Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Metamorphoses, Books XI to XV - The whole of it flows

I had better finish up Ovid’s Metamorphoses before I forget what was in it.  It is full of memorable things, but I have limits.  Books XI through XV, the last five, in this post.

Book X ended with the songs of Orpheus, so he has to begin Book XI with Orpheus’s gruesome death, the sin that eventually leads to the downfall of Morpheus the Sandman.  That’s Neil Gaiman, not Ovid.  Then Ovid tells the great King Midas stories, his “head more fat than wyse,” classic fables.  Arthur Golding shifts register just a bit into a more fairy tale-like tone:

Then whither his hand did towch the bread, the bread was massy gold:

Or whither he chawed with hungry teeth his meate, yee might behold

The peece of meate betweene his jawes a plat of gold to bee.

In drinking wine and water mixt, yee might discerne and see

The liquid gold ronne downe his throte.  (XI, 277)

It’s like children’s poetry.

There’s a terrific storm at sea and shipwreck in Canto XI.  The Romans, the elite Romans at least, expressed in Seneca’s letters and many other texts, hated going to sea.  Or else loved reading descriptions of storms.  I just read Ovid rewrite the storm scene in the first book of Tristia, written on his way to exile on the Black Sea coast.

Ovid has been shaping Greek and Roman mythology into a more or less coherent history, from creation to Augustus, from the first lines of Metamorphoses, and in the last books the intersection of myth and history becomes firm – the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the founding of Rome take us to the present of Emperor Augustus.  Ovid did not invent this idea.  The generations of heroes, for example, with the parents of the Homeric heroes having their own stories like the hunt for the Calydonian boar, was well established, but now Ovid is up to Homer and Virgil and more human-scale stories.  Curiously, then, he skips the Iliad and writing around the Odyssey, keeping Circe’s metamorphosized pigs and using the Cyclops mostly for his role in the story of Acis and Galatea that for some reason early modern artists and composers liked so much.  Ovid’s version is grotesque and ludicrous.

Ovid only borrows scraps from the Aeneid, giving five lines to the story of Dido while keeping, of course, the transformation of the ships of Aeneas into mermaids.  As with Homer, Ovid can assume his readers know this “history” inside and out.

More surprising is the featured singer in Canto XV.  Where before, in Cantos V and X, we heard the Muses and Orpheus, this time Ovid gives us Pythagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher, an actual person, probably, legendary but not mythic, the perfect exponent of the great Ovidian themes:

              hear me out: nothing

endures in this world!  The whole of it flows, and all is

formed with a changing appearance; even time passes,

constant in motion, no different from a great river,

for neither a river nor a transitory hour

is able to stand still.  (Martin, XV, 527)

Metamorphosis is not an element of myth, but of existence, of human life, as we transform from infancy to childhood to adulthood to old age.  It would be stranger to turn into a tree or a flower, but it is still strange that I was once a baby.

None of this will surprise anyone who spent some time with the pre-Socratic philosophers, or with Lucretius, last year.

I’ll end by noting Ovid’s last bout of hideous gore, perhaps his goriest yet, when he has old Nestor tell the Homeric heroes about the famous battle between the Lapiths and the drunken centaurs.  Since it took place at a wedding no one was armed, and all of the weapons were improvised, allowing Ovid all sorts of creative, repulsive murders, each described with care, as in this violent cooking simile:

His crushed brayne came roping out as creame is woont to doo

From sives or riddles [also sieves] made of wood, or as a Cullace [broth] out

From streyner or from Colender.  (Golding, XII, 312)


Thanks to everyone who read along, whenever that was.  This has been pure pleasure for me, whatever my reluctance to write this dang thing.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Books I read in February 2024 - if there is truth in poets' prophesies, then in my fame forever will I live

Persian literature in March: the epic Shahnameh in Dick Davis’s mostly prose translation, plus the classical poets he translated in Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz, plus some Rumi and at least one contemporary Iranian novel, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel (2009).  Maybe The Conference of the Birds.  That’s a nice syllabus.

As for the past month:


Metamorphoses (8 / 1567), tr. Arthur Golding

Metamorphoses (8 / 2004), tr. Charles Martin – those are Ovid’s and Martin’s last lines up there in my title.

Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Boticelli to Picasso (2014), Paul Barolsky

Many thanks to everyone who read along, commented, corresponded, etc.  A great pleasure.


Nones (1951), W. H. Auden

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018). Terrance Hayes


The Return of the Soldier (1918), Rebecca West

Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh – muted compared to his great earlier novels, although it has some outstanding scenes.

The Folded Leaf (1945), William Maxwell

Mendelssohn Is on the Roof (1959), Jiří Weil – a fellow Twitterest told the story about how the Nazis wanted to pull down the statue of Mendelssohn from the Prague opera house, but instead demolished Wagner’s statue because he had the biggest nose.  A terrific story but obviously false, although internet searching revealed that Prague tour guides tell it all the time.  The source, I discovered, is Jiří Weil’s grim, ironic novel Mendelssohn Is on the Roof, about the workings of the Final Solution in Prague.  The Nazis are ridiculous, even stupid, but they are also relentless and thorough, so guess which statue, in the novel, gets it in the end.  The tour guides have tidied up the story a little too much.  Through the awful subject, a distinctly Czech ironic stance, like Kafka or Čapek, was visible.

Gray Ghost (2007), William G. Tapply –The French title of this detective novel is Casco Bay – hey, that’s where I live.  Londoners and Los Angelenos are used to fictional characters passing right by their home, but I am not. 

The Guest Lecture (2023), Martin Riker



Le bureau des affaires occultes (2021), Éric Fouassier – a historical mystery guest-starring Vidocq, the great super-criminal turned super-detective, best known now as Balzac’s recurring mastermind Vautrin.  I will reserve comment until Emma of Book Around the Corner reads the novel in July, except to say that it was good for my French.

I have a little Portuguese novel going, too, slowly, but it is not finished yet.