BMCR 2000.03.30

The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes

, The metamorphosis of Ovid : from Chaucer to Ted Hughes. London: Duckworth, 1999. viii, 246 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0715628879 £40.00.

In Stanley Kubrick’s final film “Eyes Wide Shut,”1 Alice, the wife of a young socialite doctor, attends a ball and finds herself dancing in the arms of a dashing count. The aristocrat asks the inebriated Alice if she has ever read Ovid. Looking at him with sparkling and half-shut eyes, Alice responds, “Didn’t he write about adultery?” The man responds affirmatively and the seductive dance continues. This passing reference to Ovid stirs many responses. Whether one is struck by the truth in the adage that everything remains the same, or whether one is ready to defend Ovid’s works from such reductivism, one thought is perhaps common to all: that Ovid’s works are alive and well even into our present time.

Sarah Annes Brown treats this idea with a wide account of Ovidianism in English literature. A quick scan of the bibliography reveals a profound knowledge of the canonical works of the English literature, including those of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Blake. Included too are the principal works of Ovidian scholarship, from Frederick Ahl and Stephen Hinds to Brooks Otis and L.P. Wilkinson. She also incorporates previous treatments of Ovid’s influence as found in Leonard Barkan and Charles Martindale. The challenge for Brown is to find a threefold alignment among Ovid’s work itself, the imitations and manipulations of Ovid in a literature that spans nearly a millennium, and English Ovidian scholarship that has, in the last hundred years, defined Ovidianism with increasing undulations of literary critical magic. She succeeds in doing this and, in the process, offers an approachable guide, with many examples, to anyone hoping to distill and identify Ovidian style.

Brown writes twelve chapters in all, with the first explaining Ovidianism, stated simply as “a set of characteristics identifiable in Ovid, in particular the Ovid of the Metamorphoses” (p. 3). However, this elementary statement is soon revealed to be exponentially more complex as one considers the countless ways in which Ovid serves his readers and his imitators. Brown reminds us that “its [the Metamorphoses’] permeation into so much of English literature has in turn shaped each generation’s response to Ovid and lent still more resonance to his voice … Ovid’s immortality is bound up in his capacity for endless change, continual reappropriation” (p. 3). Brown uses the following eleven chapters to develop a narrative of Ovidianism while she simultaneously furthers our understanding of the Metamorphoses, the world of which “has its own peculiar atmosphere. Although pathos is not quite absent, the overriding impression is of a kind of aesthetic detachment, rather than a deep involvement with any of the characters” (p. 8). She suggests that the same might be said of Shakespeare and Keats, pulling her reader, from the beginning, into this well-woven tapestry of intertextual explication.

In order of presentation, Brown treats Ovidianism in Chaucer’s House of Fame, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and The Taming of the Shrew, Andrew Marvell’s poetry, Milton’s “Paradise” poems, Sir Samuel Garth’s translation of Ovid’s epic, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Beddoes’ “Pygmalion”, Browning’s The Ring and the Book, the use of Pygmalion in Eliot, Joyce and H.D., and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In the final chapter, entitled “Carmen Perpetuum: Ovid today,” she examines the translation of Ted Hughes as well as recent treatments of Ovid’s biography (such as Christoph Ransmayr’s). The result provides the reader with a welcome reminder of this canon and a sense of how Ovid’s influence binds the Christian to the pagan, the precocious to the precious.

Most of Brown’s points about Ovidian style (ecphrasis, wordplay, internal narrative structure, and gender play) are ones we have seen in Tissol, Hinds, Ahl, Due and Richlin,2 and she freely admits her debt to the scholarship that precedes her (p. 4). Indeed there have been earlier works on Ovid’s influence on the English literary canon,3 but Brown finds her own niche by focusing on wordplay and narrative structures that the English writers imitate from Ovid, setting a new standard for critical understanding of these much-studied authors. She discerns “unOvidian” writing in Marvell, marking the failure in his conscious attempt at imitation. She uncovers Ovidianism in Milton, whose passion for the Metamorphoses, it seems, was matched only by that for Homer and Isaiah. Her insights lead often to an unveiling in these poems and novels of deeper meanings that serve to lighten their weightiness. For example, the presence of Ovidian ecphrasis in Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” brings Brown to see “a greater affinity with Ovid than his reputation as a sage and serious poet might suggest” (p. 40).

Her treatment of Chaucer depends a bit too much on wordplay (she makes much of “legit” in line XII 43). Nevertheless, such Ahl-inspired exercises do yield rather original insights into Chaucer’s poem. In her reading, Ovid’s house of Fame becomes an uncertain agent in the destruction of Dido’s reputation. In addition she shows how consciously Chaucer combines the accounts of Fama in Ovid and Virgil. This allows Chaucer to play with notions of authority, and because he “styles himself an ‘auctor’, the reader may not immediately realise that Chaucer is assuring him that his narrative is completely subjective” (p. 31). Brown aligns this notion to the final lines of Chaucer’s poem in such a way as to give Chaucer a touch of modernity that might not be easily attributed to the Middle Ages:

Atte last y saugh a man,
Which that y [nevene] nat ne kan;
But he semed for to be
A man of gret auctorite … (2155-8).

Using Barthes as a final support,4 she asserts that Chaucer’s seemingly unfinished work, like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, plays with a notion of text and language that allows for open-ended intertextuality as cyclical as the chamber of Fame herself. Just as Ovid’s renditions undermine the canon of his predecessors, Chaucer adds his own manipulation to muddy the waters of tradition and reception.

An important part of Brown’s analysis, and one that permeates her book, is her use of translations of the Metamorphoses, and how they, in their own right, influenced Ovidianism in English literature. Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation, for example, had far-reaching literary effect. “Ezra Pound,” Brown asserts, “had no doubts about the importance of Golding’s translation, calling it the most beautiful book in the English language” (p. 59). Shakespeare’s Ovidian experience through the art of Golding, Brown suggests, perhaps even prompted him to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which a few passages are similar to Golding’s phrases. George Sandys influenced Keats’ famous ode by way of his 1632 translation. Brown devotes a chapter to Garth’s 1717 translation of the Metamorphoses, one contemporary with those of Dryden and Pope; it was a successful and nuanced rendering, but ill-timed in an age that saw the waning of Ovid’s popularity. Despite this, Brown notes that the embeddedness of Ovid’s work remained in the so-called Augustan poets of the eighteenth century. Thus, the responses to and manipulations of translations of the Metamorphoses play as important a role in the continuity of Ovid’s presence in western literature as do those of Ovid’s own opus.

Perhaps most original in Brown’s work is her treatment of Woolf’s Orlando in chapter eleven. Woolf’s protagonist is a Tiresian man who, in mid-life, becomes a woman. The experience of gender in Woolf, Brown argues, is parallel to the gender play seen in the Ovidian tales of Daphne and Apollo, and Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. She admits that the Daphne story may seem an odd choice for comparison, but she sees the Orlando figure in a state of flux between resistance and yielding. This state is present in the experiences of Ovidian women, fleeing male pursuers and yielding to metamorphosis, a different type of seizure. Although Brown’s argument is compelling, she might have made more use of the Iphis and Ianthe story, one where desire for someone of the same sex changes a girl’s gender. Certainly the Salmacis story treats similar material, but the Iphis story is rare in its treatment of desire for a woman without the element of violence. Even so, Brown gives validation to a novel that has been overlooked by the academy (despite its filming in 1992) as a work that manifests the timeless fascination with homoeroticism and crossing gender lines.

Some of Brown’s analyses of these respected English works are more successful than others, but her treatment of the material is sophisticated and well informed by past and current scholarship. Brown displays a masterful understanding of the Ovidian canon and the importance of Ovid’s influence on some of the West’s most cherished literature. In addition, Brown’s work makes the important contribution of effacing that boundary between the disciplines of Classics and English and Comparative Literature, so that we can hope for more works in the future that trace the influences and communications between the works of antiquity and those of modern times. I highly recommend The Metamorphosis of Ovid.

(In addition I would like to add that Brown incorporates every page and work reference into the text with simply an author name, date, and page number in parentheses, and uses footnotes only for parenthetical remarks. This makes for smooth reading, and must be less troublesome for writer and editor alike. Could this style be adopted more widely?)


1. The screenplay of this film is an adaptation by Frederic Raphael of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, published in 1926.

2. Frederick Ahl, Metaformations: Soundplay and Wordplay in Ovid and Other Classical Poets (Ithaca, 1985), O.S. Due, Changing Forms: Studies in the ‘Metamorphoses of Ovid (Copenhagen, 1974), Stephen Hinds, The Metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the Self-Conscious Muse (Cambridge, 1987), Amy Richlin, “Reading Ovid’s Rapes,” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. Amy Richlin (Oxford, 1992), and Garth Tissol, Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Princeton, 1997).

3. She mentions specifically Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven, 1986), and Charles Tomlinson, Poetry and Metamorphosis (Cambridge, 1983).

4. R. Barthes, S/Z trans. Richard Miller (New York, 1974) pp. 5-6.