Friday, March 1, 2013

Review of Ovid's Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Nasa, better known as Ovid (b. 43 BCE), was first published in the days of Caesar Augustus.  I had the pleasure of rereading the translation by Rolfe Humphries published in 1955 by Indiana University Press that I had rescued from the discard bin of the local library where, at the age of seventeen, I had been working as a page-boy.  For a boy whose first book had been The Adventures of Ulysses, an abridged version of Homer's great work, it was like finding golden treasure.

The debt that the human race owes to Ovid cannot be measured.  His poetry captures not only the stories but the unique flavor of some of the greatest myths of all time.  How many poets call upon him, allude to him, worship Ovid as Muse?  How many writers and film makers were inspired by this gifted son of Sulmo?

Metamorphoses contains the myths of changing form:  as reward for a life well-lived, as punishment for an impious deed, as a way to escape a fate worse than death, as a reincarnation, or as a deification.  Every tree, every bird, every river, even every star might once have been a man, a woman, or a demigod.

I defy anyone, no matter how uneducated, to read Metamorphoses and not recognize something, and to not say, "Oh, that's where that story comes from" at least several times.  Ovid reveals how flowers came to be named, the stories behind the names of trees, and the glorious battles and adventures of our mythical heroes--heroes of such stature that our modern movie theaters sing their songs, and our lexicon bears witness to their undying fame, words and names such as:  odyssey, Trojan, Achilles heel, Ajax, Helen, Paris, Hector, Cassandra, and on and on.

The poet himself said it best:

...part of me,
The better part, immortal, will be borne
Above the stars; my name will be remembered
Wherever Roman power rules conquered lands,
I shall be read, and through all centuries,
If prophecies of bards are ever truthful,
I shall be living, always.

This is the third time that I have read this greatest of works:  the first at seventeen, the second ten years later, and the third now twenty years after that.  The experience was like going back to a favorite place of wonder after many years and not only finding it intact but better than I ever remembered.

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