BMCR 2005.09.34

Ovid: Myth and Metamorphosis. In the series ‘Ancients in Action’

, Ovid : myth and metamorphosis. Ancients in action. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005. 159 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853996726 £10.99 (pb).

This is Sarah Annes Brown’s (hereafter “B.”) second book on reception of the Metamorphoses,1 but there is virtually no overlap between the two. The earlier study was intended for scholars, this one is “aimed at anyone who wants to find out more about the poem and its impact on Western culture: general readers, students in the humanities, even fully-fledged classicists” (7). The former presented a series of “snapshots … of English Ovidianism” (4), that is, a chronological consideration of the influence of the poem on (mostly) major authors (Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and so on). The present one considers five episodes (Daphne, Actaeon, Philomela, Arachne, and Pygmalion) and their creative reception in Western culture, primarily in (mostly English) poetry and prose fiction, with occasional references to painting and film. B.’s interpretations of the Ovidian episodes follow current generally accepted ones; her take on Philomela, however, is original and, she claims, controversial. This is not a general survey of the Metamorphoses, but it does give a lively sense of the work’s intriguing complexity and its influence. I could well imagine using this as an assigned text in my 300-level Latin course on the poem.

Each chapter moves back and forth between Ovid’s version of the story and a chronological sampling of its reception, arguing that creative responses which initially seem quite different from Ovid’s version are rooted in hints in the text itself. Her first chapter, on Daphne, begins by explicating its epigraph from Alice Fulton’s feminist take on the myth as a reflection on this fundamental question (in B’s words) “To what extent is a story able to freewheel, to generate new meanings and break free of its author’s intentions and its historical context?” (47). B. asserts that Fulton’s version “is perhaps already present, or potential at least, in Ovid’s” (47). She later attributes much of Ovid’s success to his poem’s “flexible variety … and its amenability to a range of readings” (143). B. does not consider the possibility that this flexibility and openness to interpretation may be a feature of myth in general, rather than the Metamorphoses specifically.

B.’s Introduction succinctly covers the usual topics, under rubrics such as “Influences” (Augustus and Hellenistic poetry), “Genre,” “Metamorphosis,” “Gods” (comic treatment, anachronisms, Jupiter and Augustus), “Women” (Ovid as a possible “proto-feminist,” but at least “undeniably interested in women,” 28), and “Structure,” but also some unexpected ones — “Men” (as victims of female predators and debunked heroes), and “Race” (not because of the poet’s own sensibilities, but because it figures in later reception, such as a treatment of Pyramus and Thisbe as an interracial couple).

The first chapter “charts Daphne as a contested site of interpretation from Ovid’s own poem to some of the most recent responses to the myth” (47). B. ultimately concludes that Ovid does not have an Apollonian bias, and she considers treatments which run the gamut from misogynist to feminist, including two early ones which identify her with the Virgin Mary and with Satan respectively, others which are variously cynical or sympathetic, and two (by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath) which treat her as a victim of sexual repression. Some versions present Daphne as not entirely unwilling, but B. overstates the case for finding a “hint” at Daphne’s “complicity with Apollo’s pursuit” in Ovid’s “semi-personifying of her beauty as an agent at war with her wishes” (48). The quotations from Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece (lines 68-70 and 477-80) unmistakably employ personification, whereas Ovid’s use of repugnat (1.489) would better be classified as “figurative.”2 Ovid does include examples of “a heroine at war with herself” (49), notably Medea and Myrrha, but Daphne is not one of them. Finally, it seems a bizarre stretch to find “strange miscegeny” in this couplet from Marvell’s “The Garden”: “The gods that mortal beauty chase, / Still in a tree did end their race” by wondering if the word “race” “connotes not a running contest but a species” (57).

The second chapter attributes the “haunting energy” of Actaeon’s story to “its ambiguous handling of blame and responsibility” (68). Despite Ovid’s obvious sympathy for the main character, suspicions about his innocence may be aroused both by the narrator’s opening rhetorical question (“For how can simple bad luck be anyone’s fault?”) and his concluding report of differing opinions about Diana’s treatment of the hapless hunter. The sense that Actaeon violates a “mysterious taboo” (79) has prompted responses which extrapolate more specific ones, including bestiality and homosexuality.

The third chapter, on Philomela, develops B’s notion of an incestuous, homoerotic bond between the two sisters. This insight stems from her earlier work on literary representations of the sister relationship,3 but she finds her “suspicions” confirmed by a twentieth-century dramatic version of the myth (Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale) which implies that lesbian sexuality is part of the secret Bacchic rites that serve as the cover for Procne’s rescue of her sister. According to B., Tereus is “less an agent of incest than a conduit for incest,” whose desire for Philomela is “ventriloquised” by Procne (92). B. finds further confirmation of this idea in Chaucer, an Elizabethan poet, and an eighteenth-century translator, among others.

The fourth chapter includes responses to Arachne which condemn the arrogance of her challenge to divine authority but focuses mainly on those sympathetic to her, noting “an apparent shift from a Palladian to an Arachnean perspective over the course of the last few centuries” (107). B. cautions against underestimating (or overestimating) the gap between us and productions of the past: our own perspectives, as well as those of earlier literary or artistic responses, may not be the same as Ovid’s (107). This makes her overcautious in suspecting that “Ovid might … have favoured Arachne”, but ultimately she finds “compelling reasons for deducing” this from the “evidence of the Metamorphoses itself” (108). Similarities between Arachne and Ovid lead B. to discuss the identification of Minerva with Augustus; in a much later case of gender discrepancy between Minerva and the authority figure with whom she is identified, Coleridge is identified with the goddess by his sister in a poem thanking him for the gift of a thimble.

The fifth chapter treats another artist figure, Pygmalion; as with Arachne, B. is wary of identifying the artist’s point of view with the poet’s. She does not focus on the story’s positive aspects (a miracle wrought by the power of love and art) but on responses which springs from misgivings about its objectification of women, including ones in which a living woman serves as a model for the statue which becomes her rival, or even takes its life from hers. Treated at length is Henry James’ short story “The Last of the Valerii,” in which an Italian count’s marriage is disrupted by his obsession with an ancient statue unearthed on his property. B. is unnecessarily tentative in saying that the story of Pygmalion “may … be illuminated” by the Myrrha episode which follows it. In that context, she rightly observes, “Pygmalion’s passion is more likely to seem fetishistic and perverse than idealistic or fairytale-like” (128); she could have bolstered this impression by mentioning the agalmatophiliac king in the original version. This episode from the series narrated by Orpheus after losing Eurydice the second time gives B. an opportunity to stress that “to get the full sense of each tale in the Metamorphoses we must pay attention to its teller” (127).

B. wraps up with a brief envoi speculating about “Ovid in the Third Millennium.” She observes that “Each age finds (or contrives) something peculiarly relevant to its own preoccupations” in the poem (144) and notes that she has shown “how Ovid can be used as a touchstone to gauge the different preoccupations and biases of successive generations” (145). While B.’s subject is creative responses, these remarks apply equally well to scholarly ones. Her “Note on Translations” calls A.D. Melville’s “probably” the “best known complete” modern one (149); while this may well be true for her British readers, Americans might think of Humphries or Gregory instead. As in her earlier book, she touts the virtues of the 1717 version edited by Sir Samuel Garth (and republished in 1998) and states her preferences, among the moderns, for Slavitt’s, characterizing it as “quirky” and “true to the spirit, if not to the letter” of the original (149).4 She also mentions recent adaptations, such as Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, and the versions collected in the anthology After Ovid; examples of the latter appear throughout her study itself. Her suggestions for “Further Reading” offer helpful guidance in several directions.

B.’s book can serve as an introduction not only to this poem but to the judicious uses of reader response and reception. Often she brings insights to the Ovidian original which are derived from works influenced by it, but she is duly cautious about using an “extrapolation” from one of those as a “window” on it (88) and explicitly careful to adduce evidence in the original to confirm those insights. As she says, “Some critics would argue that the meaning of a text is generated at the point of reception — in other words that it is the reader rather than the writer who decides what a story or poem is really about. This need not mean that anything goes, or that all readings are equally valuable” (86). Following this, she provides an excellent illustration of distinguishing between an idiosyncratic reader response and one grounded in a cultural context shared by “a whole community of readers” (86): associating Proserpina’s pomegranate with Eve’s apple is a case of the latter, while being reminded of an event from one’s childhood is a case of the former (86-87).

This is a useful book, but not, of course, a flawless one. Some of what seem to be errors might, however, be fine points sacrificed for brevity’s sake: B. implies that Ovid himself identifies the carmen as the Ars amatoria (13); likewise, she implies that the identification of Augustus with Jupiter is original with Ovid (27); and again, she seems to credit Ovid with the gullibility of Hercules’ acceptance of Nessus’ offer to ferry Deianira across the river (35). None of these is a serious distortion. It is a bit misleading to say that Pyreneus fell “to his death attempting to chase the winged muses off a tower” (34); in fact, they flee his attempted rape ( vim parat, 5.288) and he follows to his death (288-93). Elsewhere, B. misses the point of Iphis’ invocation of Daedalus, rather than “a god or enchanter,” although she is right that we are “supposed to snigger” (32): it was Daedalus who constructed the wooden cow Pasiphaë (to whom Iphis compares herself) used for “disguising herself as a heifer” (31).

In a few places, B. misconstrues Ovid’s Latin. When she quotes cum blandita (6.440), her translation (“coaxingly or flatteringly”) suggests that she is misreading the participle blandita as the noun blanditia in a phrase expressing manner. (92). As the whole line cum blandita viro Procne ‘si gratia’ dixit (6.440) makes clear, this cum is a conjunction. Elsewhere, misconstruing leads her to downplay a correct reading as only “possible” rather than “probable” (100): when Procne rescues Philomela, she disguises her as a Bacchante germanamque rapit raptaeque insignia Bacchi / induit (6.598-99); B. translates this as “[She] seizes her sister and clothes her in the garb of a frenzied Bacchante” (99), but Bacchi refers to the god rather than one of his followers, and raptae must refer to Philomela.5 Finally, the mistaken reference to Arachne as “a married woman” (109) comes from misunderstanding haec as Arachne rather than her mother in 6.10-11).6

B. is inexplicably tentative at times, about whether Ovid’s sympathies lie with Arachne, for example, or about the possible illumination shed by Myrrha’s story on that of Pygmalion. More often, however, she stretches a point, as in the Pygmalion chapter for instance: making too much of a repetition of the stock epithet niveus (the “snowy” ivory of the statue and the “snowy” necks of heifers sacrificed to Venus, 127); finding a tenuous “interesting parallel” between the Wife of Bath’s circumstances and her tale, on the one hand, and Orpheus’ situation and his “Pygmalion,” on the other (127-28); and attributing the “darkening” of the Pygmalion story “probably … to the influence of Frankenstein” (139), which seems unlikely, notwithstanding Mary Shelley’s own reference to herself as Pygmalion and her text as Galatea in an 1831 introduction to her novel.

Despite my various quibbles, this study can serve as an attractive and engaging introduction for her intended audience. Unlike Elaine Fantham’s slightly earlier, slightly longer introduction in the series “Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature,”7 this is not a general survey. As texts for a class, B. and Fantham complement each other; Fantham provides a conventional survey and more complete coverage of the poem, while B. offers her readers models for responding to it creatively, as so many have done over the centuries.


1. The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes. London: Duckworth, 1999). For a review by Teresa Ramsby, see Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.30. My own review is forthcoming in Comparative Literature Studies 42.3.

2. OLD s.v. “repugnat” cites this passage as an example of its definition 6a, “(esp. of abstr. qualities) To be inimical (to), be out of accord, clash (with).” A passage closer to what B. claims about 1.489 is 10.319, in which Myrrha foedo repugnat amori, which OLD cites as an example of its definition 2a, “To offer resistance (to impulses … etc.) …”

3. Devoted Sisters: Representations of the Sister Relationship in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate 2003).

4. I concur with her assessment of Slavitt. While Slavitt is always Slavitt, regardless of the author he is translating, it happens that he and Ovid are kindred spirits, a point overlooked in an anonymous customer review on dated 9-5-98: “If you are interested in Slavitt, read this translation. If you are interested in Ovid, do not.”

5. From her close reading of the Latin text, however, B. not only notes the polyptoton here, and earlier, in Tereus’ own impulse upon seeing his sister-in-law aut rapere et saevo raptam defendere bello (6.464), but cleverly terms this echo of the rape in the rescue “a kind of narratological polyptoton” (100).

6. I found only these two typos: on p.40, the phrase “Unlike Lelex’s old men, Iphis” should read “Unlike Lelex’s old men, Vertumnus”; on p.99; in the quotation of 6.464 “aevo” should be “saevo.”

7. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Oxford 2004). In 178 pages, Fantham surveys the entire poem, devoting a whole chapter to the question of genre but a single brief one to reception; she outlines Ovid’s whole corpus in one appendix, provides a “simplified synopsis” of the poem in another, and offers suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter.