Ovid's Metamorphosesby Ovid
Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion
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Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another,
sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek mythology and sometimes straying in odd directions. The poem is often called a mock epic. It is written in dactylic hexameter, the form of the great heroic and nationalistic epic poems, both those of the ancient tradition (the Iliad and the Odyssey) and of Ovid's own day (the Aeneid of Virgil). It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse", and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection.
The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is love, be it personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon, who is the closest thing this putative mock epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.
The Metamorphoses can be said to be unique in that it is the only Latin mock epic to have an epilogue. This epilogue is Ovid's way of telling his readers that everything is in flux, but that the exception to this is the
Metamorphoses, "Now stands my task accomplished, such a work as not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword nor the devouring ages can destroy". The idea that this implies is that the authors gain "immortality" through the survival of their works.
A few years ago, the sensual savagery of Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid won wide acclaim. Meanwhile, novels like David Malouf's An Imaginary Life and Jane Alison's The Love Artist have built their narratives on what little we know of Ovid's actual biography. In Malouf's book, Ovid finds and civilizes a feral child, in a clever reversal of the people-to-animal transformations of the Metamorphoses. Most recently, Mary Zimmerman's award-winning play Metamorphoses presents the work as a parable about the healing power of love.
By contrast, Alessandro Boffa's comic novel, You're An Animal, Viskovitz!, sees metamorphosis as a cosmic bad joke; the hero is figured as a different animal in each chapter. During his time as a snail, he acts out an undignified parody of the Narcissus myth; Viskovitz is attracted by his own reflection in water, but the consummation makes for one of the oddest sex scenes of recent years: "I felt the warm pressure of the rhinophor slipping under my shell, and a strong agitation froze the center of my being."(Leo Carey)
My research for a new book on the Elizabethans has made me all the more convinced of the centrality of translation to the flowering of English literature in that period... Especially welcome... [is] the Arthur Golding translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses... expertly edited by Madeleine Forey.
This is a very welcome publication of a major renaissance work, in a clear and well-organised edition, with a helpful critical introduction. It restores a widely-read work to its appropriate position as an affordable staple.
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What People are saying about this
Madeleine Forey's edition of Golding's Ovid (which was Shakespeare's) is usefully modernized for the common reader, and is wonderfully introduced. The book is a timeless splendor.
Dr. Forey, in an introduction of considerable scholarly value, is of course right to call it a 'central text.' Students of the English Renaissance will be delighted to have Golding's book in this accessible and well-edited form.
Golding makes Ovid both dreamy and robust. Here we can listen to the English language as it moves confidently into the highest eloquence.
Meet the Author
Madeleine Forey is a fellow of Oxford University's All Souls College.
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