BMCR 2006.04.12

Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A Selection. Edited with an Introduction by Peter Scupham

, , , Ovid's Metamorphoses : a selection. Manchester: Carcanet, 2005. xx, 156 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9781857547764 £9.95.

Peter Scupham (S.) has selected twenty four episodes from Arthur Golding’s (G.) 1587 translation of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ the first English translation of the whole poem and one that exercised great influence on English writers, most famously Shakespeare. This was the definitive translation until George Sandys published his version in 1632, and so deserves attention as a key work of the English Renaissance. This edition aims to ease new readers into their first encounter with G., and to introduce them more generally to the reception of Ovid in English. At a time when the influence of Ovid and G.’s translation in particular are receiving welcome attention, any attempt to bring this key work of English literature to a larger audience is laudable, though this edition will not meet every reader’s needs.

It is not necessary to provide another discussion of this translation’s value here; this review will focus on the apparatus accompanying the selection and the overall aims of the edition. S. provides a short introduction and bibliography, as well as brief notes, a list of ‘Names and Places’ and a glossary, all intended to get the reader into the translation as quickly and painlessly as possible. S. includes the following episodes (the line numbers are from the English translation):

Book I

The Creation and the Four Ages of Man (lines 1-170)

Apollo and Daphne (lines 545-700)

Book II

Phaeton [sic] and Phoebus Apollo (lines 142-274) 1

The Death of Phaeton (lines 333-458)

Book III

Diana and Actaeon (lines 150-304)

Echo and Narcissus (lines 431-644)

Book IV

Pyramus and Thisbe (lines 67-201)

Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (lines 346-481)

Book VI

Tereus, Philomela and Procne (lines 540-855)

Book VII

Jason, Medea, Aeson and Pelias (lines 1-452)

The Plague at Aegina (lines 652-852)


Daedalus and Icarus (lines 201-342)

Philemon and Baucis (lines 795-909)

Book IX

Byblis and Caunus (lines 541-786)

Book X

Orpheus and Eurydice (lines 1-160)

Pygmalion (lines 261-327) [this is the shortest selection, other than the sphragis]

Myrrha and Cinyras (lines 328-595)

Venus and Adonis, Hippomenes and Atalanta (lines 596-863)

Book XI

The Death of Orpheus, King Midas

Ceyx and Alcyone (lines 471-864) [this is the longest selection]


Acis, Galataea and Polyphemus (lines 885-1052)

Book XV

Pythagoras: Vegetarianism and Transmigration (lines 66-291)

Pythagoras: Metamorphosis in Nature and History (lines 375-532)

Ovid’s Farewell (lines 984-995) As with any such process of selection, people will quibble over the omission of one or more of their own favorite episodes. I note only that S. neglected Books 5, 12 and 14 entirely, excluding almost all of Ovid’s Italian material, in part from a desire to avoid material mapped out by Homer and Vergil. S. admits that, first and foremost, he chose the episodes he likes best, as well as those that influenced “creators” such as Shakespeare, Titian and Bernini (xvii); he has also generally avoided densely allusive passages or those replete with learned references. Such choices are clearly meant to make this work appeal to as broad an audience as possible, but they also draw attention to problems with this work’s general conception.

When S. says that he chose passages that he himself likes, it is unclear whether he means in G.’s translation specifically or in Ovid, though the impression he gives is of the latter. The three artists S. names as influenced by Ovid, for instance, should raise an eyebrow: only one of them would have read G.’s translation. This offhand remark in the introduction reveals a more general lack of concern for G., who receives so little attention as to suggest that S. is pushing him to one side. S. also says very little about the translation itself, offering no real reason why one should read G.’s translation as opposed to any other. While this lack of discussion may be a positive sign in terms of the way people are now looking at the reception of classical texts, no one in any field of literary studies should take it for granted that a work’s worth is manifest to everyone on a first reading.

Indicative of S.’s disregard for G.’s translation is his outright dismissal of G.’s views on Ovid, which he brushes aside, remarking, “Golding’s observations on Ovid continue this tradition [of allegorizing], but mercifully his interpretative commentary is in his ancillary material” (xii). S. accordingly includes G.’s preface but not his ‘Epistle,’ of which he gives a small sample in the introduction and then comments that “the overt moral deduction suggested can be safely ignored without running into too much spiritual danger” (xii). But it is not so easy to remove G.’s attempts in the translation itself to make Ovid English (e.g. replacing temples with churches) and certainly G.’s moralizing reading of Ovid underlies the whole translation. Finally, though such an edition does not need a full biography of the translator, much can be read into S.’s statement that “Arthur Golding’s life need not detain us long” (xiii). This edition has little do with G. and will disappoint those coming to learn more about G. as a translator or thinker.

The edition seems more aimed at those interested in the reception of Ovid: the introduction is on Ovid himself and the notes contain a wide array of excerpts from other poets who, according to S., have been influenced by Ovid. While the introduction will be useful for those unfamiliar with Ovid, those who know him and come looking to learn something about his reception will find little new here — just references to the standard works on the subject.2 It is clear that when S. thinks of Ovid’s influence, and the influence of G.’s translation, he thinks primarily of the well-documented influence on Shakespeare, though he says little about the subject other than pointing out occasional passages in Ovid that might have an analogue in Shakespeare. At the same time, unfortunately, S. tries a bit too hard to show the influence of the translation on Shakespeare and stretches at times in the notes, as on p. 143 in the note to 11.557, where he suggests that

This vigorous description of the chaotic storm and wreck of Ceyx’s ship can be compared with the abbreviated storm which opens Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Boatswain’s ‘Take in the topsail’ echoes Golding’s, ‘Strike the toppesayle…’; the paralysis of the Ovidian sailors (622), where ‘One weepes, another stands amazde’, finds an echo in the Shakespearean mariners’ ‘All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!’

Allusion is a notoriously personal thing, so I can only say that S.’s view of what constitutes a Shakespearean nod to G.’s translation differs from mine; I certainly do not see any connection between G.’s Ovid and the last two lines above, other than the most basic similarity of there being sailors who are at a loss as to what to do during a nasty storm. Not all of S.’s notes propose such tenuous connections, but the above is not an exceptional.

For such a work, of course, notes are a necessity, and S.’s notes generally provides the basic information that readers will need. Another necessity is a glossary, which S. also provides. Unfortunately, this is less thorough than one might wish, and will at times leave those not extremely comfortable with Elizabethan English at a loss. While it may seem unfair and all too easy to quibble with the choice of words to include in a glossary, such choices can have a direct bearing on a reader’s understanding of Ovid as well as of G.’s translation. In the story of the plague on Aegina and the subsequent appearance of the Myrmidons, for instance, G. uses the name ‘Emets’ (p. 68) to render Ovid’s ‘Myrmidones’ (7. 654). S. nowhere explains the etymology in this section, and the connection between the ants and the men they have become is further obscured by S.’s decision not to include ’emet’ in the glossary. Without a note here or some help, the Latin- and Greek-less reader will miss the point of the name, though G.’s original decision to translate Ovid’s term into an English word was intended to have the opposite effect, that is, to make the translation more accessible.

More problematic are the numerous errors, which range from minor technicalities (like a half dozen quotations that have no punctuation to show that the quotation is over) to serious factual mistakes, such as the assertion that “Pythagoras’ speech continues with a mixture of verifiable changes and fabulous lore deriving from Pliny the Elder’s great Natural History” (145). Less egregious, though still unfortunate, are the reference to the “Caledonian boar” (78); the use of the name ‘Arsippe’ for one of the daughters of Minyas, though Ovid does not use the name (35, following hard on a reference to “Peritheus,” the king of Thebes destroyed by Bacchus); the reference to “Ceyx of Thracis” instead of “Trachin” (108); and the explanation of the line “betweene the Kneeler-Downe and him that gripes the Snake” (70 = 8.244) as “probably Hercules and Draco” (140) instead of Hercules and Ophiuchus, to give just a few examples.

There is increasing interest in G.’s translation, as well as the reception of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ and rightly so. How one wants to approach this translation or have their students approach it will depend on the individual. Some may find the relatively small selections of this edition approachable and easily digestible, while others may be put off by the thought of giving their students something with potentially confusing errors, both typographical and factual. Those with access to Ovid’s Latin might also prefer a more scholarly version than S.’s, which offers neither parallel line numbers nor an index for ease of use. Some may prefer to assign Forey’s 2001 edition with its full text (reviewed by Raphael Lyne, BMCR 2002.09.03), and then make their own selection, especially since the difference in price is negligible (or was last I checked).3 G.’s is a translation that anyone interested in the reception of Ovid or in the English Renaissance should read, but it is not an easy work to approach, and anyone considering using it should examine all available editions to determine their compatibility with their needs.


1. The spelling of the name Phaethon is a constant problem, and indicative of poor editing in general. While G. used ‘Phaëton’ in his original edition, S. prints it as ‘Phaeton’ (as in the brief introduction to the episode), but then uses ‘Phaethon’ in the notes (e.g. p. 136). A related problem is S.’s use of the name ‘Phoebus Apollo’ for Sol in his introduction to the episode (18), though G. himself does not make that connection (which is admittedly common enough). I suspect, too, that somehow all this is related to the fact that ‘Diana (Phoebe)’ and ‘Apollo (Phoebus)’ appear sequentially in the glossary together between ‘Neptune’ and ‘Minerva’ (themselves out of alphabetical order), though the list of secondary reading in the bibliography is also slightly out of alphabetical order. Again, these small problems are indicative of an overall lack of attention to detail on the part of the editor and the press.

2. S. (xii) cites Sarah Brown, ‘The Metamorphosis of Ovid: From Chaucer to Ted Hughes’ (London: Duckworth, 1999) and Charles Martindale, ‘Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Conspicuously absent from S.’s bibliography is Raphael Lyne, ‘Ovid’s Changing Worlds: English Metamorphoses 1567-1632’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), one of the most significant discussions of G.’s translation.

3. ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses,’ translated by Arthur Golding; edited with an introduction and notes by Madeleine Forey (London: Penguin Books, 2002).