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A song and a mistake.

Just what was Ovid's crime? What offense did he commit that prompted Augustus, in 8 A.D., to banish him, for the rest of his life, to Tomis on the Black Sea? Ovid himself alludes to the cause, remarking that it was due to carmen et error, "a song and a mistake." Scholars have puzzled over the song, or poem, in question, as well as the error, for centuries. No doubt we'll never know precisely. But the formulation is striking. Ovid pairs song and error--a dubious couple--in the same manner in which he links the mythical characters in his Metamorphoses: Jove and Europa or Mars and Venus or Daedalus and Icarus. Could his phrase be merely his clever, if poignant, way of hinting, not at any one poem or misdeed, but at everything that made him Publius Ovidius Naso, the toast of Rome: successful and popular poet, bon vivant, and recklessly candid lover?

My Oxford Latin Dictionary gives six meanings for error. They range from "traveling on an uncertain course" to "uncertainty of mind" to "derangement" to "moral lapse" as well as to a plain old "mistake." Taken together, this constellation of meanings suggests not necessarily a single action but a way of life, a frame of mind; in other words, not "an error" but Error, a mistaken path and a wandering disposition.

Certainly the reader who ponders the question after a fresh reading, or rereading, of Ovid's Metamorphoses might wonder whether a literal interpretation of the phrase is warranted. For few works could possibly be farther from, or more potentially subversive of, the monolithic will and design of the Divine Augustus than this flitting, discursive, capricious, and magical poem in which nothing is ever for long what it appears to be. Mutability is its leitmotif. If Augustus's character was unbending as stone, Ovid's was as various as gossamer, and receptive to the faintest breeze. In his work, and presumably in his person, he may have embodied the antithesis of everything Augustus meant to enact and to represent. Milder despots than Augustus have been offended by less.

Ovid lacked the decorum and the gravity of his contemporaries Horace and Virgil, both imperial favorites. In addition, there was something hectic and undisciplined about his imagination; in the Metamorphoses, he often jumps from one topic to the next in a disconcerting way. After he has moved us with the sad tale of Icarus in Book 8, he suddenly begins discoursing on the partridge. Entertaining as this is, it can be irritating, too. True, feathers play a part in both stories, but still. It's not too hard to picture a stern imperial auditor tapping his divine toes and wondering where, if anywhere, the poem was heading.

The qualities of Ovid the poet which may have irritated Augustus, but which have delighted and charmed readers for two millennia, shine forth beautifully in the new translation of the Metamorphoses by the superb American poet Charles Martin. (1) Narrative speed, wit, lightness of touch, sly humor, and elegant diction--all Ovidian virtues--distinguish Martin's version. In fact, his translation reads so smoothly that it is easy at times to overlook the skill and poise of his rendition; we are caught up instead in the poem, and not distracted by the translator's artistry, which is as it should be. In the art of translation, invisibility is the surest sign of success.

Arthur Golding, perhaps the greatest English translator of the Metamorphoses, was certainly not above showing oft or padding his lines. His 1567 version may be unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, but Golding's achievement is often at Ovid's expense. Consider his treatment of the famous opening of the work:
 Of shapes transformed to bodies straunge, I
 purpose to entreate;
 Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they y wrought
 this wondrous feate)
 To further this mine enterprise. And from the
 world begunne,
 Graunt that my verse may to my time, his
 course directly runne
 Before the Sea and Land were made, and
 Heaven that all doth hide,
 In all the world one onely face of nature did
 abide,
 Which Chaos hight, a huge rude heape, and
 nothing else but even
 A heavie lump and clottred clod of seedes
 together driven
 Of things at strife among themselves for want
 of order due.
 No sunne as yet with lightsome beams the
 shapeless world did view.
 No Moone in growing did repayre hir hornes
 with borrowed light.
 Nor yet the earth amides the ayre did hang
 by wondrous slight
 Just peysed by hir proper weight.


This is grand, and grandly stirring ("peysed" bv the way, means "weighted"). Golding has perfect command of the long line--always a problem in English verse--that nicely echoes Ovid's hexameter. Ovid, of course, doesn't rhyme, but Golding's rhymes propel the poem forward; by their sheer emphatic clangor they work to compensate for the absence of the alternating long and short syllables which Classical Latin, a quantitative language, affords its poets. Certain turns of phrase, such as "a huge rude heape" for ruda indigestaque moles, show how Golding draws on the English language's native strengths--here the force of monosyllables--to offset the greater vocalic complexity of the original.

Ovid has been so often translated that it would be easy to compile further comparisons with Golding; Horace Gregory, Rolfe Humphreys, and David Slavitt, to mention but American poets, have produced excellent renditions. But in all candor, in reading reviews of translations, I've always found it tedious, and rarely edifying, to pore over snippeted samples of the same passages, laid out like dead babies on autopsy slabs. Excerpts can only suggest the quality of a translation of so long a work as the Metamorphoses; one translator may succeed in a given passage which another translator fluffs and yet the latter's version may be better as a whole. My purpose here, in any case, is not to use Golding as a stick with which to beat Martin, or vice-versa, but to ask which version is the more truly Ovidian and why, quite apart from their intrinsic literary merits. Here's how Martin opens his Metamorphoses:
 My mind leads me to speak now of forms
 changed
 into new bodies: O gods above, inspire
 this undertaking (which you've changed as
 well)
 and guide my poem in its epic sweep
 from the world's beginning to the present day.

 Before the seas and lands had been created,
 before the sky that covers everything,
 Nature displayed a single aspect only
 throughout the cosmos; Chaos was its name,
 a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk
 and nothing more, with the discordant seeds
 of disconnected elements all heaped
 together in anarchic disarray.

 The sun as yet did not light up the earth,
 nor did the crescent moon renew her horns,
 nor was the earth suspended in midair,
 balanced by her own weight, nor did the
 ocean
 extend her arms to the margins of the land.


At first sight Golding impresses as the more "poetic" His language is full and ornate and glorious. Martin seems flat, a bit clumsy, distinctly "unpoetic." On closer reading, however, we will find that Martin's rendering is subtler. Because he exercises restraint, he can modulate his tone and his diction more variously than Golding who always goes full-blast and at the same intense pitch. By beginning on a low note, as it were, Martin is able to build up to a formulation for chaos which is both more interesting and more intricate vocalically than Golding's "huge rude heape": "a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk" captures the Latin original and tickles the palate pleasingly.

It would be absurd to compare two such disparate versions, from the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries respectively, for any other reason than to assess strategies of translation; in that regard, the wide gulf of time and convention and poetic practice that yawns between them allows us to see better than if we were to compare contemporaneous attempts.

Golding tends to whomp us over the head with his spectacular effects; for example, his "clottred clod of seeds." Martin, by contrast, comes up with the lovely phrase "discordant seeds/ of disconnected elements," which is unobtrusive but ultimately more apt, and more Ovidian, than Golding's bludgeoning tongue-twister. Notice too how Martin's version begins to sing when he reaches the passage about sun and moon. Martin doesn't attempt to duplicate Ovid's hexameter but employs a basic pattern of iambic pentameter which he subtly varies, interrupting the cadence at moments so that it hesitates or seems to stumble, then allowing it suavely to unfurl. Thus, after three regular iambic lines, he resorts to a trochee at the beginning and at the end of the line, "balanced by her own weight, not did the ocean," which gives it an unexpected lift; the word "ocean" itself seems to crest at the rim of the verse before spilling over into "extend her arms to the margins of the land," with its ripple of assonance in "arms" and "margins."

Martin also enlivens and spices his lines with unexpected turns of phrase, as when Jove "was just about to sprinkle earth/with thunderbolts," which strikes just the right note of menace lightly rendered (Ovid never takes the gods quite seriously, another strike against him!). Again, when the gods hold an assembly, Martin can get away with the jocular "All hell broke loose in heaven-what an uproar!" And because his register of tones is plastic and variable, when he must render one of those extended metaphors so beloved by the classic authors, he handles it with impressive deftness:
 Now just as in a field the harvest stubble
 Is all burned off, or as hedges are set ablaze
 When, if by chance, some careless traveler
 Should brush one with his torch or toss away
 The still-smoldering brand at break of day-Just
 so the smitten god went up in flames
 Until his heart was utterly afire,
 And hope sustained his unrequited passion.


This little passage points up another of Martin's inconspicuous devices that subtly complicate the texture of the translation. This is the skillful way he alternates and juxtaposes words with Latinate roots against an "Anglo-Saxon" vocabulary. The first seven lines all employ plain English words but the eighth is Latinate: "And hope sustained his unrequited passion." Such modulations not only smooth the transitions between one episode or event and another but also restore a just measure of balance to the passage, as though Ovid, through Martin's mediation, were tactfully drawing us back from the god's romantic immolation.

In the story of Jove and Io, all of Martin's many strengths come into play. Io, daughter of the river Inachus, has the misfortune to attract the god's attention. Io is terrified even though Jove, rather pathetically, exclaims: "I am he who hurls the roaming thunderbolt-don't run from me!" He sends down a darkening mist to confuse the girl and then has his way with her in the gloom. But meanwhile, back at Olympus, Juno notices the untimely mist and smells a rat.
 She realized
 That neither falling mist nor rising log
 Could be the cause of this phenomenon,
 And looked about at once to find her
 husband,
 As one too well aware of the connivings
 Of a mate so often taken in the act.


Martin has Juno say, "Either I'm mad--or I am being had," which is just right for the jealous goddess. Jove at once transforms Io into "a gleaming heifer--a beauty still,/ even as a cow." The whole episode is delightfully farcical. Jove is a clumsy philanderer (Augustus would not have been amused), Juno a vengeful wife, the femme fatale a hapless grazer set out to pasture under the vigilance of Argus. Ovid elaborates her plight in cruel but comical terms; since she no longer has arms, she cannot stretch them out in supplication and whenever she tries to plead, she only moos. When Juno finally relents, persuaded by love (whose conscience is stung by Io's non-stop bovine bellowing), the metamorphosis is as magical as it is humorous:
 The goddess was now pacified, and Io
 at once began regaining her lost looks,
 till she became what she had been before;
 her body lost all of its bristling hair,
 her horns shrank down, her eyes grew
 narrower,
 her jaws contracted, arms and hands returned,
 and hooves divided themselves into nails;
 nothing remained of her bovine nature,
 unless it was the whiteness of her body.
 She had some trouble getting her legs back,
 and for a time feared speaking, lest she moo,
 and so quite timidly regained her speech.


Ovid's genius in the Metamorphoses lies not only in the fluid beauty of his verse but in his unparalleled ability to imagine all the minutiae of transformation. The physical details are always vivid; we seem to witness the stages of bodily change, as in those time-lapse photographs where we watch a butterfly stickily extricating itself from its chrysalis before spreading its wings. No wonder Ovid gave both delight and inspiration to later artists over the centuries, and not only poets--doesn't Ariosto hatch from Ovid's chrysalis?--but painters and sculptors too. I wouldn't even be surprised to learn that Kafka had Ovid in the back of his mind when he wrote his own Metamorphosis; the excruciating details of Gregor Samsa's monstrous transformation are as precise as anything to be found in the Latin poet's masterpiece.

In Book 15, Ovid introduces the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras in an evident effort to underpin his extravagant imaginings with some respectable rationale. The philosopher's peroration is a bit windy and not altogether convincing. If anything, his words may have made the Metamorphoses more alarming than they already were to censorious readers. Thus, Pythagoras, again in Martin's version, declares:
 "Everything changes and nothing can die,
 for the spirit
 wanders wherever it wishes to, now here and
 now there,
 living with whatever body it chooses, and
 passing
 from feral to human and then back from
 human to feral,
 and at no time does it ever cease its existence;
 and just as soft wax easily takes on a
 new shape,
 unable to stay as it was or keep the same form,
 and yet is still wax, I preach that the spirit
 always
 the same even though it migrates to various
 bodies."


A belief in metempsychosis seems to have been a feature of ancient Pythagoreanism and remained surprisingly persistent, mutating not only into various forms in Western thought but, in conjunction with Indian conceptions of reincarnation, spreading into the Islamic world, where theologians and philosophers sought to suppress it for centuries. But with regard to Ovid, whether or not he actually subscribed to such a belief, it was ideally suited for his artistic purposes. The world itself, prime matter, the stuff of living beings, was as malleable to his imagination as was the world of words in which he was a kind of secret emperor.

At the end of the Metamorphoses, after recounting the glorious history of Rome--itself as subject to mutability, as all things under the moon--Ovid inserts the obligatory praise of Augustus, invoking the "local gods of Italy" as well as Apollo and Jove, and he entreats that
 late be that day and not in our time
 when he, Augustus, ruler of the world,
 departs from it, and rises to the stars,
 and absent, is attentive to our prayers.


Perhaps Ovid should have stopped there, with the ultimate apotheosis of Augustus. Instead he concludes with fourteen lines which might seem mere braggadocio had not time proved them true. Augustus will live forever as a god "like great Jove," but so too will Ovid, in a humbler but perhaps more significant way: "upon the people's lips."
 My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
 Nor sword nor fire nor futurity
 Is capable of laying waste to it.
 Lot that day come then, when it wishes to,
 Which only has my body in its power,
 And put an end to my uncertain years;

 No matter, for in spirit I will be
 Borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
 Immortal in the name I leave behind:
 Wherever Roman governance extends
 Over the subject nations of the world,
 My words will be upon the people's lips,
 And if there is truth in poets' prophecies,
 Then in my fame forever I will live.


There is pride in these wonderful lines, as well as defiance, and not a small clement of lese-majeste. Ovid paid for his boast--if that was, in fact, his "song and mistake"--with ten years of banishment among rough barbarians ignorant of Latin on the Black Sea coast. He never saw Rome again--a "metamorphosis" of circumstance as cruel and as whimsical as any he could have imagined.

(1) Metamorphoses, by Publius Ovidius Naso. Translated and with notes by Charles Martin; introduction by Bernard Knox. W. W. Norton, 2004; 623 pages; $35.
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Title Annotation:Books; Metamorphoses
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:2791
Previous Article:Worse yet, real life.
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