Englishing Ovid

Concerning Some Recent Versions of the Metamorphoses by Ovid.

As Reviewed By: James Rother

[Unless otherwise attributed, all translations are the author’s.]

It is remarkable, but hardly strange, that the works of Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (better known as Ovid [43 B.C.-17 A.D.], and spanning the emperies of Augustus and Tiberius), have been enjoying a revival lately, with translations into English of the most famous of his poems, Metamorphoses, nearly matching those of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey over the last few decades. Not bad for a 15-book poem, numbering some 12,000 lines, composed by one of the deadest of dead white males and set forth in a language only slightly less moribund since the onset of the vernacular Roman Catholic liturgy and revised bar exam than Gaelic and Old Norse. Yet, for those readers whose classical language competency is questionable but can muster just enough Latin to be able to track the labile exactitudes that are this poet’s hallmark, the Metamorphoses offers a reading experience on a par with Dante’s Commedia and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Nor is this association a casual one. As Ezra Pound rightly points out in his ABC of Reading, Dante ranked Ovid above even Virgil as a verse technician, and his own terza rima (made up of hendecasyllables, each with five accentual beats in rising duple rhythm) is prosodically in sync with the elder poet’s dactylic hexameters, even if the Florentine’s verse cleaves to a different notion of gravitas.

But it’s probably not the Dantean similarities that are behind the new vogue the Metamorphoses is enjoying. Mostly, I think, it has to do with a whole range of recognitional shocks being set off by this state-of-the-art poetic manual for the planet, complete with metaphoric software for “virtualizing” the entire range of natural energy transfers, or metamorphoses, within an increasingly technologized world experiencing unprecedented change.

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas) / adspirate meis (“Because I aim to tell how you, the gods, have given mere bodies new shapes of being, breathe on these, my undertakings”), declares Ovid at the onset of his poem; and the theme of change, sudden and wrenching, invading a natural order made complacent by inertia hastens to unfold with sufficient piling on of violence and horror to make what Stephen King writes seem Disneyesque by comparison. Notice, though: not new forms, new shapes; the forms, always inherent and determinative in the bodies acted upon by divine will continue constant and unchanged. What changes—indeed, mutates—is the “hardware” of the human body subjected to sudden and violent alteration. What remains on the other hand is what elevates human beings beyond the molecular treadmill of matter, the eternal “software” of the psyche. The renowned classicist Bernard Knox informs us that if in the first six books the radical reorderings of shape occur largely at divine behest, and those in the next six are “the result of human passion and crime,” the final three veer off toward more familiar Roman headlands and a more secular-minded hugging of shore results. Which leaves a question concerning the Metamorphoses never satisfactorily answered by its commentators: Where in its panoply of forces does the dominant power lie? Is the force behind the re-embodying of forms due exclusively to the hegemony of the gods, or is change itself an agency before whose all-controlling and cataclysmic might even the gods must bow down?[private]

Over the centuries this problem of interpretation, not always fueled by ex cathedra pronouncements of Ovidian provenance, has divided the poem’s many translators into two distinct camps. The first sees the poet’s active and subject-attributable verbs as reason to assign the various metamorphoses to gods that have been slighted or provoked; whereas the second chooses to override Ovidian syntax and to ascribe the preponderance of cause for their effects (as Rolfe Humphries does in his rendering of book III’s metamorphosis of Actaeon into a stag) to the contrivance of a machina ex deo:

[Diana] said no more, but on the sprinkled forehead
Horns of the long-lived stag began to sprout,
The neck stretched out, the ears were long and pointed,
The arms were legs, the hands were feet, the skin
A dappled hide, and the hunter’s heart was fearful. . . . (194-98)

The disposing of these discrete events in the Latin hardly strays from the dispositive mode:

. . . nec plura minata
dat sparso capiti vivacis cornua cervi,
dat spatium collo summasque cacuminat aures
cum pedibusque manus, cum longis bracchia mutat
cruribus et velat maculoso vellere corpus;
additus et pavor est . . .

The reiteration of dat . . . as a means of nudging a presumptive verb phrase into predicative paydirt is an Ovidian masterstroke, as is the “hidden football” play, whereby an all-important detail, originally glanced over to ensure its later striking the reader from behind, assumes an unsuspected significance, just as the climactic event it grows out of collapses like hearth embers to a burl of fiercely glowing nemesis:

non citius frondes autumni frigore tactas
iamque male haerentes alta rapit arbore ventus,
quam sunt membra viri manibus direpta nefandis.
talibus exemplis monitae nova sacra frequentant
turaque dant sanctasque colunt Ismenides aras
. (III, 729-33)

(Not without greater celerity than leaves (when first
Dunned by autumn’s chill, and now barely clinging)
Sent spinning from high-topped branches by the wind
Is Pentheus’ trunk shorn of its limbs by those
Godforsaking hands. Taught thus to fear such shambles,
The Theban women throng to this new deity’s rites,
Burn incense, and act profanely in his honor.)

The highlighted phrase, iamque male haerentes (“and now barely clinging”), while grammatically tied to the noun “leaves,” remains a dangling qualifier whose unimbeddedness in the syntax adverts to the increasing tentativeness of the life whose protective casing is being rent into ribbons of gore. (The victim, for those unfamiliar with the story, is King Pentheus, whose slighting of Bacchus causes his mother, Agave, in company with other women no less enraptured by the god, to succumb to bloodlust and tear her own son limb from limb.)

But that’s not the most remarkable thing about this vignette. Its translation beyond the vale of horrors traditionally associated with Euripidean melodrama makes evocatively arranged fioritùra out of overdone fiorentína. But it’s not just a matter of Roman flora winning out over decadent Greek fauna. What really lifts this, and other such cameos of mythic violence (no less elegantly captioned) out of the realm–so often humdrum–of la Médée du jour is the palette of potentialities afforded by Latin the sinuous range of which leaves image-mongering for rough-and-tumble effect as far out of reach as the manipulation of voice and mood for emotion’s sake in uninflected languages like English. (Approximations to controlled cacaphony in normally euphonious Latin verse may be rare but they’re not unexampled. Onomatopoetic free-fire zones do spring up, as in the following sequence involving Perseus from book 4–“. . . quem turba canum circumsona terret”–and when they do, their infrequency makes them seem even more attention grabbing.)

Even more than Dante’s supple caesural shifts, Ovid’s undulating line rhythms allow his atmospherics and emphasis shuffling to provide the action being described with a subtle gloss, and all without throwing into holistic disarray the perspective from which events are being viewed. In Ovid, the pause around which any given line organizes itself is never an excuse for disguising what in so many other poets is merely an excuse to slip in a dipodic break to stave off monotony induced by seamless legato. The presiding voice doesn’t so much allow each line to trail off as make sure that it tops the tank of its breathing reserve before moving on. Not just for the sake of completing that line, but with an eye to where the period as a whole will eventually conclude and how best to get there. Thus, the systolic suspension following autumni in the line non citius frondes autumni frigore tactas only makes the resumption of diastolic pressure across the divide in frigore tactas / iamque male haerentes seem all the more inevitable through the late-appearing “bridge of sighs” erected between tactas and iamque in the second line. In this way Ovid makes the winding–and often windy–abstractions of Latin syntax serve the dual purpose of accommodating implicative dynamic to argument and continuity of fabula to the internal rhythm of suhzet. Within the purview of modernism, a T. S. Eliot could gather into the orbit of his verse an Ovidian feel for the maxed-out pathologies ringing the tub of classical lore while understating that elemental animalism by which their emotional asperities could be made ironic. But not where you might expect to find this sort of thing going on, like those passages in The Waste Land where transformative violence lurks behind every animate shape–

Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursue,
“jug jug” to dirty ears–

but in lines in which the narrative impulse has been attenuated by some competing agenda, some counter-intuitive drive to envisage what the mind is not equipped to envision:

Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. . . (East Coker, 39-45)

Ovid was a great shaper of myths because he knew that when myth departs too far from true natural history it no longer brackets myth or poesis. The Eliot who could open his last major poem, Little Gidding, with a reference to that quirk of mutability lurking between solstitial death and equinoctial rebirth known as “midwinter spring” is a poet who might well have found fascinating some of the more luxuriant exempla on the theme of change offered by Pythagoras in the Metamorphoses’ final book. One in particular, here rendered in the fourteeners of Arthur Golding (1567) that Shakespeare knew, typically unites the plangent with the lapidary:

The Grapegod Bacchus, when he had subdewed the land of Inde,
Did fynd a spotted beast cald Lynx, whoose urine (by report)
By towching of the open aire congealeth in such sort,
As that it dooth becomme a stone. So Corall (which as long
As water hydes it is a shrub and soft) becommeth strong
And hard as soone as it dooth towch the ayre. . . (412-17)

Ovid’s Latin is considerably less long in the shanks and a good deal more supple in the ligaments–

victa racimifero lyncas dedit India Baccho:
e quibus, ut memorant, quicquid vesica remisit,
vertitur in lapides et congelat aere tacto.
sic et curalium quo primum contigat auras
tempore, durescit: mollis fuit herba sub undis–

while managing to convey (as Golding’s index finger-poking default mode cannot) the liquid commerce between objects susceptible to change and transfers of energy that undermine identity as they obviate permanence. Again, the difference can be laid to a syntax that carefully avoids randomizing its units of attention, preferring rather to suspend its grammatical molecules like dust motes within a diaphanous beam of light and settle into a period only when its terminal word marks a full stop. It is precisely this quality (though in poets less gifted than Ovid the aeration of mythic material makes for as much rejuvenation as punching holes in iceplant) that makes the Englishing of Latin poetry–and especially a work like the Metamorphoses–not just difficult but very nearly impossible. While Ovidian idiom forgoes the merely clinical–no Goldingesque descents to lynx urine here–it does not avoid calling a bladder a bladder when an emitting organ is required to ground the transmutation of a liquid into stony matter on coming into contact with the air. Allen Mandelbaum’s translation (1993) perhaps comes closest to giving Ovidian matter of fact the sort of sheen lapidary lore should exude:

the god who’s crowned by vines received a gift
of lynxes: any liquid they emit
turns into stones–they say–as soon as it
meets air. . . .

Certainly it’s more serviceable than Humphries’s (1955) rock-piling of modifying phrases:

India, conquered,
Gave Bacchus, tendril-crowned, the tawny lynxes
Whose urine, when it met the air, was hardened
Becoming stone. . .

But neither hits the target with the ease or aplomb of Ovid, for whom cliché is never an option and a stylistic turn graceful only when its purchase on wit is like a gem catching light and not some canard being basted on a rhetorical spit. In this instance, to encapsulate within a single line–vertitur in lapides et congelat aere tacto–the miracle of the constancy of form while all about is felt the whirl of transitioning shapes and shapely transitions beclouding distinctions between tenor and vehicle wherever metaphor alights. As Pythagoras puts it (in the Harvard translation of 1926):

Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the great renewer, ever makes up forms from other forms. Be sure there’s nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form. What we call birth is but a beginning to be other than what one was before; and death is but a cessation of a former state. Though, perchance, things may shift from there to here and here to there, still do all things in their sum total remain unchanged (15. 252-58).

The ancient dyslexia muddying “form” and “shape” obscures the Ovidian argument here, just as the false synonymization of “form” and “idea” that took hold during the Hellenistic fire-sale when the greatness that was Greece passed at discount to the grandeur that was Rome reduced many of the founding concepts of Platonism to smoke and mirrors. In true metamorphosis, the formal essence of Daphne is dispersed into every laurel tree that would ever exist anywhere, and this equal opportunity dissemination was a thing guaranteed by the gods beyond the chance convergence of this arboreal or that human physiognomic quirk. The laurel is Daphne, but the tree’s shape and her original one are as remote from one another as is Apollo from the musical tones he authorizes. Inherent form, or the inscape that bespeaks the survival of all being, irrespective of accidentals which might crash and burn–the soul’s DNA, as it were–survives all energy transfers whose symbol is the living flame. Unlike Plato, Ovid’s fascination is with “interstate commerce,” back and forth across lines of identity, between bodies at the mercy of their own solid, liquid, gaseous, or organic matter. While hardly to be disvalued, the forms underwriting this commerce were simply of less interest to him as a poet.

The single most revolutionary notion informing his model of metamorphosis–and to attribute it to Pythagoras would mean that Augustan Rome found more in that philosopher’s oddball blend of mathesis and holistic medicine than we do–is that form is in fact the energy that is conserved whenever matter changes state or shape; and that, conversely, matter is the shape form assumes whenever energy is being conserved in the course of being transferred via an expenditure of heat. Which is not to place Ovid among amateur physicists like Lucretius, who, in his poem De rerum natura, had to put up with Democritean religion because no vehicle fit for the proselytizing of atomism could be found beyond the pale of its Epicurean pieties. (Never mind that the thesis of Lucretius’s poem, tantum religio potuit suadere malorum [“so much of evil has religion been able to put over!”] had a shelf life, which, given the Christian era about to dawn, had an expiration date already written in the stars.)

Much of the subtlety of Ovidian belief, and the even subtler ways by which that belief transcended the conventional sophistries and cultist exceptionalisms favored at the time by Rome’s elites can only be speculated about today. What is somewhat less controversial is that books nine through fifteen of the Metamorphoses are expressed in a style that is both looser and less bound by Augustan literary strictures than that dominating books one through eight, though this is not uniformly discernible in every line. If the first half’s dominant characteristic is wit highlighted by touches of color and drama, the second is by comparison more garrulous and prosy, more concerned with filling in blanks than with deploying them strategically to pique the reader’s interest.

Taken all in all, it may be said that Metamorphoses lacks both structural unity and consistent development. After a while–even if it’s a long while–the variations on its theme come near to overwhelming the theme, so that at poem’s end the figure of Pythagoras has to be summoned from the shadows to explain just what the epic, with all its mysterious myths and mystifications of history, has been about. That, and to help assure that the glory, denied its creator in his lifetime, would duly rain down on its-at that time-questionable posterity.


Given the period of Roman literature, alternately gaudy and austere, which Ovid came close to dominating, it is only his Metamorphoses, out of all the splendid poems he left us, that we cannot imagine ourselves without. Why is this so? Because even if we grant (as we should) the stark exilic poignancy of Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, the rhetorial brilliance of Heroides and Fasti, and the playfully sexist ramblings (and grumblings) of Amores and Remedia amoris, it is really only in Metamorphoses that we see the poet’s truly estimable elegaic skills being trumped by a different order of ars–one whose sublimity transcends nation-building fixations, chest-thumping pieties, and attempts–fearsome for him, tiresome for us–to render unto Caesar whatever it might take to pluck him from exile on the Dalmatian coast.

In this one-of-a-kind work, the writing is not just “better” than anything his contemporaries managed to whip up, it is, to quote John Updike on the great mega-novel by Proust, writing “with a whole new nervous system.” Just what makes it finer than Virgil’s overwrought Eclogues or underexcited Aeneid, Propertius’s Elegies, or the overheated plaints of Gallus or Tibullus is, however, not all that easy for the 21st Century mind to wrap itself around. Some scholars believe that comparing the Metamorphoses to the Aeneid is not only far-fetched but libelous to the poet whose preëminence in the age of Augustus seems beyond question–and that of course could only be Virgil. H.J. Rose’s not-just-for-undergraduates guidebook, Outlines of Classical Literature (1959), takes a position that was, to put it mildly, de rigueur in most classicist circles prior to the 1960s:

. . . A poet of the calibre of Vergil, Lucretius or even Propertius [Ovid] assuredly is not, for . . . he lacks deep feeling; but within his limits he is a consummate artist in words, witness especially the fact that his extremely artificial language sounds perfectly natural when the reader has gone through a few pages of him. Read as he is meant to be, a moderate amount at a time, he is never dull.

With praise like this, who needs faint damns? Neither the life of the party nor an unsalvageable drudge, Rose’s Ovid is fine in small doses; and so long as we rank him among the best of the second-stringers, he is only as boring as we allow him to be.

Critics who persist in such thinking have not escaped the downdraft of a mindset which originated nearly two centuries ago, when, under the split-screen spell of Herder / Byron, the Teutonic world fell in love with everything classically Greek and out of love with everything that even smacked of ancient Rome. This dérèglement of all sense and judgment persisted, quite incredibly, through the entire modernist period (1890-1925) and into the broader mushrooming (or, if one prefers, toadstooling) of postmodernism, from the ’50s to the present limbo of post-PoMo. Such arbiters of the tasteless keep Ovid in his “traditional” pigeonhole of oversexed and decadent bridge between Propertius and the Satyricon-artistry of Petronius–as though talk of bridges and pigeonholes were at all useful in distinguishing between poets who are profoundly treasurable and those who, never out of their depth, are not worth the effort needed to haul them to the surface.

Now, no one has ever said that translating bad or mediocre poems isn’t easy. It is; as easy, in fact, as producing bad or mediocre translations of very good ones. To translate amateurishly one need only have a minimal grasp of two languages, an enthusiasm for the text as great, but no greater, than that shown by its author, and a stomach for enterprises of little or no literary merit. In the wake of such laughable efforts in Greek and Latin as Ezra Pound’s–those travesties in free-form that are so rife with howlers that one has to wonder how much else between Homage to Sextus Propertius and The Women of Trachis was faked–the myth was spread abroad that translation of classical poetry was acceptable so long as it earned a gentlemanly “C.” Who we have to thank for this are several generations of Ezroids–licensed fanatics who put in long hours convincing us that only creative “adaptations” of the classics such as Dryden’s could cleanse the palate after all those anal-retentive and hamhanded botches descending from Benjamin Jowett’s tight-lipped and testosterone-free Plato. For surely, the Ezroids chimed, liberties taken in the interest of art put the casket showings, complete with mothballs-and-formaldehyde, of the Jowett school in the shade. And consigned them to the shades: since the most impressive Lazarian raisings of Sophocles, Theocritus, Horace and the rest by the free-formers at least had the virtue of putting the quick in sufficient touch with the dead to keep the here in hereafter from disappearing into the back of beyond (though, for those discerning as well as hopeful, it was a tossup as to which was preferable or worse–Aeschylus, Theocritus, and Horace venerated as navel lint of the Muse, or slightly “off” hors d’oeuvres thrown up by gifted amateurs).

With cultural literacy as much under siege as it currently is worldwide, the compulsion to keep the classics alive on the part of those dedicated to eradicating the multiculturalist fungus has lately taken on an almost hysterical urgency. This urgency not infrequently displays itself in attempts–sometimes risible, always unfortunate–to depress the level of language used in translations to depths low enough to make Maxim Gorky blench. How low and risible are we really talking about? Well, are the addle-brained preciosities of one of the most fashionable exponents of the current post-PoMo Zeitgeist, Peter Sellars, low and risible enough? An opera designer and producer whose lien on immortality is the Mozart score in flagrante misalliance with the Hockney set, the ethos of Tommy by the Who, and a conception of Cosí, Figaro or Don Giovanni (take your pick, they’re all free) dumber than a whole boxcar of rockers, Sellars’s “thing” is to descend upon the pain in the neck that was operatic yesteryear as though it were a vampire’s delight. And what about the other protuberant Peter of Post-PoMo–Peter Shaffer–who, having his playwright’s nose tweaked by the derrière pensées in which Mozart’s Letters abounds, tied them up with a bow-knot borrowed from Alexander Pushkin–specifically the canard involving the “plot” said to have been hatched by the Emperor Franz-Joseph’s entertainment director, Antonio Salieri, to poison Mozart, whose triple-threat accomplishments in womanizing, scoprophilia and music make the court composer prey to uncontrollable fury as well as the Furies–and then handed the entire package to the Niebelungs of London’s theatre district; following which he found himself with a boffo sensation on his hands–Amadeus–a bigger draw than even his own smash hit of a decade earlier, Equus, and looking fair to match the enormous success racked up by his brother Anthony’s thriller, Sleuth. (The oil-can harriedness of the stage play would later becalm itself–in the grip of the renowned filmmaker and returned Czech, Miloš Forman–as the Technicolor sit-in, of unfettered lubriciousness and identical title, that earned F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce each an Oscar for their portrayals of Salieri and his famous victim.) All of which confirms that realization is everywhere dwindling that the trivializing of opera and literature in the name of some trendy frisson can only demean what its purveyors insist they want: mass acceptance of the joys great art has to offer. Or at least that’s what they think drives them to seek the equivalent in theatre, opera house or cineplex of that elusive gaudy night” dangled before his squeeze by the Triumvirate’s surviving third in Shakespeare’s sublime melodrama about the “We’re back!” attempted by two beasts, Antony and Cleopatra. What in effect does drive them is nostalgie de la boutique, impure and simple.

* * *

Among present practitioners of translation, free-standing idiomatic contemporaneity, achieved at any cost, would seem to outweigh all other concerns, as this snippet (purporting to give us the “essence” of Cadmus) by Craig Raine, from the much bruited anthology, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1994), makes pre-eminently clear:

the skin on his forearms
like the skin on egg custard

his past coming and going
a dream in the daze of dying

he is in the Post Office
drinking tea . . .

Not much here suggesting the lay-up for the onset of the Metamorphoses’ third book–Cadmus’s mission to find his sister Europa on pain of exile at the hands of his father, Agenor, who remains ignorant of just how bullish Jove was on his daughter. Nor on the young hero’s subsequent bout with the dragon, whose teeth, sown in the earth, give rise to a nation (populi incrementa futuri) by causing rank upon rank of armed men to spring from the ground.

The focus of Raine’s 43-line encapsulation of Ovid’s 137-line episode is the transformation of Cadmus into a scaly serpent not unlike the one he dispatches with a spear-point, skewering its throat to an oak tree. Apparently Raine, unlike the poet he is translating, holds the spectacle of soldiers unaccountably sprouting from the ground a Penn and Teller trompe l’oeil long ago ploughed under by such relics of sci-fi as It, Them, and Revenge of the Tomato People. Whereas Ovid milks even the autochthonous witticism of resurrection in the flesh with an elaborate refusal to stoop to anything so glib as fast forwarding–

inde (fide maius) glaebae coepere moveri,
primaque de sulcis acies adparuit hastae,
tegmina mox capitum picto nutantia cono
mox umeri pectusque onerataque bracchia telis
exsistunt, crescitque seges clipeata virorum–

(Then, a sight to defy belief-the seething of the ground
And a stirring in and of the air: first, through the serried
Ranks of furrows sprout bank upon bank of spear-points,
Then rows of helmets with bright plumes, followed
By shoulders, breasts and arms of men, all with
Weapons, the crop growing ever thicker with burst
After burst of shields showing . . .)

Raine downsizes the bane of becoming other to the turn of a minimalist’s thumb screw:

when they bring a mirror
to test for breath
he sees a snake


Charles Boer’s 1989 translation of the Metamorphoses also bears down on the condensation throttle, but is content to leave more or less intact the serviceable boiler plate of narrative sequencing:

dirt stirs: tops of spears appear in furrows;
colored helmet-crests nod; shoulders, chests,
arms heavy with weapons: a crop of shielded men!

Sometimes in passages like this it’s hard to tell whether it’s an ounce of prevention weighing in or a Pound of cure. But with Boer the reader is at least not left wondering, amid billowing smoke and blinding mirrors, where the substance of the poem under scrutiny might have disappeared to; or how an Ovidian pop-up, so suggestively dotted with detail, could reduce to an ambiguating ellipsis in a mere handful of lines. More outlandishly still, how did modern Anglo-Irish history and structuralism worm their way into Tom Paulin’s (scantily metamorphic) busing-in of the Cadmus legend:

for as Lévi Strauss’d argue
Cadmus is himself the dragon
and ancestor of the Spartoi
or as it says in the Good Book
as ye sow so shall ye reap
so know ye this
Mr Kidglove Whitelaw
we’re no Piltdown Planters
but the real autochthonous thing
–we’re the Cruthin aye
a remnant of the ancient British people
who rose again in 98
in 1912 and . . .
ack I forget what date it was . . .

(William) Carlos Williams’s name turns up in Paulin’s Patersonizing of Ovid, a gesture intended perhaps to associate the Roman poet’s love of topos with the good New Jersey doctor’s unfinished epic-scrapbook, a work which at least meets Pound’s minimalist sine qua non for the “heroic poem,” namely that it be “long” and “have history in it.” Paulin’s Cadmus resembles, of all people, people who come in all sorts of celebrated populisms–looking even, in the half-light of a Safeway parking lot in Tucumcari, New Mexico,

like Norman Schwarzkopf
the day he turned back
on the road to Baghdad.

This hero of myth is, Paulin hastens to tell us, “a grid person”

who must imagine
not amor loci
not dinnseanchas
but the absolute antithesis of place . . .

That is, not “place” in the sense of a physical location, but rather in the Ovidian sense of topos, or the defining locus of a rhetorical demeanor, duly set down in the form of a period or sententia. It seems never to strike renditionists like Paulin or Raine that “grid persons,” whether of the stripe of a Gravesian White Goddess, a Freudian Oedipus, or less archtypically, a Sewellian (Elizabeth, not Richard of The Uses of Disorder fame) Orpheus, are notably absent from Ovid’s unique metapoem.

Speaking of Orpheus, poet-translators of exceptional merit such as Seamus Heaney have shown that they can capture the singularity of mythology’s Prince of Poets beyond the siren call of any grid or structuralist matrix. Here, at some length, is a representative passage from the Metamorphoses’ tenth book in which Orpheus pleads for the return of Eurydice, his wife, while straining in every sculptured clause to keep from dissing Dis:

I crossed into your jurisdiction
Because my wife is here. The snake she stepped on
Poisoned her and cut her off too soon
And though I have tried to suffer on my own
And outlive loss, in the end Love won.
Whether or not you underpowers feel
The force of this god, Love, I cannot tell,
But surely he prevails down here as well
Unless that ancient story about hell
And its lord and a ravaged girl’s not true.
Was it not Love that bound the two of you?
I pray you, therefore, by the extent of these
Dark hazy voids and scaresome silences
Unweave the woven fate Eurydice
Endured too soon. All of humanity
Is in your power, your kingdom is our home.
We may put off the day but it will come.

Who could possibly care that this is not the meter of Ovid’s Latin, nor his syntax, nor his rhythmus mentis? And who among his devotees would bring Heaney up on charges for having committed not only rhyme but tripleted rhyme, of a kind not seen in English verse since Auden? The amazing thing about Heaney’s Ovid is that, for all its straying from Ovidian norms, it never once veers from the polished sayability of Ovid’s text. Take, for instance, Orpheus’s terse bearings survey of why he happens to be where he is:

causa viae est coniunx, in quam calcata venenum
vipera diffudit crescentesque abstulit annos.

The Loeb edition literalizes this as: “The cause of my journey is my wife, into whose body a trodden serpent shot his poison and so snatched away her budding years.” The least that can be said of such a translation is that it leads one to wonder how Leopold escaped being named as co-conspirator in a bilingual murder. If Heaney’s version adds a line to Ovid’s (and F. J. Miller’s) two, it glosses over nothing specified in either version, and in fact matches the Latin’s clear disdain for anything over the top:

I crossed into your jurisdiction
Because my wife is here. The snake she stepped on
Poisoned her and cut her off too soon . . .

The idiom here, though hardly drawing attention to itself as Orphic, is sufficiently clipped, terse, and redolent of the sort of unspoken heresies as a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe were famous for sitting on as to suggest a deliberate strategy and not a drill out of Latin for Dummies. Also, the suggestion that the underworld is no less a “jurisdiction” than others equally subject to administration and policing is a stroke of genius on Heaney’s part, as is, likewise, the notion (advanced a little further on) that more might lurk beneath the abduction of Proserpine (or Persephone) than ever a Cambridge anthropologist dreamt of.

But all that aside, is it possible to imagine more being done with

per ego haec loca plena timoris,
per Chaos hoc ingens vastique silentia regni,
Eurydices, oro, properata retexite fata

than Heaney’s

I pray you, therefore, by the extent of these
Dark hazy voids and scaresome silences
Unweave the woven fate Eurydice
Endured too soon . . . ?

And the collagenous phrase “scaresome silences”: is that, too, not a palpably ingenious touch down and through a black hole away from the formulaic “silent realms” (the Loeb edition’s rendering)?


The question, perhaps too obviously rhetorical for these times, executes its own dying fall in any number of recent translations, whole and in part, of the Metamorphoses, several of which–and here only an inversion of mirabile dictu will do–having met with acclaim that can only be chalked up to the charitable dispositions and tin ears of critics who reviewed them. David R. Slavitt’s version of the complete poem (1994) is by no means the worst of these, but its prosy imprecisions are in many ways symptomatic of an at-large flaccidity that seems to have crept into numerous translations of major classical works before anyone began noting its presence in this translation or that. Il faut être absolument postmoderne is clearly the goad that drove these hoof-in-mouth-afflicted oxen to market; but with the wake having already been held for PoMo, it’s hard to say just what is behind the shambles we’re all familiar with. How to explain, for example, all that slipping and sliding around points too heartfelt to face head on in Slavitt’s “Actaeon,” as if translating from the heart might somehow invite damage to the head. His blow-by-blow of Actaeon’s going under unsuitably concludes with an understatement–

They’re barking now, their signal for him to come and dispatch
The beast they’ve brought down. They’re puzzled that he is not
Here, as he
Is puzzled himself to be here in this terrible guise, and they harry
And wound him further and even in death in Diana’s wrath,
Of which they are unaware. At last, she is pacified–

since Ovid’s Latin plainly stresses the not until in Diana’s thirst for vengeance (“nec nisi finita per plurima vulnere vita. . .”), and not, as Slavitt’s version would have it, the sated shrug with which she dismisses the whole bloodthirsty affair. In fairness to Slavitt, though, much that is wrong with his translation stems from his having wrongly decided to go for broke in the duplication of Ovidian heroic meter while letting every other consideration fall in where it might. His Tristia (1990) puts its best face forward–as his Metamorphoses does not–only to fall on it whenever gravity beckons:

The sky
On which my eyes had closed, gazing and then glazing,
would have held your face like a constellation.
My ashes could then have been laid to rest in the family tomb,
in native ground. This life I lead is worse
than any such death, for you are an exile’s wife,
and you look away and blush to be so called,
as I blush now. It is a misery, your shame.
A misery for you to regret our marriage! . . .

It would be unthinkable to gild such verse, for the silences it entombs are already golden, always already (given the poet’s exile) appurtenant to an annuity of grief. And Slavitt doesn’t gild his. He arranges its darksome blooms so that the pain of poet and unbearably remote wife will not merely dissolve in the distancing light of words they can but dimly share. At least, not within the space of his rendering. A translator owes it to his source never to drift beyond the inlets of what his text actually says out to the open sea of latency and metonymized emotion–an obligation which Slavitt duly respects and observes in Ovid’s Poetry of Exile.

The best English translations of the Metamorphoses from Golding’s and Sandys’s (Caxton’s 15th-century prose effort, only recently discovered in its entirety, barely figures in anyone’s calculations), all the way to Gregory’s, Mandelbaum’s and Heaney’s (so far unfortunately restricted to only a few episodes) are struck from the mint of Ezra Pound’s in every way exemplary rendition of the abduction of Bacchus, whose splendors survived several revisory wind tunnels before finally turning up in A Draft of XXX Cantos (1934), a marvel of unbookish accountability.

Not at all predictive of Sophoclean Trachiotomies to come, Pound’s Ovid–what there is of him–is firm, robust, life-enhancing and militantly phanopoetic. Imagistic lifelines hurl themselves in all directions, as though what was being described really mattered beyond any mere conscription of action and reaction. Its entelechy is everywhere embedded in its traumatized narrator’s account of how a passel of Tyrrhenian roughnecks and ex-convicts were treated to a reading of the Riot Act by a young boy “with form as beautiful as a girl’s.” This not yet manned slip of a thing is rightly perceived by Acœtes, the divinely privileged survivor of this catastrophe (and scourge of Pentheus), as having “a god in him, / though I do not know which god.” As translation it is nothing at all like Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” but neither is it as tightly lashed to its source-text as that poet’s rendering of Homer’s rendering of Odysseus’s Hadean journey with which his Cantos gets under way. Considering Pound’s penchant for the overdone over the done over–at least in his younger years, finding this polished Ovidian gem rattling about his own Bizarro-epic, that over-wrought lapidary which now seems little more than a heroic failure of pastiche along the lines of the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, is something of a miracle. His Acœtes’s imprimatur as a witness is one of impeccable authorization–“I have seen what I have seen”–and that “what” is never allowed to be subverted by presumptuous hints of why:

The sky overshot, dry, with no tempest,
Sniff and pad-foot of beats,
fur brushing my knee-skin,
Rustle of airy sheaths,
Dry forms in the æther.
And the ship like a keel in the ship-yard,
slung like an ox in smith’s sling,
Ribs stuck fast in the ways,
grape-cluster over pin-rack,
void air taking pelt. . . .

This isn’t just good Ovid, it is Ovid informed by the master of his chosen matter and meter, the Homer of the Odyssey, who was also a master of metamorphosis, a fact to which any reader of the Circe can attest. The principle underlying this excerpt (which Pound kept harping on all his life, but beyond this snippet of Ovid, largely chose to ignore in his own poetry), can be encapsulated as follows: “Get out into the open what is seen, heard, and otherwise sensed, in the idiom of its sensing, or nearest equivalent, and leave the rhetoric and moralizing to those who make their living pretending eloquence is truth.”

An excellent rationale for translators generally, but one not always honorable in the observance of other, not to mention more celebrated, authors’ breaches–of tradition, of moralizing rhetoric, and yes, of even common sense. This may be the reason why the greatest poets are not content to have their legacies hinge on fine translations. It’s not necessarily an ego thing. Legitimate worry over artistic survival might have something to do with it, yes; but the more operative caution might be that where taking on the impossible is concerned, fastidiousness may already be de trop. For the crafting of a truly great translation is an impossibility, if the terms of the immortal contract between aesthetic perfection and absolute accuracy are kept to the letter. Among other things, this contract involves strict fidelity to Pound’s triad of shaping constituents: melopoeia (the musical component of verse), phanopoeia (the poetry of images), and logopoeia (the “dance of the intellect among the syllables”). But of course these are never wholly adhered to in translation, the iron laws of language and historical specificity being what they are. On the question of what was translatable in poetry, Pound argued that of its three components, only phanopoeia was fully capturable in another language. As for the other two, one tongue’s melopoeia could be substituted for another’s, but only up to a point, while every language’s logopoeia remained uniquely impermeable to the ministrations of all others’.

This sounds good; in fact it sounded so right when Pound first disseminated it in the handbook ABC of Reading (1934) that its authority has hardly been questioned for almost three-quarters of a century. But if its claims constitute the last word, how is it that translators like Seamus Heaney–or Pound himself for that matter–can provide us with an Ovid or a Dante whose works brim with vividness and life, even when the unique refinements of the originals–their meter, syntax, and verbal music–no longer register socially or are even recognizable? Is the genius responsible for great poetry’s carrying power across otherwise unbridgeable barriers of language that of the great poet or that of the supremely gifted translator?

Alexander Pope, no mean translator himself (it’s a slander that his Iliad pits periwigs against pettifoggers in an interminable battle of writs), comes down solidly on the side of the poet. Never one to be caught belaboring the obvious, Pope was all too willing in his Observations on the Iliad’s second book to accord Madam Dacier the privilege of citing Homer as the single most notable possessor in all literature of those qualities of imagination in which Aristotle was known to have exulted and before which all lesser minds could only gaze mutely in veneration:

The imagination of Homer was so vast and so lively, that whatsoever objects presented themselves before him impress’d their images so forcibly, that he pour’d them forth in comparisons equally simple and noble; without forgetting any circumstance which could instruct the reader and make him see those objects in the same strong light wherein he saw them himself. And in this one of the principal beauties of Poetry consists. . . .

Still, for all its graceful touches, the Twickenham Iliad remains vulnerable to Richard Bentley’s contemporaneous rebuke: “A pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Nor must we, though at times its anachronisms are almost too pretty not to consider charges of their inappropriateness to be, well, inappropriate, tempting though it might be to wonder whether the arming of Hera/Saturnia which follows is Augustan burlesque out of The Rape of the Lock, or just poor Homer unjustly burlesqu’d:

Swift to her apartment she repairs,
Sacred to dress, and beauty’s pleasing cares:
With skill divine had Vulcan form’d the bow’r,
Safe from access of each intruding pow’r.
Touch’d with her secret key, the doors unfold:
Here first she bathes; and round her body pours
Soft oils of fragrance, and ambrosial show’rs:
The winds perfum’d, the balmy gale convey
Thro’ heav’n, thro’ earth, and all th’ aërial way:
Spirit divine! whose exhalation greets
The sense of Gods with more than mortal sweets. . . .
(XIV, 191-202)

Pope is less coy on the female mysteries when he tackles the arborification of Dryope from the Metamorphoses, allowing–if only occasionally, and then in bursts–Ovid’s music to penetrate the showroom of soft clicks that is his stock in trade, the heroic couplet:

I can no more; the creeping rind invades
My closing lips, and hides my head in shades:
Remove your hands, the bark shall soon suffice
Without their aid, to seal these dying eyes.

Ovid abjures these Racinian solemnities and opts for a simplicity whose abjectness–not to mention its bark and bite–is utterly devoid of Senecan brief:

‘plura loqui nequeo. nam iam per candida mollis
colla liber serpit, summoque cacumine condor.
ex oculis removete manus. sine munere vestro
contegat inductus morientia lumina cortex!’

Ovid well rendered tolerates no importation of ethos not already supplied by the original, which is to say that all extravagant self-dramatization, all ostentation in excess of the situation at hand, throws his narrative focus out of kilter. It’s always best with this most plangent of poets to keep things simple, sensuous, and in sync with the natural contours of the verse rhythms the Latin lays down. Seamus Heaney knows this, and so does Allen Mandelbaum, whose rendering of Dryope’s moment of extremity is suitably stripped of extraneous fatality. She is all business, and her dying an I.O.U. already called in:

If you still feel fond piety for me,
protect my branches from sharp pruning hooks,
my leaves from browsing sheep. I’m not allowed
to lean toward you; instead, reach up, receive
my kisses for as long as I can give them,
and lift my little boy up to my lips.
Now I can say no more. . . .

Now and then in his translations, Ted Hughes manages to contain his need to viscerate every descriptive occasion with the violence du jour and the results are indeed splendid, as may be seen in the conclusion to his “Arachne” from the Metamorphoses’ sixth book, here already under way:

. . . Her body
Became a tiny ball
And now she is all belly

With a dot of head. She retains
Only her slender skilful fingers
For legs. And so for ever
She hangs from the thread that she spins
Out of her belly.

But more often, Hughes is all headlong usurper of the decorums and delicate distentions whereby Ovidian verse, like Narcissus, weighs the strangeness of its infatuation with its own conjurations of catastrophe. Not content, for instance, to see Ovid’s description of the way Apollo’s arrow pierces the throat of Niobe’s son Damasichthon in book 6–“. . . altera per iugulum pennis tenus acta sagitta est. / expulit hanc sanguis seque eiaculatus in altum / emicat et longe terebrata prosilit aura” (“. . . another shot forth and buried itself to the feathers in his throat. / Whose very jugular stream furthered its gore-propelled flight”)–Hughes has to make the moment of terror a veritable Stephen Kingdom of unalloyed horror:

The second arrow found him in that posture.
It went in
At the base of his throat, in the fork
Of his clavicle–
And drove straight down through the aorta.
A column of blood
Ejected it and he fell
Like a broken fountain–
The blood jetting in twisting and showering arcs
From his flailing body.

The indelibly graphic nature of this is a point undeniably made, but it takes us far from sightlines appropriate to the loges which Ovid meant to impose (from which gore is more symbolic than real) to the cheap seats, whose distance from the stage turns unreliable vision into innards-spewing atrocity. It is not the pinwheeling streams of blood that hypnotize the reader in this scene, but the disparities–themselves bizarrely comic–that lurk just where the dreadfulness is busy unfolding. Ilioneus, the next (after Damasichthon) of Niobe’s seven sons to be struck by Apollo’s arrows, we are told, stretches out his arms in supplication and pleads, “Oh, spare me, all ye gods,” not realizing that in appealing to one, he need not pray to them all (“ignarus non omnes esse rogandos . . . motus erat”). The bureaucratic humor of Ovid’s aside (to no curiosity in particular) is but a hairsbreadth away from the mordant irony with which Kafka frontloaded The Trial and stands out as among the most unsettling of Ovidian reports ever to make it into the light–and from a metamorphic changeling, to boot. Admittedly, the Englishing of Kafka requires gifts for verbal lockpicking beyond even those which Englishers of Ovid must routinely hope to call upon; but it is also easier to know how the lock-picking is going when you’re not matching the Hunger Artist’s restraint, fast for fast.

Ovid, it is safe to say, never sought to be read in this or any other comparably modernist manner. For him, as for most of the imperial versifiers of his time, poetry was something very like T. S. Eliot’s “superior entertainment.” Empires rose and fell in poems, not because poems were written. To find a poet who held to that because beyond all doubting, it is necessary to resurrect someone like Ezra Pound, whose insistence on using the classics to “make it new” got him into a whole lot of trouble. Better by far the Seamus Heaneys, who allow the great poets they translate to share in borrowed, not mortgaged, wealth. Only then can an Orphic plea, heart-sung in Hades, assume a pathos able to wring tears from even “the bodiless hordes of the dead”:

. . . Tantalus
Was so bewitched he let the next wave fill
And fall without reaching. Ixion’s wheel
Stood spellbound. The vultures’ beaks held off
Above Tityos’s liver. The obsessive
Water-riddlers heard and did not move. . . . (10; 39-44)

The Hugheses of the translating world may offer frissons of notable intensity, but their reshapings of the classics rarely track beyond the contour of a generation or two before fading. Which is not to denigrate Hughes’s achievement, or Boer’s, or Mandelbaum’s, or even Gregory’s and Humphries’s, with the Metamorphoses. Theirs were, and remain, holding actions against a stiff wind and tide coming from whichever direction harbors oblivion and its wasteful cohorts, and for that they are both commendable and necessary.

But the translations of a Seamus Heaney remain of a wholly different and even transcendent order. They bring to us not an Ovid who is a contemporary–for no one can manage that–but one who collaborates with us in an all-important act of conservation that exceeds the narrow bracketing of mere “tradition.” They are not content simply to allow us to appreciate an Ovid of that time and of that place. They bequeath us an Ovid who, if he were alive and writing today, would work in phrases like “this immemorial abode” and “throne-room of the universe” (both Heaney’s) because, having read and assimilated authors like Tennyson and seen movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, they would have suggested themselves as conscriptions not only fitting, but in terms of a larger sense of “the real” limited neither by time nor by space, also unimpugnable. In the heavily furrowed field of translation, it is seed rows such as these that alone matter.

Which provides a fitting note on which to end, since matter in the sense of “taking on the form or shape of matter, while remaining, invisibly, pure energy or force,” encapsulates with the greatest economy what Ovid meant by metamorphosis: change as a means of founding alteration in precision, precisely. Metamorphoses is a book that no amount of talk concerning the handing off or sleighting of “god-slight” will obfuscate or dim the true focus of. That this focus is most decidedly not nemesis leaves the poem without the resolutely anthropological fixity that blind-spotted scholars had for centuries saddled it with. We need to reorient it within the orbit–one not exclusively literary–of those Roman books in verse that are concerned, like Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, with the physics attendant upon energy’s changes of state and the oscillations of metaphor that play about the interactions under pressure of divine form and terrene matter.

In the days of Blast! Pound and the Vorticists prattled much about “Patterned Energy,” its deployments and distillations. The fledgling author of the early drafts of the Cantos had spoken earlier (in The Spirit of Romance) of “our kinship to the vital universe, to the tree and the living rock.” Man may indeed be nothing more “chemically speaking . . . [than] a few buckets of water, tied up in a complicated sort of fig-leaf”; but he has the life of the mind to remind him that, “as the thought of the tree is in the seed,” his is the life animating all thought. Who knows–perhaps Ovid was the Prime Mover whose insight into how energy overleaped envelopes propelled poetry and art toward that place in time where Vorticism lay waiting. Surely it’s not indefensible to view this Latin poet as an archtypical Vorticist, dreaming, as Hugh Kenner in The Elsewhere Community (1999) sees Yeats doing around 1925, of time-montages, the propulsive whirligigs of which transfer energy from dancer to dance (and vice versa) like a god leaving the laurel tree where only a belabored Daphne once stood.[/private]

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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