Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Additional resources used while reading Metamorphoses:
When I write about books, I strive more for commentary than recap or review. In the case of Metamorphoses, I am not qualified to give a close or technical read. This is some heavy going and I could easily take several classes about Roman literature, Ovid and Metamorphoses itself, just to learn more about the time and context. Not to mention the fun of taking art history and literature classes devoted to the impact Ovid had on Western art and literature.
Metamorphoses has been studied since first published in 8CE, just a few years before Ovid died. The body of work devoted to this epic poem is prodigious.
It seems to me that reading it at least once is worthy of the effort, if only to be exposed to this grand writing, and learn the origin stories of things we already know in our contemporary lives. Black ball, Midas touch, hyacinth and Pygmalion come to mind.
I encourage anyone who has wondered if they should read it, to give it a go. My views on what people should or shouldn’t read are pretty clear; people should read what they want.
At the start of Metamorphoses, Ovid states his ambition; to tell the story of the founding of Rome from chaos to the present. That is a lot of ground to cover. When I first looked at the page count, 636, I thought it would just take a couple of weeks. Hah! Two months later.
Raeburn’s translation helped, as did the trick I finally figured out of reading to the punctuation instead of the meter. I am horrible with meters and they just make the poem choppy and ugly to me. But ignoring the meter and reading to the punctuation made things so much easier.
There’s so much going on in this work. It is grand and sweeping, and sometimes choppy and even more difficult. I would like to have a better grounding in the literature of the time so that I could understand the allusions and homages more easily. Romans loved their blood and guts and adventure tales.
In fact, Metamorphoses is rife with violence, gruesome in its detail and astonishing in the litany of names of characters involved in all the “stabbity-stab-stab.” Rape is another prevalent topic, as is punishment by the gods and goddesses.
This is not a nice, tidy look at the story of Rome, fiction or not. There were numerous times when I had to stop and remind myself that Metamorphoses was written for an audience who had certain expectations for a great story, and for whom violence was nothing to be squeamish about.
The attitudes towards women are difficult, but again, this was written in first century CE, when the very idea of women speaking up for themselves and showing agency was frowned upon at best, punishable at worst. Ancient Rome was a very stratified society, even wealthy women were held to be barely better than the slave class. So it is no surprise this found its way into the literature.
There are very few happy endings in Metamorphoses. Love goes unrequited, and is frequently punished with grim results. Happy love stories are reserved for those who are pious in their thoughts and actions. Even those end sadly, as the characters nearly always die.
The parts I most enjoyed were the personifications of emotions and dreams. Envy, Rumour and Sleep are all represented here, imagined with entertaining lines.
I enjoyed reading the details of how Ulysses’s men turned into pigs on Circe’s island, from the point of view of one of the men. And, although Polyphemus was a monster in all meanings of the word, it was fun to read how he tried to make himself into something Galatea could love. Jove as a golden shower getting Danae pregnant is another favorite bit.
There’s so much to enjoy, and revile, in Metamorphoses, it’s impossible to recount them in any way that makes sense. I could comb back through each book’s commentary and look for things to write about here. But I won’t.
What I will say is that reading Metamorphoses was a journey worth taking. One which I am just as happy to have completed, leaving me to move on to less complicated books in my stacks. One lasting effect I am sure of, nothing I see or read will ever be the same since reading it.
If you’re up for an adventure, and don’t mind working for your read, give Metamorphoses a try. I can’t guarantee what you’ll get from it, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t get into it. There are far too many books to be read; don’t read the ones you can’t get into. As for me, I’m glad to have had the experience.