Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.22

Raphael Lyne, Ovid's Changing Worlds: English Metamorphoses, 1567-1632.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. 303.  ISBN 0-19-818704-1.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Sean Keilen, University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1135 words

At the end of the sixteenth century in England, the status of Rome as a reservoir of cultural and aesthetic value was more precarious than it had ever been. Raphael Lyne's splendid book reminds us of the continuing authority and vitality of the Latin classics for Protestant writers in this, the period when English literature and Englishness were arguably invented for the first time.

Ovid's Changing Worlds is a book in four chapters. Each chapter examines an representative moment in the history of Ovid's reception and transformation by the English Renaissance. Chapter one, "Golding's Englished Metamorphoses," is devoted to the first printed translation of Ovid's poem, completed by Arthur Golding in 1567. Chapters two and three--"Ovidian Subtexts in The Faerie Queene" and "Drayton's Chorographical Metamorphoses--explore the impact of "the Metamorphoses as a whole" on Edmund Spenser's Arthurian romance (1590, 1596) and on Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622). The subject of the fourth and final chapter, "Sandys's Virginian Ovid," is George Sandys's Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures (1632).

Identified as translators, Golding and Sandys have not enjoyed scholarly study equal to the complexity and interest of their work. Drayton has languished as a minor author. The insight and originality of Lyne's approach in Ovid's Changing Worlds partly inheres in his decision to resist these trends. Lyne extends to Golding, Sandys, and Drayton as unstinting a critical attention as Spenser has received. In the process, he enlarges the canon of the period as we have come to know and teach it. He also makes a radical claim about Renaissance epistemology, the nature of genre, and the relationship between the ancient and the modern: namely, that "a rigid distinction between imitation and translation may not suit this period at all" (p. 19).

The decision to treat Golding's and Sandys's translations as literary texts, and Spenser's and Drayton's "original" poems as Ovidian translations, pays considerable dividends. In chapter one, for example, Lyne argues that Golding's translation "represents a major break" from the moralizing reception of Ovid in the Middle Ages, "simply because it is what we would call a translation" (p. 53). At the same time, he also shows that Golding's return to the classical text is marked by a certain resistance, borne of the desire to forge a vernacular literary identity derived from but also independent of ancient Latin texts (p. 79). Golding's attempt "to discover moments of Englishness in the Metamorphoses" led him to use a distinctively dialectical English for his translation, but, at the other end of the period that Lyne examines, Sandys uses a notably Latinate vocabulary that "mirrors the features of his source's language" (p. 202). Lyne asks whether Sandys's vernacular Latinity is a response to his experiences as the Treasurer in situ of the Virginia Colony, a stylistic "sublimation" or "repressive reaction to the shock of the new" (p. 219). The answers he explores are speculative, but Lyne is surely right to suggest that the Latinisms of Sandys's English translation "[make] Ovid himself look parochial, as he [Sandys] looks back on classical epic" from the vantage New World (p. 259).

In the middle chapters of the book, Lyne examines intertextuality as a special case of translation, in which "the process" of allusion "[runs] against as well as with time, not least because of the fundamental role of the reader in creating the allusive or intertextual content" (p. 23). Intertextuality, in this sense, is the ground of a productive competition between the English Renaissance text and its Latin precursor--and of a paradox, according to which the very elements that make Ovidian poetry available for "patriotic projects" also "resist" and "subvert" those projects "by not fitting simply into one mode of interpretation" (p. 15). In the case of Spenser's Faerie Queene, Lyne interprets the allusive presence of the Metamorphoses as a tempering influence on the poem's "Virgilian tendency," and thus as a dialectical alternative to Spenser's latent, imperial narrative (p. 84). In Drayton's Poly-Olbion, which was "written in the aftermath of The Faerie Queene," Lyne traces the influence not only of Spenser's reading of Ovid, but also of Ovid's Metamorphoses and Heroides, which Drayton translated as Englands Heroicall Epistles (1597) (p. 142). Drayton's relationship to Ovid is the most antagonistic of all the writers in the book, "repeatedly" exhibiting "a strong thread of competition" (p. 147). In Englands Heroicall Epistles, for example, Drayton discovers that the "irony and flexible morality" of Ovidian writing, "resist any constraints a historical, 'heroicall' context might impose" (p. 170). In the Metamorphoses, though it "is in some ways more easily accommodated within a patriotic project" than the Heroides, Drayton "still has to take on the fact that his endeavours on the burgeoning nation's behalf rely on a foreign tradition" (p. 170). Lyne suggests that the poet solves this problem with "antiquarian sleight of hand," transposing his debt to an "Ovidian souce of inspiration" onto "an earlier, vernacular tradition"--the Celtic bards--the evidence of which has "conveniently [been] lost" (pp. 185, 197).

These major themes of Ovid's Changing Worlds are buttressed by an impressive commitment to research. Lyne provides a great variety of information about a wide range of subjects, including Latin and English etymology, the history of classical scholarship, English colonial activity and travel writing, Renaissance debates about vernacular aesthetics, and contemporary literary theory. This aspect of the book amounts to a claim--utterly persuasive in my view--that the emergence of Englishness in the literature and culture of the sixteenth century must be understood not only as the result of a shocking encounter with the new but also as a prolonged negotiation with the old, with an ancient past that grew more foreign as English writers grew more familiar with its literary remains.

I am convinced by the central thesis of the book that "between Golding and Sandys there is a change in the way the translation of the Metamorphoses is approached, and that Spenser and Drayton participate in this change" (p. 19). I would, however, challenge Lyne's assumption that the English texts that he examines are best described as "patriotic." This strikes me not only as a curious anachronism for a conspicuously historicist book but as a possible impoverishment of some of its most exciting claims about the peculiarity of English aesthetics prior to the Enlightenment. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words "patriotic" and "patriotism" did not enter the language until the late-seventeenth or eighteenth century. "Patriot" entered earlier, though I am unaware that it was ever used during the Renaissance to refer to Golding, Spenser, Drayton, or Sandys. For me, the pleasure and acuity of Lyne's analysis stems from other sources--for example, from his refusal to take such categories at face value and from his belief that the importance of Ovid to this period illuminates the fact that Englishness itself was an essentially labile form.

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