Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.03

Arthur Golding, Madeleine Forey, ed. (trans.), Ovid's Metamorphoses.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.  Pp. 576.  ISBN 0801870607.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Raphael Lyne, New Hall, Cambridge (
Word count: 1706 words

This is a very welcome publication of a major renaissance work, in a clear and well-organised edition, with a helpful critical introduction. It restores a widely-read work to its appropriate position as an affordable staple. Arthur Golding's version of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1567) was in print sporadically in the twentieth century: W.H.D. Rouse's 1904 edition was reissued in 1961, J.F. Nims' edition of 1965 in 2000. None of these placed Golding in the mainstream, but in Madeleine Forey's new edition his Ovid should be affordable and accessible enough to reach its many potential readers. For while Golding himself is not often prescribed reading, except in extracts, the people who read him always are: Marlowe, Spenser, and others, but most of all Shakespeare, had part of their intense encounter with Ovid through this translation, the first full one in English and a true landmark of Elizabethan literature.

Madeleine Forey boldly and with good justification states that Golding's Ovid is 'essential reading for anyone with an interest in the English Renaissance'. The translation provides a vivid picture not of a seamless appropriation of ancient works, but of the more incongruous, cross-purposed encounters that often resulted from sixteenth-century English writers' imitations of the classics. Golding's own position in this process is double-edged: on the one hand he translated Ovid and Caesar, while on the other he was a prolific translator of the works of Calvin. By exploring his tendency to look for exemplary features when interpreting a text and his emphasis on moral matter within diverse works, Forey is able to argue for coherence in Golding's writing career. The point is a substantial one, but there remain intriguing questions about our own sense of the fundamental difference between Calvin and Ovid, and whether at any level Golding shares or anticipates this sense -- or shows in great difference from us in not seeing it.

It is not at all difficult to give a flavour of the translation, because flavour is its dominant characteristic. From Ovid's subtle yet piquant fricassee comes a robust and hearty stew. Frankness suits Golding well: his Jupiter strikes a human note, the epitome of the selfish but sometimes cowed husband, when, in the story of Callisto, he ruminates in a half-hearted call to action: 'my wife shall never know / Of this escape; and if she do, I know the worst, I trow. / She can but chide. Shall fear of chiding make me to forslow?' (2.527-9). Of course Ovid is not always or indeed often very frank, and sometimes the jaunty momentum and lively images cannot jog Golding through the subtle bits. In the story of Pygmalion, for example, his version fails to sustain all the ironies and complexities of a work of art coming to life, and the art hiding in the art: 'So artificiall was the work. He wondreth at his art / And of his counterfeited corse conceiveth love in heart' (10.271-2). This is nowhere near Dryden's brilliant translation of this episode, which so capaciously catches both the lightness of Ovid's tone and the heavier hints. In general, indeed, Golding does not represent the ideal translation through which a reader of English literature can have a close encounter with Ovid himself: Dryden deserves that accolade better, though he did not do the whole Metamorphoses.

One of the greatest challenges for a translator of Ovid is to gauge and then achieve the poem's complexity of tone. Golding's whole-heartedness can eclipse nuances: he has Ulysses say that 'Sir Ajax here... Is such a dolt and grosshead as he shows himself to be' (13.167-8). The Ovidian word 'hebes' does not have the same rudeness as 'dolt and grosshead'. Golding's Ulysses does not beat about the bush here, which may seem alien to the legendary figure, but is very much in keeping with Golding's method. However, alongside the directness the essential ambiguities are often preserved. So the daring and dazzling way in which Ovid describes the protracted removal of Philomela's tongue becomes only slightly more absurd in the translation: 'And as an adder's tail cut off doth skip a while, even so / The tip of Philomela's tongue did wriggle to and fro / And nearer to her mistressward dying still did go' (6.713-5). The triple rhyme, the words 'skip' and 'wriggle', the punctiliousness of the movement 'mistressward', all stretch this simile towards hideous comedy, but the stretch is already there in Ovid. So Golding can be a very good reader of Ovidian decorum, or lack of decorum, and even when apparently straying he can often end up seeming perceptive.

This translation, then, is potentially a rollicking read, and so it can be, though for many modern readers its language will be an obstacle. Forey's edition provides both a glossary and notes on more difficult or interesting words and phrases. These temper the difficulty of language but consultation of these sections, placed at the rear of the book, breaks the flow of reading. It would have presented logistical difficulties, but some way of keeping glossary material on the same page as the text could have helped preserve this flow: and flow is an important characteristic of the translation, which sustains its pace and energy to an impressive degree. The notes themselves are sometimes truncated just when they are getting useful. In a note on the address of the 1565 Epistle (Cecil House in the Strand) Forey states that 'Golding had been appointed by William Cecil -- it was his house -- as 'receiver' for his young nephew Edward de Vere in 1562'. Surely a fair number of readers need 'receiver' (already placed in anxious-looking quotation marks) to be explained. The same brevity is present in another example from the notes, where alongside 4.783 Forey says 'Golding omits Ovid 637-8', and alongside 4.805 she puts 'Golding omits Ovid 653-4'. The significance of this omission is not hazarded: the lines in question are fairly innocuous so the explanation may in fact be quite technical, but to leave it with no hint of the answer seems a little too opaque.

Nevertheless there is much clear and careful thinking in the editor's contribution. Forey's note on the text sets out in straightforward fashion what she has and has not done but still establishes her text as a responsible and reputable one. Much of the material in the notes reaps the reward of extensive and laudable legwork: the citations of passages from Raphael Regius' commentary (printed with various early editions) are useful; their presence adds a further aspect to the portrayal of this translator's encounter with Ovid. In the opening passages of the introduction Forey puts Golding in the context of a translation movement reaching its peak in Elizabeth's reign. On its success, she says, 'rests the explosion of literary talent in the 1590s' -- a claim to which Golding is more worthy than nearly anyone else, and one which rightly counters the idea that Shakespeare, Spenser et al. achieved the heights somehow in spite of their predecessors. This helpful context is let down by some sketchy facts that are most likely attributable to the demands of brevity: Caxton's 'complete English version of the Metamorphoses' was not really one at all, since it is closely based on a French moral paraphrase; 'Phaer's complete Aeneid' of 1573 was actually finished by Thomas Twyne after Phaer's death; it is ambiguous what is meant by 'produced' in the phrase 'Thomas Heywood produced a translation of the Ars Amatoria in 1625', since he wrote it years earlier; and the purpose of a distinction made between Marlowe's Amores (dated 1599) and his Elegies (1595) is not explained at all. If these quibbles suggest anything significant, it is that this introduction sometimes struggles to reconcile its necessarily recondite material with its quest for a wider readership for Golding.

The central arguments of the introduction share a view of Golding developed by recent critical accounts: their emphases on the translator's skill with tone, with different accents (rustic and foreign), and with English detail and scenery, are harnessed in an appreciation which caps a modern rehabilitation of the work already underway. Forey goes a little further than most would, though, in likening Golding's stylistic project, peppered as it is with unusual, regional, and archaic (or at least archaic-seeming) English words, to that of Spenser in the Shepheardes Calender. This comparison makes Golding's characteristic language seem like something far more than an unavoidable quirk -- which is right -- but the lack of Spenser's detailed theorizing and annotation is still a decisive difference.

Perhaps Forey's most effective assertion of all, then, is that 'Golding's text freezes the English language at a moment of transition, part awkwardness, part new-found grace'; this catches it well enough, though a more dynamic metaphor than freezing might conjure up better the energy in this halfway position. This quality is seen as acutely as anywhere in the grand finale of the poem, where Golding proclaims that 'Nor sword, nor fire, nor fretting age with all the force it hath / Are able to abolish quite' his work (15.985-6). The modern reader pauses at 'fretting', scenting bathos. In fact the word is both a double bathos and quite the reverse, an intensifying choice: in the period 'fret' still carries its original sense of animals' gnawing and eating, and is just beginning, in some writers, to hold its modern meaning -- the gnawing of worry. A slip in either direction could result in a problematic deflation of the awesome power of time, but the actual result is a vivid image of time's ever-present peevish cruelty, with a typical added note of boistrousness in denying time's power.

Golding is far more vulnerable than Ovid to the ravages of time, but he is currently safer than for a long while, thanks to Madeleine Forey's edition. The 1567 quarto was a book to own, one that found its way into the possession of readers and writers who browsed it and dipped into it, who admired it and sometimes patronized it, but most of all who recognized its liveliness and its vivid image of the Metamorphoses. It is good to be able to do all of this again: Golding makes an ideal paperback classic, and this edition presents him to good effect.

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