My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a way to start off 2017. Charles Martin’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses has skyrocketed into my list of favorite books. I savored each page and made sure I was calm and focused each time I sat down to read so that I wouldn’t miss anything. If I had to quote the best part, I’d say it was: “My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed / into new bodies … and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies, / then in my fame forever I will live” (Book I:1 – Book XV: 1112).
I enjoyed Ovid’s grouping of history into four ages: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron. In the beginning, we had beauty, no need for laws, peace and nature. By the time we find ourselves in the Iron Age, we have war, greed, and despoiling of nature in furthering of those two desires. Ovid writes that in the age of Iron we dig in the ground to unearth gold and iron, the latter to kill and secure the former (p. 20).
I was fascinated with all the origin myths of the gods and heroes of the classical world. I am thankfully to have come to Ovid after having read so many other things from Greek and Roman mythology. Encountering Ovid first would have been confusing and not as wonderful an experience. As I’m a huge Homer fan and of the larger Epic Cycle, I enjoyed the “Ajax versus Ulysses” section of Book XIII, which deals with the awarding of Achilles’ armor after his death at Troy. I also enjoyed Pythagoras’s thoughts on the moral imperative of vegetarianism in Book XV. I loved seeing the seeds of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (Book IV, p. 125). Ovid didn’t invent this theme of forbidden love but I was so surprised reading this section that was written almost 1600 years before Shakespeare’s play.
The only part of this translation I didn’t enjoy was the “rap” part in Book V with the “The daughters of Pierus.” It just seemed full of pandering to stereotypes. One thing I found troubling, not with Ovid or the translation but with the mythology, was a thought I had in Book XI (though it built up over the entire work). Were all females, either goddesses or woman, raped to produce the male “heroes” of the classical world?
Almost all of Ovid’s metamorphoses (transformations) are of beings (gods or humans) being turned into flora or fauna. There are physical changes, mental fogginess, and the loss or change of spoken language. This death of personality can also be seen as a birth of sorts, whereby a new object comes into being, sometimes one beloved like various birds, trees or streams.
I’ll close this review with a note I wrote on the inside cover of my edition: “What wonder, to write when Homer, Ovid, Virgil and Horace wrote. To describe the world when it was new.” As a writer, I hope to try reinvent this newness and address it with my simple prose and verse.