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Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I was totally unprepared for what a relevant and inspiring piece of literature this was. I have always thought of it as a collection of Greek stories, which it is not. Not essentially — essentially it is a warning to Augustus and to Rome generally about the stupidity of the passions and the importance of the intellect. This point is subtle in the book, and of course it is a collection of stories, but they are chosen with a purpose in mind — the book builds towards it’s end. In the final chapters we are presented with the story of Hercules (with its strange and wonderful echoes of the Christian story), of the argument between Ajax and Ulysses about who is fit to wear Achilles’ armor, and a long philosophical chapter on change, with a discussion of the “eternal” Roman empire afterward. I refuse to believe that this does not add up to a single warning statement.

A second source of great joy in reading The Metamorphoses is the astonishing number of scenes which were clearly inspirational to Shakespeare. Not just Shakespeare of course — the whole of Western History echoes with ideas from these pages, but particularly Shakespeare. If you have read the plays you will recognize not just plot elements, but themes and nuance. Shakespeare was clearly formed in the womb of Ovid.

Finally there is, in several passages, the presentation of a conflicted internal monologue which is far far ahead of it’s time. A psychologically realistic portrayal of self-deception and rationalization which easily could be modern. It is not on every page of the book — but there are a number of long monologues throughout the book which are striking.

The book is so strange — in a way the translation feels uninspired — the quality of the English is just sub-par. But the images are so vital — the stories are so much more interesting than the alternate versions I’ve encountered in books on mythology through the years. Everything in the book is familiar, but Ovid himself so seems to be present in this book. Did the translator do that? What kind of choices did Gregory make? Did he forgo the feeling of poetry so that the tone and sass of Ovid would come through. He seems (from the introduction) to have as strong feeling for the man. Of course how accurate that feeling is, is a whole other question.

The most striking thing reading this is how much of it is already familiar from movies and paintings and other books. But more striking than that are how powerful individual moments of the text are. It is almost like it was made to be represented in a series of paintings. I want to go through it and write sonnets capturing the single moments — they leap out with such vividness. I wonder if that is because Ovid himself received many of these stories from sculptures, paintings, reliefs and such? Or was that just his chosen style? It is such a pronounced effect that I almost think it has to be the former rather than the later — it almost has to be an artifact of the process of creation.

What an injustice that this book is taught in pieces — it is so clearly a single work with a single point. One cannot appreciate it by reading chapters — it has to be read whole and will be both rewarding and entertaining for those who dare it.

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October 20, 2008 - Posted by | 40th Birthday Project

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