Ovid World Literature Analysis - Essay

Ovid World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2670 words.)