Thursday, February 29, 2024

Metamorphoses, cantos 7 through 10 - more Heroides, more gore, more of everything - What meen my dreames then? what effect have dreames?

Metamorphoses is fluid, quick, and ever-changing.  Let’s look at cantos VII through X, which have their share of famous stories, stories famous, or as famous as they are, because of Metamorphoses.  Venus and Adonis, Baucis and Philemon, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pygmalion.  Icarus – I can’t read the Icarus story without Breughel’s painting in my mind, and perhaps even Auden’s poem about the painting.  The episode is now layered with art, as are those other stories – Shakespeare, Gluck, Shaw, and so many others.

Plus these cantos contain the Medea story at length and quite a lot of Hercules.  Large parts of these stories will still be fresh and perhaps overpowered a bit by the versions by Euripides, major sources for Ovid.

A funny case is the hunt for the Calydonian boar, the second all-star team-up in Greek mythology after the Argonauts, in canto VIII.  My understanding is that based on surviving titles the Calydonian boar and the soap opera among the various heroes was a popular source for Athenian playwrights, second to Homer as a source of plots, but none of those plays have survived, nor have any epic poems on the subject.  Our main source is now Ovid, who treats the heroes with contempt, disemboweling them or running them up trees:

And Naestor to have lost his life was like by fortune ere

The siege of Troie, but that he tooke his rist upon his speare:

And leaping quickly up a tree that stoode hard by,

Did safely from the place behold his foe whom he did flie…  (Golding, 205)

Or how about Telamon, an Argonaut, and the father of Ajax:

                   … whom taking to his feete

No heede at all for egernesse, a Maple roote did meete,

Which tripped up his heeles, and flat against the ground him laide. (206)

Some heroics.  So although Jason and Theseus are in the hunting party, most of these heroes are second-stringers, fathers of the better-known characters in the Iliad.  Nestor will return in Canto XII, telling stories to the Iliad heroes, including one even more gory than the boar hunt.  Ovid is brilliant in his repetitions.

Ovid’s details, his mix of big and small, are marvels.  Baucis and Philemon are the kind old couple who feed the gods, in disguise, when their selfish neighbors will not:

… the trembling old lady set the table,

correcting its imbalance with a potsherd

slipped underneath the shortest of its legs;

and when the table had been stabilized,

she scrubbed its surface clean with fragrant mint.  (Martin, VIII, 291)

Everyone who writes about this scene mentions the potsherd, because it is delightful. But Metamorphoses is full of such things.

I’ll end today by noting the continuity of Metamorphoses with Ovid’s earlier, youthful Heroides.  He often gives his heroines monologues, or sometimes even letters  Medea, who was in Heroides, has a great one at the beginning of Canto VII.  Atalanta has one in Canto X. The incestuous Byblis writes an impassioned letter to her brother that could almost be a monologue in a grim John Webster play, except that the lines have too many syllables:

What meen my dreames then? what effect have dreames? And may there bee

Effect in dreames?  The Gods are farre in better case than wee.

For why?  The Gods have matched with theyr susters as wee see.  (Golding, IX, 239)

Maybe I can blast through the last five cantos this weekend.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Daryl Hine's Ovid's Heroines - I, who could a dragon hypnotize

An anti-Valentine’s Day book now, Ovid’s Heroides (25-16 BCE, somewhere in there), a collection of fictional letters in verse written by mythical heroines to their no-good boyfriends and husbands.  Many end in suicide.  Dido castigating Aeneas, Phaedra mourning Hippolytus, spurned Sappho jumping off a cliff.

Although strictly speaking written as letters, many of the poems edge close to monologues and interiority, thus their large influence on the European novel and the English play.  Short, punchy, and I believe fairly easy, every Latin student would have spent some time with the Heroides.  A number of older translations are student editions, trots; I have only read Ovid’s Heroines (1991) by Daryl Hine, which is poetry by a poet.

Here is miserable Medea, who mostly tears into unfaithful, ungrateful Jason, but sounds like she is talking to herself here:

My magic arts are gone, enchantment fails,

Not even mighty Hecate avails.

Daylight I loathe, I lie awake all night,

Uncomforted by sleep however slight,

And I, who could a dragon hypnotize,

Cannot induce myself to close my eyes

With drugs that proved so potent otherwise.  (p. 25)

She has not murdered her own children yet, but in a Shakespearian touch seems to come up with the idea by overhearing herself – “My anger has enormities in store, / Which I’ll pursue” (27).

Hine puts the poems in “chronological” order, much like Metamorphoses – quote marks because the chronology is a fiction – so the book moves from Hypermnestra not murdering her new husband, a story we would have read in Aeschylus if the sequels to The Suppliants had survived through many other stories we know from Greek plays, including a Homeric section, Helen and Paris flirting and Penelope begging Ulysses to come home:

Think of your father’s peaceable demise

If only you were here to close his eyes.

But me, a girl the day you sailed away,

You’d find a crone if you returned today.  (107)

Ovid ends with Roman stories (Dido and Aeneas – he is so often in competition with the older Virgil) and Greek romances, most notably the two letters between Hero and Leander, I believe the first telling of the complete story.

See, Christopher Marlowe appears again, with another story of horny teenagers, this time based on poems Ovid likely write when he was himself a teenager:

                                                How often I’ve caressed

Your clothes, left on the beach when you undressed

To swim the Hellespont!  (“Hero to Leander,” 125)

Poor Hero.

The waves, subsiding, promise calm to come,

And soon you’ll find your route less wearisome.  (131)

I guess it is not really the complete story, since the reader has to know how it ends.

Heroides sometimes feels like a practice run for the more sophisticated and complex Metamorphoses.  But its form is new and its little touches a pleasure.  The psychology is pretty good for a teenager.  The verse – well, I will have to learn Latin to judge that.  Hine’s version is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ovid's Amores and Marlowe's Ovid - Love slack’d my muse

Since it is Valentine’s Day, I’ll riffle through Ovid’s Amores (16 BCE), as translated by Peter Green in The Erotic Poems (1982) and Christopher Marlowe as Ovid’s Elegies (1599).  A statement of purpose:

I, Ovid, poet of my wantonness,

Born at Peligny, to write more address.

So Cupid wills: far hence the severe!

You are unapt my looser lines to hear.

Let maids whom hot desire to husbands lead,

And rude boys, touch’d with unknown love, me read … (II.1, first six lines, tr. Marlowe)

Or, in more modern language:

A second batch of verses by that naughty provincial poet,

    Naso, the chronicler of his own

Wanton frivolities; another of Love’s commissions (warning

    To puritans: This volume is not for you).

I want my works to be read, by the far-from-frigid virgin

    On fire for her sweetheart, by the boy

In love for the very first time…  (tr. Green)

Those both seem good to me.  Green may in some sense be more accurate, and certainly makes fewer errors.  With a poet at Marlowe’s level “error” is not such a useful concept, although Ovid’s Elegies is an early work, if that is a useful idea for a poet who died at 29.  Marlowe likely made his translation when he was a teenager, is what I am saying, and I wonder if it began as a Latin exercise.  Few students would finish all 49 elegies.  But Marlowe was perhaps our most Ovidian poet, one conceptual artist looting another.  Ovid may well have been a teenager when he began the Amores.  One horny teen of genius responding to another.

Before Callimachus one prefers me far;

Seeing she likes my books, why should we jar?

Another rails at me, and that I write

Yet I would lie with her, if that I might.  (Marlowe, II.4)

Is this Ovid or Marlowe?

Ovid, introducing his book, says that “With Muse prepar’d, I meant to sing of arms” (I.1), like Virgil, but “Love slack’d my muse, and made my numbers soft” and anyway he knows he is better suited to love than war.

Ovid is thorough.  He covers the field.  In I.4 he begs his girlfriend not to sleep with her husband, and if she does “be your sport unpleasant.”  One elegy is about another kind of erotic failure:

I blush, that being youthful, hot, and lusty,

I prove neither youth nor man, but old and rusty.  (III.6)

And another, the most shocking is about physical abuse.  The abuser feels terrible:

Bescracth mine eyes, spare not my locks to break,

(Anger will help thy hands though ne’er so weak.)

And lest the sad signs of my crime remain,

Put in their place thy keembed hairs again.  (I.7)

Of course that is the important thing to the abuser.  The shock, my shock, is the contrast of the lightness of tone with the subject.  Ovid’s psychology seems right.

Marlowe’s verse in Ovid’s Elegies is immature, compared to “Hero and Leander” and the perfect “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” but it is full of great lines and passages.  He is sometimes tricky to untangle, which is never a problem with Peter Green.  What a pleasure to have the choice.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Canto 6 - the sexual assaults - Because the lewdness of the Gods was so blazed in it.

Back to Ovid.

First, I have just begun Paul Barolsky’s Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Boticelli to Picasso (2014), a work of art history about Ovid written in the spirit of Ovid.  The book is of the highest interest, and is a long way from the catalogue of paintings that it might suggest, again, much like Metamorphoses, the catalogue of myths that is not like that at all.  Many thanks to the real-life Ovid readers who pointed me towards this book.

Second, Cantos 6.  Canto 6 in particular is a good place to discuss the sexual assaults in Metamorphoses, all of the rape and attempted rape.  Ovid, among the most pro-sex writers of the Roman world, treats the rapes as terrible crimes, whether committed by gods or men.  The number of assaults is perhaps wearing, but Ovid’s attitude is not so far out of line with what I will presume to call ours.  He is more of a fatalist, I suppose.

Canto 5 ended with the a chorus of women turned into birds for daring to challenge the Muses to a singing contest.  Canto 6 begins with Arachne challenging Athena – Minerva – to a weaving contest.  Minerva weaves a self-congratulatory piece that includes, hilariously, another time she won a prize (for creating the olive tree).  Also, in typical Ovidian fashion, four bonus metamorphoses, all of poor saps punished for challenging gods, are depicted in the corners.

Meanwhile Arachne creates a tapestry showing eighteen examples of various gods, transformed into bulls and horses and grapes (?) and so on, raping women.  Unwise strategically, but outstanding as a form of protest.  And Arachne does not even lose the contest:

    Not Pallas, no, nor spight it selfe could any quarrel picke

    To this hir worke: and that did touch Minerva to the quicke.

Who thereupon did rende the cloth in pieces every whit,

Bicause the lewdnesse of the Gods was blased so in it.  (Golding, p. 140)

Arachne becomes a spider.  Ovid takes every opportunity to blaze the lewdness of the Gods, but since he does not really believe in them he does not fear punishment.

The rest of the canto is nothing but horror: the slaughter of Niobe’s children by Apollo, described with Ovid’s usual delight in gore (“a second arrow punched right through his throat,” Martin, 200), then a glance at he flaying of Marsyas, “entirely one wound” (Martin, 205), and ending with the worst, and likely now most famous of them all, the nightmarish rape and mutilation of Philomela by her brutal, barbarian brother-in-law.  Golding spends five lines, Martin six, just describing Philomela’s severed tongue.  Pure horror and cannibalistic revenge.  I have seen people wonder why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus.  If we think of young Will wanting to outdo his favorites, Ovid and Seneca, it is clear enough what he is doing.

Anyway, my main point is that although Ovid certainly writes about sexual assault a lot, he does not excuse it.  He may perhaps indulge in the horror. 

A paradox of his style is how it feels so light.  Terrible subjects in a light, quick, elegant style.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Books I read in January 2024 - as long, indeed, as this book, which hardly anyone will read by reason of its length

The best book I read was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which will also be the best thing I read in February.  I gotta catch up on my posts.

One big book down, and as a result my list of January books is more sensible.

TRAVEL, let’s call it

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Rebecca West – I will try to write this up a bit.  I should find something in 1,150 pages to write about.  The quote up in the title is from here, obviously, p. 773 of the Penguin paperback.


Ten Nights of Dream (1905-8), Natsume Sōseki

Arrowroot (1930) &

The Secret History of the Lord of Musahi (1935), Junichirō Tanizaki

Go Down, Moses (1942), William Faulkner – the end of the great run.  Was it Hollywood that got him, or the booze, or just the inevitable movement of time?

The Glass Bead Game (1943), Hermann Hesse – a Utopian novel about a society, hundreds of years in the future that puts the highest value on Bach and mathematics and pretends that Modernism – heck, Romanticism – did not happen.  A huge Romantic himself, Hesse writes a spiritual sequel to Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer, salvaging Germanic culture from Austro-Prussian neuroticism and Hitler.  A strange book.

Watt (1945 / 1953), Samuel Beckett – meanwhile Beckett killed time in southern France carrying messages for the Resistance and creating logic puzzles in the form of a novel.


Ceremony and Other Poems (1950), Richard Wilbur

Xaipe (1950), E. E. Cummings

Inward Companion (1950), Walter de la Mare – Wilbur’s first book; late books by Cummings and de la Mare, all a treat.  I didn’t get to the Stevie Smith’s book from 1950, presumably also a complete delight, or to Neruda’s Canto General, presumably something less pure.


Selected Poems (1934-88), René Char – several years ago I read the right-hand pages, the ones in English.  This time I read the left side.

Le Seuil Le Sable: poésies complètes, 1943-1988 (1991), Edmond Jabès – before writing the mammoth Book of Questions that made his reputation, Jabès published a series of Surrealist, Max Jacob-like chapbooks in Egypt.  Those make up Le Seuil, “the threshold,” I assume he means to his major work of later decades.  I thought they were petty good on their own terms, but I have a taste for that sort of thing.  I wonder if Surrealist poems make for bad French learning, since the whole point is to confuse context.  Le Sable, “the sand,” the small number of words that make up the late poems of Jabès.

Trois chambres à Manhattan (1945), Georges Simenon – a French actor, nearly divorced, picks up a woman.  He doesn’t like her, he loves her, he becomes jealous, obsessive, submissive, and so on.  That’s it, no murder, almost no melodrama, just Simenon on love and sex and maleness, but without his addiction to prostitutes.  Readable but kinda dull.

 I have almost finished my Portuguese textbook and have begun an actual class.  Reading will follow at some point.