BMCR 2002.02.07

Ovid: Metamorphoses XIII-XV

, , Metamorphoses XIII-XV and indexes. Container of (expression): Ovid, 43 B.C.-17 A.D. or 18 A.D. Metamorphoses. Liber 13-15. (Hill). Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 2000. vi, 250 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0856687324. $28.00.

With Metamorphoses XIII-XV, Donald Hill concludes his solid and useful four-volume commentary on the entire poem of Ovid. The volume follows the timeless format of all volumes of Aris and Phillips’ stamp: a brief and general introduction to the author, a Latin text with facing translation, and a commentary generally keyed to the translation. H.’s introduction is no-nonsense and direct and includes an introduction to Ovid’s life, a pithy guide to Latin hexameter, an explication of the notes, and a short rumination about the perils of translating Ovid’s glittering verse into something that does the Latin justice.

H. bases his excellent text on Richard Tarrant’s forthcoming Oxford Classical Text of the Metamorphoses, a volume that has been prophesied to me per litteras as “imminent.” Until that OCT appears, however, we possess the single-best published text of the Metamorphoses in a book aimed squarely at readers with meager knowledge of Latin (ah, irony). Since “the notes include almost no linguistic discussion” [pg. 9], the reader will simply have to wait until the OCT arrives to discover the methodology for most of the textual choices; Latinists working on The Metamorphoses are thus well-advised to consider the text of H.’s commentaries until Tarrant’s volume arrives.

In general, H.’s verse translation suits the aims of the series well. H.’s six-beat line (of varying length) is supple enough to allow for a line-to-line correspondence with the Latin without deliquescing entirely into prose. An example from Polyphemus’ famous song in book 13:

but the same Galatea is more savage than untamed bullocks, harder than oak of many years, more treacherous than the waves, more resistant than either willow wands or white vines, more unmoveable than these cliffs, more violent than a river, prouder than the celebrated peacock, fiercer than fire…. [13.708-802]

Here, H. employs alliteration as a motif that neatly lends some unity and wit to the passage [willow wands; proud peacock; fiercer than fire]; in other passages, H. strives to preserve Ovid’s anaphora, enjambment, and other poetic tricks of the trade. When H. feels that his translation does not quite catch the cleverness of a verse (e.g. Medea’s boast at 14.34, carmine cum tantum, tantum quoque gramine possim), H. scrupulously points out his failing: “it has been impossible, in the translation, to catch the obvious jingle of carmine…gramine, intended, no doubt, to recall the kind of word-play associated with magic spells; some attempt, however, has been made to catch the effect of tantum, tantum.” Accordingly, H. renders the line as “though with a chant I can do so much, and so much with an herb,” a verse that (as indicated) skips the jingle but neatly preserves the chiasmus. Throughout, H.’s translation is faithful to the Latin, and honest to the reader; what H. is unable to capture in verse, he always includes in the notes.

The notes themselves are judiciously chosen and useful for their target audience of non-specialists. H. helpfully provides complete renderings in English of many relevant non-Ovidian passages (including lines from Greek tragedy, Vergil, Homer, Livy, and the like), usually culled from standard English translations. This will prove invaluable for those coming to the poem with only passing knowledge of other genres and in any event saves readers the trouble (or the expense) of looking up the passages themselves. Particularly intriguing (and often thought-provoking) are H’s occasional allusions to other literatures (mostly Shakespeare, but also Milton and Leviticus). H.’s commentary truly shines in its mass of detail, particularly of geography—Pythagoras’ learned discourse on islands and rivers at 15.273-295 is enough, for instance, to reduce even a seasoned classicist to tears. H. expertly guides the fledgling reader through the relevant citations in Strabo and Herodotus and points out the special properties of all of the waters, thereby helping to make sense of a very difficult passage. In general, H. is sensitive to the needs of first-time readers of Ovid and never assumes too much knowledge of the ancient world.

My only quibble with the style of the commentary is that, on occasion, H. errs by listing too many parallels without adequately explaining the importance of such a catalogue. The note to the translation of 13.459 is a case in point: “Ovid is very fond of these parenthetical asides; cf. 1.591, 597; 2.703; 5.280-2; 6.262-3, 359, 421, 438, 472-3; 7.219, 453-4, 567, 660; 9.17, 53, 55-56, 242, 344, 356-7, 396, 782; 10.424, 557, 562; 11.51, 162, 235-6, 316, 361-2, 437-8, 622, 679-80, 731; 12.76-7, 88, 197, 200; 13.935; 14.421. For a discussion, see Wilkinson (1958) 235, M. v. Albrecht, Die Parenthese in Ovids Metamorphosen und ihre dichterische Funktion, Hildesheim, 1964.” It is perhaps fair game to refer to the Wilkinson, but the introduction of 39(!) parallels and a German monograph seems a bit pointless for the work’s intended audience. Better would be to cite one or two other instances and then briefly consider why it is important to examine Ovidian asides—how is it that these parentheses add to our understanding of Ovidian narrative and the manifold metamorphoses of the narrative voice.

Fans of recent Italian scholarship on Ovid—and they are legion—will be puzzled at the omission of G. B. Conte, G. Rosati, M. Bettini, and other luminaries from both the bibliography and (more to the point) the commentary itself. Greater emphasis on such scholarship might temper (for example) the assertion that in contrast to Horace and Vergil, “[w]ith Ovid, however, politics are ignored” [pg. 1]. A. Barchiesi directly challenged such a view in his The Poet and the Prince [Berkeley UP, 1997], and though that work concerned (in the main) the Fasti, the final book of the Metamorphoses is proof positive that Ovid grapples with the new regime’s own enigmatic metamorphoses.

In his commentary on this final section, H. recognizes some of the difficulties presented by Ovid’s narration of contemporary changes but appears hesitant to engage in further speculation about their cause (or effect). For instance, on the notorious lines 14.760-1, concerning the Caesars (“But, so that the one might not be born from mortal seed,/ the other had to be made a god”), H. detects “some irony”—but that is the extent of the interpretation. Even a commentator not particularly sympathetic to the view of a “subversive” Ovid might have pressed the point further: surely, this was one of the most transparently political metamorphoses in an era lousy with them. (As adept as he was at conjuring metamorphoses, Ovid also was a genius at puncturing them.) Similarly, the apotheosis of Julius Caesar receives almost no critical attention, though it is couched in very striking poetic language; alarmed at the growing luminescence of Caesar’s anima, Venus strangely flings it from her lap like a dangerous object [14.847-848]. To sling-shot a soul is a peculiar activity, and one might have hoped for H. to comment on the tone of the passage: playful? earnest? mocking? In this one area, H.’s commentary plays it safe by sticking to the philological facts and shrinking from a more involved discussion.

H.’s considerable industry is not always well served by the publishing process itself. There are presumably unintentional indentations of the Latin text at e.g. 13.65, 13.195, and 13.365; various letters in my copy are obliterated (metamorphosed?) at 13.140, 14.387, 14.436, 14.636 and passim; there is a typo to the note at 13.332 and in the translation at 15.278; and (weirdly) the volume’s first gathering is of noticeably different hue and glossiness than the rest of the book. One oddity of the text and translation is that the volume employs asterisks instead of cruces for passages of dubious authenticity; the result (“and *so many* rivers gushed out from *ancient* earthquakes”, 15.271-2) queerly resembles Ovidian e-mail.

But these are quibbles and should not detract from the overall high estimation of H.’s labor. As H. himself states, any commentary is a just a sum of “one man’s tastes and prejudices” (pg. 8), and if I might have wished for a greater emphasis on politics and intertextuality, then these are, I readily concede, my own tastes and prejudices. By offering the first English commentary on the complete Metamorphoses in years, H. provides a valuable service for all students of the poem and indeed Ovid himself. His efforts over 15 years are rewarding and should be in their turn well-rewarded.