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Cosmic Leg-Pull

It was all in vain. He died in exile, the most famous literary man of his age. What exactly had he done? He is careful not to tell us. The Emperor made it clear that his poem The Art of Love was the basis for an accusation against him, enabling Ovid to argue at length about the morality of literature; but also he had “seen” something that he should not have. He alludes to this sensitive topic, but he does not come clean. He was on the edge of the smart set which included the princess and her young friends: all impatient, perhaps, for the death of the aging and increasingly sour Emperor. He had been witness to something very close to Augustus personally. There is a huge literature on the subject; the late Ronald Syme referred inimitably to “foolish and depraved fancies” of scholars: without any real basis for saying so, he wrote, they conjectured that “perhaps Ovid had come upon some disrobed lady of the imperial family at the hour of bathing…”1 Whatever the actual facts, Ovid had long been an annoyance to an autocrat with a distaste, naturally increasing with age, for a writer who preferred to ridicule, rather than to support, the moral majority and its standard bearer. Augustus had had enough of him.

At the time Ovid had another work in press, besides his half-finished Fasti: his enormous Metamorphoses was nearly complete. A poem longer than the Aeneid, and one which he proclaimed as a “continuous poem,” was not what his readers would expect this accomplished miniaturist to produce. Doubtless that was one of his reasons for producing it. Another was ambition: he too could create a Great Poem, even in the generation after Virgil had created the Great Roman Epic. The subject was a specially intriguing one, which had never been tackled on anything like this vast scale. Hundreds of local tales explained that this or that natural feature had once been human; the reverse is rare and comparatively uninteresting, though there were tales of a people, the Myrmidons, being transformed from ants (myrmekes), and of the human race being re-created, after the Flood, out of stones. Ovid tells both those stories.

A mountain crag resembled a woman’s face: it was a woman, one who wept until she was turned to stone. Why did she weep? Because of the death of her children. Why did they die? Because she had provoked the gods. And so we have the story of Niobe, all tears, who was so proud of her seven sons and seven daughters that she insulted the goddess Leto, who had only one of each: but they were the archer twins Apollo and Artemis, and they came and shot her sons and daughters, to the last one. Ovid versifies it with a gusto which, as often in the poem, leaves the reader a little uneasy. How are we to react to this gruesome tale? Or to the story of the satyr Marsyas being flayed alive (and asking, wittily, “Why are you tearing me out of myself?”)? The unforgettable picture of this incident by Titian, one of the sensations of the Venice exhibition in London a few years ago, with its insouciant Apollo and a little dog lapping up the blood, presents a rather similar problem. There is a cruel, dandyish side to this poet, who can also show so much empathy with the suffering heart.

The idea of metamorphosis is a radically strange one, calling into question the whole stability and identity of existence. It is a naive idea; we know it does not really happen—except that it does: acorns turn into trees, caterpillars turn into butterflies, eggs turn into crocodiles…That is all reasonably orderly, and we accept, too, that sweet helpless babies turn into politicians and tax collectors; but the change of the living into the dead, of the handsome body into the disgusting and frightening corpse, excrement into fertilizer, fertilizer into plants, plants into animals, animals and plants into us—that is not so easy to accept. Nor, perhaps, is the change accompanied by revulsion when love has passed, and what was an object of desire is now felt to be irrelevant, alien, bizarre: the sort of change so common in Ovid’s poem, when girls pursued for their beauty are suddenly transformed into birds or trees or fountains.

Some of the people of the Metamorphoses suffer a change of sex: Hermaphroditus is turned against his will from a fine young man into a creature of mixed gender; Iphis changes from a girl into a boy; Tiresias goes from man to woman and back again. Changes of this sort speak to our deepest anxieties. Other human beings are changed by the eruption of hidden animal natures within them, as when the murderous Lycaon, turned into a wolf, attacks the herds “with his old lust for slaughter.”

At the end of the Metamorphoses Ovid straightens his face and enunciates a philosophical doctrine. All things change into one another, nothing is lost; for that reason the eating of flesh is forbidden: so says the great teacher Pythagoras.

Then Death, so call’d, is but old Matter dress’d
In some new Figure, and a vary’d Vest:
Thus all Things are but alter’d, nothing dies;
And here and there th’ unbody’d Spirit flies,
By Time, or Force, or Sickness dispossest,
And lodges where it lights, in Man or Beast…
Then let not Piety be put to flight,
To please the Taste of Glutton Appetite;
But suffer inmate Souls secure to dwell,
Lest from their Seats your Parents you expel;
With rabid Hunger feed upon your Kind,
Or from a Beast dislodge a Brother’s Mind…
[Dryden’s translation]

Some readers have tried to take that passage seriously as a key to the poem and the intention of the poet; surely it is, rather, one more unexpected twist. Virgil had become an instant classic by connecting modern Rome with the mythical past; Ovid would go even further and explain the whole history of the world, from creation to his own time, by myths of the most fantastic and incredible kind. And our view of history should, he thought, be dominated not by duty but by passionate love.

No solemn purpose will help us cope with the preposterous detailed accounts of metamorphosis which Ovid versifies with such panache—or with the amorous atmosphere which pervades most of the poem and has always been one of its greatest charms. Every fountain contains a nymph; the woods are full of pretty girls, and the sea of Nereids. Jupiter, reviewing the state of the planet after Phaethon scorched it with the runaway chariot of the Sun, espies a beautiful girl, Callisto, and instantly embarks on her seduction; the Sun falls for the lovely Leucothea, and distorts his proper schedule and the calendar, rising early and setting late to gaze on her longer than he should; his former beloved, Clytie, pines away for jealous love, sits on the ground watching his radiant orb as it passes, and at last pines away into the heliotrope, the flower which always turns its face to the sun. The god of the dead himself sees a young goddess, Proserpina, picking flowers, swoops, abducts her in his dusky chariot, and is off with her to the lower world.

The most frequent motive for action and transformation is sexual desire, and the people of the poem have little else to do or think about except love—or at least attraction. The man about town, the connoisseur of the girls who parade to catch his eye, the man of the Amores and The Art of Love, has been reflected back into a mythical world, in which one’s pickups might be nymphs or princesses rather than call girls. Not least is this true of the gods. Jupiter leading, they are all permanently on the loose and in the mood for love. Suddenly a good-looking girl catches the divine eye, and another pursuit is afoot: through the woods or by the side of a river, for choice, but some escapades even take place indoors.

The god Apollo pursues the fair Daphne:

Her well-turn’d Neck he view’d (her Neck was bare)
And on her Shoulders her di- shevel’d Hair;
Oh were it comb’d, said he, with what a grace
Would every waving Curl become her Face!
He view’d her Eyes, like Heav’nly Lamps that shone,
And view’d her Lips, too sweet to view alone,
Her taper Fingers, and her pant- ing Breast;
He praises all he sees, and for the rest
Believes the Beauties yet unseen are best…
[Dryden’s translation]

The world is full of attractive girls—and boys, too; for Ovid, who shows little interest in homosexual love, has some fine predatory females, as well as some who must delight us by struggling with their modesty or their conscience before yielding to their passion.

Ovid has always been an inspiration to painters, for some of whom, I fear, he provided a good classical justification for painting pretty girls with few clothes or none at all: one thinks of Correggio, and of the poesie of Titian. Diana and her nymphs, surprised while bathing by Actaeon (he was turned into a stag and devoured by his own hounds—a hunter’s night-mare), licensed a canvas full of nudes, while Bathsheba, or Susanna and the Elders, permitted only one. Even more has Ovid been a model for poets: in English alone, Chaucer, Gower, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope. Dryden, the doyen of English translators from Latin, rendered the First Book, the Twelfth, and parts of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth. He says of his Ovidian translations,

Whether it be the partiality of an old man to his youngest child, I know not; but they appear to me the best of all my endeavours in this kind. Perhaps this poet is more easy to be translated than some others whom I have lately attempted; perhaps, too, he was more according to my genius. He is certainly more palatable to the reader than any of the Roman wits.2

His versions were published as part of an ambitious venture, “Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books, Translated by Mr. Dryden. Mr. Addison. Dr. Garth. Mr. Mainwaring. Mr. Congreve. Mr. Rowe. Mr. Pope. Mr. Gay. Mr. Eusden. Mr. Croxall. and other Eminent Hands…Adorn’d with Sculptures,” and dedicated to the Princess of Wales (those were the days!), each Book being also separately dedicated to a peeress. Ovid would be intrigued by the new collection, enterprisingly produced by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, in which forty-two poets, on both sides of the Atlantic, retell most of Ovid’s poem.

Each contributor was asked “to translate, reinterpret, reflect on or completely reimagine the narratives” of some part of the original: “We wanted an Ovid remade, made new.” Ovid, of course called his own work “a continuous poem”; it was part of the joke that this most unpromising material made up a continuous history of the world. That premise has had to go, and the editors plead that “in place of the unbroken song…Ovid promises …we offer the more modern, casual satisfactions of montage, repetition, obliquity, sampling, channel hopping …a kind of anthology of contemporary poetic practice.”

The implication of this, that the modern reader is incapable of steady reading, that channel hopping is essential to his viewing pleasure, is perhaps not one to take much pride in; but the experiment is justified by its result, which contains something to outrage everyone, and something for almost every imaginable taste—except a taste for the formal rhyming couplets into which it was obvious to Dryden and all the rest of the Eminent Hands, in their day, that Ovid should be rendered. For at that date it seemed clear that all the translators should write in the same manner, as well as they could; and as for not using rhyming couplets and the standard poetical diction of the time, there is no reason to suppose that the question crossed the mind of any one of them. No such thing was meant by Dryden himself when he made the suggestive observation that, while “so wild and ungovernable a poet” as Pindar “cannot be translated literally,” yet “if Virgil, or Ovid, or any regular, intelligible author” should be treated in the creative manner appropriate to a Pindar,

tis no longer to be called their work, when neither the thoughts nor words are drawn from the original; but instead of them there is something new produced…By this way, ‘tis true, somewhat that is excellent may be invented, perhaps more excellent than the first design.3

The passage might have been quoted in After Ovid as a kind of advance acknowledgment.

The styles and forms deployed by these poets range from knockabout fourteen-syllable rhyming verse by Kenneth Koch, a bow to Ovid’s great Tudor translator Arthur Golding (himself about to be republished by Penguin), but in a more comic idiom—

Look at this lovely river maid, who bears the name of Io,
Her youthful beauty caused in Jove such ache that “Me, oh! my, oh!”
He cried, “she must be mine!” and when he had the maid deluded
And had some happiness with her, she as a cow concluded…

—all the way to Craig Raine’s fragmentary account of Cadmus changing into a snake:

when his skin begins to change
he begins to leave it behind
pulling his body over his body
over his head

dark tight tight

he shrugs his shoulders off

the ears are difficult

unrecognizable
his aura of cling film
stuck to the carpet tiles…

They come in every length, from thirty pages to nine or ten lines; Ted Hughes, who really enters into the spirit of the thing, has four substantial pieces, clipped and stylish. Here he describes the dashing Hippomenes, who has just seen the doomed suitors entering a race with the super outdoor girl Atalanta; she will marry only a man who can outrun her. The atmosphere is less grim than that of Turandot:

Suddenly he was terrified of a winner.
He prayed that all would fail and be executed.
“But why,” he muttered, “am I not out among them
Taking my chance?
Heaven helps those who give it something to help.”

These words were still whirling in his head
As her legs blurred past him.
Though her velocity was an arrow
As from a Turkish bow of horn and sinew
The shock-wave was her beauty.

Her running redoubled her beauty.
The ribbon-ties at her ankles
Were the wing-tips of swallows.
The ribbon-ties at her knees
Were the wing-tips of swifts.

Her hair blazed above her oiled shoulders.
And the flush on her slender body
Was ivory tinted
By rays that glow
Through a crimson curtain.

And while this hero gazed with drying mouth
It was over.
Atalanta stood adjusting her vic- tor’s chaplet
And her defeated suitors, under the knife,
Sprawled as they coughed up her bloody winnings…

The poems in the collection represent every level of fidelity and infidelity to what Ovid actually said. Some recast stories in terms of feminist thought, introduced film and television cameras, use the four-letter words which Ovid’s urbane manner excludes:

Muse, put your breast in my mouth
If you want me to sing.
(Fuck the Muse.)

—so Frederick Seidel, without much encouragement from Ovid. Others stick close to the original, like Seamus Heaney, whose “Death of Orpheus” comes as close as this up-to-date anthology can to the Dryden manner:

The songs of Orpheus held the woods entranced.
The animals were hushed, the field-stones danced
Until a band of crazed Ciconian women,
A maenad band dressed up in wild beasts’ skins,
Spied him from a hilltop with his lyre.
As he turned his voice to it and cocked his ear,
One of them whose hair streamed in the breeze
Began to shout, “Look, look, it’s Orpheus,
Orpheus the misogynist,” and flung
Her staff straight at the bard’s mouth while he sang…

Some radical modernizations work brilliantly. Carol Ann Duffy writes as “Mrs Midas”:

I made him sit
on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.
I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:

how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,
as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,
I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.
Separate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,
in those halcyon days. Unwrap- ping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art…

Ovid would have liked the ingenuity of that.

One omission is striking. No episodes have been more famous than those in which girls talk themselves into yielding to desires which they know to be wrong. Scylla falls in love with the king who is making war on her city; she betrays her father and country. Byblis loves her brother, “but not as a sister ought”; Myrrha is over- whelmed by passion for her father. Each obsessed debutante (it is important to Ovid that the loves of his girls are their first: later ones would not be felt sharply enough) is shown wrestling with herself in monologue, inventing all those dear sophistries with which we convince ourselves that we are not, after all, going to do anything wrong.

In other societies it is not thought wrong—animals do it all the time—anyone else would go ahead; and am I less courageous?—it’s all right to have dreams about it, I’m not doing anything—if he were to start something, I might possibly let him have his way…

It was from such passages that Chaucer learned much for the psychology of his Troilus and Criseyde.

In this collection Byblis does not appear. Scylla’s monologue is put in the mouth of an amoral sophisticate—

Perhaps if we lost—and how could we fail to lose,
how could anyone hold out against him, he’s so irresistible—
then I’d get to be his wife or his sex slave or something.
Who cares, frankly. Isn’t that what happens. After a war?
[Michael Hofmann]

Myrrha has no monologue at all, is never shown considering the rightness or wrongness of her act. Whatever interests us, apparently, it is no longer the casuistry of the heart. Or is it that we believe our modern girls think sexual faux pas are not worth a moment’s anxiety, are not a matter for a moment’s serious thought?

  1. 1

    Ronald Syme, History in Ovid (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 217.

  2. 2

    John Dryden, Of Dramatic Poesy, and other Critical Essays, edited by George Watson (Everyman, 1962), Volume II, p. 163.

  3. 3

    John Dryden, Of Dramatic Poesy, Volume I, p. 271.

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