Ovid World Literature Analysis
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2670
Along with Vergil, Ovid is the preeminent artist of Augustan Rome, and he has remained popular in part because of his subject matter. He glorifies human experience and, in the process, reveals a keen understanding of psychology and the human psyche. His books on finding love, his ability to represent the feminine perspective in male-dominated literature, and his portraits of heroes and gods (who are immortal and yet as flawed as any mortal) brim over with insights into the workings of minds, hearts, and souls. His human and humane concerns no doubt explain his great popularity through the ages and his huge influence on Western European arts and artists—medieval writers Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer, Renaissance writers Petrarch and, later, John Milton, as well as modern poet T. S. Eliot. Painters, sculptors, and composers, too, have been influenced by this prolific writer of Augustan Rome.
Ovid was famed for his great knowledge and use of myths in his art, and in his masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, he assumes the Herculean task of weaving 250 varied and complex stories into a coherent narrative. The work is a richly textured tapestry of stories that conform, for the most part, to his theme of eternal change.
The quality that most readers associate with Ovid is a sly, sophisticated wit. At a time when the emperor wanted nationalism and virtue celebrated in art, Ovid gave readers a taste of Roman humor. His own humor is never biting or sarcastic but good-natured. Additionally, he was fond of using irony as a comic device. His playfulness manifests itself in his work not only in his subject matter but also in his diction; he draws the reader’s attention to the message and to the medium by using such techniques as plays on words, overstatement, paradox, echoes, and other devices. He was also one of the earliest writers to experiment with narrative perspective, the point of view from which a story is told. His Heroides presents famous stories from the perspective of characters traditionally regarded as secondary.
Realism is one of Ovid’s great strengths as a writer; he had a keen eye for the telling details that breathe life into his stories. Capturing the exact pose, word, or physical detail, he burns the moment or scene into the reader’s memory. One trait, however, for which both modern critics and his own contemporaries fault Ovid is his prolixity. Although his style itself is spare, he seems unable to offer only a few examples to support a point; instead, he piles example upon example upon example, soon wearying his reader.
The characteristic of Ovid’s writing that makes him seem most modern is his inclination to express the point of view of women. In his love poetry, he includes advice to women about finding satisfactory love relationships, and he insists that the act of love should be a pleasure to both parties. In Heroides, he looks at the scene behind the hero, finds the forgotten or cruelly used woman, and gives her a voice, an opportunity to tell her story, which has usually been left out of the total picture.
Ovid was not given in general to philosophical musing or religious devotion; although his works are filled with gods and goddesses, to most Romans, religious observances were more form than substance, so that deities in Ovid’s work would have commanded little credulity. What seems to have been most sacred to him are human experience and art. These are the subjects that he celebrates again and again in his writing.
First published: c. 8 c.e. (English translation, 1567)
Type of work: Poem
Beginning with the transformation of shapeless matter into the created world, the gods have, throughout all history, changed bodies from one form into another.
The Metamorphoses represents Ovid’s greatest artistic challenge, 250 stories from Greek and Roman mythology, legend, and history woven into a loosely chronological continuous narrative, starting with the creation of the world and ending with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Written in the meter of epic poetry, dactylic hexameter, the stories concern the transformation of bodies into different forms, such as animals, plants, or stars, each story evolving from the preceding one. Almost every deity, hero, or heroine from classical times is represented in these tales. In fact, most of the myths with which modern readers are familiar were preserved by the Metamorphoses.
One important element that helps to hold this massive work together is the voice of the poet himself; instead of remaining completely outside the events that he narrates, Ovid asserts his presence in the poem by addressing the reader, as well as the characters, on occasion. The voice is witty, sophisticated, occasionally sympathetic, frequently mocking.
Ovid begins his tales with the ultimate metamorphosis, the transformation of primal cosmic matter into the beautiful, fruitful earth. He then describes the four ages of the earth, Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron, which saw the transformation of humanity from peaceful, innocent beings into bloodthirsty, deceitful exploiters of other humans and of the earth itself. An angry Jove intervenes in human affairs by sending a great flood and starting afresh with a new race of mortals, and the Metamorphoses begins, telling the story of one transformation after another through all of history and through most of the known world and Olympus. Some of the metamorphoses are grotesque, some humorous, some quaint, and some touching.
After the introductory material on the creation and on the first transformation effected by Jove, the poem divides into three parts that deal with the deities, heroes and heroines, and actual historical figures (although these divisions are blurred by Ovid’s frequent digressions). The deities of the Metamorphoses frequently have the same flaws and foibles as the mortals in these stories. They can be petty, jealous, unfaithful, vengeful. In fact, the story of Apollo and Daphne stems from the revenge that Cupid takes on Apollo, who, in his arrogance, has offended Cupid. In retaliation, Cupid shoots him with a gold-tipped arrow that causes Apollo to fall helplessly in love with Daphne, who shuns him because Cupid has shot her with a lead-tipped arrow that makes her reject love completely. Thus, Apollo can only feel thwarted and frustrated as he seeks to woo the beautiful demigoddess who inspires his passion but cannot share it. Ironically, then, in this story, love becomes ruinous to the beloved.
As arrogant as he was with Cupid, Apollo calls Daphne foolish for fleeing him and reminds her that he is no common shepherd or farm boy but a great and powerful god. Ovid, typically sensitive to the woman’s perspective, conveys vividly Daphne’s distress at her unwanted suitor and then her terror as Apollo chases her relentlessly through woods where briars tear at her legs. Pale, panting, feeling his breath on her hair, she engages the reader’s profound sympathy in this heart-pounding scene of near rape, for she is a suffering pawn used by one god in a game of vengeance against another.
She pleads for release from her torment, and, as she is metamorphosing into a laurel tree, still shrinking from Apollo’s touch and kiss, he triumphantly claims, in her form as a tree, the woman whom he could not possess as a flesh-and-blood being. He declares that, always green and shining, she will be his personal plant for all time, and he will always wear a wreath of laurel on his head. Ovid makes a respectful acknowledgment of his emperor by having Apollo foretell that the laurel will be worn in triumph by great Roman military leaders of the future and will decorate the portals of Emperor Augustus. Her metamorphosis, then, is poignant, yet satisfying.
During the time that Ovid was working on the Metamorphoses, a revival of an old Greek philosophy was underway in Rome. In the sixth century b.c.e., the Greek philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras had devised a humane philosophy opposing animal sacrifice and advocating vegetarianism. In Ovid’s day, this doctrine was being rekindled and preached around Rome. Critics have argued about whether Ovid himself was a neo-Pythagorean; nonetheless, he includes a lengthy section on the teachings of Pythagoras near the end of his Metamorphoses.
The historical figure Pythagoras lends himself quite well to this collection of tales of transformations, for he believed in the transmigration of souls from humans to animals or animals to humans and therefore shunned the eating of meat. Underlying his philosophy was a deeply compassionate concern for the living creatures that share creation with human beings. Ovid presents Pythagoras’s philosophy compellingly and persuasively.
In the opening lines, he establishes Pythagoras’s authority as a learned, wise man who understands the workings and the nature of the world and then allows Pythagoras to speak in his own voice. Pythagoras admonishes people that the earth provides a rich abundance of healthy foods—fruits and vegetables, milk and honey—which do not require bloodshed. He further strives to awaken compassion and respect in the hearts of his hearers toward animals because these creatures are fellow workers and beautiful and innocent in their own right. His last and strongest case against slaughtering and eating animals is his theory that souls transmigrate. Souls are deathless, he argues, and when the body housing a soul dies, the soul finds a new dwelling place. The souls of humans move into the bodies of animals and vice versa. Hence, eating animal flesh is akin to cannibalism.
Pythagoras speaks at length of the perpetual flux of the universe, asserting that nothing is unchanging. Referring to natural phenomena—the tides, the seasons—he draws attention to the mutability of all forms, while arguing that the underlying matter remains constant. Thus, he says, humans should never fear death because the soul is deathless. To include such a philosophy near the end of this work is to suggest a rationale for all the other metamorphoses presented: change as a universal principle. It is not possible to assert with finality whether Ovid personally was a neo-Pythagorean or whether he included the philosophy because it provided a fitting climax to his work, whose theme was transformations. The rather serious consideration of philosophy in this section of the Metamorphoses might not seem well assimilated with the other stories, but in fact it corresponds to the creation scene of the first book of the work in its cosmic implications.
First published: before 8 c.e. (English translation, 1567)
Type of work: Letters in verse form
In letters to the men whom they love, mythical and legendary women vent their feelings of love, longing, or abandonment.
Most epic, drama, myth, and history of the classical period focuses on the stories of men and their exploits, but in the Heroides, Ovid finds the feminine point of view that is often missing from these stories. The epistolary format is really another way to present a soliloquy or monologue, in this case of a secondary character whom Ovid depicts, thus adding to, not supplanting, the reader’s understanding of the original story. In this collection of letters, the women whose names are familiar but whose perspectives have been given little consideration by the reader—or, for that matter, by the hero—present their thoughts and feelings at a moment of emotional turmoil or crisis.
Readers of Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) are familiar with the famous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, when Agamemnon seizes Achilles’ war prize, the girl Briseis. She is treated as chattel, passed between the men like an inanimate object with no regard whatever for her feelings as a human being. In Homer’s story, Achilles is furious at losing her to Agamemnon, not so much because he cares for her personally but because he has been insulted and humiliated by Agamemnon’s action. In Briseis’ letter to Achilles in the Heroides, she even comments that he gave her up with no apparent reluctance and wishes that he had at least shown some resistance, whereby she would know that he had feelings for her. In Homer, when Agamemnon’s envoys offer Achilles great riches and the return of Briseis if he will rejoin the battle, Achilles refuses; in Ovid, Briseis sees his refusal as a rejection of her and asks what she has done to earn his disfavor. She has heard that he has threatened to sail for Greece and is distraught; she asks to whom she is now to be left. When she refers to her husband and brothers who were killed in the battle when she was taken captive, the reader understands her clinging to Achilles, her captor. She has been left with nothing: no homeland, no family, no security. Achilles represents at least a future for her. Thus, Ovid shows a complex human being who was, in the Iliad, a flat figure.
The character of Medea must have been a greater challenge for Ovid because her story was so widely known and had been told magnificently by the fifth century b.c.e. Greek dramatist Euripides. The difficulty, then, was to present her in a way that did not diverge from the well-known myth and yet to capture something of her that had not been explored before. Ovid immediately captures her disordered state of mind by beginning the passage in the middle of a sentence. This suggests that her feverish thoughts have focused relentlessly on her abandonment by Jason, and anything she says or writes on the subject is indeed the continuation of an inner monologue. Like Euripides’ Medea, Ovid’s recounts the numerous deeds, both foul and fair, that she had done in the past for Jason’s sake. Unlike Euripides’ character, Ovid’s Medea says, whether sincerely or not, that her current pitiful state is her punishment for the harm that she did to others on Jason’s behalf. Whereas Euripides has portrayed her as a woman much like Achilles, a woman who will have vengeance and be remembered for it, Ovid conveys the idea that in her heart of hearts, Medea feels helpless, powerless. She recalls several examples of her magical prowess and laments that she is unable now to use magic on herself to cure her grief, bitterness, and pain. Because the reader knows that Medea will ultimately commit infanticide, she does not, finally, come across as more likable than the woman of Greek drama, but for a moment the reader can see a vulnerability in her that is not usually portrayed.
Although the letter of Hermione to Orestes concerns a marriage contract that she was forced to obey, a fascinating subplot emerges in her letter. Hermione is the daughter of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, who abandoned her husband and child to run away to Troy with her lover Paris. The main part of the letter to Orestes concerns their betrothal in childhood, which she regards as a marriage. Now, however, she has been given against her will to Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles. What is revealed is the portrait of a woman whose whole life has been filled with loss: Her mother abandons her, her father leaves to fight for ten years to retrieve his wife, she is betrothed to her childhood companion but then is given to another man, who treats her unfeelingly. She begs Orestes to rescue her, but it is the poignant look at the childhood loss of her mother that is the truly memorable part of this letter. She recalls the tumult left in the wake of Helen’s betrayal of her family: She remembers tearfully asking her mother why she was leaving her, she laments never having had a mother to hold her, and finally she recalls seeing her mother at last when Helen was returned to Greece, not knowing her face but recognizing her only because of her great beauty. In her portrait, Ovid has presented a lost and lonely soul, buffeted by the egocentric, heroically proportioned figures in her life, this time both male and female.