In 15 books and more than 200 stories, with transformation as his unifying theme, Ovid chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the time of Julius Caesar. I have read some of these before, in Tales from Ovid: 24 Passages from the Metamorphoses by Ted Hughes.
I read the Horace Gregory translation. From the translator’s introduction:
It can be said that The Metamorphoses, written at the beginning of the Christian era, was the last long-sustained major work of a great age in Latin poetry — and it was also evidence of a peculiarly Italian genius which places it at a middle distance away from the Aeneid, since it was not a true and heroic epic, toward the novellas of Bandello and the lyricism of Petrarch. In English literature, The Metamorphoses held sustained appeal for Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Chapman (whose famous version of Homer shows debts to Ovid), Dryden, Swift…
The nineteenth century, even among its poets, lost contact with The Metamorphoses, or rather, The Metamorphoses showed aspects of mythology as well as of human conduct that the age did not care to advertise. An extremely un-Italian Victorian Olympus came into view… the Metamorphoses was read as the work of a capricious poet, one who was irreverent, decidedly un-Olympian, and at times immoral. He was no longer the poet’s poet, but belonged to readers who were looking for a collection of naughty stories. As studies in classical literature declined, it had become easier to discard Ovid in favor of Horace and Virgil; had lost the prestige he had held for so many hundreds of years.
The translator goes on to say that Ovid was newly appreciated in the 20th century due to interest frm anthropologists and psychologists.
It is in the play of emotional extremes, the forces of illogical & conflicting impulses that Ovid offers the richness of psychological detail to the reader. His many heroines are set before us in dramatic moments of their indecision. Actually they do not meditate; they waver between extremes of right and wrong. They live & act within a world of irrational desires which are as vivid to them as things that happen in a dream. they are in heat and caught up in disaster. One might complain that their motives, however complex and contradictory, are not subtle. …We are asked not to forgive them but to see them. It is by their dreams (desires) and their actions — that we know them.
My favorite stories were probably:
Arachne (Bk VI) — The woman who challenged Athena to a weaving contest.
They took delight in speed and craftsmanship
And there upon the looms Tyrian purple
Shaded to lavender and violet-rose
As though one saw the sun strike passing rain
Its arrow like a ribbon across the sky,
A thousand colors streaming light within it,
Each melting into each where no eye sees
One fade into the other, yet both far ends
Colors of distant hue — gold thread to bind them,
To weave the story of long years ago.
Orpheus & Eurydice (Bk X-XI) — This is probably the most famous story in Ovid, but still worth reading even if you already know how it goes.
O king and queen of this vast darkness where
All who are born of Earth at last return,
I cannot speak half-flattery, half-lies;
I have not come, a curious, willing guest,
To see the streets of Tartarus wind in Hell.
Nor have I come to tame Medusas children,
Three-throated beasts with wild snakes in their hair.
My mission is to find Eurydice…
Ceyx & Alcyone (Bk XI) — They were king and queen of the city of Trachis. Ceyx undertook a sea voyage to visit an oracle and was shipwrecked. The goddess Juno arranged for an apparition of Ceyx to appear to Alcyone and tell her of his fate, and the gods turned both of them into kingfishers.
There are some wonderful descriptive passages in this one; here is the description of a shipwreck:
… Like a siege engines ram in iron against a fort,
So the waves struck port and starboard of the ship,
Or as great lions charge at hunters shields,
So waves that rode the winds crashed the ship’s sides,
And mounted at their will. Then decks began
To crack, pitch, wax, and ropes gave way, boards broken,
Sides gaping, while Death’s sea poured in the hold.
Rain fell in curtains from black clouds; you’d think
The very heavens had joined the sea, or that
The sails hung like pale sheets of sea and rain;
The starless night above them closed in darkness,
And from that dark came ragged lightning flashing
Red fires that danced across the waves; then sea
Poured, rippling over each foot of deck and hull.
I had not heard of this one before reading The Metamorphoses, but it was a great discovery.