body, as the opposing breezes
blowing against her clothing made it flutter,
and light gusts teased her freely flowing hair.
She looked even lovelier as she fled.
youthful god can endure no longer
wasting his flattery. Love drives him on.
With increasing speed, he chases after her.
Just as a greyhound, once it spies a hare
in an open field, dashes for its prey,
and the hare, feet racing, runs for cover—
one looking now as if he is about
to clutch her and already full of hope
he has her in his grip, his outstretched face
brushing against her heels, while she, not sure
whether she has been caught, evades his jaws,
and runs away, his mouth still touching her,
that’s how the god and virgin race off then,
he driven on by hope and she by fear.
But the one who follows, who has the help
of Cupid’s wings, is faster. He gives her
no rest and hangs above her fleeing back,
panting on the hair across her shoulders.
She grows pale as her strength fails, exhausted
by the strain of running away so fast.
Gazing at the waters of Peneus,
she cries out:
“Father, help me! If you streams
have heavenly power, change me! Destroy
my beauty which has brought too much delight!”
has she made this plea, when she feels
a heavy numbness move across her limbs,
her soft breasts are enclosed by slender bark,
her hair is changed to leaves, her arms to branches,
her feet, so swift a moment before, stick fast
in sluggish roots, a covering of foliage
spreads across her face. All that remains of her
is her shining beauty.
Phoebus loved her
in this form, as well. He set his right hand
on her trunk, and felt her heart still trembling
under the new bark and with his own arms
hugged the branches, as if they were her limbs.
He kissed the wood, but it shrank from his kiss.
The god spoke:
“Since you cannot be my wife,
you shall surely be my tree. O laurel,
I shall forever have you in my hair,
on my lyre and quiver. You will be there
with Roman chieftains when joyful voices
sing out their triumphs and long processions
march up within sight of the Capitol.
And you, as the most faithful guardian
of Augustus’ gates, will be on his door,
and protect the oak leaves in the centre.
And just as my untrimmed hair keeps my head
forever young, so you must always wear
eternal honours in your leaves.”
The laurel branches, newly made, nodded
in agreement, and the top appeared to move,
as if it were a head.
In the first part of the above selection Ovid highlights in his description the erotic beauty of the fleeing girl—with precise references to her legs, hair, and skin—combined with her terror. The drama and pathos in the actions are clear enough. Ovid holds this moment suspended before us in the long metaphor of the hound chasing the hare, again bringing the tension into sharp relief with the references to hunting and biting. The sexual brutality is in the image, certainly, but the emphasis is mainly on the girl in a very cozy and teasingly erotic way (one can immediately understand the way the narrative has inspired visual artists). And the incident is closed off by the transformation, described in such a manner that the scene seems almost comic—the mighty god of the sun pouring out his heart to a tree which he is covering with kisses. It's hard to know how to take this picture, since it moves us away from the latent brutality of the god's intentions to a scene of utter incongruity (with the tree nodding its assent). And, significantly, the story ends with a poetic tribute to Apollo, an image of how what really matters in this story is the immortality of the memory, something which the woody maiden seems to agree with—the combination of the pathetic and the comically absurd in that final gesture is typically Ovidian.
I don't want to suggest that it is easy to write this way. It isn't. This coyly erotic tone, half serious, half comic, with the frisson of sex and violence and the pathos of the suffering and loss of life, is extremely sophisticated and requires a very sure command of the style. It engages our attention in a dramatic story and yet prevents us from taking it too seriously. If the result becomes too comic, the tension disappears and the tale is silly; if the brutality and suffering become too convincingly intense, the story becomes perversely decadent, a mere wallowing in violence for its own sake. But Ovid negotiates extremely skillfully between the two, so that the reader gets caught up in the events and yet remains sufficiently alert to the narrator’s tone not to take the story as seriously as he otherwise might. Some readers, I suppose, might be tempted to see in the story of Daphne and Apollo some exploration of something important—the relationship of the gods to nature or the immoral cruelty of the divinities or something similar. This would surely be an overreaction to Ovid's tale. He does not invite us to see in what he is offering anything other than a delightful tale, without wider implications, other than the notion of the lasting immortality of the story itself (as evinced by the continuing importance of the laurel).
This notion that Ovid’s main concern in the Metamorphoses is to delight his readers with skillfully written stories rather than to illuminate anything about the “truth” of the world may help to explain those moments when he seems unusually careless or repetitive. Why do we have three transformations of a man called Cycnus? How many times are we going to follow a character travelling across the Ionian Sea and passing a whole series of landmarks in southern and western Italy? How effective is the image of a decapitated head still singing or talking or of someone having his eyes gouged out, when the poet insists on repeating it? At such times, one gets the impression that Ovid simply doesn’t care about the effects of such repetition on the whole poem. If the passage gives him a chance to startle or impress the reader now, then he will use it.
This aspect of the style may throw some light, too, on Ovid’s attitude to his illustrious predecessors, especially Homer, Lucretius, and Virgil. These figures from the great epic tradition are very much present in Ovid’s poem, not merely because he frequently retells stories from those earlier poems, but also because he deliberately reminds us of them by approximating their style or even quoting them almost verbatim. This is, in part anyway, a tribute to their memory, as well as a not-so-subtle reminder that we can see his poem as a part of that great tradition. But there is more to it than that. For Ovid not only evokes the great epic poems of the past but also sets out to show that he can match the skill of their eternally famous authors. If Homer has one famous slaughter at a feast, Ovid will have two, and his descriptions of brutal deaths will be even more graphic and inventive than Homer’s. If Virgil has a famous storm at sea, Ovid will demonstrate that he can do the same, with a series of tropes even more extreme than anything Virgil can manage. If Lucretius can deliver a passionate plea for a philosophical point of view, then Ovid can match him. And if those poets can demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge of geography, myth, and history, so can he.
Given the closeness Ovid comes to the language of his predecessors and the way his style characteristically exaggerates details of the originals, it is hard to escape the notion that part of his intention here is mildly (and affectionately) satiric:
Then he drove his sword
in your left temple. You, Lampetides,
collapsed and, with your dying fingers, tried
to pluck your lyre strings once more and played,
as you sank down, a mournful tune. (5.185-189)
The incident springs from Homer’s famous scene of the slaughter of the suitors, in which the musician Phemius is threatened with death (22.412). Ovid typically turns a similar moment into something vividly (even amusingly) absurd (like Orpheus’ singing head or Philomela’s wriggling tongue or Emathion’s head a few lines earlier). And when he comes to describe the storm which attacks the ship carrying Ceyx, he rolls out such a long list of strained similes, one gets a sense that he is to some extent making fun of earlier depictions of similar situations. Of course, part of the pleasure of reading Ovid is that one is never entirely sure just how to react to these satiric possibilities in the style, for they are not sustained or unduly stressed (except in the love song of Polyphemus, where the lack of subtlety in the style makes the parody uncharacteristically obvious).
Nowhere is this teasing irony more prominent than in the long and passionate speech given by Pythagoras, famous for its doctrines of vegetarianism, metempsychosis, and constant change. Ovid here obviously wishes to remind his readers of Lucretius (indeed, there are lines which directly echo passages from On the Nature of Things) and to demonstrate that he, too, can write in a philosophical vein, should the need arise. But, beyond that, it is not clear just how we are meant to respond. On the face of it, the teachings of Pythagoras would seem to offer some sort of philosophical basis for the theme of transformation, and more than a few readers have interpreted the significance of his speech in that way, for there are certainly moments when the philosopher’s eloquence delivers what sounds like a serious reflection without any apparent ironic undertones:
with revolving time
we see some nations growing powerful
and others in decline. Troy, for instance,
which was so great in wealth and citizens
and for ten years could squander so much blood,
is now a humble ruin. Ancient stones
are all it has to show, and all its wealth
lies in ancestral tombs. And Sparta, too,
was famous once, great Mycenae flourished,
as did Athens, king Cecrops’ citadel,
and Amphion’s city, Thebes. But Sparta now
consists of worthless land, and proud Mycenae
has collapsed. What is Oedipus’ Thebes
except a story? And Pandion’s Athens—
what remains of that except its name? (15.626-15.640)
But there is also a sense that Pythagoras’ speech might just be, at least in part, a satire, not merely of Lucretius, but of such philosophical speculations generally. Just before the speech begins we are told that Pythagoras’ ideas are very worthy but that no one believes them, and as soon as the urgent exhortation ends, we learn that once wise Numa has absorbed all of Pythagoras’ doctrines and become king of Rome, he immediately introduces sacrificial offerings, the very thing Pythagoras is most concerned to get rid of. And the speech is delivered with such pace and, at times, offers such a rapid jumble of odd pieces of “evidence” (like hyena’s changing sex, lynx urine turning to stone, bears licking newborn lumps of flesh into little bear shapes, Scythian spells making people grow feathers, and so on) that we might well be tempted to see Pythagoras as a jabbering, often platitudinous eccentric and his oration as a mockery of the entire tradition of philosophical poetry. Ovid’s style does not force us to choose between these two possibilities—it presents us with potentially intriguing theories and strange facts in a tone that invites us in a teasing way to entertain the possibility that all of this (or a good deal of it) could be nonsense.
The importance of this sly ambiguity at the heart of Ovid’s style becomes readily apparent when we move to the important figures in Rome’s past, for here the narrator obviously lacks the freedom to treat the characters and events with his habitual irony. Romulus, Aeneas, Julius Caesar, and Augustus are crucially important to the official history of the new empire, and the poet is obviously expected to treat them with the appropriate reverence. So it is not surprising that in this part of the poem the style is a great deal less interesting, amusing, and inventive. Ovid pays lip service to the official myth at some length, but for the most part rather woodenly, as if his imagination is not all that interested if he cannot play with narrative in his usual manner.
The shift to this “Roman” section is announced by a change in Ovid’s treatment of women, whom he now presents to us, not as complex, passionate individuals, but rather as the stiff embodiment of heroic Roman virtues, marching bravely and calmly to their deaths, preserving their modesty at all costs.
Polyxena finished. She shed
The people did that for her. Even the priest
wept as he reluctantly plunged in the knife
and pierced the breast she offered up to him.
As her knees buckled, she fell to the ground,
but to the very end her face remained
quite fearless, and even as she collapsed,
she took great care to hide those parts of her
that should remain concealed and so maintained
the honour of her blameless modesty. (13.768-777)
look! In the middle of that city
he has depicted Orion’s daughters,
one slitting her bare throat (the sort of wound
a woman does not give herself), and one
plunging a sword in her courageous heart,
each girl dying to protect her people . . . . (13.1101-1106)
It seems distinctly odd that the narrator who has dropped so many more or less explicit hints about female sexuality could now sincerely applaud a noble heroine for not exposing herself as she falls to her death. In this regard, one wonders whether Ovid was at all tempted to offer his version of the story of Aeneas and Dido. I suspect the thought might have crossed his mind, for the dramatic potential of a long passionate speech from Dido would have certainly suited his talents. But if he ever had that thought, he wisely set it aside and treats the incident with an almost undignified haste. Tampering with Rome’s heroes and their celebrated deeds was too risky even for his unbridled imagination.
Or was it? If there is little sense of irony in the uninspired treatment of these heroic women or of Romulus and Aeneas, we might well wonder about the fulsome praise of Julius Caesar and Augustus. Ovid certainly goes out of his way to list and applaud Julius’ accomplishments and repeatedly hails the production of his divinely gifted son as the greatest of Caesar’s achievements (for which he deserved to be made a god). But his audience (and many modern readers) are fully aware that Julius Caesar had nothing to do with fathering Augustus, so the praise might well strike some readers as disproportionate to the biological facts (a hidden mockery perhaps of the ruling historical orthodoxy). And if we bring to the narrator’s apparently candid celebration of Augustus an awareness of the earlier notion that change is the ruling force in all stories (fiction and history), the tribute might acquire a certain ironic resonance.
Such a resonance makes Ovid’s envoi all the more eloquent and prophetic. In a world of change, only one thing will be truly immortal—his poem. The power of the storyteller and the fame of the poet will, unlike things in the physical and political worlds, endure unchanged through the ages, for the delight we experience from fiction—and especially from this poem—is eternal.
Before I conclude this lecture, at the risk of repeating some earlier ideas, I would like to say a word or two about this poem in relation to earlier works we have studied which use similar material from ancient mythologies. If what I have been saying has any validity, then in this poem we are witnessing a transformation of the traditional myths. When we read Hesiod and Homer and Aeschylus, the myths are seriously meant. They symbolize and illuminate vital aspects about the nature of life itself. The destructiveness of the gods, their erratic moods, their loves and hates operate as explanatory principles which define the nature of our experience. The events may be often irrational, sometimes funny, dramatic, and eventful, but they are offered as serious insights into the nature of things. There is thus a certain mystery about them, and they earn our respect and reverence, because they deal with things at the very centre of our desire to understand or connect with essential forces outside ourselves.
In Ovid, this serious intention changes. Here the mythology acts, first and foremost, as an extraordinary basis for mere stories, which we are invited to enjoy precisely because they are not offered as an insight into anything. The frequent transformations in Ovid do not serve, as in earlier myths, to explain anything about a sense of cosmic order. The myths have become, not the organizing principle for understanding life, but rather pure literature, to be enjoyed for their fictive nature. A wedge is being driven between the traditional stories and their wider meaning.
Hence, when we celebrate Ovid's great skill as a poet, we celebrate, above all, his poetic inventiveness, rather than his insight. He is a story teller's storyteller, a poet's poet, a master of transforming serious matters into light entertainment, perhaps the wittiest poet we have. What we are learning, as we read this poem, is not how to understand the world but how to use language and the resources of fiction delightfully. In that sense, it is not at all difficult to understand Ovid's enduring popularity among writers and other artists, even those who bring to the poem a much more coherent and complete world vision.
In a sense, that removal of moral significance emerges as the most important metamorphosis of all—the change in our attitude to these old stories. If we see them through the verse of Ovid, then we have good reason for seeing this amazingly rich collection of tales as simply an invention of the poets, created as entertainment, with no wider religious, cosmic, or cultural significance. And it may well be the case that the enduring popularity of Ovid is a major reason why it took so long for us to begin to deal with the gods and goddesses in Homer (and others) as something a good deal more important than merely literary inventions designed to show off the poet's skill in dreaming up pleasant stories for the audience.3
There are many places where one might further develop this point. Let me just mention one, since it bears upon something we have already read and discussed. The story of Acis and Galatea reintroduces us to Polyphemus the Cyclops (before the incident with Ulysses). But in Ovid’s treatment Polyphemus has been transformed into a comic lover, deliberately satirized in order to give the reader a good laugh, as he sings the praises of his ugly appearance and his single eye. As usual, Ovid focuses upon the psychology of suffering and resolves the story with a brutal transformation. But there is nothing in this story of what we find in the Odyssey—some insight into the nature of the semi-divine in the wilderness or into the heroic nature of a worthy character or into the hostility of a powerful god like Poseidon. The monster here works so well as a pathetically comic figure precisely because we do not have to take him seriously.
We might want to sum this up by claiming that if there is some coordinating vision that we take away from Ovid's poem, it is that there is no vision be had, other than the deliberately fictional world created by the poem. There is no mysterious universe to explore, celebrate, worship, or be fearful about. There is only the pleasure to be derived from the poem, which exists independent of any frame of meaning beyond the links it establishes with other works of literature.
In a sense, especially in comparison with what we have read, we might like to call this tendency an indication of literary decadence. By that I mean that in this poem to a large degree the style has taken over from the substance, and we have moved to a new form of literary expression, one in which the art is celebrated for its own sake, for the wit, inventiveness, skill, and scholarship of the poet, rather than for some vision of the nature of things.
I mention this in passing in order to mention that we should be familiar with this decadence, for our own artistic age is full of it. We celebrate style in theatre, the visual arts, and film (to name only three areas) by our preoccupation with style, especially with originality, special effects, and sensation, and pay relatively less attention to the sense, that is, to a significant content. Even much of our most serious fiction is deliberately written to celebrate its own achievement as art. So we should be well equipped to understand and appreciate Ovid's techniques, his humour, and his general debunking of any attempts to explore anything beyond the complexities and pleasures of the fiction itself.
1Consider, for example, the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, for which Ovid’s poem is the only classical source. In the Middle Ages it was turned into a 900-line French poem. Chaucer then uses the story in his long poem The Legend of Good Women, as does Gower in his poem the Confessio Amantis. The story reappears in L’Amorosa Fiammetta by Boccaccio and in Tasso’s Favola di Piramo et di Thisbe. Shakespeare appropriates the tale for Romeo and Juliet and presents a burlesque version of the same narrative in Midsummer Night's Dream (a version of which, starring the Beatles, is available on YouTube). Other writers who adapted the story in various ways include Gongora, de Viau, Francour and Rebel, Lampe, and Rostard, among others. The plot of the longest-running show on Broadway, The Fantasticks, traces its origin back to Ovid. Commenting on the popularity of Ovid in the Middle Ages, D. A. Slater observes “. . . and in Wales [the Metamorphoses] was so well known that the name of the author, in the form Ofydd, came to mean a poet, just as in Persian the name of Plato has passed into a word which signifies ‘philosopher’” (19). The poem’s influence on painters and sculptors can hardly be overemphasized. A cursory list of those who have derived inspiration from Ovid’s poem would include (in no particular order) Caraveggio, Giordano, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Brueghel, Titian, Rubens, Klimt, Lorrain, Picasso, Fragonard, Bernini, Claude, Moreau, and on and on. [Back to Text]
2Ovid has always attracted criticism from those who deplore this habit. Seneca and Quintilian commented on the poet’s love of excess and lack of restraint. Slater quotes a remark by Macaulay, “If Ovid had not been, or had not known that he was such a clever fellow, he would have written far less than he did” (qu. 18). [Back to Text]
3The habit of writing off the gods in Homer as nothing more than literary conventions—an interpretative ploy which at one stroke neutralizes the most important aspect of his vision of the world—is still with us, alas, among those critics who wish to protect us from potentially disturbing possibilities. For example, J. M. Redfield in Nature and Culture in the Iliad (Chicago, 1975), among others: “the gods of the Iliad belong to the conventional world of epic and were understood as such by the audience. Just as the epic tells, not of men, but of heroes, so also it tells stories, not of gods conceived as actual, but of literary gods” (76). The extent to which we are meant to take gods seriously in any particular work should emerge, not from groundless speculation about what the original audience might or might not have believed, but from the attitude and style of the narrator and the characters in the poem. To read Homer in this manner is to treat him as if his style is as teasingly insincere as Ovid’s. [Back to Text]