In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the lasting power of Ovid’s great poem
Ovid’s wasn’t the first Metamorphoses. Before him, there was Nicander’s Heteroeumena, whose title is usually translated as ‘metamorphoses’, but Nicander’s poem has been lost. It was Ovid’s vast retelling of the great myths of Greek and Roman civilisation that became the definitive classical text on the subject of transformation.
But upon closer analysis, Ovid’s genius as a writer on love, lust, desire, jealousy, and a myriad other timeless human emotions and drives also becomes more apparent. He even added to what he borrowed: the story of Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection had existed for a long time before Ovid, as had the myth of Echo, but it took Ovid to see that the two stories belonged together, even if Echo and Narcissus themselves were destined never to belong together.
Is Ovid’s Metamorphoses an epic? It is often described as such, but one of the notable things about Ovid’s poem is how it invites us to question what we mean by ‘epic’: it is set foursquare against the vision of the epic embodied by Ovid’s near-contemporary, Virgil, in his Aeneid. As its very title implies, Virgil’s poem is far closer to Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, than Ovid’s is. Here, it makes sense that Ezra Pound so admired Ovid’s Metamorphoses, since The Cantos, Pound’s defining work, would be an epic that followed Pound’s own definition of ‘a poem including history’; like Ovid’s poem, it would also be a ‘ragbag’ more than a tightly structured narrative following one hero.
Ovid also mattered, of course, to Shakespeare, and critics such as Jonathan Bate and A. B. Taylor, among others, have shown how Ovid was, in many ways, the most important poet for the Bard: without the Metamorphoses, we wouldn’t have had Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but nor would we have had Titus Andronicus or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s deep-rooted interest in transformation, both at the literal or physical level (Bottom’s head turning into that of an ass) and at the emotional or character-level.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is divided into fifteen books, but it also has a tripartite structure, with the various tales of transformation loosely divided into three categories, treating gods, heroes, and history respectively. The link between gods and humans is noteworthy, for if the Metamorphoses is a new kind of epic – loose, baggy, unified by its theme rather than its hero or its plot – then it is also both encyclopedia and sacred text.
It is, as Denis Feeney notes in his excellent Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the Metamorphoses which I own (a masterly verse translation by David Raeburn), a vast encyclopedia of myth: Graeco-Roman myth since the fall of Rome, as Feeney observes, is really Ovidian myth, since the Metamorphoses became the definitive telling of Greek and Roman mythology.
But it’s also a strange kind of holy book, too, a scripture without a religion, at least none that survives since humanity stopped believing in Zeus and Apollo (it’s strange to think that Ovid was probably putting the finishing touches to his great poem at around the same time as the man named Yeshua, later Jesus, was supposedly coming into being in another portion of the Roman world). Ovid’s Metamorphoses opens with a creation story and offers ways of understanding man’s place in the world, both in relation to the natural world and in relation to societies and social rules, marriage, family, government, and so on.
True, it doesn’t instruct or prescribe in the way a holy text does, so this may seem like an odd way of viewing Ovid’s poem. But Ezra Pound saw this quality in the book too, spying in the Metamorphoses a link between humanity and divinity, the impermanent and the permanent: as Heraclitus might have said, the only constant thing is change, or metamorphosis. Pound even averred, ‘I consider the Metamorphoses a sacred book, and the Hebrew scriptures the record of a barbarian tribe, full of evil.’ He called Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s poem – the one Shakespeare was so familiar with – the most beautiful book in the English language.
In the last analysis, then, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has a claim to being the major classical poem that changed the concept of the epic poem, and perhaps the narrative poem, forever. Without it, Shakespeare would not exist, at least not as the writer we know. For the definitive telling of the story of Echo and Narcissus, or the horrific attack on Philomela, or the doomed love affairs between Pyramus and Thisbe or between Jason and Medea, Ovid’s poem is the place to look for them. Fittingly, for a poem about change, the Metamorphoses changed literature for the better, and for good.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.