Publius Ovidius Naso1 (the last name, “Nose,” was a family inheritance from an ancestor who presumably had a big one), though admired by Shakespeare,2 was distrusted in the nineteenth century as an immoralist and dismissed for most of the twentieth as a lightweight, but is now back in favor. He was all the fashion in his own time, too, and that time has some intriguing resemblances to our own. It was an age of peace that succeeded generations of war and also one that saw the obsolescence of the stern moral code that had made the early Roman republic a nation of dedicated farmer-soldiers and faithful, fertile wives.

In Ovid’s day divorce had become commonplace in upper-class Roman circles, abortion not infrequent, families small, and adultery generally condoned. Ovid, who proclaimed himself “the well-known recorder of his own amorous follies,” justified that title by devoting well over two thousand lines of elegiac couplets (the standard meter of Latin love poetry) to a witty chronicle of the ups and downs of his long affair with a married woman, including her abortion and his seduction of her maid. Not content with this he went on to write The Art of Love, an instruction book for young men on where in Rome to find women and how to seduce them, in which at one point he announced his satisfaction with the age in which he lived. “Let others delight in the good old days; I am delighted to be alive right now. This age is suited to my way of life.”3

The word here roughly translated as “way of life”—moribus—is, as so often in Ovid, a significant allusion. It is an unmistakable and mocking echo of a famous line of Ennius, the epic poet who, two centuries earlier, had celebrated the great days of the early republic, the wars against Carthage, and the conquest of the eastern Mediterranean: Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque—“By its ancient way of life and its men the Roman state stands firm.” Ovid goes on to make perfectly clear why he is so happy to be living now. It is not because of “the stubborn gold we mine, or the rare shells gathered / For our delight from foreign shores, / …but for / Refinement and culture, which have banished the tasteless / Crudities of our ancestors.”4 One important aspect of “refinement and culture,” Ovid took it for granted, was sexual license. “In the old days,” he had remarked in his earlier poem, the Amores, “it was different. Those Sabine women stuck to / One husband apiece. But then they didn’t wash.”5

Unfortunately for Ovid, Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who in 30 BC, after the defeat and death of Antony and Cleopatra, had become the master of the Roman world, was intent on turning the clock back. Using powers granted him by a subservient Senate, he established a whole legislative program designed to restore the old Roman family values. Octavian himself, before he assumed the titles of Augustus and pater patriae, had been no plaster saint. He had divorced his wife, Scribonia, to marry Livia while she was still pregnant by her divorced husband, and, according to Suetonius, he had even before that had a remarkable career as a libertine. He was also the author of a six-line epigram abusing Antony and his wife Fulvia so explicitly obscene that Martial (who quotes it in full)6 cites Augustus as his precedent for his own “witty little books” stuffed with epigrams that Byron labeled “nauseous.” But there is no moral reformer more fanatical than a reformed rake, and these severe laws, though not always strictly enforced, were there on the books to be used if needed. One of them made adultery a crime punishable by expulsion from Rome; another restricted advancement on the administrative-military ladder to high office, the cursus honorum, to married men with three children.

Augustus must have been infuriated by the popularity of poems that, as Peter Green puts it, “presented adultery as a high-class social game,”7 but it was not until 8 AD that he took action, not just expelling Ovid from Rome but sending him all the way to Tomi on the Black Sea, a Fort Apache of the Roman frontier, where, according to Ovid, showers of poisoned arrows could come over the walls at any moment. One of the two reasons for this harsh sentence, Ovid informs us in one of the many poems written in exile, was a poem—presumably The Art of Love—which, however, he defends in a long letter addressed to Augustus as no worse than the love elegies written by Tibullus and Propertius or for that matter than Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas, the ancestor of Rome’s founder, joins in illicit union with Dido. The other reason he gives for his punishment is an error, a word with a semantic range stretching from “mistake” to “madness”; whatever he did (or failed to do) probably had some connection with the many court intrigues sparked by the vexed problem of the succession to Augustus or with the sexual scandal that resulted in the exile of Augustus’ daughter Julia.


The Art of Love had been in circulation for some eight years when Ovid was forced to leave Rome. In those years he worked on two long poems. One of them was the Fasti, a celebration of the recurring religious festivals of the Roman calendar and the myths connected with them. We have only the lines that cover the first six months of the year, though Ovid claims, in one of his verse letters from Tomi, to have finished the book. In an apologetic dedication to Augustus, he appeals to the Emperor to look with favor on this change of theme from illicit love to “sacred rites and the seasons marked in the calendar.”8 This was indeed a theme calculated to please Augustus, who was trying to revive the old-time religion as well as family values. Besides revivals of traditional ceremonies and the creation of at least one new one (for which Horace wrote the hymn), he claimed, in the official account of his administration (of which a copy still remains chiseled on the walls of the temple of Roma and Augustus at Ankara), to have built or rebuilt nearly one hundred temples in Rome alone.

The Fasti has for many years been neglected by literary scholars but mined by anthropologists and historians of religion for details of Roman ritual and myth; in fact the standard edition of the poem, in five hefty volumes, was published in 1927 by no less a person than Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. The three volumes of the commentary are a bewildering treasure house of comparative mythology and anthropology; a typical section of the 212-page index runs: Kaba Province of Northern Nigeria, rain-making chiefs in,…Kachin Devi, temple in Bastar State, India,… Kachins of Burma, ceremonial kindling of fire among,…Kamchatka, drowning man not rescued for fear of water-spirit in,…Kannstadt on Neckar (Germany), fear of water-spirit on Midsummer Day at….

Lately, however, critics have begun to look at the Fasti as a poem, one written by a poet who in his work up to this point had shown himself the past master of subtle and often disconcerting allusion, of tongue in cheek commendation and ironic juxtaposition. In the winter of 1992 the periodical Arethusa published, under the title Reconsidering Ovid’s Fasti,9 a collection of articles by distinguished Latinists, all of them based on papers delivered at a panel meeting of the American Philological Association in New York in 1987. The essays vary greatly in scope and emphasis but the editor’s introduction identifies one prevailing tone: “According to the majority of those writing in this volume…Ovid’s text does exhibit a designed ambivalence to Augustus.” This ambivalence has now been investigated in a subtly argued, brilliantly written study by Alessandro Barchiesi, The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan Discourse.

The book explores with sympathetic insight the difficult situation faced by a poet living under a thinly disguised dictatorship, whose work has so far been in large part a witty defiance of the government’s program of moral reform, when he embarks on a project designed to win official approval. Ovid had a long way to go. He had spurned the public career of administrative and military service to which his social status gave him entry, and in his Amores he jokingly claims that as a lover he is facing the same dangers and hardships as the soldier on campaign. “Every lover’s on active service…. A commander looks to his troops for gallant conduct, / A mistress expects no less…. A soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to girls’ houses…. Night attacks are a great thing. Catch your opponents sleeping / and unarmed…. Lovers, too, will take advantage of slumber (her husband’s) / Strike home while the enemy sleeps.”10 But in the Fasti he makes a similar claim which, on the face of it, seems to be in earnest. Addressing Augustus directly, he speaks of the love poems of his early years as “slight” (exiguum). Now his theme is sacred rites and the seasons marked by the calendar. “This is my military service. I bear the only arms I can and my right hand is far from useless. If I do not hurl the spear or ride the war horse, if there is no helmet on my head…yet I proclaim with zealous heart your titles, Caesar…if you have time to spare from pacifying the enemy, look with favor on my gift.”11


This looks like a sincere critique of his previous frivolity (though Augustus would have used a stronger word) and a promise of faithful cooperation. But what happens in the poem to some of the hallowed legends of Rome’s founding and early history celebrated in the calendar suggests that no matter how hard he may try, Ovid cannot sustain the role of court poet very long. As Barchiesi points out, the role of war, predominant in Roman history early and late, is underplayed throughout: “The occasions on which the use of arms appears to be inevitable…are often subjected to a process of postponement and frustrated expectations.” The war god Mars, a primal deity of the Roman pantheon, is invited, at the beginning of Book III, where Ovid introduces his month (Martius), to lay down his arms and take his helmet off. On two occasions in the narratives which follow, his advice—to fight to the last man—is ignored, once by Romulus, who uses trickery instead, and once because his advice is overruled by Jupiter, who tells the Romans to bombard the besieging Gauls with bread rolls—“a bombardment which is absolutely unique in the history of epic.” The Gauls, convinced that Rome is obviously well supplied with food, abandon the siege. This and many another episode show that “the distich of love poetry can take possession of epic material and mischievously tease its reader until he is no longer quite sure where—in what sector of regular literature—he has ended up.”

Even more disconcerting is what Barchiesi describes as “an extended comparison…between Augustus and Romulus, the other pater patriae,” in which

Ovid picks out almost all the aspects of Romulus that could upset or at least irritate the Augustan re-creation of the ideal of pater patriae—Romulus the autocrat, the fratricide, the rapist, the small-town imperialist—so that he can insist on Augustus’s superiority, point by point…. This encomium of the prince oversteps the acceptable limits of Augustan rhetoric…. It runs the risk of destroying the image of Romulus, and Romulus is not just one of the many heroes of the past: he is the very symbolic foundation chosen by Augustan political discourse as the base on which to construct the idea of the prince as pater patriae.

One might add that Ovid’s handling of the other great Augustan symbolic founder, Virgil’s Aeneas, is just as unsettling. He connects the March festival of Anna Perennis, a goddess of the year (annus), with Dido’s sister Anna, spinning a tale of her escape, after Dido’s suicide, from her brother to Italy, where, blown ashore by a storm, she meets Aeneas and his faithful Achates out for a walk. Aeneas takes her home and recommends her warmly to his wife, Lavinia, who suspects the worst and prepares to get rid of her. Warned by a vision of Dido appearing to her in the night, she runs out, only to be swept away by the river Numicius and become one of his nymphs. This trivializing sequel to the Aeneid, with its picture of Aeneas as a husband saddled with a jealous wife, seems like a deliberate mockery of the great poem that had become the charter myth of Rome’s beginnings, especially since the story seems to be Ovid’s own invention.

Yet the tenor of the poem as a whole is celebratory and its program unmistakably crafted to further Augustan propaganda. At the end of Barchiesi’s illuminating analysis of the ambiguous, ironic, and duplicitous voice of Ovid in the Fasti, he sums up the critic’s dilemma: Is that voice Augustan or anti-Augustan? “The ‘opponents,”‘ he writes, “pay a high price; they are forced to read the text with the eyes of an informer or ‘mole,’ and are therefore profoundly vulnerable to the totalizing ideology that they say they want to reshape.” (He has quoted, a few pages earlier, the words shouted by a Stasi officer to a dissident: “I forbid you to write poems with double meanings! Or poems with triple meanings either! We have experts who can decipher anything!”) “The ‘Augustans,’ for their part,” he continues, “are welcomed with a smile and escorted to the empty seat of the privileged spectator, who is seized unawares by the narrative and by its theatrical games.” And he adds a final footnote: “I would not know how to place myself outside this contradiction.”

The Fasti was not the only poem Ovid worked at in the years before the imperial edict consigned this Playboy of the Roman World to the outer darkness of the frontier. He also produced a major work which, he announced in its closing lines, was his warrant for eternal fame: “Wherever Roman power rules over conquered lands I shall be read, and through all centuries, if poets’ prophecies speak truth, I shall live.” The poem was known by the title Metamorphoses,12 a Greek word meaning “changes of shape”; its opening lines proclaim its theme—“My mind is intent on singing of shapes changed into new bodies.” In the Metamorphoses, by far the most ambitious of his poems (and also the longest—over 12,000 lines divided into fifteen books), he abandoned the elegiac couplet, the metrical form used in all his other extant work. For the Metamorphoses he chose the hexameter, the line in which Homer sang of the wrath of Achilles and the wanderings of Odysseus, which Ennius adapted for the Latin language in his celebration of the great wars of the early republic, and Virgil shaped to majestic music for his tale of Aeneas and the origins of Rome.

It was a meter Ovid had once publicly rejected. The opening couplet of his first collection, the Amores, presents a comic apology for not celebrating the wars of Augustus in hexameter verse. He was about to do so—“Arms and the violence of war were to be my theme, in solemn meter, the subject suited to the verse. My second line was as long as the first.” But he was thwarted—“Cupid, they tell me, burst out laughing, and slyly docked it of one foot.” The first word of the poem—arma—a deliberate echo of Virgil’s Arma virumque, makes even more pointed Ovid’s expression of his disinclination to celebrate the glories of the Augustan age in epic verse. And now that he has abandoned the verse form of which he had made himself the supreme master, the theme he chooses for his new medium has little to do with heroic action or the Roman national tradition.

Initially, it seems much broader; he begins with the original great metamorphosis, the emergence of our universe from primeval chaos, a magnificent account of the Creation based on the writings of the Stoic philosophers, which suggests perhaps that his model is neither Ennius nor Virgil but Lucretius, whose great poem De Rerum Natura expounds in epic verse the doctrines of Epicurus. The next metamorphoses, however—the passage of the human race through the changes from Golden, through Silver and Bronze Ages to the Age of Iron, suggest Hesiod as the model. But at this point Ovid charts his own path with the story of Lycaon, the tyrant whose savagery and contempt for the gods so enrages Jupiter that he changes him into a howling wolf.

This is the first of a long and dazzling succession of transformations, over 250 of them. People are changed into animals, birds, fish, insects, flowers, plants, trees, rivers, fountains, rocks, mountains, islands, and stones; stones are turned into people as are ants; men are changed into women and vice versa; and, in one famous case, a statue is changed into a woman. The stories are told with such graceful charm and wit, and sometimes with a terribilità worthy of Dante at his most infernal, that they have been appropriated by poets and artists ever since. Shakespeare plundered Medea’s appeal to Night and Hecate for the great speech in which Prospero abjures his “rough magic” and burlesqued one of Ovid’s most famous tales as “the most lamentable comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe.” Bernini, in a miraculous metamorphosis of his own, transformed into marble the limbs of Ovid’s Daphne as they become trunk, twig, and leaf of the laurel.

In the first six books the transformations are for the most part the result of divine action. Daphne becomes a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s pursuit and Syrinx a reed to escape Pan. Io is changed into a cow in an attempt on Jupiter’s part to conceal his coupling with her from Juno. Callisto is changed into a bear by Diana because she has been made pregnant by Jupiter. Coronis becomes a crow to escape rape by Neptune. Arachne is changed into a spider for challenging Minerva to a spinning contest—and so on. In the next six books, though the actual transformation has to be the work of a god, it is the result of human passion and crime.

So far, the myths Ovid has been using, and often radically recasting, are Greek, but toward the end of Book XIV Roman myth takes over as Aeneas starts on his long journey to Italy, though his progress is often interrupted by more Greek stories—Galatea, Polyphemus, Glaucus—before he reaches his destination and, his mission accomplished, is changed into a god. But before the final metamorphosis—the spirit of Julius Caesar changed into a star—Numa, the Roman lawgiver king who succeeded Romu-lus (also changed into a star), goes to visit the Greek mystic and philosopher Pythagoras, who, in a 400-line speech, explains to him the nature of the universe and our lives. It is a majestic sermon on the instability not only of the universe but also of our own identities, for, according to Pythagoras, the individual spirit does not perish, but after the death of the body enters some other shape. This transition from metamorphosis to metempsychosis, together with Pythagoras’ eloquent diatribe against eating animal flesh, casts an intriguing backward light on the transformations of human beings into animals in the poem, suggesting perhaps that when we see a cow, instead of thinking of meat we should see the animal as an Io transformed, just as we should see a stag as Actaeon, a bear as Callisto, and that when we instinctively move to crush a spider we should remember Arachne.

There is a further resonance to Pythagoras’ great speech. Though toward the end of his long litany of impermanence he foresees Rome’s dominance of the world and the deification of Augustus, he does not promise permanence. There is no exception to the rule Nihil est quod perstet in orbe—There is nothing in the world that does not change. There are other passages, too, that remind us of Ovid’s incurable habit of writing poems “with double or even triple meanings.” When Jupiter, after changing Lycaon into a wolf, decides to annihilate the whole human race, he calls a council of the gods to announce his decision. Though they were all worried about the consequences (“Who would bring incense to their altars?”), they approved, “some with speeches that sharpened Jupiter’s anger, some in silence.”

Ovid’s epic model is of course the divine councils in the Iliad and Odyssey, where, however, disagreement is often expressed and the will of Zeus sometimes (though never openly) opposed. Here, as William S. Anderson points out in his illuminating commentary, “it becomes clear that Jupiter plays the role of Augustus and that the gods are the obsequious senators for whom, a century later, Tacitus expressed such contempt. This poetic Council and its mythical subject suddenly have contemporary repercussions, which generates a mixture of tone that is provocatively elusive.”13 Ovid makes sure that his readers will not miss the point by his description of the council’s location: “This is the place which, if such audacity be permitted, I would not hesitate to call the Palatine Hill of the wide heaven”—the area where the Roman aristocracy, including Augustus, maintained their stately homes. Just to make everything perfectly clear Ovid adds that the lower-class gods (he actually calls them the plebs) live somewhere else.

But in the main body of the poem, framed by the account of Creation and Flood at the beginning and the discourse of Pythagoras toward the end, Ovid avoids such “contemporary repercussions”; he is the master story-teller who enchants the reader by the variety and strangeness of his tales of passion, violence, and young love as he makes his swift and often surprising transitions from one to another. Many of them speak directly to the concerns of the modern reader; they have, to quote the editors’ introduction to After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, “direct, obvious and powerful affinities with contemporary reality. They offer a mythical key to most of the more extreme forms of human behavior and suffering, especially ones we think of as especially modern: holocaust, plague, sexual harassment, rape, incest, seduction, pollution, sex-change, suicide, hetero- and homosexual love, torture, war, child-battering, depression and intoxication form the bulk of the themes.” Noting that “Ovid is again enjoying a boom,” they invited a number of poets to translate an episode, ending up with forty-two contributions from Britain, Ireland, America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The result is a surprising and fascinating anthology of modern variations on Ovidian themes, some faithful (after their fashion), some ranging from eccentric to outrageous, all of them impressive. Seamus Heaney offers a moving version, in subtly rhymed couplets, of Orpheus’ quest for Eurydice and his death at the hands of the Maenads. C.K. Williams, in his trademark long Whitmanesque lines, gives us a version of the death of Hercules which owes more to Sophocles’ Trachiniae (which he translated) than to Ovid. The late (and much lamented) Amy Clampitt contributed a graceful adaptation of the tale of Medea’s transformation from love-struck girl to betrayed and vengeful wife. Michael Longley tackles no less than seven of Ovid’s episodes, among them the rustic idyll of Philemon and Baucis, in which he stays close to the original, and a wild but charming Irish adaptation of the story of Phoenix, which begins: “I’ll hand to you six duck eggs Orla Murphy gave me….”

Alice Fulton’s contribution is a thirty-one-page extravaganza based on the 113 lines Ovid devoted to the story of Apollo and Daphne, featuring an Apollo who “favored snapbrim hats, alligator shoes / and sharkskin / suits from Sy Devine’s Hollywood mens’ store….” Kenneth Koch serves up a rollicking ballad of Jove and Io—“Her youthful beauty caused in Jove such ache that ‘Me, oh! my, oh!’ / He cried, ‘she must be mine!’…” Simon Armitage’s short version of Jove’s affair with Europa will send American readers to their dictionaries looking (sometimes in vain) for the meaning of such Northern English dialect words as stirk and stot, bezzle and plodge. There is a short poem by our own present poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, which is not so much a translation of Ovid as an intriguing poem about Ovid and poetic creation. And there are four excerpts by England’s poet laureate, Ted Hughes: a fine version of the first 300 lines—Creation, Four Ages, Flood, Lycaon—together with the long episodes of the deaths of Pentheus and Adonis and a shorter tale, that of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.

Hughes has now combined these four selections with twenty more to form a volume: Tales from Ovid. It contains about one third of the text, including most of the well-known tales, though those of Orpheus, Jason and Medea, Cephalus and Procris, Baucis and Philemon, as well as the contents of Books XIII to XV, are missing. Hughes is of course an accomplished and powerful poet and the deep sympathy with and imaginative recreation of animal life and feeling that is such a marked feature of his work serves him well here. As, for example, in his version of the fate of Actaeon, who, returning from the hunt with his hounds, accidentally stumbles on the virgin goddess Diana as she bathes naked in a pool. Infuriated at being exposed to male gaze, she reaches behind her for an arrow, but she has left her weapons on the shore.

No weapon was to hand—only water.

So she scooped up a handful and dashed it
Into his astonished eyes, as she shouted:
“Now, if you can, tell how you saw me naked.”

That was all she said, but as she said it
Out of his forehead burst a rack of antlers.
His neck lengthened, narrowed, and his ears

Folded to whiskery points, his hands were hooves,
His arms long slender legs. His hunter’s tunic
Slid from his dappled hide. With all this
The goddess
Poured a shocking stream of panic terror
Through his heart like blood. Actaeon

Bounded out across the cave’s pool
In plunging leaps, amazed at his own lightness.
And there

Clear in the bulging mirror of his bow-wave
He glimpsed his antlered head,
And cried: “What has happened to me?”

No answer came. No sound came but a groan.

This loose stanza form serves Hughes, with varying line lengths throughout the book, for a collection of episodes that combine, as one English critic has put it, “his feeling for drama with a tough, brawny language.” Unfortunately the language is apt at times to become much too brawny, to the point in fact where it is utterly alien to the style and spirit of the original. Ovid’s description of the wickedness of mankind in the Iron Age concludes with the phrase Victa iacet pietas—Piety (which includes respect for duty to one’s fellows as well as to the state and the gods) lies conquered. In Hughes’s version these three words turn up as: “The inward ear, attuned to the Creator, / Is underfoot like a dog’s turd.” Even if one manages to accept the inward ear being underfoot, that dog’s turd is too much. Ovid is absolutely incapable of introducing such an object into his verse. He can be terrifying as well as beguiling, sexually suggestive as well as discreetly allusive, comic as well as tragic, but he is always elegant.

Sometimes Hughes does more than add a discordant detail of his own. When Pentheus mocks the prophet Tiresias, “he jeered,” Hughes writes, “at this dreamer. / ‘Dreams,’ he explained, / ‘Which this methane-mouth / Tells us are the dark manifesto / Of the corrector, / In fact are corpse-lights, the ignes fatui, / Miasma from the long-drop / and fermenting pit / Of what we don’t want, don’t need, / And have dumped. / They rise from the lower bowel. And lower.”‘ If you look for the source of this brawny language in Ovid you will find no trace of it whatsoever. In fact in Ovid Pentheus is not even given direct speech; Ovid reports simply that “he laughed at the prophetic words of the old man and taunted him with his darkness, the loss of his sight.” Hughes’s versions, for all their merits, are to be read with caution; some of their most striking passages have no warrant in the text.

Tales from Ovid also suffers from the disadvantage that it is a selection of stories from a work in which the means employed to ensure continuity are often as intriguing as the stories themselves. Continuity is what Ovid prays for in his poem; he asks the gods to look kindly on his enterprise and “bring the poem uninterrupted down from the first beginnings of the world to the present day.” Since what he is about to launch into is a collection of hundreds of stories, some short, some long, selected from Greek and Roman mythology because they end in a metamorphosis, this sounds like a tall order, even for gods. But they comply. Though the poem is divided into fifteen books, these books, unlike those of Virgil’s Aeneid, are not artistic unities, each with its dramatic opening and significant closure. On the contrary, time after time, a story runs over from one book to the next. The poem is a seamless whole, an uninterrupted progress from start to finish, from the creation of the world to the final metamorphosis of the spirit of the murdered Julius Caesar into a star. And one of the many pleasures offered to the reader stems from the subtlety, variety, and often surprising wit of the transitions from one tale to another.

Sometimes one tale is embedded in another, in the style of The Arabian Nights. Mercury, for example, sent by Jupiter to get rid of Argus, the hundred-eyed guardian Juno had set to watch Io, puts him to sleep with the story of Syrinx, the nymph changed into a reed, and then cuts off his head. When, after the Flood and the creation of the new human race, other forms of life emerged, one was an enormous serpent called Python, which Apollo killed. To commemorate his victory he established the Pythian Games, at which the prize for the winners was a crown of oak leaves. Every one of Ovid’s readers knew that it was a crown of laurel leaves, and he hastens to explain that the laurel tree had not yet come into existence. That was the result of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, who was the daughter of a river god. All the other river gods came to console her father for his loss, except Inachus, who had himself lost a daughter—Io, transformed into a cow.

She eventually regained human shape and bore Jupiter a son, Epaphus, who became a great friend of Phaethon, the son of Helios, the sun god. Phaethon persuaded his father to let him drive the chariot but lost control of the horses and came too near the earth. Jupiter put a stop to his ride with a thunderbolt and then came down to survey the damage. He ran into Callisto, a nymph companion of the goddess Diana, seduced her, and made her pregnant; when Diana saw her condition she changed the girl into a bear. The skill with which these transitions are managed, providing surprise time after time in the long series, is one of the most delightful features of the poem; anything short of a full version gives the reader short weight.

This point is emphasized in the preface to David Slavitt’s translation of the whole text. “As a translator,” he writes, “I take all kinds of liberties, but I am strict in my observance of length and scale, which I take to be significant artistic decisions that any new poem ought to respect and re-create. The sweep of this work, the change in its moods and rhythms, the way in which the heart of the poem turns out to be in the transitions, some of them quite arbitrary and fortuitous, are what have impressed me and what I have tried to convey.”

Convey the sweep of the work he does, as the poem rolls on in the polished “English hexameters” modeled on but lighter than those developed by Richmond Lattimore for his translation of the Iliad. They are impressive, as the following excerpt will demonstrate. It is a passage in which the youth goddess Hebe has just rejuvenated her husband Iolaus. As she starts to swear that she will never do the same thing for anybody else, Themis prevents her, with a prophecy packed with mythical examples of future rejuvenations that may puzzle modern readers by its cryptic allusiveness. The excerpt also makes clear what Slavitt meant by the phrase “all kinds of liberties.”

…Themis, the Hours’ mother and Mistress
of Seasons and Years, prevented this ill-considered gesture.
And now we get Themis’ list of myths in which time stands still,
moves around, plays tricks…not stories but only allusions,
some of them clear, and others oblique or coy. Our attention
wanes, as the voice—of Themis? Ovid?—falters and drones.
Tired perhaps? We strain to follow its murmur and feel
frustration, even annoyance. Why has he thus betrayed us?
Is this a place he’d have fixed had the gods not sent him away
(or, to keep to the pattern, turned him from darling to exile,
the victim of Caesar Augustus’ whim)? But there is a way
to read this passage and turn time back. We are children again,
hide in the hall at the top of the stairs and strain to hear
the phrases that float up from our parents’ conversations.
Greedy for what we can catch, we hold our breath to listen
and to comprehend their words and the world’s unpleasant secrets
from which they have tried to protect us as long and as well as they
could.The question is one of trust, which Ovid invites or tests.
Have we learned in these pages to yield to his moods and moves, to
read with that mixture of love and awe we felt many years ago
in the upstairs hall? The subject, at any rate, is the business
of youth and age, how the gods can turn back the clocks—not often,
but every now and again. We get Amphiarius’ story….

At this point Slavitt gives us a highly selective version of what Themis said (omitting Amphiarius, to whom Ovid devotes ten lines) and proceeds with the words “We are back on track now….” But we are not. He regales us with seven more lines of editorial comment—“This story, a somewhat mannered performance, / is one of those nice rhetorical set pieces Ovid loved…”—before settling down to the lurid story of Byblis’ passion for her brother Caunus. Slavitt speaks eloquently in his introduction of the reader’s (and the translator’s) reaction to the poem as a “leap of sympathy, intuition, understanding, and, finally, collaboration.” But this seems to go beyond collaboration; it is in fact editorial intervention or perhaps intrusion would be a more accurate description.

Fortunately such passages are rare. No one can deny the merits of Slavitt’s version. His English hexameter is a great success—a supple, fluid, and versatile medium that does Ovid’s loosening of the Virgilian line full justice. And at his best he is very good indeed. Here, for example (and for comparison with Hughes), is his version of the metamorphosis of Actaeon.

Without her quiver of arrows, she makes do with splashing his head
with water she kicks in his direction in playful anger—
or is it real? He has no idea! His wits have left him.
Utterly dumb, he can barely comprehend her words
as she speaks to him: “Now, that you’ve seen a naked goddess, go
and tell whomever you will, or whomever you can….” On his head,
where the water drops landed, his horns are already sprouting out
in a rack of impressive antlers that spread out from the crowns
of mature stags. His ears are sharpening into pointed
excrescences, while his hands are pointing, becoming hoofs,
and his arms are turning to forelegs. His skin is a hide, and his
heartis cold with terror. He looks down into the water’s surface
sees what he has become, then turns in panic and runs
faster than he has ever been able to run. He attempts
to vent his rage at what’s happened, give voice to his woe, but
wordsfail, have fled….

Ovid, as the editors of After Ovid remarked, is once again enjoying a boom. There is at least one more translation of the Metamorphoses under way; excerpts from it have appeared in literary magazines14 and the finished version is to be published by Norton. It is by Charles Martin, a well-known poet15 and also the author of a brilliant translation of Catullus, which was reviewed in these columns some years ago.16 Like Slavitt, he avoids breaks in the narrative and stanza form, using one line throughout, an elegantly varied version of the standard English pentameter. Here is the fate of Actaeon:

…[Diana] managed to turn sideways and look back
as if she wished she had her arrows handy—
but making do with what she had, scooped up
water and flung it in Actaeon’s face,
sprinkling his hair with the avenging droplets,
and adding words that prophesied his doom:
“Now you may tell of how you saw me naked,
tell it if you can, you may.”
No further warning:
the brow which she has sprinkled jets the horns
of a lively stag; she elongates his neck.
narrows the tips of his ears to tiny points,
converts his hands to hooves, his arms to legs,
Lastly the goddess endows him with trembling fear:
that heroic son of Autonoe flees,

astonished to find himself so swift a runner.
But when he stopped and looked into a pool
at the reflection of his horns and muzzle—
“Poor me!” he tried to say, but no words came….

This is not only more faithful to Ovid than either of the other two versions (Slavitt’s “in playful anger—or is it real?” and Hughes’s “hunter’s tunic slid from his dappled hide” are both additions), but it also captures an important feature of the original which the others have missed. They attribute the original action, the sprinkling of the water, to Diana, but after that the transformation is described as a process, a sort of organic growth. Martin uses active verbs; each detail of the transformation is a separate action on the part of the goddess. And this is true to Ovid’s text, where a remarkable repetition, the –at ending of the verbs—dat, dat, cacuminat, mutat, velat—she gives him the horns, gives length to his neck, points his ears, changes his forearms to legs, and covers his body with a pelt—presents the stages of Actaeon’s transformation as the whiplash blows inflicted by divine fury. Martin’s complete text is clearly something to look forward to with high expectations.

Meanwhile there is much to enjoy in what is already in print; Ovid himself assumes new shapes as the poets try to capture, each in his own style, some of the many dazzling shapes assumed by this master magician.

This Issue

January 15, 1998