Sunday, January 21, 2024

Metamorphoses Cantos IV and V - gore, Pyramus and Thisbe, and a rap battle

Bacchus continues his reign of terror in Canto IV of Metamorphoses by turning three sisters who refuse to believe in his divinity into what “we in English language Backes or Reermice call the same” (Golding, 99) “[Or, as we say, bats.]” (Martin, 140).  How sad that we lost the word “reermice.”  But what is new here is that the three sisters, before their transformation, tell stories that also feature transformation, one after the other, the most famous of which is Pyramus and Thisbe.

The Pyramus and Thisbe story is not a mythological story but a tragic romance of the ludicrous sort, as Shakespeare saw perfect for travesty.  Charles Martin shifts his rhetoric to emphasize the ridiculous side of the story (warning: gore ahead):

  “It was as when a water pipe is ruptured

where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:

a column of water goes hissing through the hole

and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;

splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grows dark;

blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye

the hanging berries purple with its color.” (Martin, 128)

This just-so story about why mulberries turn purple is the bit of Ovid Willa Cather borrowed for O Pioneers! (1913).  Shakespeare for some reason omits theses special effects (“With the help of a surgeon he might yet recover and prove an ass”).  Somehow Arthur Golding’s translation does not sound so silly.  But Martin has A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream behind him; silly is the only way to go.

The Canto ends with another romance, this time purely mythological, the Perseus story, full of metamorphoses, not just everyone turning to stone from Perseus’s super-weapon, but the creation of coral, another just-so story tossed in.  The Perseus saga shifts, in Canto V, to another parody of Homer and other epics, an insane scene of mass slaughter as gory as a Hollywood action movie, and part of the joke is that the scene goes on forever, ten blood-soaked pages in Martin.  One poor schmuck dies when his sword rebounds into his own throat.  Like an action movie, it is not just the number of kills, but the variety.

Every fifth book of Metamorphoses ends with a performance, in this case two, a song contest.  Martin shifts meters, letting one side rap and giving the other a loosey-goosey irregular five-beat line that somehow feels closer to Golding’s long lines but without the rhyme.  That’s how Ovid delivers the story of Proserpina (another just-so, why there is winter).  The rap is not in today’s style, but more like that of “Guns and Ships” from Hamilton, or maybe “Lazy Sunday.”  The rappers, challenging the Muses themselves, lose the battle and are turned into, what else, birds, magpies according to Golding,

Now also being turnde to Birdes they are as eloquent

As ere they were, as chattring still, as much to babling bent. (Golding, 135)

Ten cantos left.


  1. I'm increasingly liking your quotes from Golding quotes, although Humphries has been fine for my first read. As I think Ovid is becoming one of those writers you return to regularly, like Pope, Swift, Hardy, and Tolstoy, I am planning on reading the Golding version in my next read of Metamorphoses.
    I try to kid myself I am a slow but deep thinker, but as I age I'm beginning to think I'm plain daft. I asked if your cantos were the same as my books, but as soon as I picked up my copy, I realised I only had to check your post against my book. I should have thought to do this before, but tonight after a Zoom talk on Sabine Baring-Gould I shall go through all the Ovid posts with my book and pencil in hand. I've been lightly annotating my copy and there are a few points that you have made that I want to add.

  2. Golding is significantly harder to read, because of the archaic language if nothing else, but he was a real poet. I am not adept at hearing the connections to Shakespeare's language, but it is pleasing to be in the same poetic world.

    I'm eager to hear your thoughts. I hope to write about Books 6 and 7 tomorrow.