EP&M Online Review

An Ovid for Our Time


Edward Zuk

The Metamorphoses by Ovid.  Translated by Charles Martin (New York:  Norton, 2004).
    597 pages.  ISBN 0-393-05810-7. 

    Among other distinctions, The Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (whom we know simply as Ovid) remains our premier sourcebook of classical mythology.  Well over a hundred separate tales appear over the course of its fifteen books, beginning with the creation of the world out of a primal chaos and ending with the apotheosis of the then-current emperor, Augustus Caesar, with a world-destroying flood, the innumerable love affairs between the gods and mortals, Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece, a sprinkling of the adventures of Hercules, Theseus, and Perseus, the Trojan War, and the founding of Rome coming in between.  For Ovid’s contemporaries, The Metamorphoses must have seemed like the accepted history of the world being told in witty and polished verse.  No wonder Ovid himself thought so highly of his poem.  “My work is finished now,” he wrote in its final lines, and
            . . . 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’ prophesies,
    then in my fame forever I will live.

There is, of course, a large measure of self-promotion in these lines, but in retrospect they seem justified.  Ever since its publication, poets have turned to The Metamorphoses for inspiration far more often than to other anthologies of classical myths like Hesiod’s Theogeny, which matches Ovid’s poetic heights but lacks his suppleness and wit, or Apollodorus’s Biblioteka, a later prose collection which is as exciting as its origins as a scholarly handbook would suggest.
    Translators, too, have had a long love affair with The Metamorphoses, beginning with Arthur Golding’s classic rendition of 1567 which so influenced Shakespeare and would later impress Ezra Pound, and continuing through the 17th-century in versions by George Sandys and a partial translation by John Dryden.  Ovid fell out of favour in the 19th century (he was considered too immoral and irreverent), but his reputation revived in the middle of the the 20th.  Versions by Rolfe Humphries (1954) and Horace Gregory (1958) remain worthwhile successors to Golding, but they have been all but forgotten in the flood of recent translations.  Ted Hughes produced a selection of the tales, and more recently Allen Mandelbaum and David R. Slavitt have provided complete translations.  Mary Innes’s and Frank Justus Miller’s prose versions live on in print thanks to Penguin and the Loeb Classical Library, respectively.  A quick search at my local university library yielded further recent translations by David Raeburn, A. D. Melville, Michael Simpson, and Charles Boer, making it seem as if poets today were trying to prove that Byron’s quip about heroes also applies to translations of Ovid:  “every year and month brings forth a new one.”
    Even in this crowded field, Charles Martin’s  translation of the Metamorphoses deserves special notice.  Martin, as most readers of EP&M Online surely know, is one of the better formal poets now writing (and if you don’t know, his selected poems Starting from Sleep is compulsory reading) and a respected translator of Catallus, making him an ideal choice for bringing Ovid into modern English.  Certainly, a poet who could write this about an uncle was ready to attack The Metamorphoses:
    Dear, debonair, intemperate,
    Exotic, open, ordinary,
    Precariously overweight,
    Self-educated bon vivant,
    Soft, sybaritic emissary
    Of Dionysus to the Bronx,
    And slyly uninhibited
    Life of the party, Uncle Fred . . .
    (“How My Queer Uncle Came to Die at Last”)

Ovid himself would likely have appreciated the witty incongruity of a line like “emissary / Of Dionysus to the Bronx.”  The virtues of this verse – its ease and shifts of tone, its ability to veer from one mode of expression to another – are those of Ovid as well, allowing Martin to become that rarest of creatures:  a translator who really does share a common spirit with his subject.
    Martin’s translation is, on the whole, a predictable delight.  Ovid’s lines are brought into a modern American English which is nearly always fresh and swift.  The lines move easily between the formal and idiomatic, and there is usually little strain when the poem moves from an everyday conversation to a formal prayer or lamentation.  For example, here is Martin’s version of the nymph Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree while being pursued by the sun-god Apollo:
    Her prayer was scarcely finished when she feels
    a torpor take possession of her limbs –
    her supple trunk is girdled with a thin
    layer of fine bark over her smooth skin;
    her hair turns into foliage, her arms
    grow into branches, sluggish roots adhere
    to feet that were so recently so swift,
    her head becomes the summit of a tree;
    all that remains of her is a warm glow.

There is much to admire here, from the suppleness of the metre to the choice of the verbs “adhere” and “girdled,” from the unexpected rhyme to the subtle emphasis of the final spondee, “warm glow.”  And yet, a page before the crafted formality of these lines, Ovid and Martin have Apollo notice Daphne’s hair and ask, “What if it were done up a bit?”  From the famous description of the primal chaos and the four ages of man to the various dalliances of gods and wood nymphs, Ovid seems to have presented his translators with an impossible task in trying to capture his tone – except, of course, that the best of his translators, Martin among them, have found the means of triumphing over this difficulty.
    Yet the greatest strength of Martin’s translation is its naturalness of expression.  This version of The Metamorphoses is inviting enough to be read through fairly quickly from beginning to end so that the reader can appreciate the sweep of the poem as a whole.  Ovid’s poem is a remarkably unified work even though he hurries from one myth to another with minimal transitions.  The theme of change is present in every tale.  The world begins in chaos with “elements all heaped / together in anarchic disarray.”  The Olympian gods, when they interact with mortals, transform themselves into beasts or golden showers, and mortals like Arachne or Medusa are transformed into spiders or hideous monsters as a punishment for their lack of piety.  The human race itself is the result of a series of metamorphoses:  after the great flood that depopulated the world, our ancestors sprang from stones tossed by the last two survivors, though the Myrmidons, who were transformed into human beings from ants, and the inhabitants of Thebes, who were sown from a dragon’s teeth, could claim a different origin.  It should be no surprise, then, that The Metamorphoses finds its climax in the teachings of Pythagoras, who makes the idea of transformation into the core of his philosophy:
       Devouring Time!  Envious Age!  Working together,
    you bring all to ruin:  in your unhurried consumption,
    the world is ground down, and everything perishes slowly.
    Even what we call the elements do not endure, and
    if you pay heed, I will show you the changes they go through . . .

This passage reveals what we might call Ovid’s metaphysics:  the world arose out of chaos, and it has never quite freed itself from its original instability and impulse towards anarchy.
    Two other distinctions of this translation deserve mention.  The high quality of the verse can be seen from the many arresting phrases that are sprinkled throughout the book.   Apollo’s palace contains “ceilings intricate with ivory”; the inhabitants of Thebes, sown from dragon’s teeth, spring from the earth as a “dense-packed mass of shields”; Daedalus, in fashioning his artificial wings out of feathers and wax, has “changed the face of nature”; Hercules lies down to sleep, “pillowing [his] head / upon [his] club”; the ruins of Troy contain “Jove’s altar . . . still drinking the thin blood / of aged Priam.”  And when he is not coining new phrases, Martin gestures towards the canonical poets of the past, translating many lines so as to make their influence clear.  When Apollo, chasing Daphne, boasts that “I alone reveal / what was, what is, and what will come to be,” I imagine that most readers will pause and say to themselves, “Ah yes, Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium!’” while others might think to themselves, “Oh, wasn’t that in The Prelude?”  When, in a later book, Apollo declares that “I am that one who measures the long year, / who sees all things, and by whom all may see; / I am the world’s eye,” I immediately recalled the final stanza of “The Hymn of Apollo,” one of Shelley’s triumphs:
    I am the eye with which the Universe
       Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
    All harmony of instrument or verse,
       All prophecy and medicine are mine,
    All light of art or nature; – to my song
    Victory and praise in its own right belong.

The earlier stanzas of Shelley’s poem that describe Apollo’s duties as the charioteer of the sun appear to have been inspired by the god’s speech to his son Phaëthon in Book II.  Shakespeare, too, seems to have had Ovid in mind when he had Cinna list of signs that prefigured the death of Julius Caesar, a slightly different version of which appears in The Metamorphoses in Book XV.  Milton must have recalled Ovid’s descriptions of Chaos when he had Satan hurry through the region on his way to visit the Garden and Eden in Paradise Lost, and I wonder if Spenser would have undertaken the Mutabilitie Cantos at the end of The Faerie Queene without Ovid’s example to inspire him.  How much of our poetry would not have been written, or written differently, without the ghost of The Metamorphoses standing behind it!
    I hope that I have done enough to indicate the overall excellence of Martin’s version, which makes it superior to any of the recent translations that I have glanced at.  What follows is meant as criticism, not only of several questionable decisions in this translation, but of several trends that have established themselves among our translators in general.
    The first of these trends is revealed in the free hand that Martin gives himself in adding commentary within the verse and inserting elements not in the original.  In some cases, these interpolations are actually helpful.  For example, Martin sets parenthetical explanations in the text itself to explain Latin puns.  When the Trojan Aesacus is turned into a bird we read that:
    He loves the water and approves his name
    [mergus] because [as we once used to say]
    he immerges himself underneath its surface.

A mergus, I found by consulting a Latin dictionary, is a merganser duck; without the interpolation, the point of the verse would have been lost.  Other obscure references are quietly explained in the text itself.  Less happily, Martin decided to invent titles for the fifteen books and to add headings like “Medea and Jason” or “Ajax versus Ulysses” to the various tales.  The headings are necessary – since this edition lacks a full index, there is no other way to locate where Ovid retells the story of Perseus, say, or the descent of Orpheus into the underworld – but the titles are misleading.  Ovid passes from one tale to another too unpredictably for the books to be unified enough for a title.  Book I has the title “The Shaping of Changes,” which fits Ovid’s description of the creation of the world and the four ages but not the tales of Apollo and Daphne or Jove and Io.  The title of Book II, “Of Mortal Children and Immortal Lusts,” does describe its contents, but the title also applies the majority of the tales throughout The Metamorphoses.  Juno is hardly present in Book III, “The Wrath of Juno.”  And so on.
    These liberties represent a real trend among our translators that I find alarming.  In Bernard Knox’s introduction to the book, I read with horror that David R. Slavitt, in his version, routinely omits short passages to replace them with versified commentary:  “This story, a somewhat mannered performance, / is one of those nice rhetorical pieces Ovid loved” or “We are back on track now.”  Martin is far more faithful to Ovid, though at one point he gleefully leaves his source behind, changing the daughters of Pierus into the P-Airides who challenge the Muses to . . . well, you can see for yourselves:
    We’re the New Thing and here is our deal
    If we beat you, obsolete you, then you just get gone
    From these classy haunts on Mount Helicon
    We give you Macedonia – if we lose
    An’ that’s an offer you just can’t refuse
    So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
    And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!

On the following page, the P-Airides describe the flight of Venus from the attack of the Titans:  “Venus the queen of the downtown scene, yuh know what her wish is? / ‘Gimme a body just like a fish’s.’”  All the reviewers of Martin’s translation that I have read have praised this passage for its high spirits, but I found it embarrassing.  Martin doesn’t have an ear for this type of bad rhyming and word play (the couplet on Venus is actually one of the better ones), and in reading these lines I felt sorry that he has dated his translation.  Who will take pleasure in reading these lines in twenty years, or forty?  And, really, how many readers who are interested in Ovid want to hear bad poetry slam verse now?
    The ultimate effect of these interpolations is to diminish the distance between the Romans and ourselves, making it seem as if they were like us, even at our stupidest.  And so one of the major reasons for reading a translation – to learn other ways of writing and seeing – disappears.  In this case, a real opportunity was lost.  One of the lessons that Ovid holds for poets of today is how to use parody and suppleness without descending into slang or farce, what Martin calls Ovid’s “thoughtful lightness” in his introductory notes.  At certain points of the narrative, Ovid’s grace and intelligence are turned into clichés.  Martin’s verse on occasion totters on the verge of being too cute (“All hell broke loose in heaven”), and at other times he has Juno speak like a jilted soap opera lover (“Oh, very nice indeed . . . Home wrecker! . . . Ah!  But you will not get away with it”) or Apollo woo a lover by sounding like a junior high student (“you / are something really special, quite a sight!”).  In all these cases, I can sense Martin’s desire to make the Roman gods sound contemporary by using the same type of slang or expressions that we might hear on the street or on t.v.  I wish that he had aimed higher.
    I hope that these last remarks have not turned any reader from the many pleasures found in Charles Martin’s translation.  His version is, for the most part, excellent, by far the best recent translation that I have encountered, and his faults are ones that can be found in every translation being produced today.  Yet the occasional blemishes in the verse and several curious decisions make his effort fall just short of its promise, making it a worthy translation rather than a classic.