Sarah Annes Brown is a Professor of English at Anglia Ruskin University. Her books include an account of the creative reception of Ovid, a study of sisters in 19th-century literature and a co-edited collection of essays, Tragedy in Transition. She is currently completing a book about the relationship between allusion and the uncanny in literature for Manchester University Press, and preparing a co-edited volume of Tudor translations of Ovid for the Modern Humanities Research Association. Here Sarah writes about the poem which she has been writing about, on and off, for the last 20 years, Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Sarah Annes Brown on the Metamorphoses by Ovid
Ovid somehow stayed below my radar until I had completed my first degree and embarked on an MA in Medieval English. At this point I was juggling with the affections of two different men (Jove laughs at the perjuries of lovers, as Ovid notes in his Ars Amatoria). The less suitable (and thus obviously more attractive) of the two said I needed to read the Metamorphoses - and so I did, eventually going on to complete a PhD on Ovid's influence on Renaissance literature.
The Metamorphoses is hard to pin down - it is sometimes described as an epic, yet its 15 books don't chart the course of a single war or relate the adventures of some mighty hero. Instead, each book contains a dozen or more different tales, all (or nearly all) featuring a miraculous physical transformation, usually of a human into a plant or animal. The metamorphoses themselves certainly help make the poem memorable. Some are horrifying, such as that of the hunter Actaeon who is turned into a stag. His mind stays fully human but he is unable to speak so cannot reveal his identity to his comrades and is torn apart by his own hounds. By contrast the metamorphosis of Pygmalion's ivory statue into a perfect living woman is a miraculous wonder, granted as a favour from Venus.
But the poem is transformative in more ways than one. For example, Ovid is alert to the way in which words themselves can be metamorphic. Over the course of the poem we become used to being told that the victims retain some vital quality even after they've changed shape. Daphne keeps her beauty as a laurel, Lycaon is as savage as a wolf as he was as a man, and Actaeon, as we have seen, holds on to his human mind. When he comes to describe the transformation of incestuous Myrrha into a tree, Ovid informs us that only her marrow remains the same. For a moment we might take this literally, but the poet is in fact punning on the fact that the Latin word 'medulla' means both marrow and pith.
The poem's tone is also subject to sudden transformations. After engaging the reader's sympathy for the chaste nymph Daphne, fleeing from her would-be rapist Apollo, Ovid disrupts the atmosphere when he makes the god exclaim with faux sympathy:
Ah, lest some thorn should pierce thy tender foot,
Or thou shouldst fall in flying my pursuit!
To sharp uneven ways thy steps decline;
Abate thy speed, and I will bate of mine. (Dryden's translation)
The detached wit of the god, absurdly promising to slow down if she does so first, seems uneasily close to that of his author and creator. (Ovid hasn't always found favour with feminist readers.)
The poem's texture can also be described as metamorphic, as each story shimmers into the next, with endless clever mechanisms for easing the transitions between tales, including the use of inset storytellers, such as Orpheus, to vary the narrative weave. And just as we identify patterns of sameness and difference when we witness the before and after stages of Ovid's many metamorphoses, so we increasingly begin to identify odd links between tales, as though the stories themselves were changing shape before our eyes, reappearing in another part of the poem.
One such 'metamorphosis' takes us from the story of Pygmalion to that of Myrrha. Myrrha's father Cinyras, the object of her desire, is also the grandson of Pygmalion and his statue. The story of Pygmalion has, like so many characters in the poem, itself been subjected to a degrading and punishing metamorphosis. A charming story of a man falling in love with his own creation is metamorphosed into a lurid tale of a man who sleeps with his own flesh and blood.
If Myrrha's tale can be seen as a 'metamorphosed' version of the story of Pygmalion, then Pygmalion in its turn can be seen as a kind of transformation of the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. For Orpheus, not Ovid, is the narrator of the Pygmalion story. When we remember that he has just failed to recover his wife from the underworld, Orpheus's story about a man who is granted the perfect woman by a miracle starts to read like a wish-fulfilment narrative. The identity of the narrator also helps explain the odd choice of ivory as the sculptor's medium. It's difficult to make a life-size statue out of ivory - marble would be much more practical. But ivory is a kind of bone, and thus fits in with Orpheus's longing for his wife to rise once again from the grave.
Ovid's fondness for subjecting his own stories to further metamorphoses is matched by his readiness to transform the works of others. He lifts the story of Aeneas from Virgil's Aeneid (recently published but already revered) and cuts it down to size by dismissing it within the space of a book and a half. Not only does he truncate Virgil's epic, he finds it impossible to maintain his interest in pious Aeneas, the founder of Rome, and keeps on getting distracted by other, more sexy and sensational, tales, which interrupt his account of the hero's journey and relegate him, rather like Christ in The Life of Brian, to the margins of the poem.
Finally, Ovid has himself been the subject of endless transformations. Medieval readers tried to accommodate the Metamorphoses to Christian teaching by imposing allegorical interpretations on his work. Viewed in one way, such readings don't seem very Ovidian, and they are certainly anachronistic. But I think Ovid might have been quite impressed by the Christian reader who ingeniously metamorphosed his ostensibly depraved story of Myrrha into a veiled account of Mary's union with her 'father', God.
More recently Ovid has been transformed by countless poets, novelists, artists and filmmakers. The influence of Pygmalion, for example, can be traced in a whole sequence of works including The Winter's Tale, Frankenstein, Vertigo and Blade Runner. (And the boldest transformations are in some ways the most truly Ovidian.) His great poem has also been well served by translators. Arthur Golding's 1567 version (an influence on Shakespeare), Sir Samuel Garth's 1717 edition, which includes contributions by Dryden and Pope, David Slavitt's rather postmodern 1994 translation and of course Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (1997) are all, in their different ways, excellent.
Although it's 20 years since I first read the Metamorphoses, I'm still finding new things in it, stories which I'd more or less overlooked in the past, curious internal echoes, or unexpected links with later works. It's 2000 years since Ovid composed the poem's final lines.
And now the work is ended, which, Jove's rage,
Nor fire, nor Sword shall raze, nor eating Age.
Come when it will my death's uncertain hour;
Which of this body only hath a power:
Yet shall my better part transcend the sky;
And my immortal name shall never die.
For, wheresoe'er the Roman Eagles spread
Their conquering wings, I shall of all be read:
And, if we Poets true presages give,
I, in my Fame eternally shall live. (Geoge Sandys' 1632 translation)
If he'd been a character in his own poem, Ovid would probably have been metamorphosed into a beetle for displaying such presumption. But (so far) his bold prophecy has been fulfilled.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]