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metamorphoses

17 january 2014

Homer is known for occasionally nodding, and I've opined that about half of Vergil's Aeneid is fairly unreadable. Ovid's Metamorphoses is even more inconsistent than either of its great models, but that very inconsistency is part of its charm. It contains magically engaging stories that can move and exalt, and it contains stuff that is boring, repulsive, or just plain stupid – at least unless something has been lost in translation.

Charles Martin's translation, however, is so dazzling that I imagine he's pulled out every possible stop to infuse interest into the Metamorphoses. Of course, a lot of the poem doesn't need such infusion. But some of it remains obscure and pointless to a modern reader even in the hands of the best interpreters.

One of my college professors occasionally asked his classes to develop a "Longinian" critique of a literary work, after Longinus, author of "On the Sublime." What are the most sublime parts of the Metamorphoses? I'm very much drawn to the cycle of stories that runs through Book 3 : starting from the insecurities and jealousies of Juno, these tales wind around Thebes and related mythic settings, and include Tiresias blinded and given second sight, Semele immolated and the birth of Bacchus, and the wonderful Narcissus & Echo story. The eighth book, the first one I read in Latin as an undergraduate classics minor, also has lovely stories: Nisus & Scylla, Daedalus & Icarus; and the wacky pursuit of the Calydonian Boar. The stories of Procne in Book 6 and Medea in Book 7 are over the top, but still powerful despite their extravagance. (And unlike many Ovidian stories, I sense that they're meant as seriously powerful, rather than campily lurid; but this may be in the mind of a given reader.) Finally, I've been using in my World Lit courses the marvelous sequence of stories sung by the narrator Orpheus in Book 10, especially the thread that runs from Pygmalion through Myrrha to Atalanta and Venus & Adonis. A lot of readers would endorse my choices for the sublime parts of the Metamorphoses: uncoincidentally, they're ones that get highlighted in anthology selections.

The first time I encountered Charles Martin's Ovid was in an anthology selection from Book 5: the song contest between the Muses and the daughters of Pierus. Martin renders the songs sung by the daughters of Pierus as a hip-hop number. Which is bad enough, because as Andrew Motion famously illustrated, no literary poet should ever attempt to write rap lyrics. But compounding Martin's weird choice is the fact that the songs of the daughters of Pierus don't appear in Ovid's Latin. It took me quite a bit of messing around at the Perseus Project edition of Ovid to ascertain this (looking at the footnote would have been quicker). I was never able to explain it to my students.

But by making a bad poetic choice, Martin seems to convey the spirit of Ovid's verse. It's hard to explain that exactly, except to note that Ovid was famous in his own time for clangers: whenever a later poet wanted to point to a really badly-written hexameter, he'd adduce one of Ovid's. Martin's translation is full of dubious word choices, inappropriate juxtapositions, rapid shifts in register and tone. It isn't dignified, it isn't homogenous, it isn't "classic." And I'm just familiar enough with the original to say that it sounds all the more like Ovid for being so uneven.

Sometimes you can definitely say that Ovid is having you on. Two parallel stories – the episode of the suitors for Andromeda in Book 5 and that of the Lapiths and the Centaurs in Book 12 – are gruesome parodies of the battle between Odysseus and the Suitors in the Odyssey. I find the Homeric slaughter of the Suitors to be rough stuff. But Hellenistic and Roman audiences seemed to laugh at it: maybe they'd sat through too many bad recitations of Homer's catalog of after-dinner killings. Hence this kind of thing from the Metamorphoses (the speaker is Nestor, the proverbial "in my day, warriors were the real deal" old coot):

"Dorylas was next,
who wore a wolf-skin cap upon his head,
and armed himself, not with a deadly spear,
but with a pair of bull's horns, dripping blood.
   "Said I to him (for courage gave me strength!),
'See how my iron yields before your horns,'
and hurled my javelin. Since he could not duck it,
he raised his right arm to ward off the wound:
his forehead and his hand were nailed together." (Book 12, lines 558-566; p. 332)
Ouch! The problem with the Metamorphoses is often that we don't know quite where parody ends and admiring imitation begins. Much of the latter part of the poem (the third of its "ter quinque" fifteen books) is a retelling of the Aeneid, complete with sucking-up to the relatives of the assassinated Julius Caesar. Ovid seems to overdo some of this stuff, but to present some of it as straightforward emulation of Vergil. Except Vergil is usually better. He wielded the statliest measure ever moulded by the lips of men, after all. Ovid had a far greater range and an infinitely greater sense of humor (like that would be hard), but he had issues with decorum. I do too, which is one reason why I've always liked Ovid, and why I like Martin's translation.

My favorite part of the Metamorphoses, one I've stressed each time I've taught Martin's translation, is the story of Pygmalion, a brief tale, but one that unfolds in a lovely exercise in transition from one story to the next, as Ovid enacts his theme of metamorphoses in the tenth book. Flaminio Gualdoni, among others, calls Pygmalion the central Western myth of art: the creator who falls in love with his creation. The original Pygmalion is a sculptor who has a crush on one of his sculptures, unnamed in Ovid's version. He can't resist fondling her, wishing she could be real; as Ovid puts it:

temptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore
subsidit digitis ceditque, ut Hymettia sole
cera remollescit tractataque pollice multas
flectitur in facies ipsoque fit utilis usu. (Book 10, lines 283-286)
And as Martin puts that:
Aroused, the ivory softened and, losing its stiffness,
yielded, submitting to his caress as the wax softens
when it is warmed by the sun, and handled by fingers,
takes on many forms, and by being used, becomes useful. (Book 10, lines 357-360; p. 273)
It's a benign enough desire (she's all his, after all), but its underlying incestuousness (she's also in a sense his daughter) leads to their great-granddaughter Myrrha's desire for her own father, and to the goddess Venus's immoderate love for Myrrha's son Adonis. Pygmalion is happy with his statue-wife because he has imagined everything about her. Humans (or even gods!) who love other humans are never in that situation.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Martin. 2004. New York: Norton, 2010.

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