Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of the most influential books ever written. One can see the influence of it in literature through Montaigne's The Complete Essays, where it is often quoted, via Shakespeare and Dante, right down to Pound and Ted Hughes. Painters from Titian to Salvador Dali have also drawn on the stories in this book. My own introduction to it came initially from retellings and variations of stories by modern poets in After Ovid: New Metamorphoses which lead Ted Hughes, a contributor, to do a generous selection of his own versions in Tales from Ovid: Twenty-four Passages from the "Metamorphoses". That last volume remains one of my favourite Hughes, and I treasure a memory of hearing him read some of his versions with a voice that seemed to reach back across time to Ovid and into the myths.
All this led me to explore the full text for myself. My first incursion, not having enough Latin, was with a Penguin Classics prose translation (Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)) which still makes for a good read. Like a number classic works such as the epics Homer and Virgil, the Metamorphoses works well in prose. Here is the source, or in some cases a retelling, of many myths that have reappeared over the years from before even Roman times to present day sometimes reappearing more recently for us in film, or on television. It is a collection of folk stories, creation myths, and even in small ways of history (though that is mythologised) as much as a continuous poetic narrative. The one common feature of each story is that it involves some form of transformation, hence the title.
Being inclined towards poetry, I wanted to read this book in verse. There is a classic version in English, which Penguin Classics publish, by Arthur Golding (See (Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)). The main drawback of this is that it's in Elizabethan English which we may be familiar with from Shakespeare and Marlowe. But beautiful though that is, it's not always as immediately approachable as the modern English of Hughes. However, much as I love that, it does not have all the stories. Sometimes he also intentionally used poetic licence and added modern allusions in the text, hence his versions should be taken as Hughes rather than literal translations, though they honour Ovid's spirit magnificently.
This outstanding translation will serve to bring readers closer to the words of the original. The translator, David Raeburn, has clearly also learned from Hughes. The text also reads well as narrative. Hence, from my point of view, it is the version of Ovid to have, even above the prose version. Not just because Ovid was a poet. In a certain ways this book can be used as an encyclopaedia of Greek and Roman myths. There are wonderful notes at the back to explain various references as the long poem unfolds, plus a comprehensive Glossary-Index which is helpful if one wants to find various stories and characters in Ovid's narrative when not reading the book as a whole. Readers unfamiliar to poetry will have no difficulty following the narrative line here. But in verse there is more space on the page which makes it easier to find things in the text, whilst in the prose version sometimes the details are lost in the density of paragraphs.
All in all, a marvellous Ovid which nobody should be without, though I still also love the Hughes. Here I revel in being poly-amorous, and enjoy both. This translation is probably as close as anything can be to get to Ovid's original words in modern English.
on 31 March 2009
Ovid looked at the vast collection of Greco and Roman myths and understood the unifying factor to be metamorphosis. He therefore took on the monumental task of linking them together in one long continuous poem. The results are truly monumental.
I think Penguin editions can sometimes linger a little too much on the intellectual understanding of classics but I enjoyed and continue to enjoy this edition. A chronology of Ovid's life and works is included before the text as well as an introduction by Denis Feeney which is interesting and comprehensive whilst not being terribly preachy on how 'Metamorphoses' should be experienced. There is a page dedicated to further books of interest. The translator David Raeburn also writes a short note on his intentions, the format of the original and his new version, which I also found very interesting. The fifteen books of the 'Metamorphoses' follows. On the first reading I dutifully read the summaries at the beginning of each book for a while, but they add very little, instead they mainly catalogue what happens in each segment before it does, which can ruin it a bit. Still they are nice to read after as they can add to your understanding. I found the notes on background information, points of detail and cross references incredibly useful and fascinating. The index was also useful to keep track of all the characters and to be used as a guide as it tells you where each character appears in the text so you can flick to the right section. An historical map of the world Ovid lived in is also included.
Raeburn chose to compose the text in a metre which is closer to Ovid's dactylic hexameter - which in turns references the epic style of Homer and Virgil - as opposed to the traditional English metre for narrative poetry, which is iambic pentameter. He writes in his note that he has done this to reflect the relaxed flow of Ovid's narrative. Because of this I did find the rhythm a little tricky to pick up at first but after a few pages I had become immersed in the flow of the prose and found that the text is actually very easy to understand. Although Raeburn stresses how faithfully he has tried to reflect the original format and flavour (his 11,870 is very close to the originals 11,995) he also makes it clear that this is not a literal version of the original. To help with clarity and as he was working within the limits of idiomatic English he has altered the arrangement of some of the lines and compressed and expanded some also. For this I am grateful as I am not a student looking for an English translation to study alongside the original Latin and want the translation I read to be accessible. He also mentions that he has tried to stick to one name for most of the characters, whereas Ovid used many, he has still employed some of the better known equivalents though for others, if he didn't do this I would have likely been rather lost. As it was I was still got a little turned around, with the many names of Jupiter for example.
The poem itself begins before time and takes you on a strange and mesmerising journey that finishes in Ovid's then present. Every recognisable and many minor Greco-Roman myths has a place in the poem. Ovid was a devious fellow, the scope and arrangement of 'Metamorphoses' is amazing. This is not a traditional narrative, instead Ovid plays with structure and reader expectation. The stories are connected through associated themes and characters. The whole can also be divided into three sets of five books; the first third deals heavily with the exploits of the gods and this is possibly my favourite as their base motivations are fascinating, the next focuses on the heroes and then history. But these lines are blurred and you are always being surprised as Ovid throws yet another curve ball.
Sometimes the major recurring element of transformation links the stories ingeniously and other times it's tacked on. But most noteworthy is how these transformations and transitions encompass an extraordinary range of human experience. Ovid's understanding of human motivations and readers perceptions coupled with a philosophical richness and psychological intensity is something that can be seen in every part of the poem.
The reason 'Metamorphoses' is so gripping and effecting is the reason myths are in general. By dealing in base human motivations and epic reactions, the subsequent spark of recognition the reader experiences feels integral because it is. We are all fascinated by our own identity and a collective identity. Transformations and transitions are integral to myths and integral to our sense of identity.
You can also take immense pleasure in the many different forms of metamorphoses, the huge array of characters and the intensity of the themes. Compulsion and sexual desire are strong forces that power the sometimes shocking violence and grotesque gore. No matter how many times I read it I am always entranced by the magic, impassioned by the soaring speeches, excited by the epic battles and hunt scenes, sickened by the violence, devious and often demented behaviour, which is evident in the many rape scenes and violence against man, women and children but at the same time I'm still amused by the diabolical sense of humour and wit. Ovid's epic could be seen as sensational, it was after all meant to entertain the masses with the excessive violence and erotic lusty dark edge. But there is also such intelligence to Ovid's understanding of the human psyche and the way he plays with every element, the cruel and horrific is also mixed with justice and love, corruption with honour, true heroism with petty vengeance. I love this as it feels integral and powerful, it challenges how I see narrative, structure and most importantly myself and others.
on 31 May 2015
Beware! The Kindle link is for a different version. The translator is J.J. Howard and there are no introduction or footnotes.
For me this verse translation has become a delightful source of reference for Greek and Roman mythology, European literature, art, and opera. And, most importantly, the stories are a lot of fun and entertainment. I have continued to enjoy this book, using the excellent Contents and Glossary to look up my favourite tales and to refresh my memory on the numerous Gods, demi-Gods, kings, maidens, nymphs that populate the pages. First time round I read the poem from start to finish and soon realised it was going to be impossible for me to recall all the multiple plot progressions, people and places, family trees, the multifarious metamorphosing. So I keep coming back when I, for instance, want to remember the myth associated with a Bernini sculpture or reread the almost comic strip violence of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. This edition has a useful introduction, which helped me understand the historical context and themes of Ovid's vivid descriptions of heroes, death, incest, rape, sensuality, love, obsession, beauty and the ever-present metamorphoses. I found the translation very accessible and benefits from a vocal reading.
on 30 March 2007
This translation offers a concise and very useful set of explanatory notes and a glossary. Ovid's work is divided into legendary stories of the ancient world, each leading on from the other to give an epic poem of gods, monsters, heroes and cities. Ovid's poetic tone is engaging and its not hard to see why his work has captured the imaginations of so many great artists and writers. Some of the legends included are The Creation, Phaethon, Europa, Narcissus and Echo, Bacchus (and the cult of Dionysus), Pyramus and Thisbe, Perseus (and the Gorgon), the Rape of Proserpina, Medea and Jason, Orpheus, and so on. Each of the tales focus on the theme of transformation as indicated in the title-whether it be the gorgon's head turning its foes into marble or Daphne changing into a laurel tree.
on 1 February 2016
This Kindle edition is not the same as that earning rave reviews and should be avoided at all costs: old translation, no background, notes or introduction. I finished up buying the Penguin classics book which is great. The wrong information in the kindle book-store should be corrected - entirely misleading. Will somebody responsible read this and act?
on 25 June 2015
really disappointed - says its by Feeney, but it is not.
If you are looking for a copy for A330 - stay away! Can't get even get a refund, despite false advertising, after only 2 minutes of buying it. Or at least it doesn't give an option to.
on 21 October 2014
The best thing about this interpretation of Ovid's great work is its accessibility for readers who, like me, are keen to dip a toe into classical literature - be it Greek, Roman or to some extent both in the case of Metamorphoses - but are worried they lack the knowledge of the subject. A wealth of concise and informative footnotes are supplied throughout the book that explain backstories, context and associated characters. Readers who have already gleaned a solid foundation of the classics may find these notes intrusive and irritating; I found they were akin to having an expert tutor answering queries with clear examples.
Metamorphoses is a long narrative split into several 'acts' or 'performances', each has a central theme of metamorphosis, usually of someone being changed to an animal, statue or God, depending on the greater Gods' mood or affiliation, as a way to punish or save them, again depending on the greater Gods' mood or affiliation. The author weaves tales of bravery, stupidity, greed, love and tragedy with satirical - at the time of writing - asides, the wit of which is also explained in the footnotes.
A few of the tales will be familiar to those, like me, who had no more than a rudimentary knowledge of such literature. The siege of Troy, Hercules, King Midas, Jason and the Argonauts all make an appearance. The character description is so colourful and language so evocative that I found the picture they painted was as clear as a Hollywood film. In fact, Ovid could be accused of overplaying his commercial appeal with gratuitously gory scenes and sexed-up content. Think less Metamorphoses and more Game of Thrones.
The stories within the book contain high drama. Ovid begs the reader to asks questions of the Gods and mortal heroes, who can appear at times masterful, compassionate and awe-inspiring. Other passages show families being punished, wronged or killed by arrogant, brutal bullies. Every page encourages the reader on.
Reading Metamorphoses in ebook format was a revelation as the crucial footnotes are so accessible - so much easier than a repeated thumbing of pages back and forth. For a book around 2,000 year's old Ovid's masterpiece has much to offer modern-day readers.
Ovid was ignored by classical scholars for a long time as being frivolous and just not serious enough. He has now been rehabilitated and Metamorphoses is recognised as being one of the most complex, sophisticated and problematic poems of the age of Augustus.
It's also one of the wittiest and most accessible, and this translation deserves prizes for being both faithful to the original Latin and yet reading as if it were written yesterday in modern english blank verse.
Too often regarded as a compendium of Greek and Roman myths, Metamorphoses should be read as a continuous poem telling the story of the world from the creation to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar - but in Ovid's own inimitable and often funny and scurrilous fashion. Along the way, he takes in almost every story ever told in the ancient world: Narcissus and Echo, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pygmalion, Medea, Venus and Adonis, the Trojan war, the foundation of Rome, Romulus and Remus.
His style is witty, urbane and sophisticated, and he plays games with every genre of literature: love poetry, epic, philosophy, Greek science.
The ostensible theme of the poem that unifies the 12 books is change, but modern scholars recognise that this too is part of the game Ovid is playing with his readers, and the debate continues over what Ovid is 'about'.
More interesting, perhaps, is the way in which he plays with our preconceptions of gender, power, status and authority - but all with the lightest of touches that never reduce the brilliant story-telling to mere polemic.
Writing after Vergil, on one level Metamorphoses is a response to and a dialogue with the Aeneid, and has sometime been read as an antidote to the supposedly pro-Augustan sympathies of Vergil. Certainly Ovid was banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus just after the poem was published though the reason cannot be known due to the loss of all sources relating to the the incident. However, many scholars now recognise the other subversive voices within the Aeneid itself, questioning the imperial mission of Rome and Augustus, so maybe Ovid and Vergil are not so far apart at all...
In any case, the Metamorphoses remains one of the most brilliant examples of the pure power of superb story-telling, and has inspired artists from Shakespeare to Bernini to Ted Hughes. Read it.
on 15 April 2016
This is one of the four classic heavy weights of ancient heroic poetry (along with Homer’s The Iliad & Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid). The poem stretching to 634 pages was written by Ovid 43BC-18AD for Rome and Augustus. It brings together many myths and legends from Greece and Rome including Daedalus, Pygmalion (made into My Fair Lady), Perseus, Hercules with characters like Cyclopes, Centaurs, Circe, Apollo and the usual gods and people used to name moons. I read the hexameter poem translation and this worked really well for me; it included a detailed summary introduction to each of the 15 books and an index of characters/places (25 pages about #500 in total!), notes and a map. The poem has had a major impact on western literature. It does have reference to various incest (father-daughter, sister-brother etc), cannibalism, murder-revenge and war, lots of women avoiding or being raped and blasphemy. It has humorous notes but is otherwise a relatively serious entertainment.
The poem works to bring the many ideas of time, mental and bodily change and karma (gods punish to match the crime etc) to the human condition. It starts with creation (and has a flood event) and ends with the deification of the Emperor. So apart from getting under the skin of ancient religious world view, broadly I could see how such a then contemporary work (which already embraced Greek to Roman god correspondence) could parallel the intellectual development of early Christian understandings of the transformation and transformative nature of a man to human-god entity by the authors of the New Testament or indeed how texts can metamorphose to religion and how religion can them metamorphose into a justification for killing. Interestingly the book contained a passage on vegetarianism (and not to kill for sacrifice); it also seemed to have very few non-human transformations i.e. vast majority are people turning to birds, rivers, trees etc - I think a statue comes alive and some trees become nymphs.
A couple of quotes
“you credit the gods with too much power if you think they create and then alter the shapes in Nature”
I love this poetic description of Rumour:-
“Picture a space at the heart of the world, between the earth, the sea and the sky, on the frontiers of all three parts of the universe. Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter how distant; and here there are ears whose hallows no voice can fail to penetrate. This is the Kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a mountain, with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door. Open by night and by day, constructed entirely of sounding brass, the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever it hears”
“The centaur then bounded forward, trailing his guts on the ground; as he trailed them he trampled them under his hooves; what he trampled he burst till he caught his legs in the sludge and fell with his abdomen empty”
“Helen weeps too when she looks in her mirror to see her old woman’s wrinkles, and wonders how she came to be twice abducted. Time, the universal devourer, and spiteful decay, there is nothing you cannot destroy”.