Monday, December 4, 2023

Let's read Ovid's Metamorphoses! And perhaps more.

Who would like to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE) with me?  We have had some discussion of this good idea, and I feel I am up to it now.  Up to writing about it.

Metamorphoses is a compendium of Greek myths that feature transformation, which turns out to be hundreds of pages worth of stories.  Ovid’s poem is not a catalog of any kind, but rather an original weaving of the myths into a new form.  Ovid enacts the title of the poem.  A translation should flow.

The translations.  The appeal of the 1567 Arthur Golding translation is it is the Ovid that Shakespeare read.  I believe Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and Ovid (1994) is the place to go for the details.

The George Sandys translation (1621-6), in heroic couplets, is superb but sadly Shakespeare did not read it, so it loses the celebrity boost.  It is likely – a bit of trivia – the first English book written in the Americas (Sandys was for a time treasurer of the Virginia Company).

A 1717 version by many hands, including Dryden, Pope and other great poets of the time, as well as some of the duds, sounds interesting and was the default Ovid translation for a century but in my experience the translations of this period, like Pope’s Homer, wander pretty far from the original, and I would at least like to pretend I am reading Ovid.

Skipping way ahead, I have no opinion about the many modern translations.  Twenty years ago I read some samples of Charles Martin’s flexible 2004 version which I liked a lot, so I’m going to read that one.  But I am sure several of the other options are good.

I would advise against the many 19th and early 20th century Ovid translations written as trots for Latin students.  There are likely better and worse, but they seem like dull stuff.  Ovid should be translated by a poet.

What should the schedule be?  Metamorphoses has fifteen chapters that typically fill thirty to forty pages.  Normally I would read one a day with some breaks, but three weeks seems too fast.  Let’s say I read a couple cantos a week.  Perhaps I will read Martin and Golding, which will slow me down.  Eight weeks, with some slippage – December, January, maybe into February.  Or is that too long?  Please advise.

I’ll try to write something once a week. 

I also hope to fit in more – much of the rest of – Ovid, who I suppose is my favorite Roman poet. 

The Heroides are a collection of monologues or letters sent by Greek heroines (and Sappho) to their lovers.  They were written by a young, even teenage, Ovid, circa 20 BCE.  They, too, were a significant influence on Shakespeare, on his great heroines, and on the European novel generally.  Daryl Hine’s Ovid’s Heroines (1991) is the obvious recommendation.

I have Peter Green’s thorough Penguin Classics book The Erotic Poems (dated after Heroides and before Metamorphoses), containing his great love elegies the Amores, as well as The Art of Love – how to seduce – and The Cure for Love – how to break up, as well as a fragment about how to apply makeup.  180 pages of Ovid in a 450 page book.  I said Green was thorough.  And I remember the translations as good, but I plan to revisit Amores in Christopher Marlowe’s remarkable translation.  Marlowe was also likely a teenager when he did Ovid’s elegies.  Teenagers and their love poems.

I have not read Ovid’s calendar poem, Fasti, or the poems in exile, Tristia and the Letters from Pontus.  Christoph Ransmayr’s enjoyable fantasy novel The Last World (1988) explores this part of Ovid’s life.  We’ll see if I get this far.   Why wouldn’t I, Ovid is my favorite Roman poet.  Except maybe for Horace.

Please advise about anything I mentioned, or missed.  Good translations, a better schedule, supplemental books, favorite essays on Ovid, tips for learning Latin fast, anything.  It is all appreciated.


  1. I'm up for a read of Ovid's Metamorphoses, I have a couple of translations which I'll look for tomorrow. I also have Jonothan Bate's book on Shakespeare and Ovid. It will be a great project to run into the new year. I was looking for a project is my chronological read of Shajesoezres works is coming to an end.

  2. That sounds fun. I read an ancient Penguin edition back in 2016 but the translation was almost certainly not by a poet. The name Arthur Golding rang a bell for me; sure, he translated Ovid in time for Shakespeare, but he's also the only person who has ever translated Julius Solinus Polyhistor into English, and that's only barely available online. It all makes me very grumpy. ANYWAY I will ponder upon joining this project, and either way I'll enjoy your comments. --Jean@Howling Frog

  3. That will be nice to have Shakespeare fresh while reading Ovid. Pyramus and Thisbe, that one is obvious, but for some other connections I will need a refresher.

    Julius Solinus Polyhistor - that is a deep cut.

    Penguin Classics has just replaced that David Raeburn translation with one by a woman that claims to - I am not sure what it claims - let's say address the issue of all of the sexual assaults in Metamorphoses by means of "[c]areful translation."

    1. I just read the blurb, and yeah...I'm interested to see how that turns out. Does she mean she's not pretending the rapes are not rapes? (a la the D'Aulaires stories we all grew up on, in which Zeus *marries* mortal girls!) Or is that not what it means? I need clarity.

    2. I hope someone reports back on what it means. Presumably a number of previous translators at least imagine they were careful. But I do not know what target is intended.

  4. I am up for this! I like the idea of the Martin translation, especially as there is an edition of it with an introduction by Emily Wilson, which appeals. I do not undertake to comment, but I will certainly read!

  5. My old edition has a Bernard Knox essay that is actually about other translations, ones that appeared a bot before Martin. It's a terrific essay, but odd as an introduction, so it makes sense it has been replaced.

    Anyways, welcome, in whatever sense.

  6. Thank you for the welcome. I have ordered a copy of the Martin version with the E Wilson intro, for which I must wait a week. In my youth a book could take at least six weeks to reach one, but now I am very impatient at a delay of mere days. In the meantime I may organize myself to re-read Christoph Ransmayr’s *The Last World* which I enjoyed over 30 years ago: someone comes looking for the banished Ovid in the back of beyond and magical realism ensues. I can’t remember anything else about it. I have also looked for the two vols of the Loeb edition but new they are a bit dear (not unreasonably so, but unjustifiable for me), and secondhand they are rare (the second vol scarce exists out there: I am speaking of the British market). This is sad: I like pretending I understand the Latin.

    An informative presentation on the new penguin translation

  8. Replies
    1. If you have time. I reacted the same way at 1st

  9. Ah ha, "chapters," how helpful. The "Sexual Violence" chapter raises questions. Perhaps I do not understand what McCarter is saying.

    Looking at the Amazon sample of Canto 1, McCarter is much more terse than Charles Martin. They both use blank verse but she ends up with maybe 230 fewer lines and a text at least 15% shorter. This new version ought to fly by.

  10. I read the Raeburn translation two-ish years ago, and it was uneven (teetering between dull and okay, frankly). I read the Heroides on the internet, in some old translation that was quite fine; no idea who it was, but I might re-read those and poke around in Metamorphoses again while you're reading it. Probably the Martin translation, which I've been interested in for a while.

    I am happy that you're healing up nicely.

  11. Thank you. So far so good.

    I have been enjoying both Ovid texts immensely. Tomorrow I believe I will not just look at but read some of Golding and see how that goes.

  12. I'm interested in reading along. Now to figure out the translation - Golding and the Dryden gang sound theoretically appealing but would maybe take more effort to get through than I'm willing to put in. Martin seems like the go-to modern one, but my library doesn't have it. It does have Ted Hughes' "Tales From Ovid" which might be an interesting supplement.

  13. The Ted Hughes sounds good. It is a selection, which as we will discuss misses more of the pleasures of Metamorphoses than one might first think. But on its own terms, it sounds good.

  14. I'm interested in joining in--I've been wanting to reread Metamorphoses for a while. I can't promise I'll keep up at your pace, but it will be nice to read along.

    I read the Allen Mandelbaum translation ages ago and don't really remember my opinion on it, other than I must have liked it well enough as I then opted for his Divine Comedy a few years later. This time around will be the Raeburn translation, as that's what my library has readily available. The Golding does sound interesting, but I'm not sure I'm up to wading through 16th century English for that length of book right now. Maybe bits and pieces?

  15. Very good. Glad to hear it.

    The Golding is a challenge, both because of the language and the long lines. It is worth looking at, but slow going.

  16. I am still waiting for my copy of the Martin translation, which is due today, and I have found that I have a copy of Ted Hughes selection. Also the 1916 edition of the Loeb translation is at

  17. Yes, is the place to go. That's where I'm getting Christopher Marlowe's Ovid. That's where I get all kinds of rar things.