Metamorphoses is generally conceded to be Ovid’s finest work. In this collection of poems, Ovid manages to draw together artistically most of the stories of Greek and Roman legend. He renders more than two hundred of the myths of the ancient world into an organic work whose unifying theme is that of transformation. Thus Jove changes himself into a swan, Narcissus is transformed into a flower, Tereus is turned into a bird, and Midas is given the ears of an ass. Ovid arranges these stories into fifteen books, containing in the original Latin version almost twelve thousand lines of sweetly flowing verse in the dactylic hexameter common in classical poetry. The poems were written when Ovid was a mature man of perhaps fifty, shortly before Augustus Caesar banished him far from the city he loved to the little town of Tomi on the shores of the Black Sea. Ovid wrote that he destroyed his own copy of Metamorphoses, apparently because he was dissatisfied with his performance, but he nevertheless seemed to feel that the work would live after him. In his epilogue to Metamorphoses, he wrote,
Now I have done my work. It will endure,I trust, beyond Jove’s anger, fire, and sword,Beyond Time’s hunger. The day will come, I know,So let it come, that day which has no powerSave over my body, to end my span of lifeWhatever it may be. Still, part of me,The better part, immortal, will be borneAbove the stars; my name will be rememberedWherever Roman power rules conquered lands,I shall be read, and through all centuries,If prophecies of bards are ever truthful,I shall be living, always.
As if it were necessary for a work of literary art to have some edifying or moral purpose, the poems are sometimes regarded primarily as a useful handbook on Greek and Roman mythology. Certainly the work does contain a wealth of the ancient legends, and many later writers have become famous in part because they were able to build on the materials Ovid placed at their disposal. However, Metamorphoses is a work of art in its own right.
In later times, stories about the gods of the pagan Pantheon have been viewed in a different light from that in which Ovid’s contemporaries regarded them. Where readers in later times could smile, Ovid’s light, even facetious, tone is regarded by serious Romans as having more than a little touch of blasphemy. Perhaps his irreverent attitudes were even a partial cause for his exile, for Augustus Caesar was at the time attempting moral reforms. Moreover, after dealing good-humoredly with various gods, Ovid turned at the...
(The entire section is 1217 words.)