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Type of work: Poetry

Author: Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 B.C.-A.D. 17)

First published: c. A.D. 8

Ovid had published two books, the Ars amatoria (c. 2 B.C.; Art of Love) and Remedia amoris (before A.D. 8; Cure for Love), which with their erotic content flouted the gravity of Emperor Augustus' moral reformation. The poet appears also to have been privy or accessory to some morally questionable activity on the part of Augustus' grandaughter Julia. It was possibly for either or both of these offenses, and certainly for still another which no historian has been able to identify, that Ovid was exiled in A.D. 8 to Tomis (modern Constanta), a frontier town on the west coast of the Black Sea. At this time, whether in spiteful resentment over his expulsion or from dissatisfaction with the poem's compositional state, he commanded the destruction of his Metamorphoses. If the directive was carried out, at least a single available copy was preserved; thus one of the greatest literary achievements of Roman antiquity remained extant.

It is difficult to believe that Ovid wanted the work destroyed by reason of its imperfection. The faults that can be discerned in it are patently venial and do not impair the fluidity and profundity that perennially ingratiate it to readers. Questionable lines or troublesome cruces may have owed more to the errors of copyists than to Ovid's hand. Questions about contradictions--for example, the continuance of Lycaon's lineage after Lycaon and everyone else except Deucalion and Pyrrha were drowned in the Flood--are not material in the context of myth; and the context of the Metamorphoses is myth. It is the mythological history of the world from the Creation to the time of Augustus. It is written in fifteen books, comprising 11,992 lines of dactylic hexameter, the meter of classical epic. Each segment of each book includes an episode of myth, and each mythic episode includes at least one metamorphosis. The music of the metric, the unobtrusive transition from story to story, the ingenious use of rhetorical and syntactical figures, and the resultant compendium of Greek and Roman myth, interlaced with natural and human history, all attest a literary masterwork that a proven poet would be unlikely to choose to destroy as a failure in artistry.

Its uniqueness among epics is variously evident. While it begins with the epic conventions of statement and invocation of divine muse, it does not leap in medias res, as epics by standard definition do. Moreover, it does not center its narrative upon a contest of antagonists (like Achilles and Hector in the Iliad), a hero (like Odysseus in the Odyssey), or a bonded pair in mission (like Aeneas and Achates in Vergil's Aeneid). It is closer in texture to the Aeneid than to the Greek epics, not only because Vergil and Ovid wrote in Latin but also because the two Roman poets both moved their episodic narratives toward a grand terminus that was the city of Rome itself, a city that was for both poets also an empire and a conceptual efflorescence of human destiny. Where Vergil sees Rome as the culmination of human history, however, Ovid views Rome as the manifestation of ameliorative change.

Ovid is true to his theme of change; and it is with this theme that he differs from all ancient writers of epic except possibly Lucretius (c. 98-55 B.C.), if one accepts as an epic his poeticized scientific treatise De rerum natura (c. 60 B.C.; On the Nature of Things), Lucretius elucidates change, among other facts of physicality, in his epitome of Epicurus' materialistic theory of atomism. Ovid illustrates Pythagoras' theory of constant change: He assigns to Pythagoras the words omnia mutantur nihil interit (everything changes, nothing dies) and adopts the Pythagorean theory of number, by which the earth was proved to be a sphere.

The theme of change is expressed and rhetorically exemplified in the first four lines of the poem. Here Ovid speaks of forms materializing as various bodies, not of bodies changing physical form, because his abstract constant, like Plato's forms, is taken as the insubstantial reality of all concretions. He uses the rhetorical device of chiasmus (symmetrically balanced word order, such as abba), to intimate the cyclic nature of change and that of anaphora (repetitively balanced word order, such as abab) to intimate the linear continuity of change.

The episodes of the fifteen books are similarly balanced in both symmetrical and repetitive sequences. In the first book, physical chaos becomes order, God creates humankind, and humankind is destroyed and restored; the symmetrical reverse appears in the last book, as Pythagoras teaches that life is destroyed and restored, as a created human (Julius Caesar) becomes a god, and as political disorder becomes order. The first two books contain a notable repetitive sequence in describing the destruction of the earth by the Flood, followed by its restoration, and then the destruction of the earth by the descent of the sun, again followed by the earth's restoration. Ovid incorporates the excesses of change in this sequence, showing an earth that fails from too much water and the same earth failing from not enough water. His echo of the Greek concept of the golden mean reverberates in books 5 and 6, where humans hubristically challenge gods: In their excessive pride the Pierides (challenging the Muses in song), Arachne (challenging Minerva in weaving), and Niobe (challenging Latona in maternity) are all appropriately transformed, the Pierides into magpies, Arachne into a spider, and Niobe into a mountain whose melting snows constitute tears shed for her slain children. The golden mean reverberates as well in book 8, in the figure of Icarus, who is cautioned by his father, Daedalus, not to fly too high or too low on the wings that Daedalus has fashioned of feathers and wax. "Proceed in the middle path" is the father's warning, but Icarus flies too high and is destroyed. The story of Icarus is in thematic balance with the story of Phaeton in book 2: Phaeton, assuming in his pride that he can do what in fact he has not the skill to do, drives the chariot of the sun too low and brings about the above-mentioned dehydration of the earth.

The moral content of the Metamorphoses, along with its currents of history and science (or philosophy--the two were not differentiated in classical antiquity) is overshadowed by the sensual character, a carryover from his amatory works, of Ovid's mythography. Indeed, during the Middle Ages dependence upon the text for mythological information had to be justified by a specially contrived moralistic reading: Compilations of Ovide moralise (moralized Ovid) were produced in poetry and prose in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in France.

Actually, the moral fabric of Ovid's epic is more integumentary than interstitial. Apart from the kind of allegorical inference that justifies the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the Bible, Ovid's moral underpinnings can be seen in his story of the Four Ages--Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron--during which human life moved from golden bliss to iron-hard travail, suffering duress in proportion to human moral failings. Ovid adapted the story of the Five Ages, and indeed much else, from the Greek didactic poet Hesiod (late eighth century B.C.), eliminating the post-Bronze pre-Iron Heroic Age as well as Hesiod's alternative account of the deterioration of human morals, the story of Pandora's box. The story of the Flood is moralistic; likewise, there are many stories of transformation in the context of morality, particularly the series of episodes in books 9 through 11, in which models of righteousness alternate with examples of immorality. The righteous include Iolaus, Iphis, Ganymede, Hyacinthus, Pygmalion, and Atalanta. Immorality is exemplified by Byblis, seeker of incestuous relations with her brother the murderous Cerastae; horned women, transformed into bulls; the profane Propoetides, who became the first prostitutes and were changed into stone; Myrrha, who seduced her father; Orpheus, who loses his wife, Eurydice, through his possessiveness and is slain by Bacchantes in punishment for his subsequent misogyny; and Midas, the prototype of material greed.

The morally oriented metamorphoses are not consistently matters of reward and punishment. Some are retributive, particularly those by which the wrongdoer is translated into her or his excess: Lycaon becomes his rapacity in the body of a wolf; Ascalaphus becomes a screech owl, the embodiment of his inability to maintain discreet silence; the Sibyl, avid for long years of life, becomes those years as her body and all but her voice disintegrate in time. Some are remunerative: Hercules, Aeneas, Romulus, Hersilia, and Julius Caesar are all deified for their achievements. Virtue is not, however, regularly rewarded, nor vice regularly punished: Echo, who helps Jupiter to conceal his amours and whose love is not requited by the insufferably vain Narcissus, becomes, like the sibyl, a disembodied voice; Semele, beloved by Jupiter, is, like the great Achilles, reduced to ashes. In the Metamorphoses, morality, like time and physicality, is a symptom of change, not a determinant of evaluative quality.

The moral current of Ovid's epic moves generally from an unregenerate humankind punished by the Flood toward a gradually improving humankind whose greatest representatives merit apotheosis. This current is inseparable from the flow of the narrative. Books 1 and 2 move from the Creation and the modes of control exercised by Jupiter and Apollo to the Theban-centered myths of Greece in books 3 and 4 and the exploits of Perseus in books 4 and 5; books 5 and 6 offer their studies in hubris; books 7 through 9 focus on the figures of Jason, Theseus, and Hercules, the last more exemplary than the second, the second more than the first. After the specific examples of moral goodness and badness in books 10 and 11, the epic glides into the Trojan War (book 12) and the exploits of Ulysses (book 13) and Aeneas (book 14) in the Ovidian rehearsal of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. Book 15 resolves the direction of the work with its highly moralistic Pythagorean peroration and its conclusion in Roman history from Romulus to Augustus. The accolade to Augustus at the end of the poem clearly had no effect upon the emperor's decision to exile the poet, and this may account in part for Ovid's order to destroy the manuscript.

The Pythagorean essay calls for vegetarianism and a respect for nature in its cycles of change. The invocation of the epic, directed to di (gods) as both inclusive of the Muses and productive of changes, is iterated in Pythagoras' intimations that change is divinely ordained; it is a universal force, the foremost representatives of which, throughout the epic, are Jupiter and Apollo.

The temple to Jupiter on Rome's Capitoline Hill was balanced by the temple to Apollo, constructed on the adjacent Palatine Hill by order of Augustus, ostensibly in gratitude for the emperor's naval victory at Actium in 30 B.C. Ovid maintains an effective Jupiter-Apollo equipollence in the Metamorphoses. In book 1 the series of episodes from the Creation to the Flood center on Jupiter; the series is followed by the stories of the postdiluvian Python, slain by Apollo, and Daphne, pursued by Apollo; and book 1 concludes with a framing story of Jupiter and Io. In book 2 the framing story of Apollo's impetuous son Phaeton is followed by the episode in which Jupiter pursues Callisto, which in turn is followed by Apollo's affair with Coronis and the birth of his son Aesculapius, who will reappear in book 15 as the healer of Rome. The Jupiter-Apollo-Jupiter and Apollo-Jupiter-Apollo sequences are the initial means of emphasizing Rome's culminate gods; the second means of emphasis is the constant reference to stones, symbolic of Jupiter, and serpents, symbolic of Apollo. Each of the fifteen books includes specific references to both stones and serpents; in book 15 Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, glides in the body of a serpent over the stone steps of his father's temple to travel to Rome and relieve the city of suffering wrought by plague.

Ovid's beneficent Aesculapius ends his journey to Rome by residing on Tiber Island, which in modern times became, suitably, the site of a hospital. Like Aesculapius' journey from Delphi over the Ionian and Mediterranean seas to the Tiber River and Rome, Ovid's Metamorphoses, in winding its way through the ages to modern times, lavished its own beneficence on literary traditions, from his contemporaries to the medieval moralizers to enlightened neo-Augustans such as Alexander Pope. T. S. Eliot's use of Ovid's Sophoclean Teresias theme for the focal configuration of The Waste Land (1922) substantiates the claim that, in its epical amalgamation of Greco-Roman lyric and didactic mythography, the Metamorphoses required no moralizing apologists any more than it ever needed critical apologists for its artistry.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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