BMCR 2000.07.23

Ovidian Transformations: Essays on the Metamorphoses and its Reception. Cambridge Philological Society Suppl. 23

, , , Ovidian Transformations: Essays on the Metamorphoses and its Reception. Cambridge Philological Society Suppl. 23. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1999.

The papers in this volume, to which all Ovidians and many other scholars of Latin poetry will want to have access, were delivered at the first Craven Seminar at Cambridge, a conference in July of 1997 entitled “Perspectives on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Modern critical approaches and earlier reception.” The Introduction notes that “the impetus for the conference came from an ongoing project for a new commentary on the Metamorphoses under the general editorship of Alessandro Barchiesi, using the forthcoming Oxford Classical Text of Richard Tarrant, and to be published by the Fondazione Valla.” Many of the pieces in this volume are of high quality, although some present only preliminary work or work meant mainly “to explore possible avenues for the future” (1). The writers are interested in intertextuality, in the body both literally and as a metaphor for poetry, in sexuality and gender, in cultural context, and of course in reception (since “literary history goes forwards as well as backwards” [Burrow, 273]). Many are practicing what two contributors call the “new formalist” criticism of Ovid (Gildenhard and Zissos, 163 n. 4), defined as “the search for meaning in form, close attention to Ovid’s sophisticated handling of generic demarcations, and a heightened interest in how he accessed, assimilated, and altered the poetic modalities and semantic patterns of his literary sources.” Since so much novel work on Latin poetry lately involves either Ovid or Cambridge,1 it is not surprising that conference papers involving both should be bold, interesting, and largely successful.

The first three papers deal with time. In ” Mea Tempora : Patterning of Time in the Metamorphoses“, Denis Feeney takes seriously the mention of mea … tempora in Met. 1.4, and so he surveys work on chronology done by people like Nepos, Atticus and Varro, as well as earlier work by Erastosthenes and Apollodorus. He then argues that Ovid “ignores, refuses, renounces all such schemes and ideologies, or else subverts the canonical reference-points that no account of history could totally ignore” (18); the result is that “the canonical and authoritative time-structures available to Ovid … are put under extreme pressure in the poem” (24), since Ovid “wants to create a space for uncertainty, for contingency, for unreality, for a different construction of the individual self in time” (25), which means in part that “the teleology of Augustus’ Aeneid is severely compromised by Ovid” (27).2

“Problems of Time in Metamorphoses 2,” the first of two papers jointly written by Andrew Zissos and Ingo Gildenhard, discusses the numerous problems in that book, where, as often noted, “the chronology of mythological time seems to go awry” (32). Zissos and Gildenhard see “strong indications that the poet’s erratic chronology is a deliberate and self-conscious effect … [suggesting] a purposeful deviation from a ‘natural’ temporal sequence — and one with a precise philosophical underpinning.” They make many good observations about the temporal regularity implied by the temple of the Sun and the temporal chaos produced by Phaethon’s ride, about allusions after the death of Phaethon to “competing variants”3 (39), and about how Ovid “underscores the chronological contradiction in his narrative” of the Callisto story (41).4 They also make some underwhelming claims about that “precise philosophical underpinning”, and display a slight fondness for terminology that sounds a little too Einsteinian (or at least Roddenberrian) to me.

Stephen Hinds, in “After Exile: Time and Teleology from Metamorphoses to Ibis“, continues the project of his Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of appropriation in Roman poetry (Cambridge 1998). This time he looks, with characteristic brilliance, at “the Ovid of the elegies from exile as the first extant reader…to interpret and reprocess the Metamorphoses” (48). Examination of references to the epic in the Tristia suggests that the Metamorphoses, the poem that will reach ad mea tempora, and the Fasti, the poem about Tempora cum causis, can both “be read as a kind of attempt to organize time” (53). Not everything here fully convinces: Hinds says the claim at Tr. 1.1.35-40 that songs are difficult to produce from exile because they usually spring from an animus serenus, “may offer a faint evocation of the compositional processes of Lucretius” (55) as described in DRN 1.142 inducit noctes invigilare serenas. The resemblance seems both extremely slight, as Hinds seems to acknowledge, and less significant than that between the Ovidian lines and an earlier Lucretian passage, nam neque nos agere hoc (i.e. compose the DRN) patriai tempore iniquo / possumus aequo animo (1.41-42). Hinds is here working with the maxim presented in his Allusion book (p. 26) that “there is no discursive element in a Roman poem, no matter how unremarkable in itself, and no matter how frequently repeated in the tradition, that cannot in some imaginable circumstance mobilize a specific allusion.” To this, however, I would propose a friendly corollary: “In allusion-hunting, as in fishing, it’s sometimes better to throw the little ones back.” A second part of the paper builds upon work on the Ibis by Gareth Williams, and finds in that poem both significant allusion to the Metamorphoses, and also a reference not to 11 or 12 B.C.E. (as many date the poem), but to at least a notional date of 8 C.E.: “as always, obsessively in the exile poetry, the moment of relegation” (63).

The next two papers deal with later reception, but I postpone discussion of them until below. Karl Galinsky, in “Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Augustan Cultural Thematics”, displays his characteristic skill in dealing with Latin texts. He begins by denouncing scholarship on Augustan poets that he characterizes as seeking to show that “Augustus must not have liked this or that or the other” (103). Galinsky points out that in Suetonius, Augustus spends more time watching pantomimes than reading literature; he then quotes Met. 1.1 in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora, and asks “Would this offend Augustus? I don’t think so.” Augustus himself, he argues, uses the word novus, in the strikingly similar Res Gestae 8.5, Legibus novis me auctore latis multa exempla maiorum exolescentia iam ex nostro saeculo reduxi et ipse multarum rerum exempla imitanda posteris tradidi. He also notes that “as in the case of the Metamorphoses, the organization of the Augustan city is not rigid” (111), and suggests that in Met. 1.4, ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen, the words ad mea tempora can be understood as “adapted to my times” (111 n. 28).

Alessandro Barchiesi, who is writing a commentary on Met. 1-3 for the Fondazione Valla, presents “Venus’ Masterplot: Ovid and the Homeric Hymns” as a kind of prolegomenon, or call for work that needs to be done, on the Hymns“as an intertext for the Metamorphoses” (123), partly as a way of trying to understand more of what Ovid is doing with the gods in the poem. A start has been made, of course, in Hinds’ study of the Persephone story in Book 5, but Barchiesi argues that because they are often studied in isolation we have not realized how many passages may owe a debt to the Hymns, for example the stories of Apollo and Daphnis in Book 1, Bacchus in 3 and 4, and Niobe in 6. He also suggests that “the influence of archaic Hymns should not be separated from that of Callimachus’ Hymns,” especially in the light of recent work on the whole Callimachean collection, in which it is important for the reader of Ovid to know, for example, that “reading each [Callimachean] poem in the context of the book has the effect of juxtaposing clashing or even irreconcilable views of divinity” (125).

In “The Ovidian Corpus: Poetic Body and Poetic Text,” Joseph Farrell develops some of the concerns of his recent article on “Reading and Writing the Heroides“, HSCP 98 (1998) 307-38. He suggests that the Metamorphoses offers a “coherent metapoetic theme” which develops in such a way that it “moves from the image of the poem as a bookish body to that of the poem as disembodied song” (128). At the end he admits that his paper may have “raised more questions than it has answered”, but he also hopes “to have made a case for the existence of a thematically charged opposition in Ovid’s work between the materiality of the text and the immateriality of the poetic voice; [and] for a relationship between this theme and that of the poet’s status as a successful writer in his own time as opposed to a classical author for the ages; and for the mediation of these two themes via the motif of the poetic body” (141).

Similar in topic but less satisfying is “Closure and Transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” by Elena Theodorakopoulos, who is a specialist in “closure”, but in this piece by closure she means “coherence.” She starts with the assumption that “closure as coherence or integrity” is “an ideal which the artist — any artist — aims to achieve” (142), and this rather large assumption, apparently about all artists everywhere at any time regardless of cultural context, is what produces most of the moderately interesting problems she finds in Ovid’s “almost relentless focus on the transformation and laceration of the human body, and on the ultimate incoherence of the human condition” (145). The piece makes numerous interesting observations and as a stimulus to further work could be useful, but its argument doesn’t seem very coherent to me.

Another mixed bag, with brilliant observations followed by less convincing ones, comes in Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos’ second piece, “‘Somatic Economies’: Tragic Bodies and Poetic Design.” They begin with extremely interesting general comments on recent work in Ovid (one of which I have quoted at the start of this review). A section on style makes excellent observations,5 including how Ovid often “places the [tragic] victim in the object position and describes his or her struggling … in a series of present participles”, then “the verb which signals death or mutilation…occurs in enjambment” (165; cf. e.g. Met. 6.555-57 and 636-41). A section on genre examines some of the consequences of putting tragic characters in an epic poem, and then a section on “tragic characters in culture” looks at Ovid’s handling of the Hippolytus-Virbius story. In this last, least satisfying section, they conclude by saying that “Ovid contrasts the cultural ideologies of Greece and Rome that traverse the tragic body in pain, posing the intriguing question of whether Romans are in fact capable of appreciating the emotionality and tragic vision which are such essential aspects of Greek dramatic performances” (181). I doubt whether Ovid is posing this question here, or whether any writer could question his own culture’s ability to appreciate tragedy simply by writing in a non-tragic way. The whole paper could also benefit from more consideration of intermediaries between tragedy and Ovid (there is no mention of the treatments of Virbius by Callimachus and Vergil6); here Tarrant’s study of “Senecan Drama and its Antecedents”, HSCP 82 (1978) 213-63, could be a kind of model. There is much of value here but also much that needs a lot more thought; since the authors are described at being at work on “a monograph on tragedy in the Metamorphoses” (p. vi), that thought is perhaps taking place even as I write these words.

Genevieve Liveley, in “Reading Resistance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses“, offers one of the best self-contained pieces in the collection. She begins with a clear and informative discussion of feminist notions of the “resisting reader”, both in general and as it applies to readings of Ovid, where she suggests that the reader may resist either Ovid or poor patriarchal misreadings of him. Then she offers such a nicely nuanced reading of the stories of the Propoetides and Pygmalion in Metamorphoses 10 that it is a shame that her title makes no reference to these myths or to Book 10. Liveley shows that a resistant reading can sometimes be basically a good reading that is faithful to the details of the text. I should mention here that the Gildenhard-Zissos paper discussed in my previous paragraph briefly endorses (166 n. 17) the Richlin-type approach to Ovid to which Liveley is providing an alternative.

Alison Keith, in “Versions of Epic Masculinity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses“, acknowledges that she is reworking some material from two chapters of her Engendering Rome: Women in Latin epic (Cambridge 2000), which appeared as I was writing this review, and has already been reviewed by BMCR 00.06.23 by Shilpa Raval. Many will want to consult Keith’s interesting ideas in the more inexpensive Cambridge paperback, but this self-contained chapter on Ovid may have its uses as well, with its brief theoretical introduction and its treatment of “transsexual characters” in Ovid’s stories of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, Perseus, the Calydonian boar hunt (and Atalanta), the Trojan War, the Lapiths and Centaurs (and Caeneus). Keith is also said to be at work on a commentary on Met. 4 for Cambridge.

Gianpiero Rosati, who is writing a commentary on Met. 4-6 for the Fondazione Valla, provides in “Form in Motion: Weaving the Text in the Metamorphoses” a wealth of useful information on the connection between weaving and poetry, and then examines Ovid’s tales of the weaving of the Minyiads, which he sees as “a fable about the art of narration in weaving” (248) and of Arachne, which he sees as “a foundation-myth for the metaphor of poetic spinning/weaving, and for the connected image which associates the poet with the spider”(250). But one might object first that Arachne is turned into a spider as a punishment and second that all that is said about her weaving after the transformation serves to praise its style alone. Unlike her boldly offensive tapestry about the gods, her weaving as a spider now has no “content,” if we press the analogy with poetry, and perhaps no variety (on this see esp. Feeney, The Gods in Epic [Oxford 1991] 193, who notes that when Arachne is changed to a spider “the celebrator of beautiful disorder is doomed to the spider’s weaving of utter symmetry”).

The editors of this volume avoided putting all the pieces on later reception at the back of the volume, but I’ve put them at the back of my review because of my own limited competence on later periods. Three of them I must discuss quite briefly. First, Neil Wright, in “Creation and Recreation: Medieval Responses to Metamorphoses 1.5-88″, shows that “much in Ovid’s creation gelled, or at least could be made to gel, with the conventional Christian world-picture” (71); his discussion of Conrad of Hiraus, Bede, Avitus, Odo of Cluny, Bernardus Silvestris, Geoffrey of Monmouth (Wright’s particular speciality), Baudri of Bourgueil, and Claudian, lets us see “how from the fourth century to the twelfth, writers subjected Ovid’s Creation, or elements of it, to a variety of transmutations as protean as any in his epic” (84).7 Second, Raphael Lyne, in “Drayton’s Chorographical Ovid”, examines Michael Drayton’s 17th century Poly-Olbion, and shows how the Metamorphoses“acts as a source not only for local details but also for the work’s broader structure” (87), as Drayton is “proposing to write a kind of Metamorphoses in English (95). Lyne also offers a modestly ambitious discussion of geography in Ovid’s poem. Third, Debra Hershkowitz, in “The Creation of the Self in Ovid and Proust”, presents some interesting and intelligent observations about Proust that don’t seems to have much to do with Ovid.

Of the trio of editors for this volume, the one most often cited by other contributors for his incisive comments on their papers is Philip Hardie, who besides his work on a commentary on Met. 13-15 for the Fondazione Valla is also editing the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Ovid. His paper “Ovid as Laura: Absent Presences in the Metamorphoses and Petrarch’s Rime Sparse” both has interesting things to say about Petrarch’s use of Ovid and also discusses how Petrarch’s reading is like and unlike some 20th century approaches (especially that of Hermann Fränkel). He suggests that “a ‘Petrarchan’ reading of the Metamorphoses constructs a poem that is already obsessed with disruption, exile, privation, and division” (269); his paper shows “how readily the Metamorphoses opens itself up to a reader, such as Petrarch, possessed of a sense of alienation and strangeness, of not being at home” (270).

Colin Burrow, in “‘Full of the Maker’s Guile:’ Ovid on Imitating and on the Imitation of Ovid”, tries to call attention to the way that poets like Ovid may seek to shape their own reception. But the first half of his paper focuses on a not-fully-convincing suggestion that Ovid’s use of the word imitamen, in four passages of the Metamorphoses or Fasti, is especially significant for the study of Ovidian imitation. He then provides, however, a fascinating survey of imitations, from Chaucer through the eighteenth century, of one of those passages, Ovid’s description of the Cave of Sleep in Met. 11.

Richard Tarrant’s valuable “Nicolas Heinsius and the Rhetoric of Textual Criticism” examines “the rhetoric” of Heinsius (1620-81) “as it embodies his approach to the text and his role as editor” (288). He shows how Heinsius’ “critical vocabulary is weighted far more heavily toward condemnation than denunciation” (289); lacking are the “emotionally charged terms with which Bentley, for example, often stigmatizes manuscript readings” (290). Tarrant suggests that “the essentially positive tone” of Heinsius’ rhetoric, “and its avoidance of the more overt forms of verbal pressure” used by some other critics, “may cast some light on … the most intriguing characteristic of his notes, a willingness in many places to entertain two or more solutions to a textual problem” (295). Tarrant offers a half-dozen clear examples, then suggests that his own achingly long-awaited edition of the Metamorphoses will in some ways “mark a return to Heinsius’ practice: greater willingness to adopt readings not found in the oldest manuscripts, acceptance of interpolation on a significant scale as a facet of this text’s later reception … more frequent use … of expressions like ‘fort. recte’ … when a reading not printed deserves serious consideration” (299). He also promises “a companion volume of textual notes.”

Cambridge’s brilliant rebel rebel8 John Henderson, whom many credit with much of the liveliness and novelty of work on Latin poetry coming from or influenced by Cambridge these days, closes the volume. His “CH-CH-CH-CHANGES” is to some extent written in his notoriously evasive and obscure style, which might suggest that his attitude towards his ego is somewhat like that of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, but actually this chapter is comparatively clear, and as always Henderson has intelligent and penetrating insights into his topic, which is the translations of Ovid by several poets in After Ovid and by Hughes alone in Tales from Ovid. The discussion ranges widely to include Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Golding, Pound, and Eliot and then focuses on what Hughes et al. have done, with some interesting comparisons of Hughes’ two versions of some passages. His point (I think) is that the modern poet-translators prefer “vignettes of passion” and shy away from confronting the Roman, Augustan, imperial cultural context that is so important both to much recent work in Ovid, and to many of the studies in this volume, which explains why Henderson offers a fitting ending to both the volume, and this review.


1. Cf. K.S. Myers, “The Metamorphosis of a Poet: Recent Work on Ovid”, JRS 89 (1999) 190-204. Appearing too recently to be considered either by Myers or by the authors in the volume under review is the fine study by Stephen Wheeler, A Discourse of Wonders: Audience and Performance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Philadelphia, 1999), which shares many of the concerns of Ovidian Transformations; see the review by P. Bing at

2. Ancient work on chronology is discussed in greater depth, and with different conclusions, by Stephen Wheeler in “Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Universal History”, a paper delivered at the University of Durham September 1999 conference “Augustan Poetry and the Traditions of Ancient Historiography.”

3. Latinists working on this interesting topic might have missed Mark Griffith, “Contest and Contradiction in Early Greek Poetry”, in Cabinet of the Muses: Essays in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, M. Griffith and D. Mastronarde, eds. (Atlanta 1990) 185-205. See too now also Ruth Scodel, Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitide in Homer and Greek Tragedy (Stuttgart/Leipzig 1999), and also Andrew Zissos, “Allusion and Narrative Possibility in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus”, CP 94 (1999) 289-301.

4. On chronological problems see now the more extensive discussion of Wheeler (above note 1), chapter 5, “Discourse and Time;” for Callisto in particular see pp. 128-29.

5. But on Ovidian style there should be a citation of Don Fowler, “From epos to cosmos: Lucretius, Ovid, and the poetics of segmentation”, in D. C. Innes, H. Hine, and C. Pelling edd., Ethics and Rhetoric, Essays for Donald Russell on his 75th Birthday (Oxford 1995) 1-18.

6. One might also ask Gildenhard and Zissos whether Ovid’s famously untragic deflation, at the start of Met. 10, of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from Vergil’s Georgics 4, is meant to suggest that Romans of 8 C.E. are incapable of appreciating the emotionality and tragic vision of a poem from 27 B.C.E.

7. My Wesleyan colleague Michael Roberts, at the 1999 meeting of the American Philologial Association in Dallas, delivered a complementary paper on “Creation in Ovid and the Latin Poets of Late Antiquity;” for an abstract see

8. Dittography deliberate: for those who do not “remember your President Nixon”, some help in understanding Henderson, including his title, may come from consulting the David Bowie lyrics and titles online at