Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.04

Christopher Martin, Ovid in English.   New York:  Penguin Books, 1998.  Pp. 411.  ISBN 0-14-044669-9 (pb).  $14.95.  

Reviewed by Thomas E. Jenkins, Washington and Lee University (
Word count: 1777 words

The recent flowering of interest in Ovid's poetry has produced a bumper crop of Ovidian translations in English. First appeared Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun's 1994 collection After Ovid, in which a select group of modern poets was invited to render a metamorphosis in whatever style they chose, with results ranging from the staid to the freewheeling. Next came Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid, a medley of episodes culled from the Metamorphoses and executed in Hughes' inimitable style. To these volumes may now be added Christopher Martin's delightful and enlightening Ovid in English, an anthology of Ovidian inspiration from Chaucer to Seamus Heaney. A Professor of English at Boston University, Martin scoured centuries of English verse (and a smattering of prose) in his quest to survey 'Ovid's fortunes in our language'. What emerges is an ebb and flow of particular complexity; Martin's helpful introduction places this industry of Ovidian translation within the larger framework of British and American literary trends. As a result, Ovid in English is a virtual vademecum to English poetry, as Ovid bloomed (or wilted) in every manner of verse -- from codices to paperbacks.

Those who have fallen in love with the famous translations of Ovid need not fear that their favorite translators have been usurped by trendier pretenders to the throne; the old chestnuts of Ovidian translation are included in generous proportions. Martin has inserted lengthy selections from many acknowledged masters: Arthur Golding's majestic 14-syllable verse translation of the Metamorphoses; Marlowe's seductive and rich renderings of the Amores; the rolling heroic couplets of Pope. It is hard not to be swept along by the grandeur of Dryden's opening lines: Of Bodies chang'd to various Forms I sing, Ye gods, from whom these Miracles did spring, Inspire my numbers with Coelestial heat; Till I, my long laborous Work compleat: And add perpetual Tenour to my Rhimes, Deduc'd from Nature's Birth, to Caesar's Times. It is an appropriately grand opening to Ovid's epic poem. Dryden's classical sensibilities even left the trickiest word, deducere, intact -- as beguiling in the English as in the Latin.

However, the real fun (and I suspect, the real point) of the collection lies not in the previously acknowledged masters. It is not that Dryden and his ilk are without interest -- far from it -- but that their works have been readily available for some time, and the curious can locate these texts without too much trouble. The true value of the collection lies rather in the contributions of those who (in A. W. Mair's memorable phrase) 'dwell rather on the lower levels of Parnassus'.1 The unknown (and heretofore unknowable) poets give this collection its worth, both as a treasury of Latin poetry in translation, and as a chronicle of English poetry.

Take, for instance, Robert Forbes' version of the quarrel between Odysseus and Ajax in book 13 of the Metamorphoses. An otherwise unknown literary figure of the eighteenth century, Forbes chose to translate Ajax' speech into the colorful Aberdeenshire dialect. Recognizing the troubles ahead for the untutored reader, the poet took the thoughtful extra step of actually glossing his translation, a strangely metatextual procedure. However, his courtesy is a godsend when one stumbles across a stanza such as: At threeps I am na' sae perquire, Nor auld-farren as he, Bat at banes-brakin, it's well kent, He has na' maughts like me. [Threeps: allegations, falsehoods. Auld-ferren: sagacious. Maught: might, strength.] After one recovers from the shock, the lilt and cadence of this vernacular translation exudes a certain charm -- and even the ring of truth. I am sure that if Ajax of Salamis were Ajax of Aberdeenshire, 'banes-brakin' is exactly the way he'd declaim his hobby at the local pub. The poem is a first-rate example of how Martin's collection really is Ovid in English: Forbes has metamorphosed Ovid into a local muse and chum.

Lady Mary Chudleigh also abandons a strictly literal translation in favor of a more stylized one. Her quirky version of the tale of Daedalus and Icarus displays a trait that surfaces occasionally in the collection: a tendency on the part of the translator to moralize, even when that particular inspiration runs counter to Ovid's original instincts. In Chudleigh's version of the Icarus tale, Daedalus' words of grief sound less like those of a bereaved father than those of a church Father: Oh may thy Fall be useful made, May it to humbler thoughts persuade; To Men th'avoidless Danger Show Of those who fly too high, or low; Who from the Paths of Virtue stray, And keep not in the middle Way... So much for subtlety: it's Ovid from the pulpit. But it demonstrates -- like Forbes' piece -- that the title of Martin's anthology is no accident. The very Englishness of these pieces lends them an appeal and interest in their own right.

As with almost all anthologies, the selections are uneven in purely literary quality (whatever their historical merits). I suspect few readers will soon reread, for instance, Henry Vaughan's turgid version of Ex Ponto 4.3 ("Bad man! thou hast in this those tears kept back/ I could have shed for thee, shoulds't thou but lack.") or even Longfellow's spirited attempt at elegiac couplets in Tristia 3.10 ("Hitherward, nevertheless, some keels already are steering/ And on this Pontic shore alien vessels will be."). On the other hand, the collection boasts some welcome surprises, including James Shirley's graceful version of Narcissus, or the Self-Lover. A sample stanza: And as a glimmering Taper almost spent, Gasping for moisture to maintaine its fire, After some darke contentions, doth present A short-liv'd blaze, and presently expires: So he, collecting Ebbing nature, cryes, Oh youth, belov'd in vaine, farewell! and dyes. There's a touch of genius in the phrase 'darke contentions', a synesthesia of color and movement that captures perfectly a candle's flickering demise. Martin notes that Shirley helped to revive the epyllion form in the 1640's; the sparkling Narcissus demonstrates how.

Another welcome surprise: Phyllis Wheatley's rhyming version of the Niobe episode. Born in Africa around 1753, Wheatley was enslaved as a child, and sent to America in chains. Her ear for poetry, however, won her manumission at age 20, when her volume of English verse was published. A sample passage from her Niobe: She, who late told her pedigree divine, And drove the Thebans from Latona's shrine, How strangely chang'd! -- yet beautiful in woe, She weeps, nor weeps unpitied by the foe. The sentiment is well couched and unforced; if not exactly on par with Shirley's contribution, Wheatley's verse demonstrates her evident precocity as a poet.

It is de rigueur for a reviewer of an anthology to point out the one favorite piece that the editor neglected to include in the collection. Unfortunately for this reviewer, Martin included it: Swift's wonderfully wicked version of Baucis and Philemon, one of the few passages in Ovid's corpus in which the Roman master of mockery left himself open to satire. Swift metamorphoses the pious Roman scene into a censure of English religious life, as the old couple's humble shack changes not into a temple, but a dreary country Chapel: A Bedstead of the Antique Mode, Compact of Timber many a Load, Such as our Grandsires wont to use, Was Metamorphos'd into Pews; Which still their antient Nature keep; By lodging Folks dispos'd to Sleep. Neither Parson Philemon nor dame Baucis meet a particularly happy end, when both (post metamorphosin) are recycled as lumber.

The bulk of the anthology is pre-1875, at which point translations of Ovid apparently suffered a fifty-year drought. A hardy perennial, Ovid emerges again in the 1920s in full blossom. The selections included from the 20th century run the gamut, from Sir James Frazer's workmanlike trot of the Fasti (one of the few prose selections in the anthology) to Betty Rose Nagle's 1995 version, one that approximates in meter the original elegiac couplets. Representative of the modern attitude shown to Ovid by translators is this passage from Robert Graves' 1927 poem Ovid in Defeat: Ovid instructs you how Neighbor's lands to plough; 'Love smacks the sweeter For a broken vow.' Follows his conclusion Of which the gist is The cold 'post coitum Homo tristis.'

Even more than their earlier brethren, the 20th century translators feel free to take liberties of diction and approach. Readers may or may not enjoy such cavalier approaches to translation, but Martin never apologizes for his choice of material; his is a descriptive, not prescriptive volume of verse. It can be jarring to read, as in Ted Hughes' translation of Ovid's Creation, that "The inward ear, attuned to the Creator,/ is underfoot like a dog's turd." That one blunt monosyllable, 'turd', forces an instant and powerful defamiliarization of the poetry: is this Ovid or Hughes? It is part of Hughes' poetic programme that for a split-second, the reader is not sure exactly what he or she is reading -- the poetry dances between centuries.

Similarly, the American translator David Slavitt weaves equal parts Slavitt and Ovid into his free rendering of the tale of Actaeon. The hero, out hunting with his companions, glimpses Diana in her bath; the angry goddess changes Actaeon into a stag. In Ovid's original, Actaeon's companions search in vain for Actaeon as his dogs attack him (Met. 3.243). Slavitt excises the humans altogether and, in a sense, metamorphoses the dogs in their stead: "... [Actaeon] looks with shock and love at his best friends in the world,/ which are turning back to look for their master, him whom they love...." The result sounds distinctly American, as if Actaeon were betrayed by his dogs on a TV talk show. ("I can't believe you're attacking me! I'm shocked! I loved you! You were my best friends in the world!") Other 20th century innovations include C. H. Sisson's moving distillation of the Actaeon tale and Derek Mahon's jaunty version of Amores 2.11 ("This strange sea-going craze began/ with Jason...."). The classicists in the collection tend to translate more conservatively; representative samples include Florence Verducci's version of Heroides 15 (plucked from her scholarly book Ovid's Toyshop of the Heart) and lively selections from the Fasti by Betty Rose Nagle.

In sum, Martin's anthology shines in just those areas in which an anthology should shine: sensible selections, judicious notes, and an appropriately epic sweep. The only thing that may need changing is a cover design that weirdly features a manuscript of Ovid in -- surprise! -- French. (So much for truth in advertising.) But the layout is clean and the 400 pages of poetry invaluable. For $14.95, Ovid in English is hard to beat. (If only Ovid in Latin were so affordable.)


1.   Pg. vii, Oppian Tolluthus Tryphiodorus, ed. A. W. Mair. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: 1928.

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