Metamorphoses, Books 1-5

Having refreshed my memory about Greek myth, I decided to begin my reading of Greek and Roman classics with Ovid’s Metamorphoses for almost the same reason that I read the d’Aulaires. These are the stories (or, anyway, one very personal and often satiric version of them) that everyone knows. Love, betrayal, cowardice and heroics are all presented within Ovid’s framework of metamorphosis. For Ovid, change is the only constant. And it’s not just the stories, of men changing into beasts or women into trees; Nature itself is all change, from the seasons to the elements to human life. This was a daring proposition to make for someone ruled by a supposedly-immutable emperor-god, but Ovid makes it in every line, puts it in every character’s mouth, in a work that is startling both by how funny it is — and, too, how moving it is, on almost every page.

The stories are nested inside of each other, as they are in the Arabian Nights. You’ll have someone telling the story of three women who are flouting a Dionysian ceremony by staying inside spinning and telling each other stories, for instance. This permeability and intricacy of story extends to the separation of the fifteen books themselves; Book I ends right in the middle of the story of Phaethon’s ill-fated chariot ride, and Book II picks up where it left off. This kind of brilliant enjambement leads one story smoothly into another, creating the sense that all change is interrelated, relationships are fluid, and that there are hardly any hard-and-fast distinctions between one thing and another in Ovid’s world.

Almost all the metamorphoses in these first five books take place for one of three reasons: protection, punishment, or preservation. To give you a sense of the beautiful translation (by Charles Martin, which I’ll discuss more later), I’ll give you an example of each. Daphne, pursued by Apollo, begs her father, the river-god Peneus, to protect her.

 Her prayer was scarcely finished when she feels

a torpor take possession of her limbs —

her supple trunk is girdled with a thin

layer of fine bark over her smooth skin;

her hair turns into foliage, her arms

grow into branches, sluggish roots adhere

to feet that were recently so swift,

her head becomes the summit of a tree;

all that remains of her is a warm glow.

   Loving her still, the god puts his right hand

against the trunk, and even now can feel

her heart as it beats under the new bark…

This vivid language of protection (her “trunk” girdled), and her rapid heartbeat under the bark, make for a transformation you can almost feel. 

(I should mention that this is followed just a few pages later by another much funnier protection-transformation story, when Jove turns Io into a cow. Juno isn’t fooled, and torments the poor beast. Later, Jove begs to undo the transformation: “‘In future,’ he said, ‘put your fears aside:/never again will you have cause to worry — /about this one.’ And swore upon the Styx.” )

Just as vivid, or even more so, is the punitive transformation of Actaeon, who accidentally glimpses the naked goddess Diana in her bath. She flicks water at him, telling him to go tell others his story– if he can.

                                                No further warning:

The brow which she has sprinkled jets the horns

of a lively stag; she elongates his neck,

narrows his eartips down to tiny points,

converts his hands to hooves, his arms to legs,

and clothes his body in a spotted pelt.

Lastly, the goddess endows him with trembling fear:

that heroic son of Autonoe flees,

surprised to find himself so swift a runner.

That action of the goddess, her magic shaping each part of him anew, the fear, the surprise — but then, just in case you thought you knew this story, Ovid changes his point of view to that of Actaeon. His own hounds come through the woods, baying to savage the stag that is himself, and he recognizes, and names, each one (“Speedy, and Wolf, the Cyprian, her brother,/ and Trap (with that distinctive little white patch/ right in the middle of his black brow)…”). This takes the reader completely by surprise. Of course Actaeon would know his dogs! But this makes it not only a metamorphosis, but a tragedy.

Perhaps the best preservation story in these first five books is that of Narcissus and Echo. There is a long description of Echo’s desperate and unrequited passion for Narcissus, and Narcissus’s desperate and unrequited passion for himself. After the young man, wasted by his passion for the beautiful young lad in the water, dies and is mourned,

the boy’s remains were nowhere to be found;

instead, a flower, whose white petals fit

closely around a saffron-colored center.

As you can see, Martin’s translation is nothing short of astonishing. It’s playful without being loose (the introduction makes clear that he has not taken liberties to the extent of adding to or subtracting from the text.) It is sometimes grave and sometimes laughing, sometimes solemn and sometimes snide. On occasion, reading closely, I realize that he has shifted from blank verse to rhyming couplets, or from iambic pentameter to dactylic hexameter, and I have to ask myself why: what about this scene calls for a different approach?

One of the best examples of this is in Book 5. The book starts with Ovid’s mock-epic of the battle between Perseus and Andromeda’s suitors (a parody of the scene between Odysseus and Penelope’s suitors.) This cartoon violence gives way to a singing contest between the Muses and the daughters of Pierus, otherwise known as the Pierides. Martin frames this as a contest between the old-fashioned, formal Muses, who sing in dactyls (“The goddess must now be my subject. Would that I could sing/ a hymn that is worthy of her, for she surely deserves it”) and the newcomers, the Downtown Scene, who sing in the meter and vocabulary of contemporary rap (“In Libya the giants told the gods to scram/The boss god they worship there got horns like a ram/ ‘Cuz Jupiter laid low as the leader of a flock/ And Delius his homey really got a shock”). Oh, I was giggling the entire time I was reading. The poor P-Airides get turned into magpies, of course, for their insolence.

I will have two more posts on this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful book. I have so much more to say. But if you ever thought this might be intimidating, or dull, or hard to tackle, think again. This book was unputdownable.

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10 Responses to Metamorphoses, Books 1-5

  1. I find the rap a little flip, but I’m pleased to hear that this has held up over the millennia! The American playwright Mary Zimmerman adapted it to the stage, and my school is actually performing it this fall—while I can’t do two productions at once (I’m directing something else), I wounder if it would be useful for the cast to read the appropriate stories out of the poem…

    • Jenny says:

      As AR had a chance to say before I did, some of Martin’s translation *is* flip, but I see that as reflecting Ovid’s own satirical tone, not as betraying the work. It’s absolutely wonderful to read. I strongly suggest you give it a try.

  2. Flip – that’s a good description of that bit Part of the fun of Martin’s translation (of which I have only read a small part) is that he keeps shifting registers and tone, and is not afraid to be silly. It’s wonderful to see Jenny describe how that actually works, how the shifts fit the material episode by episode.

    • Jenny says:

      I think flip is a pretty good description of Ovid himself at times, especially the mock-epic scenes. He’s not someone with nothing to lose, but he can come across pretty snide. And the changing of meter works wonderfully to show the difference in tone.

  3. rebeccareid says:

    I’m covered in tingles. Sounds wonderful. I really need to get back in gear reading these Greek classics. I know I”ll love them. And sounds like this is the translation to get for Ovid!

    • Jenny says:

      I got a few good recommendations, but this sounded like the most appealing one to me, and I’m so glad I chose it. It was absolutely as engaging as any novel. Highly recommended.

  4. Emily says:

    I’m psyched for your further explorations of this book, which sounds beautiful, fun, and overall a great read. And also one I’ve been meaning to get to for ages, so I’m grateful for the tip on a good translation. The Daphne passage is particularly striking.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, wasn’t it? So beautiful — erotic and yet alien. I loved the translation. I speak no Latin and can’t possibly comment on its quality, but as poetry it’s lovely. I am going to talk about some textile imagery later, for you, Emily!

  5. Jenny says:

    Oh how I love Ovid. Reading these excerpts snapped me right back to high school Latin — the Metamorphoses were harder than a lot of the things we’d read before, but I loved them so much. We read the tale of Daphne, and I also remember Pygmalion as being very striking. Ovid’s awesome. He is my favorite Latin poet (maybe) (or maybe Catullus).

    • Jenny says:

      You talk so much about Catullus, I need to get to that. I think the Pygmalion story was immensely striking (if that’s the word) and also terribly creepy. Ew! But in general, I fell in love with Ovid. This was wonderful.

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