Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 28.

Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes. Duckworth: London, 1999. Pp. viii + 246. ISBN 0-7156-2882-9. UKú40.00.

Stephen Harrison,
Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

This selective account of the reception of Ovid's Metamorphoses in English literature comes at a time of generally increased interest in the reception and translation of the Metamorphoses from scholars of Latin poetry. This can be seen, for example, in the proceedings of the 1997 Cambridge conference on Ovid and his reception, now published as Ovidian Transformations,[[1]] in the new edition of the great eighteenth century collective translation edited by Samuel Garth (see further below) produced by Garth Tissol,[[2]] and in the selection of versions from Chaucer to the 1990's in Christopher Martin's Penguin anthology Ovid in English.[[3]] It is also a period in which major modern poets have become interested in translating the Metamorphoses again, most notably Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid and the volume by many hands (including Seamus Heaney as well as Hughes himself) which preceded Hughes' larger undertaking, Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun's After Ovid: New Metamorphoses.[[4]]

Brown's methodology is close to that of Stephen Hinds' work on dynamic allusion and intertextuality in Latin poetry, though it was a shame that his Allusion and Intertext came out too late for her to engage with it in full detail.[[5]] She is interested in the active and creative interplay between allusion and original, but also in isolating a literary tendency of English 'Ovidianism', involving witty allusion, verbal punning and play, and an explicitly self-reflective attitude towards the process of poetic creation. She rightly notes that these postmodern qualities which have led to the characterisation of Ovid as 'Pomo Pat' (in the late Don Fowler's inimitable phrase) have been appreciated and admired for centuries; she also rightly notes the prominence in Ovid of intratextuality, the way in which Ovid's later works look back to and transform the Metamorphoses, on which there has been so much recent work by Stephen Hinds, Alessandro Barchiesi and others. In general, she is aware of literary theory but uses it with a light touch, eclectically and illuminatingly.

Brown's work may be conveniently broken up into two parts: the material on poets from Chaucer to Samuel Garth's translation of 1717 (to p. 139), and that on later texts. The former is where Brown clearly feels most at home, and where the meat of the book lies. Chaucer's House of Fame receives some good analysis as a version of Met. 12.39-69, matching its metapoetic qualities (pp. 23-37); likewise, there is some effective comparison of Ovid and Chaucer as poets of visuality and ekphrasis (pp. 39-56), and of the metapoetic metaphor of weaving which both show as 'spinners of yarns' (p. 44) and as fundamentally concerned with the analogy between poetical and cosmological creation.

The chapter on Shakespeare (pp. 57-84) succeeds well in finding new ground after Jonathan Bate's Shakespeare and Ovid,[[6]] making some attractive arguments -- e.g. that the mildly indecorous language of Golding's famous 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses encouraged both the specific burlesque of Ovid in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the more general tendency of Shakespeare to end up by viewing Ovid as an essentially frivolous poet after the more portentous views of Spenser and others, or that the topsy-turvy Bacchic stories in Metamorphoses 4 contribute strongly to the 'analogous inversion of an ordered world by riotous nature' fundamental to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Prospero's magic scenes in The Tempest are plausibly related to that of Ovid's Medea in Metamorphoses 7, though the analogy between Prospero's master Book and the book of Ovid's in Metamorphoses itself may be a little over-blown (p. 84).

The later seventeenth century is represented by Marvell and Milton (pp. 85-122), Marvell is seen as 'perhaps the most unreservedly Ovidian writer in this book' (p. 85), and Brown rightly points out that the two poets have 'a shared disdain for boundaries' (p. 86), persuasively identifying reflection, ekphrasis, metamorphosis and explicit interest in the creative poetic process as further shared elements through an intriguing analysis of Marvell's 'Upon Appleton House'. Milton would not be everyone's idea of an Ovidian, and Brown's view is clearly balanced: Milton is an 'anxious Ovidian' or 'a snake in the grass in Eden' (p. 101) and the difference between the weighty world of Paradise Lost and the lighter universe of the Metamorphoses is rightly stressed, though the use of the latter for Milton's Creation, Flood, and divine assemblies (partly mediated as Brown well proves through another influential translation, that of Sandys) is well observed;[[7]] amongst many neat points of literary reworking here, most striking perhaps is the echo of Pyrrha and Deucalion in Adam and Eve: 'The metamorphosis of stones into men is reinvented as the hardness of Adam and Eve's fallen hearts which become softened by repentance' (p. 110), and the clear and appropriate reworking of Vertumnus the shape-shifter and Pomona the apple- goddess in the confrontation of Eve and Satan (pp. 111-20).

The third important translation of the Metamorphoses, that edited by Samuel Garth in 1717 (already mentioned above), receives a chapter to itself (pp. 123-39) -- fair enough given the presence of Dryden, Addison, Pope, Gay, Rowe, Tate on Garth's team of translators, though it would have been nice to have similar space granted to Golding and Sandys (Brown also adds Swift's separately- published version of the Baucis and Philemon episode).[[8]] Brown rightly sees this as the summation of the Ovidian age of the seventeenth century, with taste in the eighteenth century passing to the more decorous Horace and Vergil; this can be seen in Dryden's hypocrisy, translating and imitating Ovid with subtle transformation (e.g. of his Pygmalion episode) but pillorying him as 'frivolous'. There are a number of good points here (e.g. Addison's Apollo in Book 2 as the 'Sun King' Louis XIV); the observation at p. 126 that English couplets suit translations of the Metamorphoses can be supported by the consideration that this matches a feature of the Latin versification pointed out by sensitive critics such as Guy Lee in his edition of Metamorphoses 1,[[9]] who have shown that Ovid, who after all until the Metamorphoses had produced most of his work in elegiac couplets, retains some recognisably couplet-features in the hexameters of the Metamorphoses.

As suggested earlier, the later part of the book on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries finds less convincing material. Keats' Grecian Urn, though it can be seen to share general Ovidian interests in mythological metamorphosis, ekphrasis and the poetic process, provides a thin harvest of persuasive detailed allusions (a clear contrast with what has gone before). Beddoes' 'Pygmalion', though clearly going back to Ovid's episode through the prism of previous English versions and engaging with a number of generally Ovidian themes, likewise provides few truly tangible links; Browning's 'The Ring and the Book' clearly picks up on this theme and specifically echoes some of Ovid's episodes of tragic erotic metamorphosis, but it is difficult to see this as a consistent poetic plan rather than as quasi-Renaissance wallpaper. Likewise, the few scattered allusions to Pygmalion and other episodes in Eliot, Joyce and H.D., though showing that Ovid has some modernist afterlife, are a little desultory. More successful is the chapter on Woolf's Orlando: the allusion to Daphne (p. 202) and the clear links with Ovid's tales of transgendered metamorphosis and constant mental contents are evident, though Brown's view that 'Daphne's story is being reinvented as an emblem of complementary harmony between the sexes' here (p. 205) seems a little hard to take.

A final chapter looks at the Ovidian renaissance of the 1990's in English literature that I alluded to at the outset. Brown makes the good point that some of the striking anachronisms and puns at tragic moments in Ted Hughes' versions forcefully replicate real qualities of the original, and that Hughes' view is bleaker and more brutal (as one would expect from the poet of Crow), and takes a brief look at episode-versions by Michael Longley, at the adventurous recent translation of the whole Metamorphoses by the scholar-poet David Slavitt, and at the intriguing novel The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr (in which Ovid, arriving at Tomis, finds it full of characters from the Metamorphoses. In all these she rightly sees the continuing fertility of the Ovidian tradition, and the endlessly metamorphic quality of the Metamorphoses itself.

In sum, this is a thoughtful guide to some of the chief elements of Ovidian imitation in English literature, which shows much persuasive detailed analysis in its more effective first part, and which throughout points clearly to those qualities and ideas which the author views as fundamental to Ovid's literary identity. It is not complete (not a task for a single volume), and its selections of what to discuss could occasionally be questioned, but there is no doubt that it has significantly advanced the knowledge and understanding of the reception of the Metamorphoses.


[[1]] Philip Hardie, Alessandro Barchiesi, & Stephen Hinds (edd.), Ovidian Transformations: Essays on the Metamorphoses and its Reception (Cambridge 1999).

[[2]] Sir Samuel Garth's edition was originally published as Ovid's Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books translated by Mr. Dryden, Mr. Addison, Dr. Garth, Mr. Mainwaring, Mr. Congreve, Mr. Rowe, Mr. Pope, Mr. Gay, Mr. Eusden, Mr. Croxall, and other eminent hands, adorn'd with sculptures (London 1717). This work was edited by Karl K. Hulley, Stanley T. Vandersall, & L. Bush (Lincoln 1970) and a facsimile edition was published in the Garland Press (London 1976). Tissol wrote an introduction to the work for the Wordsworth Classics series (Ware 1998).

[[3]] Christopher Martin (ed.), Ovid in English (Harmondsworth 1998).

[[4]] Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (London 1997); Michael Hofmann & James Lasdun (edd.), After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (New York 1994).

[[5]] Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge 1998).

[[6]] Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford 1993).

[[7]] George Sandys (ed. & tr.), Ovid's Metamorphosis English'd, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures. An Essay to the Translation of Virgil's Aeneis (Oxford 1632). There is an index to this edition by Christopher Grose (Malibu 1981).

[[8]] Arthur Golding, The Metamorphoses (London 1567, reprinted London 1904). Swift's version of Philemon and Baucis can be found in the three volumes of Harold Williams (ed.), The Poems of Jonathan Swift (Oxford 1937).

[[9]] A. G. Lee, P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoseon Liber 1 (Cambridge 1953).