Metamorphoses "What You Desire Is Not Mortal"


"What You Desire Is Not Mortal"

Context: Ovid came of a wealthy family; although he was trained for an official career, he soon gave his time exclusively to poetry. He was a typical member of Roman society as it existed during the age of Augustus; he moved in a gay and sophisticated world that was preoccupied with sensual pleasures. Nearly all his early poetry deals with love. He was a gifted writer and was blessed with a winning personality; he was greatly admired by other poets of his time. His career in Rome ended in A.D. 8, when he was banished from the city and his books excluded from its libraries. His book The Art of Love served as the official reason for this action, and may have been partially responsible: it celebrates adultery, which was a capital crime. The real reason for Ovid's banishment, however, may have been that he was an unlucky witness to something he should not have seen. Just before he entered upon his exile he completed the Metamorphoses, a monumental work for which he is still best known. In it he retells from Greek mythology all the stories of persons who were transformed by the gods into other forms. The work involves some 250 of these accounts, all joined together with natural and careful transitions so that they are linked in an unbroken series. In Book II Ovid retells the legend of Phaeton, son of Clymene and of Phoebus the sun-god. In order to prove his supernatural origin to a friend, Phaeton goes to the Palace of the Sun and asks Phoebus to grant him a wish. Phoebus does so willingly; and upon obtaining this consent, Phaeton announces that he wants to drive the chariot of the sun across the heavens for one day. Phoebus tells his son that what he desires is not possible for mortal man, that the steeds are very difficult to manage, and that he should reconsider. But Phaeton insists, and goes to disaster. Phoebus' admonition, literally translated, is "What you desire is not mortal"; most translators phrase this more poetically. The metrical translation by Arthur Golding (c. 1536–c. 1589), with spelling modernized, is quoted below. Golding's translation was used by Shakespeare, and was long popular.

Then did his father by and by forethink him of his oath,
And shaking twenty times his head, as one that was full wroth,
Bespake him thus: "Thy words have made me rashly to consent
To that which shortly both of us, I fear me, shall repent.
Oh, that I might retract my grant! My son, I do protest
I would deny thee nothing else save this, thy fond request.
I may dissuade; there lies herein more peril than thou ween, The things the which thou dost desire of great importance been,
More than thy weakness well can wield, a charge (as well appears)
Of greater weight than may agree with these thy tender years.
Thy state is mortal, weak and frail, the thing thou dost desire
Is such whereto no mortal man is able to aspire.
Yea, foolish boy, thou dost desire (and all for want of wit)
A greater charge than any god could ever have as yet;
For were there any of them all so overseen and blind
To take upon him this my charge, full quickly should he find
That none but I could sit upon the fiery axletree.
No, not even he that rules this waste and endless space we see. . . ."