Latin poem, 8 a.d.
Ovid's Metamorphoses is regarded as a masterpiece among the great classical Latin poems. Unlike Virgil's Aeneid, which preceded it by twenty-one years, it is elusive and ironic, mythic rather than historical, and, as its name suggests, continually shifting its shape. Rather than chronicling and celebrating the monumentality of Rome and the grandeur of its emperor, Ovid here examines and reflects upon the passions and inner strengths and weaknesses of individuals. The Metamorphoses is a collection of tales rather than one complex story or set of adventures. Many scholars argue that it is unified by the recurring themes which weave in and out of the individual tales, by the presence of the poet narrator who speaks throughout the poem in a voice which is humane and compassionate—but also elegant, witty, and ironic—and by the physical transformations which mark the climax of each story.
The Metamorphoses is acclaimed not only for its narrative wit and grace and for Ovid's genius in composing elegiac verse that shaped and enriched the Latin language, but also for its enormous contribution to the development of Western literature. Ovid is credited with creating characters who have become symbols embodying psychological states and ethical or philosophical problems. The stories in the Metamorphoses have served as the basic components for works of literature and art since they were composed, and the list of writers, painters, sculptors, and philosophers who are indebted to the poem is formidable. It includes Chretien de Troyes, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sandro Botticelli, Ludovico Ariosto, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Titian, Edmund Spenser, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, Alan Jay Lerner, and Julia Kristeva.
Ovid completed the Metamorphoses in 8 a.d., the same year that Augustus Caesar banished him from Rome to Tomis, a city on the Black Sea coast of Rumania. The reasons for his exile are not entirely clear. Ovid himself characterized his faults as “a poem,” (probably Ars Amatoria) and “an indiscretion.” The “indiscretion” has not been identified, but scholars believe it was related to his friendship with Augustus's daughter and granddaughter, both named Julia, who openly defied the emperor's policy of austere sexual morality. In the Tristia, a collection of poems he wrote in exile, Ovid reports that his despair was so great that he threw the manuscript of the Metamorphoses into the fire upon learning of his punishment. It was not the only copy of the poem, however, as the Metamorphoses was well known throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, the fourteenth century has been called the “age of Ovid” because of the widespread inclusion of his work in school curricula, and because of the familiarity with his works shown in the poetry of John Gower, Dante, and Chaucer. Ernst Robert Curtius has argued in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages that the Metamorphoses permeated Medieval culture and literature. Often, as in the French Ovid Moralisé, the tales were allegorized and sanitized with appended moral tags, making erotically exciting myths appear to be cautionary tales along the lines of Aesop's fables. William Caxton, the printer, first translated parts of the Metamorphoses into English in 1480. In 1567, Arthur Golding issued the first complete English version. The poem was immensely popular and went through six printings during Shakespeare's lifetime. The Neoclassical eighteenth century poets valued the Metamorphoses for its metric skill and for its analysis of passion. An eighteenth-century English translation was by “several hands,” including John Dryden's. During the nineteenth century in England, the Metamorphoses was, as Horace Gregory, a twentieth-century translator of the poem, notes, relegated to a high shelf, its content too risqué for a period so obsessed with propriety. In the twentieth century what Victorians saw as Ovid's immorality did not shock, and interest in the Metamorphoses revived, with several new translations. Popularity of the text continues into the twenty-first century, with several more editions produced in recent years.
Plot and Major Characters
Lacking one overarching and unifying plot, except for the fact that the separate stories can be interpreted as allusively relating to each other, the Metamorphoses is a compendium of tales whose plots and characters are familiar even to people who have never read the fifteen-book poem. They include the story of Narcissus, the youth who scorned the Nymph Echo, but fell in love with his own reflection; Pygmalion, the sculptor who was rewarded by Venus for his devotion to her when the statue he fashioned and desired became flesh; Daphne, the nymph who fled Apollo and was saved from his rapacity by being transformed into a laurel tree; Midas whose touch turned everything to gold; Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and tumbled to earth when the heat melted the wax which cemented his wings; Pyramus and Thisbe, who became the mock Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Arachne, who beat Athena at a weaving contest and was turned into a spider by the angered goddess; and also Medea, Orpheus, Achilles, Hercules—characters who populate the Metamorphoses.
While each story contained in the Metamorphoses is different, the whole is unified and made coherent by the theme of transformation as the defining element of creation. The poem begins with an account of the creation of the world, expressing the idea that the story of the world, in Horace Gregory's translation, is “a shifting story,” that “new being” comes “out of old.” It ends with a vision of the apotheosis of the Emperor Augustus. Ovid's idea of transformation ought not to be mistaken, however, for continuous mutation. Rather, the Metamorphoses demonstrates that things seem to go from transience to immutability, that characteristic tendencies can harden into reality. The poem's final transformation, in the Epilogue, is of the poet Ovid himself—becoming his poem, and so, immortal.
Since the Metamorphoses lacks both the forthright implication of purpose of the Aeneid, which converts history into prophecy in order to trumpet the predestined sovereignty of Rome and the glory of Augustus, and since it is composed of a disparate collection of sometimes intertwined stories, scholars and critics have historically grappled with the poem, with the aim of determining not only its unity but also of finding a single point of view. Implicit in most considerations of the Metamorphoses is the critical question of whether it is a sincere work. Does it point to Augustan Rome as the terminus to which all transformation was tending, or is the poem actually an ironic commentary about Augustan values, subversive not only of Roman glory but also of divine benevolence? Frances Norwood regards the very variety of the poem as the source of its unity because of the rhythm created by thematic variations running through the tales. The critic also accepts Ovid's glorification of Augustus as a culminating transformation. Charles Segal discerns a unifying factor in Ovid's narrative ability to depict the humanity of his characters even though the situations in which they are presented are strange and fantastic. Robert Coleman interprets the poem as a mock epic in which the context of the tales often subverts their heroic content, and in which Ovid repeals the homage to Augustus even as it is bestowed. Garth Tissol regards the very idea of metamorphosis as a subversive principle, with the decay of Rome implicit in its grandeur. Patricia Johnson contends that the role Venus plays in the rape of Proserpina foreshadows condemnation of Augustan political imperialism. And Richard J. Du Rocher argues that “Ovid's prologue depicts a speaker who is critical of higher powers,” for “the Olympian gods, especially Jupiter and Apollo, are responsible for a series of rapes, exploitations, and devastations of human beings throughout the poem.” Though they may disagree on issues surrounding unity or point of view, many critics agree with Ezra Pound's testimony “that a great treasure of verity exists for mankind in Ovid and in the subject of Ovid's long poem.”