Ovid Short Fiction Analysis
Ovid never published any prose, and the Metamorphoses (the transformations) is his only thoroughly narrative work; in the telling of its manifold but continuous stories, however, the poem exemplifies a range of narrative techniques which has had inestimable influence on the history of short fiction.
The verse form of the poem (dactylic hexameter), the invocation to the gods, and the opening statement of theme all indicate from the outset that this is Ovid’s epic:My spirit moves me to tell of forms changed into new bodies. Gods, since you made these changes, favor my attempt and from the first beginning of the world to my own time spin out an uninterrupted song.
The ambitious scope of the project is reflected in its sheer size alone; with fifteen books of about eight hundred lines each, the Metamorphoses is longer than either the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) or Paradise Lost (1667). It has more in common with the Greek poet Hesiod than with the Homeric tradition of epic from which Vergil and John Milton drew inspiration, and it is odd enough in its subject and particularly in its tone that some commentators have called it an antiepic.
The poem appears to tell of the world’s progress from an original chaos of matter to Creation and the Golden Age, then of a decline through four ages to the Flood; from there, it recounts the vicissitudes in the life of humans and gods, first in a mythological epoch and then in the historical period from the founding of Troy to the reign of Augustus Caesar. Underlying the narrative is a sense of the continuous war between order and disorder, cosmos and chaos, integrity (in every sense of the word) and disintegration. Thus, the poem that begins with the transformation of shapeless chaos into an ordered but unstable universe climaxes with Augustus’s imposition of order on Rome’s political chaos after the death of Julius Caesar. It ends with the anticipated death and metamorphosis of its own author:And now my work is done, which neither Jove’s wrath nor fire nor sword nor gnawing tooth of time can destroy. Let that day which has power over nothing but this body come when it will and end my uncertain span of years. Yet the best of me will be borne up, everlasting, above the lofty stars, and my name will be imperishable. Wherever Roman power extends over conquered lands I shall be read aloud by the people; famous through all ages, if there be any truth to the poets’ presentiments, I shall live.
The Metamorphoses, however, is not in any rigorous sense a philosophical poem (such as Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, first century b.c.e.) or a politico-religious poem (such as the Aeneid). It is secular and above all literary, and the issues that most engage its author are primarily artistic ones. Indeed, to say that Ovid weaves stories from Greek and Latin mythology into an unbroken narrative of transformations is to characterize the three major aesthetic problems that the poet sets for himself; it is his resourceful solutions to these problems that have been of most value to subsequent writers of fiction.
First, it is clear that Ovid was not, like William Blake or J. R. R. Tolkien, trying to devise a mythology; but while his stories are traditional, it would be a mistake to conceive him as compiling a handbook like Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (1855). Although it is all too often used like a handbook or reference work, the Metamorphoses is a literary work of great originality and personality, a sophisticated and even skeptical handling of myth by a characteristic narrative voice. Although Ovid occasionally made a point of telling a little-known story (“Pyramus and Thisbe” is presented in this way, although thanks to Ovid and one of his most assiduous readers, it is very familiar to the modern audience), he expected his audience on the whole to know the stories he told and so to be most interested in how he transformed the old familiar songs in the voice, perspective, and detail of his...
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