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Metamorphoses by Ovid


by Ovid

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The Metamorphoses is not a modest work in scope: in his 12,000-line epic, Ovid tells us that he's attempting nothing less than to give us the history of the world from its creation out of Chaos right up to the time of Julius Caesar. The opening section is a grand, orchestral description of the creation in the spirit of Epicurean philosophy, and the final section includes a long speech by Pythagoras exposing a number of his scientific ideas (and arguments for vegetarianism), but what everyone remembers - and what gives the poem its usual title - is the material that fills the middle 13 books, a vast and unruly collection of stories of sex, violence and magical transformation gleaned from authors like Hesiod, Vergil and Homer (or simply made up on the spot by Ovid himself). Gods (of either sex) lust for mortals (of either sex) and have their wicked way or are frustrated; mortals lust for the wrong other mortals; individuals make rash promises or accidentally find themselves in the wrong place; revenge and jealousy get out of hand; or there is simply too much testosterone and alcohol about. And when things go wrong or a god gets peeved, then it's usually the unfortunate mortal who gets changed into an animal, tree, or rock, according to taste. According to Bernard Knox, there are over 250 transformations in the course of the poem (and that's presumably not counting the unnumbered myrmidons and dragon's teeth...). Most of them seem to end unhappily for the mortal in question - in a few cases the transformation saves someone from an imminent danger of rape, but then they are stuck as a tree for the rest of their life. Iphis and Ianthe are the one couple who seem to profit long-term - Iphis is turned into a boy on the eve of the wedding so that they don't violate the Cretan same-sex marriage ban in force at the time. (This is the story Ali Smith uses in Girl meets boy.)

One moral that really comes out of the story is that we should be very careful not to give our children names that sound like animals or plants. That's just asking for trouble. Especially if they happen to be called "Cycnus" - there are three separate characters with this name, in Books II, VII and XII, and they all get turned into swans. Nominative determinism gone crazy...!

Of course, Ovid being such an accessible source for subsequent poets, painters, dramatists, opera librettists and others, many of the stories are very familiar, but what is really striking when you read the whole thing is the pace. Ovid rarely lingers over descriptions (when he does, he's usually making some sort of satirical point), but hammers through the story at maximum speed, and segues into a new and quite different story - connected or not - as soon as he gets to the climax of the previous one. Or inserts a story in the middle of another one, down to two or three levels (not quite as much deep recursion as the Panchatantra, though). From the Big Bang to the moment when "terra sub Augusto est", the music never stops. Even the transition from one book to the next is usually just the flick of an eye - Ovid knows all about cliffhangers and doesn't hesitate to use them.

The speed and efficiency of his storytelling come across most obviously in Books XII-XIV, where we cover essentially everything Ovid thinks we need to know about the Iliad, Odyssey and Aenead. The Iliad, in particular, is masterfully handled as a single "brain vs. brawn" debate between Ajax and Ulysses, in which the two of them make speeches as if in court to justify their respective contributions to the war effort. In case we hadn't guessed it already from all the scenes where Ovid gleefully shows us muscle-bound heroes acting like dangerous idiots, the poet is firmly on the side of Ulysses. Ovid enjoys himself making gentle fun of the conventions of Big Epic and can't resist teasing Vergil about some small continuity errors in the Aenead. But it's all quite respectful fun - Ovid isn't suggesting for a moment that we don't need to read these great poets.

Working out where Ovid himself stands isn't easy at this distance. And he presumably doesn't want it to be easy either - he's writing at the height of Augustus's somewhat hypocritical clampdown on the morals of the Roman upper classes, and whatever he thinks himself, he certainly doesn't want to say anything that counts as explicit blasphemy or corrupting public morals. He's only reporting well-known bits of Greek mythology, after all. It's all the fault of our own dirty minds if we get the impression that the gods and goddesses as portrayed in Ovid are a pretty rotten lot, with only one important claim on our piety, their power to harm us if we annoy them (rather like Augustus, in fact...). And it's for us to decide whether a belief in petulant supernatural interventions is compatible with the logical Epicurean world-view set out in Book I or the Pythagorean pantheism gently mocked in Book XV. From this distance, we can't really know what Ovid expected his sophisticated Roman readers to think, but on the whole I'm inclined to suspect that there's more mockery than piety going on.

The Charles Martin translation

My Latin is just about good enough to work my way through Ovid in the Loeb parallel text, but when I tried that it quickly became obvious that I couldn't possibly keep up with Ovid's frenetic narrative pace, so I switched to the Charles Martin translation, mostly because of the few that came to hand, it seemed the best compromise between closeness to the text and readability.

Martin chooses to translate Ovid's hexameters into a loose and free-running version of English blank verse (which is based on the iambic pentameter line, of course). This turns out to be a really good choice. It's a form with a very solid track-record, of course, and we're so used to hearing it that it reads very naturally. It does mean that the book gets longer, though - it seems to take Martin about 30-40% more lines than Ovid to say something, so it's not easy to go backwards and forwards between translation and original.

The language Martin uses occasionally looks alarmingly modern and American, but he avoids gratuitous anachronisms, and is conscientious about not putting anything in that doesn't have a proper basis in the original text. The one place where he really lets himself go is in the contest between the Muses and the daughters of Pierus in Book V, which he reads as a satire on bad poetry

We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through {...}
So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!

...and even that isn't very far from what it says in the Latin, and Martin apologises for it in the introduction and tells us he couldn't help it.

Here and there he gives us an editorial interjection if it's needed to explain something like a pun that is only obvious in Latin, but he always marks them off clearly with square brackets. The text also comes with short and unpedantic notes and a very handy index/glossary of names and places that you will need for all those times when you really can't work out whether Jupiter is that person's grandfather, father-in-law, or uncle - or all three.

An oddity in this book is that the publishers have used as Introduction an essay Bernard Knox published in the NYRB in 1998, in which he compares the currently-available translations of Ovid and finds them all wanting, except for the work-in-progress by Martin, whose completion he eagerly awaits. Of the current ones, Ted Hughes gets most points for style, but not many for accuracy. That feels almost like the Elizabethan habit of binding favourable blurbs from other poets as part of your book! ( )
2 vote thorold | Dec 16, 2018 |
The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Literally translated into English Prose, with Copious Notes and Explanations. [Bohn's Classical Library]
  petralex | Oct 23, 2018 |
“God himself helps those who dare.”

in "Metamorphoses (Norton Critical Edition)" by Ovid (Author), Charles Martin (Translator)

When I think on Ovid and Shakespeare, my own poetic streak resurfaces. Read at your own peril (word of warning: If you don't know either your Shakespeare or your Ovid, what follows won't make much sense):

Sentenced to exile! - be seated-
Let me roll back the years-
(Please lend me your ears)-
And give me the closure I've needed.

Brooding in sorrow? - a bit-
Denuded of gladness,
Heart-sated by sadness,
For a crime that I didn't commit-

A knock at the door - o, the terror-
I did nothing wrong!-
Just a lapse and a song
(In the Latin, John - carmen et error).

Mid-production, summarily forced
To abandon the Fasti,
And make tracks to the Black Sea,
My licence to scribble endorsed,

And shorn of my access to libraries-
Surrounded by Trolls-
But - where are the scrolls?-
Ditto, likewise, writers' rivalries.

A résumé! All that I writ!
That's a splendid idea
(Send it c/o Crimea)
Though I s'ppose that I'd have to admit

That folks tend to prefer - sob - the early stuff-
Which makes common sense,
As years now from hence
That's where you should find all the dirty stuff.

This is one of those canonical book I'd never read until now. Every time someone asked me whether I'd read it, I 'd say, "Ovid? I'd be livid. Avoid it or the void beckons. Have instead ovoid object for breakfast." Only after having "finished" my Shakespeare Journey I became avid about reading Ovid. Fervid even. It all seemed so vivid to me. But I was livid when I found out that the video had killed the Ovidian star...

NB: I’m not qualified enough to write on Ovid...Maybe when I’m as old as dirt I’ll be able to...But if you ever read my stuff on Shakespeare, I think everything on Ovid is already said and done. ( )
  antao | Aug 21, 2018 |
History of the world ( )
  margaretfield | May 30, 2018 |
Short version: loved the writing, got a bit worn out by the subject matter.

Ovid is one of the great writers of Western literature and that's pretty obvious from reading The Metamorphoses. I don't know how well Allen Mandelbaum's translation conveys the original Latin, but I enjoyed it. J.C. McKeown's introduction was enough to orient me to the poem and give it some historical context without being overwhelming. (FYI for those who care: beyond that introduction and an afterword in the Everyman's Library edition, there are no other explanatory notes.)

I have a lifelong interest in Greek and Roman mythology and many of these stories were not new to me—and many of them were, and that was wonderful. I appreciated Ovid's ability to pull all these stories together (Wikipedia helpfully tells me that there are more than 250 myths involved) into one narrative, with stories nested within other stories. Many retellings of myths focus on plot rather than character: A happened, then B happened, and it ended at C. Ovid gives the characters time to reflect on their desires or actions, to waver in their decisions, to almost save themselves. Even as I was figuratively glaring at Juno while she plotted the destruction of still yet another of Jove's victims/lovers, I enjoyed seeing her point of view.

But, well, it's over 500 pages of stories with mostly unhappy endings. Very few people are changed into something else except as a punishment. Love, for so many of the gods and men, was interchangeable with rape. Even when a couple found mutual love, it often ended in death or unwanted transformation. None of this was new to me; it was just wearying reading so much of it at once. So while I loved this book, it'll be a while before I consider rereading it. ( )
  Silvernfire | Mar 4, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (751 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ovidprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dryden, JohnTranslatormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Anguillara, Giovanni Andrea dell'Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ehwald, RudolfEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Garth, Sir SamuelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gay, ZhenyaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Golding, ArthurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gregory, HoraceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hane-Scheltema, M. d'Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haupt, MorizEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Humphries, RolfeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Innes, M. M.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Knox, BernardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Korn, OttoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mandelbaum, AllenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martin, CharlesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Müller, Hermann JohannesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miller, Frank JustusTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parramon i Blasco, JordiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tissol, GarthIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vondel, Joost van denTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This translation of Ovid's seamless song
is inscribed to my brother in law and in love,
Leonard Feldman, and my sister, Rayma.
First words
Now I shall tell you of things that change, new being / Out of old: since you, O Gods, created / Mutable arts and gifts, give me the voice / To tell the shifting story of the world / From its beginning to the present hour.
My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you were responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times. [Mary M. Innes translation, Penguin Books, 1955]
My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
(Tr. Allan Mandelbaum)
My mind would tell of forms changed into new bodies;  gods, into my undertakings (for you changed even those) breathe life and from the first origin of the world to my own times draw forth a perpetual song!
(Tr. Z Philip Ambrose)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 014044789X, Paperback)

Ovid’s sensuous and witty poem brings together a dazzling array of mythological tales, ingeniously linked by the idea of transformation—often as a result of love or lust—where men and women find themselves magically changed into new and sometimes extraordinary beings. Beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the deification of Augustus, Ovid interweaves many of the best-known myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome, including Daedalus and Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Pygmalion, Perseus and Andromeda, and the fall of Troy. Erudite but light-hearted, dramatic and yet playful, the Metamorphoses has influenced writers and artists throughout the centuries from Shakespeare and
Titian to Picasso and Ted Hughes.

Includes introduction, a preface to each book, explanatory notes, and an index of people, gods, and places

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:30 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

A new translation in hexameter verse of Ovid's narrative poem embraces more than two hundred mythical tales linked by the theme of transformation, incorporating many famed myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome.

» see all 23 descriptions

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 014044789X, 0140422307

Indiana University Press

An edition of this book was published by Indiana University Press.

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