Ovid’s Metamorphoses


metamorphosesThe Salon Intensive offers a one-meeting study that ambitiously takes an entire work in one big, energetic gulp. Participants have described this as a wonderfully dynamic approach– we work hard and have a joyous time.  Why Ovid? Folks in the  Salon have considered Homer (The Odyssey and The Iliad), The Oresteia, Virgil’s Aeneid among other significant classical works. Ovid’s work includes characters and situations referenced throughout literature–and a deep meditation on how humans and gods shift and change as a result of harrowing circumstances. We will consider the work in the context of its own time and how Metamorphoses illuminates our own moment.

The recommended edition is the Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber, 1997).

From Hughes’ brilliant introduction: 

“In its length and metre, the Metamorphoses resembles an epic. But the opening lines describe the very different kind of poem that Ovid set out to write: an account of how from the beginning of the world right down to his own time bodies had been magically changed, by the power of the gods, into other bodies.

“This licensed him to take a wide sweep through the teeming underworld or overworld of Romanised Greek myth and legend. The right man had met the right material at the right moment. The Metamorphoses was a success in its own day. During the Middle Ages throughout the Christian West it became the most popular work from the Classical era, a source-book of imagery and situations for artists, poets and the life of high culture. It entered English poetry as a fountainhead, as one of Chaucer’s favourite books, which he plundered openly,sometimes, as with the tale of  Pyramus & Thisbe–in quite close translation. A little later, it played an even more dynamic role for Shakespeare’s generation–and perhaps for Shakespeare in particular. The ‘sweet, witty soul’ of Ovid was said to live again in him.

“But perhaps Shakespeare’s closest affinity lay not so much in the sweet, witty Ovidian facility for ‘sniffing out the odoriferous flowers of fancy’, as one of his characters put it, nor in his aptitude for lifting images or even whole passages nearly verbatim, nor in drawing from two stories in the Metamorphoses his own best-seller, the seminal long poem Venus & Adonis. A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque. In this vein, Shakespeare\’s most Ovidian work was his first–Titus Andronicus. Thirty or so dramas later, in Cymbeline, his mild and blameless heroine Imogen– whom her beloved husband will try to murder, whom her loathed step-brother will try to rape–chooses for her bedtime reading Ovid\’s shocking tale of Tereus and Philomela.”

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Posted on

May 5, 2018