Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes (1997)

Given his reputation for avoiding anything which smacked of ‘the Poetic Tradition’, the fact that he dropped English at Cambridge because he found studying the classics too stifling for his imagination, and his lifelong preference for depicting the harsh realities of a brutal, untamed nature – it might come as quite a surprise that, right at the end of his life, in 1997, Ted Hughes published a full-on translation of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, the kind of thing you might expect from a far more traditional, decorous, academic poet.

An odd choice?

Having just read the full Ovid poem I can see that Hughes’s decision is less surprising than might at first appear. I had fond memories of reading the Metamorphoses 30 years ago and had completely forgotten that they are consistently brutal, intense and often very cruel indeed. As such, they obviously chime with Hughes’s lifelong obsession with the brutality, intensity, and visionary otherness of the natural world.

Also, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Hughes had, earlier in his career, translated another work by a canonical Roman writer, the Oedipus of Seneca. In fact I was surprised, double checking his bibliography, to discover that after his death a whole suite of translations was published – translations of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Phèdre by Jean Racine, and Alcestis by Euripides, all published in 1999. What do they have in common? Classic stories from classical antiquity. So the Ovid translations are far from unique. Hughes’s imagination clearly took a classical turn in his last decade.

And then, on rereading his poetry as I just have, I realised there are scattered references to classical mythology throughout – not many, admittedly, but they’re there.

Plus the entire sequence in Moortown named ‘Prometheus on his crag’, and the poem in that volume about Actaeon, and one titled ‘Pan’.

So once you start looking, you find a strong undercurrent of classical references and subject matter throughout his oeuvre.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a long poem in Latin in which the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, generally referred to as Ovid (43 BC t o18 AD) brought together into one continuous narrative some 250 ancient Greek myths and legends.

these ancient stories all have one thing in common – the protagonist, the figure at the centre of the story, be they man, woman, child, sometimes a minor divinity such as a nymph or nereid – at the climax of the story, each of them is transformed into something else. Sometimes into an animal, like a bird or pig or wolf or dog; sometimes into flora, such as a tree or flower; sometimes into inanimate matter, like stone – various characters are turned into statues or just into stone – or into water – several characters are turned into standing pools or streams.

Hughes’s approach

Ovid’s poem is huge. At just short of 12,000 lines of regular dactylic hexameter it is as long and detailed and complicated as the canonical epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Hughes’s version is nowhere near as long. For a start he restricts himself to just 24 of the longer or more complete tales.

So instead of a continuous narrative describing stories big and small, containing full length treatments with throwaway references in a line or two, as Ovid does, Hughes presents us with what is, in effect, a collection of 24 individual poems.

Second, and a more glaring difference, is Hughes translates Ovid into free verse. Hughes employed free verse and flexible stanza shapes right from the start of his career, so by 1997 he’d had 40 years of practice. The result is a style where every line is its own thing, its own measure, justifying its own length and rhythm by its meaning and poetic force, rather than being compelled to fit into a regular metre.

Tales from Ovid does in fact contain regular stanza structures, though I only slowly realised it. Thus the opening story about Phaethon who fools his father, the god of the sun, into letting him drive his chariot for a day and proves totally inadequate to the task – a kind of ancient Greek Liz Truss – and loses control of the immortal horses and lets the sun chariot swoop low over the earth causing widespread destruction – in Hughes’s hands this narratives begins by being told in 47 5-line stanzas, each line being as flexible as he needed it to be.

When Phaethon bragged about is father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him. ‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’

In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.’

And so on. However, Hughes has no hesitation in switching format as required so that, for example, when Phaethon enters the palace of his father, the verse switches to long verse paragraphs in order to describe its grandeur.

Fittingly magnificent
Columns underpropped a mass
Of gold strata so bright
The eyes flinched from it.
The whole roof a reflector
Of polished ivory.
The silver doors like sheet flame –
And worked into that flame
Vulcan, the god of fire,
Had set, in relief, a portrait of the creation…

Back to 5-line stanzas for a bit and then, when Phaethon loses control of the horse of the sun so that they fly down, far too close to the surface of the earth, it switches again to verse paragraphs, although the freedom of individual lines remains identical to what it was in the stanzas i.e. there’s no particular rhyme or pattern except the power of the phrases themselves.

Earth began to burn, the summits first.
Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets,
All crops were instantly fuel –
The land blazed briefly.
In the one flare noble cities
Were rendered
To black stumps of burnt stone.
Whole nations, in all their variety,
Were clouds of hot ashes, blowing in the wind,.
Forest-covered mountains were bonfires…

Later on the 9-page tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in a series of free verse 3-line stanzas so popular with contemporary poets for some reason. (Maybe this is for the simple reason that they’re no couplets which tend to make you expect rhymes, and not quatrains, ditto. Triplets are free of those old traditional expectations.)

Throughout the East men spoke in awe of Thisbe –
A girl who had suddenly bloomed
In Babylon, the mud-brick city.

The house she had grown up in adjoined
The house where Pyramus, so many years a boy,
Brooded bewildered by the moods of manhood.

These two, playmates from the beginning,
Fell in love.
For angry reasons, no part of the story,

The parents of each forbade their child
To marry the other…

In other words, Hughes felt utterly free to pick and choose verse forms, or variations of free verse forms, as they suited his needs.

List of the poems

  1. The Creation of the Universe. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron). the Flood. The story of Lycaon (20 pages)
  2. Phaethon (21 pages)
  3. Callisto and Arcas (7 pages)
  4. The Rape of Proserpina (15 pages)
  5. Arethusa (4 pages)
  6. Tiresias (2 pages)
  7. Echo and Narcissus (11 pages)
  8. Erisychthon (10 pages)
  9. Semele (6 pages)
  10. Peleus and Thetis (4 pages)
  11. Actaeon (8 pages)
  12. Myrrha (15 pages)
  13. Venus and Adonis (16 pages)
  14. Pygmalion (7 pages)
  15. Hercules and Dejanira (13 pages)
  16. The Birth of Hercules (3 pages)
  17. The Death of Cygnus (6 pages)
  18. Arachne (9 pages)
  19. Bacchus and Pentheus (18 pages)
  20. Midas (11 pages)
  21. Niobe (12 pages)
  22. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (5 pages)
  23. Tereus (17 pages)
  24. Pyramus and Thisbe (9 pages)

The merits of Hughes’s version

Characteristic, trademark phrasing, precise, brisk, no fat on the bone, no extraneous syllables. Hard, precise and clinical.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
Was bringing his new bride home
When he came to the river Evenus.

Burst banks, booming torrent,
Where there had been a ford. Hercules
Had no fear for himself, only for his wife.

No namby-pamby, stuff-and-nonsense, decoration or silly sentiment for our Ted. Stick to the facts, son, and tha’ll do alreeght.

The weaknesses of Hughes’s version

1. Verbosity

The weakness of Hughes’s later verse is its verbosity, as I tried to demonstrate in my overview of Hughes’s career. Much of Crow is dazzlingly brilliant, Gaudete is an extraordinarily weird achievement, but by the time of Moortown in 1979, you feel Hughes could churn this stuff out by the yard, by the mile if necessary. Same is true in spades of Tales from Ovid.

There are still flashes of brilliance in his phrasing, and his shaping of lines i.e. deciding how many words and beats to include in each line, and his ability to build up rhythms over successive free verse lines remains very impressive. But his commitment to a diction which is ‘a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical’ often ends up emptying the lines of colour. His verse feels oddly empty.

2. Functionality

Also, in order to tell stories in verse some of the lines need to be unavoidably functional. Now, if you’re Dryden or Pope, you could use a standard format like the rhyming couplet or blank verse, both of which are utterly predictable in layout, pace and metre and so very suitable for settling down to hear a very long narrative in.

Hughes tries to translate his 24 stories into ad hoc verse shapes and line lengths but, whereas these were justified when they contained a blitz of stunning images in his own poems, this approach works less well for narrative poetry.

Somewhere the critic (and mate of Hughes’s) Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems leap from one dazzling image to the next. That’s fine if that’s all the poems are meant to do – dazzle. But telling a story requires something a bit more predictable, a regular repeatable style which can take a backseat to the narrative.

3. Thin

In stripping his versions back to the bone, Hughes loses a lot of what makes Ovid Ovid, which is the myriad digressions and throwaway references, about genealogy and relationships and attributes of this god or the achievements of that hero; all the peripheral detail which goes to build up a rich imaginative world. These are just some of the aspects which make the original Metamorphoses feel very dense and rich, sumptuous, luxurious. Hughes deliberately chucks all that out in order to hone things down to maximum intensity for each line. But what if the sumptuous detail is the point of Ovid?

4. Scene setting and landscapes

Now I’m really thinking about this, I realise that Ovid, in his best most extended stories, often goes in for slow, lush, storytelling descriptions of scenery and setting.

There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid. (book 3)

Hughes chucks all this out in order to get to the pith of the action.

A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress

Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern

That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken

By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,

Diana came
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

I suppose Hughes’s version is more crisp, factual, minimalist and modern – but, in a poem of Ovid’s type, half the pleasure is in the details, the lushness and the time taken to elaborate and decorate the subject. It’s nice to know that Diana is the goddess ‘of the high-girded tunic’ and a thousand and one other details and spin-off phrases which adorn and enrich the Ovid. All burned away in Hughes. Hughes’s version is like a concrete multi-story car park – admirable in its stark, uncompromising efficiency. But difficult to warm to, let alone love.

5. Blank style

And that brings me round to the lack of sensuality in Hughes’s verse. His is a powerful sensuality of imagery but not of language, as such.

Right from the start Hughes was capable of using simple words in unexpected combinations to convey his otherworldly insights into nature with stunning power, but there was rarely anything special about the words themselves. they are often very ordinary indeed. It was always the novel combinations of words into brilliant, often mind-bending phrases which had so much impact on readers. In fact, paradoxically, Hughes often works with a very limited, plain diction.

Somehow, for me, his translation of the Tales really brings this out. The deliberate blankness of a lot of the style, and the occasional dazzling phraseology, can’t conceal the fact that a lot of the lines are, lexically speaking, rather, well, pedestrian.

The introduction

There’s a case for saying the best part of the book is the introduction. For a start, it’s admirably brief at just four and a half pages. After some fluff about Ovid’s biography, it quickly turns to Hughesian interests. After mentioning the Metamorphoses‘ importance to Chaucer as a source book for all manner of myths and legends, Hughes goes on to cite Shakespeare.

Characteristically, Hughes dismisses Shakespeare finding sweet and beautiful images amidst Ovid’s dense foliage. Instead:

A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.

Now, admittedly these elements are present in Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest plays and remain in moments of the high tragedies, especially King Lear. But roughly speaking who do ‘a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion’ remind you of? Hughes. and his hyperbolic brain-damaged worldview (see my overview of Hughes’s oeuvre for quotes to back this up).

But it’s worth bearing with this over-passionate man for the insights he offers into Ovid:

Above all, Ovid was interested in passion. or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in extremis – passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural.

Then Hughes says something really interesting and profoundly insightful. I quote it in full to give the rhythm and rise of his argument:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point, touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane. Sometimes this happens because mortals tangle with the gods, sometimes because mortal passion makes the breakthrough by sheer excess, without divine intervention – as in the tale of Tereus and Philomela. But in every case, to a greater or lesser degree, Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed.

I think the thought behind this, and the phrasing, are wonderfully vivid and evocative. I’m not at all sure what he says is true of the entire Metamorphoses, which feature just as many nymphs and Naiads and whatnot as mortals – and also includes some happy endings, such as Pygmalion, and Baucis and Philemon (the happiest story in the Metamorphoses and so, symptomatically, not included in Hughes’s selection of tales.)

But as a description of what does happen to the poor, stricken mortals among Ovid’s hapless protagonists, this is a wonderfully, energetically perceived and phrased insight.

Conclusion

As Hughes’s last volume of poetry, Tales from Ovid has interest, though it’s not the best place to start if you’ve never read him before.

If you want to find out what Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually like, then emphatically do not read this translation, try the more traditional versions from Penguin or OUP which give you the full text along with all the wonderful details and grace notes which welcome you into an entirely new world. Every bit as savage and cruel as Hughes’s, but redeemed and enlivened by far more colour and variety.


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Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The odes of Horace

The gods watch over me; a heart
That’s reverent and the poets art
Please them.
(Horace Book 1, ode 17, in James Michie’s translation)

Come, learn this air
And sing it to delight me.
A good song can repair
The ravages inflicted by black care.
(Book 4, ode 11)

Horace’s works

Scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s body of poetry:

Horace’s odes

Horace published 104 odes. They are divided into 4 books. He published the first 3 books of odes in 23 BC, containing 88 carmina or songs. He prided himself on the skill with which he adapted a wide variety of Greek metres to suit Latin, which is a more concise, pithy and sententious language than Greek.

I shall be renowned
As one who, poor-born, rose and pioneered
A way to fit Greek rhythms to our tongue… (3.30)

Horace aimed to create interest by varying the metre as much as possible, using over a dozen different verse formats. He was particularly indebted to metres associated with two Greek poets, Alcaeus and Sappho. Of the 104 odes, 37 are in Alcaics and 26 in Sapphics i.e. over half.

The precise definition of these forms is highly technical, so I refer you to the Wikipedia articles for Alcaics and Sapphics.

Despite all this skillful adaptation, the odes were not greeted with the acclaim Horace hoped for, which may explain why he seems to have abandoned ode writing and returned to the hexameters in which he had written the satires. Using this he now proceeded to write two books of epistles, ‘elegant and witty reflections on literature and morality,’ according to James Michie, which scholars think were published in 20 and 12 BC, respectively.

In 17 BC Augustus commissioned Horace to write an ode to be sung at the start of the Secular Games which he had reinstated as part of his policy of reviving traditional Roman festivals, customs and religious ceremonies. Soon afterwards, Augustus asked Horace to write odes on the military victories of his grandsons Drusus and Tiberius. Whether these commissions renewed an interest in the form or spurred him to assemble works he’d been writing in the interim we don’t know but in about 11 BC Horace published his fourth, final and shortest book of odes, containing just 15 poems.

What is an ode?

The following is adapted from the Wikipedia definition:

An ode (from Ancient Greek: ᾠδή, romanized: ōdḗ) is a sub-type of lyrical poem. An ode generally praises or glorifies an event or individual. Whereas a pure lyric uses impassioned and emotional language, and a satire uses harsh and demotic language, an ode – insofar as it is an address to a named individual, whether friend, emperor or god – generally has a dignified and sincere tone (although part of Horace’s practice was experimenting with and varying that tone).

Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed with musical accompaniment. As time passed they gradually became known as personal lyrical compositions whether sung (with or without musical instruments) or merely recited (always with accompaniment). The primary instruments used were the aulos and the lyre. There are three typical forms of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular.

  • The typical Pindaric ode was structured into three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. However, Horace’s odes do not follow this pattern.
  • Horatian odes do not have the three-part structure of Pindaric odes. They tend to be written as continuous blocks of verse, or, more often, are divided into four-line stanzas. It’s in this division into neat 4-line stanzas that they most imitate Greek lyricists such as Alcaeus and Anacreon.
  • Irregular odes use rhyme but not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode.

An ode is short. I’ve recently read the Eclogues of Virgil which are fairly long and the Georgics which felt very long: Horace’s odes are the opposite. Some are as short as 8 lines, for example book 1 ode 30 and 4.10.

Subject matter

Horace was praised by critics for not just adapting the Greek forms of Alcaeus and Sappho to Latin, but filling them with details of the social life of Rome in the age of Augustus. He broadened the subject matter to cover a much wider range of subjects including love and jealousy, friendship and mourning, hymns to various gods, addresses to the all-powerful emperor Augustus, reflections on mortality, promotion of the golden mean and patriotic criticism of excess luxury and calls for society to return to the sterner, abstemious values of their Roman ancestors. There are several poems consisting entirely of eulogy to Augustus, describing him as a blessing to the nation, the only man who could bring peace and wishing him success in his military campaigns in the East. I enjoy John Dryden’s description of Horace as “a well-mannered court slave”. It doesn’t feel that when you read all his other poems, but when you read the Augustus ones, you immediately get what Dryden was saying. The word ‘poet’ is only one letter away from ‘pet’.

Underlying all the poems, and appearing them as either passing references or the central subject, are two ‘philosophical’ themes: the uncertainty and transience of life, and the need to observe moderation in all things, what Aristotle had defined as ‘the golden mean’ between extremes:

All who love safety make their prize
The golden mean and hate extremes… (2.10)

James Michie

Greek and Latin poets did not use rhyme to structure their poetry, they used the counting of syllables in each line according to a variety of patterns established by various ancient Greek poets and copied and adapted by the Romans.

English poets by contrast, since the Middle Ages, use beats or emphasis instead of counting syllables, and have used rhyme. Not exclusively, witness the reams of blank verse used in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries or in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but certainly in short lyrics and Horace’s odes are short lyrics. All 104 of Horace’s odes fit onto just 114 pages of English verse.

This explains the decision of James Michie, translator of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of the complete odes of Horace, to cast them into predominantly rhymed verse.

The Penguin edition is interesting and/or useful because it features the Latin on one page, with Michie’s English translation on the page opposite. I did Latin GCSE and so, with a bit of effort, can correlate the English words to the original Latin phrases, though I don’t have anything like enough Latin to appreciate Horace’s style.

Book 1 is the longest, containing 38 odes. Book 2 has 20. Book 3 has 30, and the final, short one, book 4, has 15.

Themes

Direct address to gods

Any summary of Horace as the poet of friendship and conviviality has to take account that about one in six of the poems are straight religious hymns to named deities. Michie’s (admirably brief) introduction explains that the poems give no evidence about how sincerely Horace felt these religious sentiments. Probably he was religious in the same way most educated Romans of his time were, as Cicero was: viewing religion and the old festivals and ceremonies as important for the social cohesion of Rome.

In this view the correct ceremonies had to be carried out on the correct occasions to the correct deities in order to ensure the state’s security and future. Whether an individual ‘believed’ in the gods or not was irrelevant: correct action was all. The importance of internal, psychological ‘belief’ only became an issue with the slow arrival of Christianity well over a hundred years later. In the meantime, correct invocations of the gods could be seen as part of civic and patriotic duty, especially for Augustus, who in so many ways tried to restore the old ceremonies, rites and festivals of Republican Rome.

1.10 To Mercury

You are the one my poem sings –
The lyre’s inventor; he who brings
Heaven’s messages; the witty
Adventurer who takes delight
In slyly stowing out of sight
Anything he finds pretty.

1.21 To Diana

Virgin maidens, praise Diana.
Young men, sing a like hosanna

1.30 Prayer to Venus

O Queen of Cnidos, Paphos,
Come, leave, though dearly thine,
Cyprus; for here’s thick incense,
And Glycera calls divine
Venus to her new shrine.

1.31 Prayer to Apollo

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine request?

Incidentally, note the slight complexity of this long sentence. It took me a few readings to realise it is:

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet (as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine) request?

We’ll come back to this issue, the sometimes grammatically challenging nature of Michie’s translation.

1.35 Hymn to Fortuna

O goddess ruling over favoured Antium,
With power to raise our perishable bodies
From low degree or turn
The pomp of triumph into funeral,

Thee the poor farmer with his worried prayer
Propitiates…

To women

The poems of heterosexual men are often about difficulties with relationships. Horace has poems directly addressing women, lovers, more often ex-lovers; or addressing women who are messing with his friends’ emotions; or poems to male friends offering advice about their relationships with women. I can see how a feminist critic might object to Horace’s basic stance and to much of the detail of what he says. For me the main effect is to create a sense of the extended social circle the poet inhabits.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key. (2.1)

Horace plays at being jealous, while never achieving the emotional intensity of Catullus. And this is because his ‘love’ poems, such as 1.13, often turn out to be really promoting his philosophy of life, namely moderation in all things, wine, women, politics and poetry.

1.13 To Lydia

Happy are they alone whom affections hold
Inseparable united; those who stay
Friends without quarrels, and who cannot be torn away
From each other’s arms until their dying day.

1.16 is addressed to an unnamed women who he has, apparently, infuriated by writing a witty lampoon about her. Horace apologises unreservedly for upsetting her. But the poem is really about the emotion of anger, how ruinous it is for individuals and nations, how it must be avoided at all costs. Moments like this accumulate to make you suspect that even Horace’s most ‘passionate’ poems are clever artifice. It is hard to imagine the poet who promoted moderation and sensible restraint at every opportunity ever losing his head over anyone, no matter how he poses.

1.19 The Poet’s Love for Glycera

The Mother of the Loves, unkindly
Goddess, and Semele’s son combine
With wild abandon to remind me
That though I had thought desire
Dead, it still burns. The fire

Is Glycera.

1.23 To Chloe

This is such fun I’ll quote it in its entirety. Whether it reflects any real situation, I doubt. It feels more like a witty exercise, in the manner of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. To understand it you need to realise the first line means ‘Chloe, why won’t you venture near ME’, but Michie cannot quite say that in order to preserve his tight rhyme scheme. And to know that ‘dam’ is an archaic poetic word for ‘mother’. So that the majority of the poem is treating this young woman, Chloe, as if she is as timorous and scared as Bambi.

Chloe, you will not venture near,
Just like a lost young mountain deer
Seeking her frantic dam; for her each
Gust in the trees is a needless fear.

Whether the spring-announcing breeze
Shudders the light leaves or she sees
The brambles twitched by a green lizard,
Panic sets racing her heart and knees.

Am I a fierce Gaetulian
Lion or some tiger with a plan
To seize and maul you? Come, now, leave your
Mother: you’re ready to know a man.

So, in fact, this middle-aged man is preparing ‘to seize and maul’ this timorous young woman. If we attribute the speaking voice to 40-something Horace, it is inappropriate. But if it is a song to be sung by any young man, less so.

Here he is gently mocking a friend (in fact a fellow poet, Tibullus) because his girlfriend’s dumped him:

Tibullus, give up this extravagant grieving
For a sweetheart turned sour. ‘Why was she deceiving?’
You ask, and then whimper long elegies on
The theme of the older man being outshone… (1.33)

In praise of booze

Horace is surprisingly insistent on the blessings of wine and the vine, with a number of poems recommending it as the appropriate accompaniment to all sorts of situations, from cheering up a doleful lover to consoling a parent for the loss of a child, celebrating an old friend having his citizenship restored or safely returned from a long journey (1.36), or just a way to forget sorrows and anxieties and be sociable (2.11). In ancient Rome wine was never drunk neat, but always diluted with water:

Come, boy, look sharp. Let the healths rip!
To midnight! The new moon! The augurship
Of our Murena! Mix the bowls – diluted
With three or nine parts wine: tastes must be suited.
The poet, who loves the Muses’ number, nine,
Inspired, demands that measure of pure wine. (3.19)

Above all wine was shared. In ancient Rome wine was drunk in social situations, among friends and with slaves to open the bottles and mix them correctly. In Horace’s day, men who got together to hold a convivial evening elected one of their number ‘president’ by rolling dice to see who got the highest score, and the president then selected which wines were to be drunk, in which order, to command the slaves, and institute topics of conversation or games.

Who’ll win the right to be
Lord of the revelry
By dicing highest? (2.7)

In other words, ‘wine’ symbolises not just a drink but a much deeper concept of sociability and conviviality. And importantly, this sociability was the cure for anxiety, depression and grief. So ‘wine’ isn’t at all about seeking intoxication or oblivion; quite the opposite: ‘wine’ symbolises the moderation and sociable common sense which Horace is always promoting. Even when he appears to be promoting booze, it’s really this idea he’s promoting.

Let Damalis, the girl we crown
Champion drinker, be put down
By Bassus at the game of sinking
A whole cup without breath or blinking. (1.36)

And, as with almost all aspects of Roman life, there was a ‘religious’ aspect in the sense that the Romans thanked the gods for all their blessings (just as they attributed all disasters to the malign influence of Fortune). It was ‘fitting’ to thank the gods, and often this was done with ‘libations’ i.e. pouring part of each bottle of wine onto the ground as an offering to the gods, as thanks for blessings received, as hope for blessings continued.

Pay Jove his feast, then. In my laurel’s shade
Stretch out the bones that long campaigns have made
Weary. Your wine’s been waiting
For years: no hesitating! (2.7)

In the following extract the ‘fast-greying tops’ means the greying heads of hair of Horace and his friend, Quinctilius, who he’s trying to persuade to stop being so anxious about life.

Futurity is infinite:
Why tax the brain with plans for it?
Better by this tall plane or pine
To sprawl and while we may, drink wine
And grace with Syrian balsam drops
And roses these fast-greying tops.
Bacchus shoos off the wolves of worry. (2.11)

1.11 carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

Horace’s attitude overlaps with the modern notion of mindfulness. According to this website, ‘Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. As he tells Maecenas:

Be a plain citizen for once – you fret
Too much about the people’s sufferings.
Relax. Take what the hour gives, gladly. Let
Others attend the graver side of things. (3.8)

The shame of recent Roman history i.e. the civil wars

This attitude is not bourgeois complacency (‘Hey slave, bring us more booze!’). Well, OK, it is – but it is given more bite by the historical background. Rome had just emerged from about 13 years of civil war (Antony and Octavian against Caesar’s assassins) or a very uneasy peace leading to another civil war (Octavian against Antony). Unlike most bourgeois Horace had led a legion in a major battle (Philippi), seen men hacked to pieces around him, and seen his cause completely crushed. What good had the assassination of Julius Caesar and then Brutus and Cassius’s war against Octavian and Antony achieved? Nothing. Absolutely nothing except tens of thousands of Roman dead and devastation of entire provinces.

And he refers to it repeatedly, the utter pointlessness and futility of war.

Alas, the shameful past – our scars, our crimes, our
Fratricides! This hardened generation
Has winced at nothing, left
No horror unexplored… (1.35)

Our fields are rich with Roman
Dead and not one lacks graves to speak against our
Impious battles. Even
Parthia can hear the ruin of the West. (2.1)

So Horace’s is not the complacent attitude of a pampered aristocrat who has never known trouble, but of a self-made man who has seen a whole lot of trouble and therefore knows the true value of peace. Although he wears it lightly, it is a hard-won philosophy. And he refers to it, repeatedly.

Greek mythology

Horace is so identified in my mind with Rome, with Augustus, with the golden age of Roman literature, that it comes as a shock to see just how much of the subject matter is Greek. Take 1.15 which is a dramatic address to Paris as he abducts Helen by the sea goddess Nereus, foreseeing the long siege and destruction of Troy. 2.4 is about inappropriate love but stuffed with examples from Troy. But all of the poems contain references to Greek mythology and require a good working knowledge of its complex family trees: just who is son of Latona, who is Semele’s son? Who are:

Yet how could mighty Mimas or Typhoeus
Or Rhoetus or Porphyrion for all hid
Colossal rage or fierce
Enceladus who tore up trees for darts

Succeed? (3.4)

Or take the long poem 3.27 which contains a rather moving soliloquy by the maid Europa who, in a fit of madness, let herself be raped by a bull, a sophisticated poem full of unexpected compassion for the miserable young woman who is, of course, Jupiter in disguise. The poem contains a twist in the tail, for Venus has been standing by all through the girl’s frantic speech, enjoying the scene with that detached cruelty typical of the gods and only at the end reveals the bull in question was none other than Jupiter in disguise, hence explaining the girl’s powerlessness to resist.

False modesty

That said, there is another repeated trope which, as it were, modifies the Hellenic influence and this is Horace’s stock protestations that his muse and lyre and skill aren’t up to epic or serious verse, are instead designed for more homely, lowly subject matter. He turns this into a joke on a couple of occasions when he’s getting carried away invoking the Mighty Warriors of the Trojan War and suddenly realises what he’s doing, back pedals and dials it down.

Where are you rambling, Muse? This theme’s beyond your
Light-hearted lyre. End now. Absurd presumption
To tell tales of the gods
And mar high matters with your reedy voice! (3.3)

Maybe 1.6 is the best expression of this repeated trope of inadequacy. To understand it you need to know that Varius is a rival Roman poet, famous for his high-flown tragedies, and that the poem is directly addressed to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Roman general who Augustus relied on to win his battles.

That eagle of Homeric wing,
Varius, will in due course sing
Your courage and your conquests, every deed
Of daring that our forces,
Riding on ships or horses
Accomplish with Agrippa in the lead.

But I’m not strong enough to try
Such epic flights. For themes as high
As iron Achilles in his savage pique,
Crafty Ulysses homing
After long ocean-roaming,
Or Pelops’ house of blood, my wings feel weak.

And both my modesty and my Muse,
Who tunes her lyre to peace, refuse
To let her tarnish in the laureate’s part
Our glorious Augustus’
Or your own battle-lustres
With my imperfect and unpolished art…

Feasts, and the war where girls’ trimmed nails
Scratch fiercely at besieging males –
These are the subjects that appeal to me,
Flippant, as is my fashion,
Whether the flame of passion
Has scorched me or has left me fancy-free.

As usual, the translation is fluent and clever, but I stumbled over the grammar of ‘Augustus” and it took me a few goes to realise he’s saying ‘my muse refuses to tarnish either Augustus’s, or your, battle-lustres’. Maybe you got it first time, but at quite a few places, Michie’s ingenuity in rhyming results in phrases which made me stumble. Anyway, here is Horace again, protesting the modesty of his poetic aims and means:

The history of the long Numantian war;
Iron Hannibal; the sea incarnadined
Off Sicily with Carthaginian gore;
Wild Lapiths fighting blind-

Drunk Centaurs; or the Giants who made the bright
Halls of old Saturn reel till Hercules
Tame them – you’d find my gentle lyre too slight
An instrument for these

Magnificent themes, Maecenas… (2.12)

Friends

The majority of the poems address a named individual, buttonholing and badgering them, and the number of these addressed poems, added to the variety of subject matter, creates a sense of great sociability, of a buzzing circle of friends. Horace comes over as a very sociable man with a word of advice for all his many friends, something which really struck me in the run of poems at the start of book 2:

Sallustius Crispus, you’re no friend of metal
Unless it’s made to gleam with healthy motion… (2.2)

Maintain and unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck, one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius… (2.3)

Dear Phocian Xanthias, don’t feel ashamed
Of loving a servant… (2.4)

Septimius, my beloved friend,
Who’d go with me to the world’s end… (2.6)

Pompeius, chief of all my friends, with whom
I often ventured to the edge of doom
When Brutus led our line… (2.7)

Barine, if for perjured truth
Some punishment had ever hurt you –
One blemished nail or blackened tooth –
I might believe this show of virtue… (2.7)

The clouds disgorge a flood
Of rain; fields are churned mud;
The Caspian seas
Are persecuted by the pouncing blasts;
But, Valgius, my friend, no weather lasts
For ever… (2.9)

Licinius, to live wisely shun
The deep sea; on the other hand,
Straining to dodge the storm don’t run
Too close in to the jagged land… (2.10)

‘Is warlike Spain hatching a plot?’
You ask me anxiously. ‘And what
Of Scythia?’ My dear Quinctius
There’s a whole ocean guarding us.
Stop fretting… (2.11)

Male friends he addresses poems to include: Maecenas his patron and ‘inseperable friend’ (2.17), Virgil, Sestius, Plancus, Thaliarchus, Leuconoe, Tyndaris, Aristius Fuscus, Megilla of Opus, Iccius, Tibullus, Plotius Numida, Asinius Pollio, Sallustius Crispus, Quintus Dellius, Xanthias Phoceus, Septimius, Pompeius Varus, C. Valgius Rufus, Lucius Licinius Murena, Quinctius Hirpinus, Postumus, Aelius Lama, Telephus, Phidyle, Ligurinus, Julus, Torquatus, Caius Marcius Censorinus and Lollius.

The women he addresses include: Pyrrha, Lydia (who appears in 4 poems 1.8, 1.13, 1.25, 3.9), the unnamed lady of 1.16, Glycera (twice 1.19, 1.30, 1.33), Chloe, Barine, Asterie, Lyce, Chloris, Galatea and Phyllis.

All go to create the sense of a thriving active social life, an extended circle of friends and acquaintances which is very…urbane. Civilised, indulgent, luxurious:

Boy, fetch me wreaths, bring perfume, pour
Wine from a jar that can recall
Memories of the Marsian war… (3.14)

The predominant tone is of friendship and fondness and frank advice:

Then go, my Galatea, and, wherever
You choose, live happily… (3.27)

But the reader is left to wonder whether any of these people (apart from Maecenas and Virgil, and maybe one or two others) ever actually existed, or whether they are characters in the play of his imaginarium.

The simple life

Again and again Horace contrasts the anxious life of high officials in Rome with the simplicity of life on his farm out in the country, and the even simpler pleasures of life the peasants who live on it. The theme is elaborated at greatest length in one of the longest poems, 3.29, where Horace invites careworn Maecenas to come and stay on his farm, yet another excuse to repeat his injunction to Live in the Present, for nobody knows what the future holds.

Call him happy
And master of his own soul who every evening
Can say, ‘Today I have lived…’

Homosexuality

As long as a Roman citizen of the upper class married, sired male children and performed his religious and family duties, the details of his sexuality weren’t important, or might have prompted waspish gossip, but weren’t illegal. Homosexuality isn’t as prominent in Horace’s poetry as it is in Virgil’s, but it’s here as part of his urbane mockery of his own love life and one poem in particular, 4.1, is a passionate and surprisingly moving poem of unrequited love for a youth named Ligurinus.

Why then,
My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry
Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among
Syllable? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight
Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.

This Ligurinus is (apparently) a pre-pubescent boy because another entire poem, 4.10, is devoted to him, pointing out that one day soon he’ll sprout a beard, his peaches and cream complexion will roughen, and he’ll no longer be the hairless beauty he is now.

It is very striking indeed that earlier in book 4 Horace writes a series of poems lamenting the decline and fall in Roman social standards, singling out greed and luxury, and also adultery which, of course, makes it difficult to determine the real father of a child – and yet this flagrantly homosexual and, possibly, if the boy is under 16 which seems pretty certain, pederastic poem, passes without comment and presents no obstacle to the poet’s earlier harsh moralising.

Sucking up to Augustus

As is fitting, the first poem in book 1 addresses his patron (and friend) Augustus’s minister for the arts, Maecenas. And the second poem addresses the boss man himself, Augustus, unquestioned supreme ruler of Rome and its empire, who is subsequently addressed at regular intervals throughout the series of poems. Here is Horace, addressing Jupiter king of the gods but describing Augustus (referred to here by the name of his adoptive great-uncle, Caesar, by which he was widely known, before the title ‘Augustus’ was bestowed in 27 BC):

Thou son of Saturn, father and protector
Of humankind, to thee Fate has entrusted
Care of great Caesar; govern, then, while Caesar
Holds the lieutenancy.

He, whether leading in entitled triumph
The Parthians now darkening Rome’s horizon,
The Indian or the Chinese peoples huddled
Close to the rising sun,

Shall, as thy right hand, deal the broad earth justice. (1.12)

Here Horace is asking the fickle goddess Fortune to protect Augustus and the Roman armies engaged in battle:

Guard Caesar bound for Britain at the world’s end,
Guard our young swarm of warriors on the wing now
To spread the fear of Rome
Into Arabia and the Red Sea coasts. (1.35)

1.37 includes a brief description of Octavian’s historic victory over the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Thunder in heaven confirms our faith – Jove rules there;
But here on earth Augustus shall be hailed as
God also, when he makes
New subjects of the Briton and the dour

Parthian. (3.5)

Incidentally, I don’t know why there are so many references to conquering Britain. In his long reign Augustus never sent armies to invade Britain, that was left to his great-nephew, the emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Book 4 contains noticeably more praise of Augustus (‘O shield of Italy and her imperial metropolis’) than the previous books: was it clearer than ever that the new regime was here to stay? Had Horace got closer to Augustus? Was it a shrewd political move to butter up the big man?

We know that Horace had been personally commissioned to write the two odes in praise of Drusus (4.4) and Tiberius (4.14) which overflow with slavish praise of their stepfather, Augustus, and the book includes a poem calling on Apollo to help him write the Centennial Hymn which Augustus commissioned (4.6). So this book contains more lickspittle emperor-worship than the previous 3 books combined.

How shall a zealous parliament or people
With due emolument and ample honours
Immortalise thy name
By inscription and commemorative page,

Augustus, O pre-eminent of princes
Wherever sunlight makes inhabitable
The earth? (4.14)

And the final ode in the entire series, 4.15, is another extended hymn of praise to Augustus’s peerless achievements.

Book 4

In his edition of Horace’s satires, Professor Nial Rudd points out that book 4, published about 12 years after books 1 to 3, has a definite autumnal feeling. Virgil is dead (19 BC) and Horace’s patron, Maecenas, no longer plays the central role he had done a decade earlier. The odes to Tiberius and Drusus highlight that a new young generation is coming up, and Horace refers to his own grey hair and age. Had Maecenas previously formed a buffer between him and the emperor, and, with his declining influence, has the emperor become more demanding of direct praise?

Famous phrases

It’s difficult for a non-Latinist to really be sure of but all the scholars and translators assure us that Horace had a way with a phrase and that this meant he coined numerous quotations used by later generations.

Probably the three most famous are ‘carpe diem’ and ‘nunc est bibendum’ and ‘dulce et decorum est’, from 1.11, 1.37 and 3.2, respectively. Here’s the source Latin and Michie’s translations of each instance:

Carmen 1.11 (complete)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare 5
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconie,
What the gods plan for you and me.
Leave the Chaldees to parse
The sentence of the stars.

Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last

Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricades of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine

Of expectation. Life’s short. Even while
We talk, Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

Carmen 1.37 (opening stanza)

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales…

Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then,
Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes. Now let us
Rival the priests of Mars
With feasts to deck the couches of the gods…

3.2 comes from the series of 6 poems which open book 3, which are longer than usual and adopt quite a strict scolding tone, instructing Romans of his day to abandon luxury and return to the noble warrior values of their ancestors. It needs to be read in that context:

Carmen 3.2 (Opening only)

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo…

Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning,
Let the young Roman study how to bear
Rigorous difficulties without complaining,
And camp with danger in the open air,

And with his horse and lance become the scourge of
Wild Parthians. From the ramparts of the town
Of the warring king, the princess on the verge of
Womanhood with her mother shall look down

And sigh, ‘Ah, royal lover, still a stranger
To battle, do not recklessly excite
That lion, savage to touch, whom murderous anger
Drives headlong through the thickest of the fight.’

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run, and death will seize
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
Gets his quietus in his back and knees…

Two points. One, quite obviously ancient Rome was an extremely militarised society with all its politicians expected to have served in the army or, as consuls, be sent off in command of armies in umpteen foreign campaigns. Two, with this in mind it’s worth pointing out that the poem goes on to contrast the glory won by death in battle with the vulgar world of democratic politics and elections.

Unconscious of mere loss of votes and shining
With honours that the mob’s breath cannot dim,
True worth is not found raising or resigning
The fasces at the wind of popular whim…

The fasces being the bundle of wooden rods, sometimes bound around an axe with its blade emerging, which was carried by the lictors who accompanied a consul everywhere during his term of office and which symbolised a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.

Summary

Michie is very proficient indeed at rhyming. More than that, he enjoys showing off his skill:

Boys, give Tempe praise meanwhile and
Delos, the god’s birthday island. (1.21)

A cheap hag haunting alley places
On moonless nights when the wind from Thrace is
Rising and raging… (1.25)

When the brigade of Giants
In impious defiance… (2.19)

But I think the cumulative effect of so much dazzling ingenuity is that sometimes  the poems reek more of cleverness for its own sake than the kind of dignified tone which the Latinists describe as having. At times the cleverness of his rhyming overshadows the sense.

Boy, I detest the Persian style
Of elaboration. Garlands bore me
Laced up with lime-bark. Don’t run a mile
To find the last rose of summer for me. (1.38)

Throughout the book, in pretty much every poem, although I could read the words, I struggled to understand what the poem was about. I had to read most of them 2 or 3 times to understand what was going on. Half way through, I stumbled upon the one-sentence summaries of each ode given on the Wikipedia page about the Odes. This was a lifesaver, a game changer. From that point on, I read the one-sentence summary of each poem to find out who it was addressed to and what it was about – and so was freed to enjoy how it was constructed, and the slickness of Michie’s translations.

Bless this life

Above all, be happy. Life is short. Count each day as a blessing.

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully… (1.9)

You can see why all the translators, scholars and commentators on Horace describe him as a friendly, reassuring presence. A poet to take down off your shelves and read whenever you need to feel sensible and grounded.


Related links

Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 2. Allen Mandelbaum

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the middle of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at Allen Mandelbaum’s introduction to his 1970 translation. (The third blog post, about David West’s introduction, includes examples of each of the translators’ actual translations, including Mandelbaum’s.)

1970 introduction by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum (1926 to 2011) was a Jewish-American professor of literature and the humanities, poet, and translator from Classical Greek, Latin and Italian. After going to live for decades in Italy he returned to the States and taught English and comparative literature at the City University of New York from 1966 to 1986. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1980 to 1984) won him Italy’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. Impressive. This translation of the Aeneid won the 1973 National Book Award in the translation category. The preface to it, which am now going to summarise, was published in 1970.

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Before we even get to Mandelbaum’s introduction, the blurb on the inside cover about Virgil is interesting. It says that as part of Octavius’s sweeping land reallocation to retired soldiers after the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), he confiscated Virgil’s parents’ extensive farmlands around Mantua. It says Virgil travelled to Rome to argue for its return, and this certainly chimes with the accounts in several of the Virgil’s eclogues of land confiscation and of the shepherd who has travelled to Rome and seen the young prince i.e. Octavius to try and get his land back.

The blurb goes on to say it was as a result of Virgil’s pleading that he became friends with Octavius and was handed over to be managed by his arts minister, Maecenas. This close relationship between patron and poet leads the blurb writer to say that it was at Augustus’s express command that Virgil’s request to burn the draft of the Aeneid was overruled, and that it was Augustus who handed it to the scholars Varius and Tucca with specific instructions to edit only the obvious errors and repetitions, but to add nothing new to it, and to publish the result, which they did in 16 BC.

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Mandelbaum’s introduction is only 8 pages long but it’s packed. He gets stuck in right away by saying he came to Virgil late because he was put off him by three judgements. First was a quip by the American critic Mark Van Doren (1894 to 1972) that ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. Mandelbaum associated this comment with Coleridge’s similarly negative judgement that ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’ So these two adverse opinion come under the heading of ‘Homer is the Great Original, Virgil is a Poor Copy’.

Mandelbaum goes on to mentions the judgement of the great Marxist critic, György Lukács (whose thoughts on Kafka I’ve reviewed). György boy who wrote in his Theory of the Novel that: ‘The heroes of Virgil live the cool and limited existence of shadows, nourished by the blood of noble zeal, blood that has been sacrificed in order to recall what has forever disappeared.’

Lukács was a swine but I still enjoy this kind of class-based Marxist criticism, ancient though it now feels; after all, we still live in a heavily class-based society where privately educated ministers hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends and wives while northern proles queue at foodbanks, where gas and energy prices makes billions in profits while old age pensioners freeze to death in their flats.

Anyway, Lukács’s implication is that Virgil’s characters are contemptible because they harbour a utopian hankering for what has irredeemably disappeared, namely a nostalgic memory of a land of small family-owned farms, which had mostly been swept away by vast estates worked by slaves by the time Virgil wrote.

Anyway, Lukács’s criticism, as well as being vague and impressionistic, seems wrong to me. To me the Aeneid reads as a poem very much of the harsh present, reeking with the blood of animals slaughtered at the altar and men being stabbed, eviscerated and burned to ashes in a very perilous present.

(In case you needed to know, the third dismissal came in Concetto Marchesi’s History of Latin Literature which deprecated Virgil in favour of Lucretius.)

It is when Mandelbaum goes on to describe the personal importance to him of the English poet John Milton that the reader begins to realise that this is not going to be a scholarly introduction, but the personal musings of Mandelbaum the poet (for in addition to his prizewinning translations, Mandelbaum also published several volumes of his own poetry, as the preface now proceeds to tell us). This introduction is going to be a description of his own personal odyssey from these boyhood influences who put him off Virgil, to his late-flowering realisation of Virgil’s brilliance.

Central to Mandelbaum’s conversion were the poems of Giusseppe Ungaretti (1888 to 1970). Mandelbaum was deeply involved in translating Ungaretti’s Italian poems into English as he wrote them, and helped get them published in America throughout the 1950s. And many of Ungaretti’s poems invoked characters or themes from Virgil. So Mandelbaum first really discovered Virgilian themes through the lens of Ungaretti. He quotes a florid passage of Ungaretti’s:

Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants.

Personally I’d have thought nothing could be further from a true picture of Aeneas, the careworn early-middle-aged son of decrepit Anchises and anxious father of young Ascanius, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, stumbling from one disaster to another, his hands red with blood.

As so often with ‘criticism’ by writers or poets, this isn’t objective analysis but a deliberate, and I’d say knowing, teasing, rewriting of Virgil’s character entirely to suit Ungaretti’s own poetic preoccupations. Heavily misleading, in other words. Mandelbaum goes on to quote an even more overripe slice of tripe:

Dido came to represent the experience of one who, in late autumn, is about to pass beyond it; the hour in which living is about to become barren; the hour of one from whom the horrible, tremendous, final tremor of youth is about to depart. Dido is the experience of nature as against the moral experience.

This may be a fine expression of Ungaretti’s (mimsy, impressionist) concerns but strikes me as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Dido who features in the Aeneid. All this is a worrying indication that Mandelbaum’s response to Virgil is going to be hugely contaminated by his embroilment in Ungaretti’s highly ‘poetic’ prose, all ‘tremors of youth’ and ‘the moral experience’ and fuck-all to do with the Dido who calls down the vengeance of the gods on Aeneas and makes her people swear eternal enmity with Rome.

Reminiscing about those happy times in Italy in the 1950s you can almost hear Mandelbaum relaxing the sinews of his mind and slipping into an odoriferous bath of fine feelings, claiming that Ungaretti helped him to see:

the underground denial – by consciousness and longing – of the total claims of the state and history.

I think he means the persistence in the poem of numerous threads which oppose or undermine the overt worship of Rome, of Roman patriotism, of obeisance to the predictions of Rome’s rise to world-dominating empire, which occur throughout it on a surface level.

But like so many other aesthetes what comes over strongly is the way Mandelbaum wants to reject the overt meaning of the text in front of him, preferring to project his own bourgeois fantasies of rebellion and subversion onto Virgil – very much as W.F. Jackson Knight projected his fantasies about spiritualism and universal truth onto the poor Roman in his introduction to his translation.

So much literary criticism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century consists of this kind of whipping-up meringues made of knowing references and stylish allusions, like a conjuror pulling a string of multi-coloured flags out of his mouth, designed to impress us with the author’s wide reading and fine feelings, but leaving behind no tangible insights or ideas.

Next, Mandelbaum shows off by telling us how he loves a passage by Mark Van Doren, which uses a ‘brilliant suggestion’ by Jacob Klein to use a passage from Plato’s text The Statesman to shed light on the episode in Aeneid book 6 where Anchises is explaining to Aeneas how the souls of the dead are made to forget their past lives before being reincarnated in new bodies back on earth.

It feels like a competition to see how many names he can drop in a single passage.

Van Doren claims this passage is evidence that Virgil believed in the reassuring and ‘lulling myth of cycles’, and the hope that peace would come about by magic. Mandelbaum cites all this in order to disagree with it. He points out that far from finding the creation of new generations ‘lulling’, Virgil had demonstrated in the Georgics the sheer amount of hard physical labour which goes into producing the basics of civilisation.

With this much, I can agree, although Mandelbaum then goes on to equate the hard physical manual labour of maintaining the land depicted in the Georgics with the 11 years of dedicated mental labour involved in writing the Aeneid.

Contrary to all this talk of lulling cycles, Mandelbaum asserts that Virgil believed in power, dominion and the rule of law. As the Sibyl predicts to Aeneas:

yours will be the rulership of nations;
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, spare the proud
(6. 1,134 to 1,137)

But Virgil was aware of the price to be paid in the triumph of positive law over natural law. King Evander explains to Aeneas how his people originally lived at peace and plenty under the rule of exiled Saturn when humans needed no laws or rules. But then an Age of Iron came, violence increased, and laws became vital. All this is an accurate summary of this part of the Aeneid.

But then Mandelbaum is back to Ungaretti, telling us that he was, apparently, ‘a true Petrarchan’. I can’t see any relevance whatsoever of this random observation in a supposed introduction to Virgil. It just feels like another example of Mandelbaum’s compulsive name-dropping and/or personal reminiscence. Develop the idea, man! What are you trying to say?

But the thought isn’t developed or even explained properly. Instead, Mandelbaum switches to tell us that his other route into Virgil was via a long-lasting engagement with Dante, whose Divine Comedy he has also translated. Having lived with the Inferno, in particular, for years, he knew that Dante learned not from the style of Virgil but the styles of Virgil.

Mandelbaum quotes a passage from the English critic Donald Davie who distinguishes poets into two classes (how many critics, over how many centuries, have taken this simple-minded approach of dividing the thing under consideration into just Two Types?)

Davie says the first type of poet revels in words, that Shakespeare would have ended up using every word in the language if he’d enough time. The second type of poet is one who carefully employs a narrower selection of words, consciously excluding ones which don’t fit, in order to create a style, a verbal world.

On this reading Dante is a Shakespearian, with a very wide lexis while Virgil is the second type, with a much more limited vocabulary.

Now Mandelbaum explains what Dante learned from Virgil: he quotes the ancient grammarian Macrobius who says Virgil’s style was ‘now brief, now full, now dry, now rich, now easy, now impetuous’ to suggest that what Dante learned from Virgil was variety of tone.

Also he learned a free approach to the line, the free use of enjambment and runover.

And lastly, the free mixing up of time, the ‘rapid shifts of tenses’ which are, indeed, very noticeable in the Aeneid as Virgil mixes up the past and present, sometimes in the same sentence.

Only as he approaches the end of this brief but packed introduction does Mandelbaum explain his aims as a translator. He has tried to ‘impress’ on his translation ‘the grave tread’ but also ‘the speed and angularity’ of Virgil, ‘the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move’. This is fair enough, an interestingly impressionistic description of something which maybe can’t be fully put into words.

But then Mandelbaum goes into full late 60s mystical mode:

The other part of the self brings me to the last way, the unmediated one. The way is the path that opens when the guides, for whom one has been grateful, fall away or say: ‘I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Mandelbaum doesn’t tell us, because his technique is one of flashy meringue-making, that this last phrase is in fact a quote from Dante’s Paradiso canto 27. I suspected as much though I had to Google it to confirm my hunch.

Veering off in another direction, Mandelbaum then overshares with us the personal fact that he left Italy after many years and embarked on his translation of Virgil ‘at a time of much personal discontent’. He had long thought poetry shouldn’t be used for consolation (why?) but now his experience of ‘personal discontent’ changed his mind.

And now, abruptly and dramatically, he casts a vivid slash across his entire preface when he suddenly starts talking about the Vietnam War!

The Vietnam War has, he claims, as of 1970, made it impossible to talk about American ‘society’ any more – he insists we have to use the harsher word, ‘state’. In Vietnam, the American ‘state’ ‘has wrought the unthinkable, the abominable’.

Wow. With one flash you get the full colour of Mandelbaum’s mindset. In this book, in this translation, in this introduction, it is 1970, America is just starting to withdraw its forces from Vietnam after a shameful military debacle, and Allen Mandelbaum is applying the atmosphere of these times to his thinking about power and dominion as described by a poet from 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, instead of drawing any kind of analogy between America’s intervention in Vietnam and Aeneas’s intervention in Italy – which would be unexpected but potentially very illuminating – Mandelbaum’s mind once again veers off into impressionistic mush and hero worship. It is frustrating that he thus raises but fails to address the key political aspect of the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s attitude towards Augustus, his violent conquests and domestic tyranny.

I take the point that the expression of these political themes in the poem is complex and multi-levelled but Mandelbaum’s entire analysis of this huge subject amounts to the following:

Virgil is not free of the taint of the proconsular; but he speaks from time to time of peace achieved, and no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost.

Two points. 1. See how he mentioned Virgil’s complicity in Augustus’s regime in just ten words, ten words expressed in the pompous and evasive phraseology of a nineteenth century politician (‘not free of the taint…’). Mandelbaum avoids the issue; he tries to gloss over it by saying that although Virgil might have been complicit with the crimes of the regime, it’s alright because he was so sensitive to the suffering of ‘the defeated and the lost’ and so that redeems him. But does it?

Second point is the rather offensive hyperbole of claiming that ‘no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost’. Really? No man? Ever? Primo Levi describing the damned in Auschwitz? Solzhenitsyn describing the defeated millions in the gulags? Even if those authors are not directly comparable with Virgil, Mandelbaum’s claim is still wildly hyperbolic, symptomatic of the way hero worship replaces analysis.

At regular moments throughout the poem the text may express what might be Virgil’s feelings about the pity of war, the pity of loss and death and grief. BUT. At the centre of the poem is the brute fact of Aeneas as a huge man-killing machine, raging like Mars across the battlefield, slaughtering hecatombs of men to achieve his God-given destiny. And his last action, the memorable last image of the poem which is left squelching in the mind’s eye – is of Aeneas thrusting his sword right up to the hilt into the chest of a man begging for mercy.

Both Jackson Knight and Mandelbaum have spent years with the Aeneid but, in their respective introductions, repress or ignore the off-the-scale levels of toxic, masculine hyper-violence which runs through it in rivers of blood, preferring to write willowy tripe about universal values and deep feelings.

Instead of analysis, Mandelbaum has namedropping combined with hero worship:

And if the relative weights of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Pythagorean in him are often hard to assess, his humanity is constant.

Is it, though, Allen? I didn’t find it so. I find the Aeneid very uneven, manufactured from hundreds of strands and themes and tones which often sit very uncomfortably together, and all of it drenched in psychopathic anger and rivers of gore. You can pick out the moment of sad sympathy with suffering humanity, stitch them together and claim this is the ‘real’ Virgil. But what about the far greater number of passages of brutal animal sacrifice? Or passages describing insensate fury? Or the many many passages describing slaughter and massacre? Or the frequent passages expressing slavish sycophancy to the great Augustus. All of these and numerous other topics and tones need to be incorporated into an proper assessment of the ‘real’ Virgil.

Instead of addressing all this, Mandelbaum thanks Virgil for not being ‘shrill’, and then brings in yet another unnecessarily personal angle:

and when, with the goad of public despair, my own poetic voice has had to struggle often with shrillness, the work on this translation has been most welcome.

So, if I read this correctly, we are to be grateful to Virgil for helping Allen Mandelbaum to overcome the tone of shrill invective which his protests against the Vietnam War and the evil American state often led him into. No doubt this is useful if you are a big Allen Mandelbaum fan, but if you’re mainly interested in understanding Virgil, maybe not so much.

Finally, Mandelbaum returns to the notion raised in the comparison with Dante, of Virgil’s limits. In Mandelbaum’s view Virgil does not swarm with the really full variety of a Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He is not as exhaustive as they are. His is a world, not the world. He is more selective and less objective than the other three greats. At which point, as he reaches the conclusion of his preface, Mandelbaum becomes quite hard to understand:

Virgil is ‘sustained’ and is not ‘of the young’ (though for them, and for the aged, too, of Plato’s Laws); and none of his selection and imagination seems to involve what I think of as premature stripping, where the other world of poetry takes over before this world is known: Virgil selects after his knowing this world. For this he is a name-giver whose letters and syllables seem to imitate not what Lukács called ‘the cool and limited existence of shadows’ but ‘the real nature of each thing’.

After repeated reading I think the second half of this proposition indicates that Virgil is a poet who described the real world, selecting descriptions of the world as experienced and not reaching out to describe the world of shadows beyond this one, which Mandelbaum appears to think the superior approach. But if this is what Mandelbaum means, why doesn’t he say so? Surely a teacher is paid to teach.

Mandelbaum’s short introduction flashes insights like a striptease artist, momentary promises of insights which he never delivers on. One or two of his ideas hove into view, make sense, but then are smothered by his autobiographical reminiscences or detour into namedropping allusions. It’s maybe worth reading for these moments but, on the whole, Mandelbaum’s introduction is not very helpful as any kind of guide to reading the huge, magnificent and appalling epic poem the reader is about to embark on.


Roman reviews

The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

Time’s flying by, time we’ll never know again,
while we in our delighted state savour our subject bit by bit.
(Eclogue 3, lines 284 to 285)

Publius Vergilius Maro (70 to 19 BC), generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Poetic background to the Georgics

In about 39 BC Virgil became part of the circle of poets associated with Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 to 8 BC), close friend and political advisor to Gaius Octavius, who was to become the first Roman Emperor under the name Augustus. According to the introduction to the Peter Fallon OUP translation of the Georgics, they took Virgil seven years to write, 35 to 28 BC (Fallon p.xxxix).

There are four Georgics. If Virgil took the Greek poet Theocritus as his model for the Eclogues, in the Georgics he bases himself on the much older, ‘archaic’ Greek poet Hesiod, author of Works and Days, a miscellany of moral and religious advice mixed in with practical instruction on agriculture.

Virgil’s four long poems pretend to be giving practical advice to the traditional figure of the Roman smallholder. The word ‘georgic’ comes from the Greek word γεωργικά (geōrgika) which means ‘agricultural (things)’. But in fact the advice, although extensive, manages somehow to be very shallow and is certainly not very practical. An entire book is devoted to the care of bees but nothing about, say, goats or chickens.

Moreover, the nominal addressee, the smallholder, was a vanishing figure in Virgil’s day. Already by 73 BC Spartacus’s gladiators, marching across Italy, were amazed to discover the quaint patchwork of family farms they were expecting to find had been swept away and replaced with vast estates or latifundia worked not by cosy extended families but by armies of badly treated slaves (many of whom they recruited to their cause). The word ‘slave’ occurs nowhere in the Georgics just as the harsh economic and social realities of the Roman countryside are ignored. So what was Virgil’s real motive for writing these long and often very detailed texts?

Political background

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Georgics translated by Cecil Day Lewis, the classicist R.O.A.M. Lyne pins everything on their historic context. The period 39 to 29 saw ongoing political instability with a barely maintained alliance between Julius Caesar’s adoptive son, Gaius Octavianus (who had renamed himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honour of his assassinated great-uncle, and is generally referred to by historians as as Octavian) and his colleague in the so-called Second Triumvirate, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).

In 36 Antony embarked on his ill-fated campaign to invade the Parthian Empire in the East, while Octavian led a campaign to defeat Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, who had established a military and naval base in Sicily.

Antony lost badly and retreated to Egypt, while Octavian astutely used the Sicilian War to force the retirement of the third triumvir, Lepidus, thus making himself ruler of the central and western Mediterranean. Throughout 33 and 32 BC he promoted fierce propaganda in the senate and people’s assemblies against Antony, accusing him of going native in Egypt, transgressing all Roman values, abandoning his legal Roman wife (Octavia) and debasing himself in a slavish passion to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

In 32 BC Octavian manipulated the senate into depriving Antony of his executive powers and declaring war on Cleopatra. It was another genuine civil war because, despite decades of anti-Egyptian propaganda, and the record of his own scandalous misbehaviour and defeats in Parthia, a large number of the Roman ruling class still identified with Antony. On the declaration of war, both consuls, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius, and a third of the senate abandoned Rome to meet Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

Nonetheless, the decisive naval Battle of Actium in September 32 was a disaster for Antony. When he saw Cleopatra’s contingent leaving his side, he abandoned his own fleet to follow her. Octavian then led his army to Egypt and besieged the capital, Alexandria. After the Egyptian fleet sallied out only to defect to Octavian, both Antony and Cleopatra realised the game was up and committed suicide rather than be captured and dragged through the streets of Rome in a vulgar triumph.

So the Georgics were composed during yet another period of prolonged and bitter civil dispute and then open warfare between Romans. And so, Lyne suggests, their real purpose was not in the slightest to give ‘practical’ advice to that non-existent figure, the Latin smallholding farmer. Their intention was moral and religious.

In reaction to an era of chaos and destruction, Virgil wrote four works hymning the values of hard work, piety and peace.

Lyne’s overview

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press (OUP) edition, R.O.A.M. Lyne gives a précis of each of the four books and then proceeds to an overarching thesis. For him the key books are 1 and 4. Book 1 gives a tough, unsentimental description of farming as demanding unremitting effort and attention. The text is packed with instructions on what to expect and what to do at key moments throughout the year.

However, the final book is a lengthy description of bees and bee-keeping and, in Lyne’s opinion, this represents a significant shift in Virgil’s opinion. When restoring the Republic seemed an option, albeit remote, a society of rugged individuals seemed a desirable prospect. However, sometime during the decade 39 to 29 Virgil appears to have changed his view and come round to the opinion that only the suppression of individualism and the submission of individuals to the needs of the community can benefit or save society as a whole. In other words, the progress of the four books embodies Virgil’s move from Republican to Imperial thinking.

It’s a powerful interpretation but, as Lyne points out, there’s a lot of other stuff going on the Georgics as well. Lyne ends this very political interpretation by saying that it is only one interpretation and others are possible. And also that there are long stretches which are just beautiful poetry, in the same sense that an 18th or 19th century landscape painting may have had umpteen ulterior motives (not least to gratify the landowner who paid for it) but it can also just be…beautiful – just there to be enjoyed as a sensual evocation of country life.

Packed

I don’t have a problem with Lyne’s interpretation, I get it in a flash. The real problem is in fully taking on board, processing and assimilating what are very dense poems. The Georgics are far from easy to read because they are so cluttered. And (it has to be said) badly laid out. I found them confusing. It was only by dint of reading the first one three times, and introductions to it twice, that I began to get a handle on what is going on. When you read a summary saying it describes a calendar year in terms of the many jobs that a smallholding farmer needs to do, it sounds graspable and rational, but it is much more than that.

The passage of the year is difficult to grasp because Virgil doesn’t mark it off by clearly describing the passage of the seasons let alone the months. And when he does do it, he does it via astrology i.e. the coming into dominance of various star signs. For the ancients this counted as knowledge (and is still serving that function in, for example, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1,400 years later) but for us it obscures the dating.

Also, Virgil rarely alights on one subject, announces it clearly and describes it properly. Instead, line after line describe individual sights or features of the season, rivers flooding, leaves falling, lists of crops that need to be sown, lists of weeds that need to be hoed up, and the behaviour of domestic and wild animals.

My view is the poem is designed to be a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. It is designed not to be a clear and rational handbook, but to overflow with images. It’s not so much a depiction of country life as a feast of agricultural lore and traditions and descriptions.

Two translations

I have the Georgics in two translations. I bought the old Day Lewis translation, albeit packed in a shiny new OUP paperback, because it was the only cheap way of getting the Eclogues. However, I found Day Lewis’s verse rhythms a little unwieldy, maybe because he is closely following or ghosting the strict hexameter of Virgil’s original, or maybe it’s his 1940s style, I don’t know. I struggled through his translation of the first Georgic.

But I had also bought the OUP paperback edition of a much more recent translation, by Peter Fallon, from 2004. Oh my God, it is a totally different reading experience. Fallon appears to translate it into something approaching free verse where the length and rhythm of each line appears to vary to suit the meaning and vocabulary of each individual line. It is enormously more appealing and attractive and readable than the Day Lewis.

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

Yes, unremitting labour
And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything.
(Day Lewis, lines 145 to 146)

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

Opening prayer to various agricultural deities (Liber/Bacchus, Ceres, Neptune, Pan, Minerva, Triptolemos, Sylvanus) and then to Augustus (‘and I address you, too, O Caesar’), with 15 lines prophesying Augustus’s divinity, his place among the stars, a new sign of the zodiac etc.

At which point Virgil plunges straight into a description of ‘the sweet o’ the year’ which I take to be spring, when streams begin to melt and clods crumble and it’s time to put the bull before ‘the deep-pointed plough’ etc. A litany of agricultural products, including ones from far flung regions of the earth (Arabia), each from its specific place as ordained by nature.

Plough the soil twice (line 48). Rotate crops. Respect the laws Nature has imposed on the soil (60). Fertilise the soil with manure (80) or spread ashes. Set fire to stubble (he speculates why this seems to work). Break the soil with hoe and mattock (95). The countryman should pray for wet summers and mild winters (100).

Then something which none of the summaries I’d read had quite prepared me for: Virgil says Jupiter has made husbandry difficult in order to prevent idleness. Honey used to fall from the trees, the crops sowed themselves, there were never storms. Jupiter overturned all this and deliberately made life hard in order to spur men’s creativity. God overturned the Golden Age in order to make men creative, come up with tools and processes. God instantiated into the world, into the way of things, a fundamental need for work, piety and order:

Hard work prevailed, hard work and pressing poverty. (146)

Because now, since God’s intervention, nature is set towards decline and fall, entropy, things fall apart, unless maintained with unremitting toil:

world forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall (200)

Like a man paddling a canoe against the current; if you stop for even a second, you are borne backwards and lose all your work.

Back to practicalities, Virgil describes the construction of the ideal plough (160 to 175). It hovers between instructions of a sort, for example, how to build a proper threshing floor (178) – and the history of agriculture i.e. who invented what under the inspiration of which god or goddess.

Work according to the sky / stars / the zodiac, with different tasks appropriate under Arcturus, the Charioteer, Draco (205), Taurus, the Dog, the Seven Sisters. At the equinox sow barley, linseed and poppies (212). But in springtime (see what I mean by the chronology jumping around a bit?) sow alfalfa and millet (215).

An extended passage on the structure of the globe, consisting of freezing zones at each pole, an uninhabitably hot zone in the middle, and two temperate zones inhabitable my ‘pitiful man’ in between. This morphs into a description of the underworld, dark and infernal, inside the earth.

So: the importance of always being aware of the seasons and the stars and the constellations (252). If it rains, there are lots of odd jobs to do indoors, which he proceeds to list (260). Some days are, traditionally, lucky and some very unlucky for different types of work, Beware the fifth!’ (276). ‘The seventeenth’s a lucky day’ (284).

This morphs into consideration of what tasks are appropriate for times of the day, with a sweet description of a countryman staying up all night by winter firelight to edge his tools, while his wife weaving and minding a boiling pot (296).

Winter is a time of rest but there are still chores: gathering up acorns, setting traps for herons (307).

In a confusing passage he says he’s going to describe the trials of autumn (following winter) but then of spring. Since this follows vivid evocations of winter, it shows how the poem is not a neat chronology moving through the seasons of the year at all; it’s a confusing mess.

The book comes to a first climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311 to 350. He describes the sudden devastation of raging storms and rainstorms, Jupiter, ‘squire of the sky’, straddling the skies and sending down deluges and laying human hearts low in panic. For which reason, observe the stars and zodiac and make your offerings to the appropriate gods (338) in particular Ceres, and a passage describing various rituals and observances.

But this is barely done before we’re off describing the meaning of the different phases of the moon. You tell a storm at sea is coming when cormorants fly inland, herons forsake the lake and there are shooting stars (366).

Quite a long passage listing countrymen’s signs to detect the approach of rain (374 to 392). This, like many of these passages, is really beautiful. I loved the crow cawing Rain, rain and the housewife working by lamplight noticing the sputtering of the wick.

Or the signs predicting sunshine and clear weather: stars unblurred, the moon brighter. 12 lines on how ravens croak and caw to celebrate the coming of fine weather (410 to 412).

More reasons for why you need to pay attention to the sun and moon. How to interpret different appearances of the moon (427 to 437). Same for different appearances of the sun, clear, blurred, emerging from clouds, with tinges of other colours, and so on: ‘Who’d dare to question the sun’s word?’ (438 to 464).

And mention of the sun’s signs leads us into the last 40 or so lines, 2 pages of paperback text, in which Virgil lists some of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and the coming of the civil war. These are far more lurid and ridiculous than anything in Plutarch. According to Virgil, cattle spoke, the Alps trembled, ghosts walked abroad at night, statues wept, rivers ground to a halt, the Po flooded and devastated farmland, wells spouted blood, wolves howled all night long.

This is all very vivid but, stepping back a bit – it is all twaddle. How much of this nonsense did men like Virgil and Plutarch genuinely believe? If even a fraction, then ‘credulous fools’ would be a polite description of them.

Anyway, Virgil deliberately conflates the universal upheaval triggered by Caesar’s assassination with other signs and portents observed before the Battle of Philippi, where Octavian and Antony defeated the assassins (as depicted in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar). In fact the notes tell me something I would have never noticed, which is that Virgil also conflates it with the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar triumphed over Pompey, 6 years earlier in 48 BC.

He clearly does so in order to create a grand sense of wear and ruin in order to finish the book with…a second hymn to Octavian. He begs Romulus and Vesta, patrons of Rome, to stand back and allow the rise of young Octavian:

this young one who comes to save / a world in ruins (500)

In fact, it doesn’t end with the sycophantic words of praise I was expecting but with a vivid ten lines or so depicting a world run completely mad with war (lines 505 to 514), like (in a simile as vivid as the one about the rower borne back by the tide) a charioteer competing in the circus whose horses run out of control, he can’t rein them in, a world hurtling towards ruin.

Little conclusion

Pyne points out that the overall vibe of the book is negative. If we neglect the principles of hard work, fail to follow best practice, are not sufficiently alert to all the signs of nature and the gods – then we will have chaos and destruction. The harshness of Virgil’s tone reflects the very bitter experience of civil wars he has lived through. Pyne takes this to be the meaning of the ‘tumultuous’ consequences of the assassination of Caesar and it’s pretty obvious in the vision of chaos at the very end of the eclogue. Only Octavian/Augustus offers any hope of salvation.

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

Book 2 is less harsh and more attractive. It starts by hymning trees before focusing in on the vine. Its moral is that Nature is fruitful, especially in Italy.

Invocation to Bacchus, god of wine, to be with him and support him. Then a second dedication, to Maecenas, Virgil’s friend and patron.

Lesson one is about trees and how they seed themselves and grow. Many species and many varieties, oak, elm, ash, alder etc etc. Each land has trees specific to it. The medicinal attributes of citron.

A passage of praise of Italy, a passage which came to have its own name, the Laudes Italiae (lines 136 to 176): ‘Hail to thee Italy, holy mother of all that grows, mother of men ‘ (173), mixed with an address to Caesar, ‘first of all mankind’ (170). I keep thinking I must read a biography of Mussolini to see how much of this slavish praise of a dictator was revived 2,000 years later.

Different types of terrain and soil, the wooded fields and open spaces of Tarentum, the rolling plains of Mantua etc.

Black friable soil is best for corn, gravel in a hilly place, chalkland. The best soil for olives. The difference between land for corn and land for vines. Order the rows of vines like troops lined up for battle (279). Dig shallow trenches for vines, but deep holes for trees. Don’t plan a vineyard facing west.

The perils of wildfires. Don’t plough rock solid ground while north winds bare their teeth.

Best to sow vines in the spring for then the almighty father, Air, marries the earth, penetrating her body with showers. This is a beautifully sensuous passage which, apparently, is famous enough to have been given its own name, the Praises of Spring (323 to 345).

After you’ve planted your vines you need to hoe and weed them, then erect canes and supports (358). At first pluck new buds only with your fingers, don’t use metal tools.

Build hedges to keep animals out (371). Their incessant nibbling and destruction of crops, especially vines, is why a goat is sacrificed to the god Bacchus (380). An extended passage on how Virgil associates rural worship of Bacchus with the origins of theatre and the origin of sacrifices and rites they still perform.

More work: break up the clods around vines and clear away leaves (401).

Virgil makes reference to the turning of the year, the procession of the seasons, and yet his poem emphatically does NOT follow the cycle of the seasons at all. It is NOT rational, ordered or structured, but wanders all over the place, one digression after another.

More chores with vines, but he suddenly switches to consideration of olive growing (420). Olives do it by themselves, as do apple trees.

Clover must be cut for fodder. Deep in the woods pines are cut down to provide firewood.

Suddenly we are in the far distant Caucasus, home to various useful trees (440) and what tools are made from them.

Then suddenly back to Bacchus and, with no logic I can discern, into a final hymn in praise of country life (458 to 542). How lucky the lowly countryman who doesn’t live in a mansion crowded with sycophants! He has the quiet, carefree life! Pools of running water, cool grottos, naps in the shade and sweet Justice.

Then he turns to address himself and used to wish that sweet Poetry would open up to him the secrets of the earth (480). But since that appears not to be happening, maybe because of his ‘heart’s lack of feeling’, well, at least let him be satisfied with rural beauty and streams running through glens.

In line 490 he appears to envy one referred to only as ‘that man’ who is lucky enough to understand the workings of the world and escaped fear of hell and death. Even without the note I’d have guess this referred to Epicurus, whose entire materialist philosophy was designed to assuage anxiety, especially when it goes on to confirm that this man is not interested in the bitter competition for high public office which led to the downfall of the Republic.

The different types of bad rich man are enumerated in lines 495 to 512 – then compared with the simple countryman who tills his native soil and increases its wealth, who glories in the harvest, who keeps an ordered homestead with dutiful sons, who organises feasts and games for his hired hands (javelin throwing, wrestling matches). Ah, those were the virtuous activities of the old Sabines. Ah, the good old days, the Golden Age of Saturn before his son, Jupiter, overthrew him and instituted the Iron Age when everything became bloody hard work (as described at the start of Georgic 1).

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

George 3 is in two halves and mainly about animal husbandry. The first half is devoted to the selection of  good breeding stock and the breeding of horses and cattle.

The opening 39 lines are nothing whatever to do with rural life, but a poetic invocation describing his ambition to achieve things never before achieved in verse (much the same as invocations on the same theme by Ennius and Lucretius), and a vivid description of a massive festival, complete with elaborate games, he will hold in honour of Caesar. I hadn’t realised Virgil was such a thorough-going courtier and sycophant.

This segues into a secondary invocation to his patron, Maecenas, asking for his help in his self-appointed task. Revealingly, he tells us the time is not far off when he will have to gird himself to write a full account of Caesar/Octavian’s ‘hard-fought battles’ – the plan to celebrate Octavian which evolved into the Aeneid.

So there’s all this fol-de-rol before we get back to the rural tone and subject of the poem, but we’ve barely had 15 lines about horses and horse breeding before Virgil gives way to some moralising lines commiserating poor humans that we are, the best days of our lives are first to fly etc.

Then he finally gets back to the subject in hand – how to recognise good horses to breed, by their age, their colour and their behaviour – but this barely lasts 20 lines before he digresses off to talk about famous horses from mythology, the horses of Pollux, Mars, Achilles, Jupiter and so on.

There are 8 lines on how you shouldn’t choose a knackered old horse which can’t get an erection to breed from, before he’s off on another digression, this time a thrilling description of the horses in a chariot race at the Circus. And then a few lines on the man who first tamed horses and tied four to a chariot i.e. godfather to the circus chariot races (Erichthoneus).

It feels very much as if Virgil doesn’t want to write this boring manual about animal husbandry and would rather be writing a much more exciting epic poem, invoking gods and figures from history.

Anyway: how to choose and prepare the stallion; how to prepare the mares for insemination namely by lots of exercise so, when they are mounted, they will tuck the seed away deep inside; when they are pregnant don’t use them to pull carts or let them swim in rivers.

Avoid the gadfly which will drive them into a frenzy, as it did when Hera turned Io into a heifer and set it on her. Only release pregnant horses out to pasture at dawn or as evening falls.

When they foal, the best will be selected for sacrifice, some for breeding and some for farmwork. How to train young horses to bear a collar and bridge (170).

How to train a horse for warfare, to become a cavalry mount (179 to 194).

Sex

And it’s at this point that we come to the most striking passage in the poem which concerns sex. From line 209 onwards the narrator counsels horse breeders to keep male horses and cattle away from females. This is the best way of ensuring their strength. This leads into an extended set piece on the futile and destructive lengths to which sexual passion drives animals and, by implication, men. It is a wild fantastical passion, a helter-skelter of images and legends of horses and other animals (lioness, bear, boar, tiger) running completely mad with lust and sexual frenzy.

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(242 to 244)

As Pyne puts it, this isn’t a description, it’s a denunciation and Pyne links it to Epicurus’s great denunciation of irrational sexual passion in De rerum natura book 4. Certainly, this makes little or no sense as ‘practical’ advice to any farmer: it is clearly didactic moralising. Virgil is making a general point about The Good Life and asserting that passion must be eliminated in order to enable the peaceful and moral life.

Anyone familiar with the plot of his great epic poem, the Aeneid, knows that this is the thrust of the most famous narrative sequence, where prince Aeneas falls in love with Queen Dido of Carthage and is strongly tempted to settle down and be happy with her but, eventually, acknowledges his destiny, puts duty above love, and abandons her to sail for Italy. Sex, and all forms of emotion, must be renounced in order to lead The Good Life and fulfil one’s duty.

At line 284 he pivots to the second half of the book. This is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their by-products.

Death

Some very lovely lines about taking out sheep and goats to their summer pasture first thing in the morning when the dew is glistening (322).

For some reason shepherds from Libya occur to him, who are in constant motion because their land is so hot; and this triggers a description of the exact opposite, an extended description of the legendary people who live in the farthest north, near the pole, and endure conditions of ultimate winter (352 to 383). Structurally, a lot of the poem consists of a kind of learnèd free association.

Half a dozen lines about how to choose a breeding ram segue into a legend about Pan disguising himself as a sheep in order to seduce the moon. If you want milk, give your ewes lucerne, clover and salted grass.

Keep dogs, they will help you hunt, protect against rustlers at night or wolves.

In cattle stalls burn juniper to keep snakes at bay. Kills snakes with a big rock or stick (420). Extended description of a particularly fearsome three-tongued serpent.

At line 440 Virgil commences a new subject, the diseases which afflict livestock, with an extended description of how to treat scab. If sheep bleat for pain and have a fever, bleed them from a vein in the feet. If you see a ewe dilly-dallying or sloping off to slump under the shade of a tree, waste no time in killing it to prevent the infection spreading (468).

Just as a great storm wrecks the farmer’s work in the first Georgic, the third Georgic moves towards  an extended description of the havoc and devastation among livestock caused by an actual historical plague  which broke out in Noricum (470 to 566). (To be clear: a plague affecting only of animals, not humans.)

Animals selected for sacrifice died at the altar; entrails refuse to light; a knife slipped under the skin draws no blood; calves dropped in droves; house-trained dogs went mad; pigs’ throats welled up so they couldn’t breathe; horses fell sick; the plough ox collapsed.

Lyne interprets this to mean that the farmer must acknowledge, that even if he follows all the rules laid down in Georgic 1, is pious and hard working and true, a hellish plague may come along and ruin his life’s work. The dying ox is anthropomorphised as if it had human feelings:

All the work he did, all he contributed – and to what end? (525)

It was a universal plague: fish died on the shore; seals tried to escape upriver; vipers died in their dens; birds fell dead out of the skies. There was no cure, all the animals died and their hides and skins were worthless; anyone who tried to wear them broke out in ‘a fester of pustules’. And with that, the book abruptly ends.

In the face of overwhelming external forces of destruction, what is the reasonable man to do?

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

Georgic 4 is about bees and bee keeping. Instructions to the beekeeper. An interlude describing an old gardener, Corycian (116 to 148). Then the bee description develops into an obvious allegory.

Bee society stands for a model of ideal human society: absolute patriotism, complete concord, total subordination of the self to the common good. In line 201 the bees are even referred to as quirites, the Latin word for Roman citizens. And yet all this harmony and submission is based on service to a monarch (lines 210 onwards), an extremely unroman attitude, the precise thing all Romans have railed against for the entire history of the Republic.

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

bees refrain from intercourse, their bodies never
weaken into the ways of love

This is obviously picking up the denunciation of passion from Georgic 3, continuing the Epicurean attack on passion. (Just as obviously, Virgil’s entire account of bee keeping is wildly wrong and shows no understanding of how bees reproduce. Amazingly, Virgil seems to imply that bees populate their hive  by discovering their young on leaves in lovely meadows, 4.201).

The book ends with by recapitulating the end of Georgic 3, but this time with a happy ending. For, whereas human society may be ruined by a cataclysmic plague, devastated bee societies can be restored. The poem describes the method for recreating devastated bee colonies as the invention of one Aristaeus and describes it at length.

The most obvious thing about the relatively short passage giving practical advice on how to create a bee colony is it’s twaddle. Virgil describes at length how to rebuild a bee colony (4.295 to 314). Take a bull calf 2 years old. Build an enclosure with apertures facing the four directions of the wind and a tiled roof. Plug his nostrils and, despite his struggles, beat him to death, though without breaking the skin. Under his ribcage place branches of thyme and newly picked spurge laurel. Do all this before the onset of spring. The dead bull’s bones will start to ferment, and from them insects will appear: at first legless, but then with wings, eventually spilling out like rain.

Do you think that’s how modern beekeepers create a new colony?

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

After giving this absurd advice, Virgil shifts to safer ground and cuts and pastes into the end of this book a relatively long mythological poem. All the critics refer to this as an epyllion, being ‘a relatively short narrative poem (or discrete episode in a longer work) that shows formal affinities with epic but whose subject and poetic techniques are not characteristic of epic proper.’

Just to be crystal clear, the entire rationale of the previous three poems, to provide ‘practical’ advice for yeoman farmers, is simply dropped. Instead we enter a completely different imaginative realm, a sustained piece of mythological writing.

Virgil has Aristaeus lament the collapse of his farming efforts to his mother, the nymph Cyrene, living in the river Peneius, sitting spinning wool attended by her handmaidens, who are each lovingly named, leading into another passage which gives a similarly sensuous list of classical rivers.

Cyrene gives permission for Aristaeus to be wafted through the waves to her (much sensual description) and he is amazed at life under a river. Then she explains that he will have to go on a mission to capture the god Proteus in order to extract from him the reason why all his (Aristaeus’s) ventures have failed. This permits a florid description of Proteus’s legendary ability to change shape.

Cut to a lovely description of night falling over the sea and the cave where Proteus lives, surrounded by the race of mermen splashing in the briny sea while seals frolic around them. Aristaeus pounces and holds him tight, whatever shape Proteus assumes. Eventually, tired out, Proteus he admits defeat, at which point Aristaeus asks his question.

As in a chamber of mirrors, Proteus then explains that Aristaeus has undergone the punishment of his labours on the orders of Orpheus who is angry with him for the role he played in the abduction of his beloved Eurydice.

What? Where did all this come from?

It seems that Aristaeus was in love with Eurydice, too, and one day pursued her out of lust so that she stumbled across a seven-headed water snake and was bitten and died. Hence her passage to the underworld, hence Orpheus’s journey thither to reclaim her. Here’s a taste of one aspect of an epyllion’s epic style i.e. stuffing the text with exotic place names:

Then the chorus of her peers, the Dryads, filled the mountaintops with their lament,
the heights of Rhodope cried out, too, in mourning,
as did lofty Pangaea, and the land of the warring Rhesus,
and the Getae, the river Hebrus and the princess Orothyia.
(4.460 to 464)

There follows an extensive description of Orpheus venturing down into the underworld to the amazement of its denizens, his pleading with the god of hell to release his beloved, her release and their slow progress back up towards the light when, of course, in a moment of madness, Orpheus looked behind him, broke his promise and Eurydice disappeared back into the shadows.

Returned to earth, Orpheus spends ages bewailing his fate, seven months singing his lamentations, until the bacchantes, thinking themselves slighted by his obsession, tore him to pieces and distributed the pieces throughout the land. But even in death Orpheus’s head continued to cry out ‘Eurydice’ as it was carried down the river.

At which point Proteus ends his recitation of the Orpheus story and plunges back into the waves, handing the narrative back to Atraeus’s mother, Cyrene. Cyrene summarises: so that’s the reason Orpheus cursed his agricultural work. The only cure is to make an offering, and pay respect to the nymphs, and she gives instructions on how to do this:

Select four bulls and four heifers. Build four altars ‘by the tall temples of the goddesses’. Cut their throats and let the blood pour. Leave the carcasses in a leafy den. After nine days send as offerings to Orpheus soporific poppies and sacrifice a black ewe, then go back to the thicket (presumably where the 8 cattle corpses are) and worship Eurydice with a slaughtered calf.

So Aristaeus does exactly as his mummy told him and lo and behold, when he returned to the thicket nine days later…

And there they met a miracle and looked it in the face –
from those cattle’s decomposing flesh, the hum of bees,
bubbling first, then boiling over and, trailing giant veils into the trees,
they hung like grapes in bunches from the swaying branches.

In other words, this enormous digression has been by way of explaining how Aristaeus discovered that killing cattle and letting them rot, under the right conditions, triggers the creation of a colony of bees! Wow. What a round-the-houses way of doing it. As Seneca said (every commentary I’ve read mentions this opinion of Seneca) Virgil never intended his book for the instruction of anyone, let alone an actual farmer: it is an aristocratic entertainment, pure and simple.

Virgil’s conclusion

Virgil rounds out his book with a 9-line conclusion:

Such was the song that I took on to sing, about the care of crops
and stock, and trees with fruit, while he, our mighty Caesar,
was going hell for leather along the great Euphrates
adding victory to triumph, winning the war for people who appreciate his deeds,
and laying down the law – enough to earn his place in heaven.

And I, Virgil, was lying in the lap of Naples, quite at home
in studies of the arts of peace, I, who once amused myself
with rustic rhymes, and, still a callow youth,
sang of you Tityrus, as I lounged beneath the reach of one great beech.
(4. 458 to 566)

Pyne’s interpretation

Pyne largely ignores the presence of the epyllion to focus on the last piece of practical advice in the book, about how to recreate a bee colony. For Pyne the metaphor is clear: war or revolution may devastate a society, but that society may be recreated and regenerated by a saviour, a man of destiny, particularly if that man has divine parentage like… like Augustus Caesar, adoptive son of the now deified Julius.

Thus, in Pyne’s view, the poem dramatises a problem in political and moral theory: Georgic 3 shows that, no matter how hard working and pious the individual is, all his work may still be ruined by forces beyond his control. Georgic 4 offers the solution, which is to shift the focus away from the individual altogether, and see things from the perspective of the entire society.

If the individual can identify, not with his personal, highly fragile situation, but with society as a whole, in particular with a strong leader, then he can rise above the tribulations of his individual story.

Incompletion

There is another interpretation of the plonking down of this extended epyllion into the fourth Georgic (at 249 lines, it makes up nearly half the book). This is that Virgil really struggled to finish things. I’m saying this with advance knowledge that he, notoriously, failed to complete – to his own satisfaction – his epic poem, the Aeneid, and asked his literary executors to burn it (which the latter, very fortunately, refused to do).

The fourth Georgic, and therefore the book as a whole, doesn’t work its subject through in the same way the previous ones did. Instead it feels like Virgil has abandoned his subject and treatment completely – until the very end where he suddenly brings his long story back to being, rather improbably, about how the first farmer learned to recreate a bee colony.

This thought highlights in retrospect what struck me as odd in the previous books, which is Virgil’s complaints about how hard he was finding it to write the damn thing. When he invokes his patron Maecenas, more often than not it’s because he’s really struggling to write. At the start of book 1 he asks Caesar to ‘grant him an easy course’.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right,
have no second thoughts before the great adventure into which I’ve launched myself.
Not that I could ever hope to feature all things in my verses –
not even if I had a hundred mouths, as many ways of speech,
and a voice as strong as iron. Stand by me now – as we proceed along the shoreline…
(2.39 to 40)

Meanwhile we’ll trace the Dryads’ woods and virgin glades,
no little task that you’ve laid out for me, Maecenas,
for without encouragement from you, what could I amount to?
Come on! Help me shake off this lassitude…
(3.40 to 43)

Was it a task laid on him by Maecenas? And then there are the other places where Maecenas isn’t mentioned but Virgil candidly shares with the reader the sheer effort of writing this stuff, like his sigh of relief at getting to the end of book 2:

But we have covered vast tracts of matter and, besides,
it’s high time that we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.541 to 542)

And the several times in book 4 that he gets excited about the fact that he’s nearly bloody finished:

Indeed, if I were not already near the limit of my undertaking,
furling my sails and hurrying my prow to shore…
(4.116 to 117)

And his apology that he’s running out of time and space:

The like of this, however, I must forgo – time and space conspiring
to defeat me – and leave for later men to make more of.
(4.147 to 148)

Why? Why couldn’t Virgil have carried on for another year and described these things fully? No doubt it’s a familiar trope or topos to include in an extended poem, but still…it speaks to Virgil’s sense of himself as unable to finish, harassed by time but, deeper down, haunted by inadequacy and incompletion.

The influence of Lucretius

As soon as I learned that Georgic 3 ends with an extended description of a plague I immediately thought of the powerful but odd way that Lucretius’s long didactic poem describing Epicurean belief, De rerum natura, also ends in a devastating plague, of Athens (albeit it’s important to emphasise that Lucretius’s plague afflicts humans whereas Virgil’s one decimates only animals).

Epicurus had already made an appearance in Georgic 2 in the passage towards the end which describes a great man who both understands how the universe works and is divinely detached from the strife-ridden competition for political office which has wrecked Rome.

Pyne emphasises Lucretius’s influence by pointing out the several places where Virgil insists on the absence of passion as being a crucial prerequisite for happiness which, of course, evoke Lucretius’s Good Life of divinely passionless detachment. Pyne doesn’t fully explore the Lucretius connection so I might as well quote Wikipedia on the subject:

The philosophical text with the greatest influence on the Georgics as a whole was Lucretius’ Epicurean epic De rerum natura. G. B. Conte notes that ‘the basic impulse for the Georgics came from a dialogue with Lucretius.’ David West states that Virgil is ‘saturated with the poetry of Lucretius, and its words, phrases, thought and rhythms have merged in his mind, and become transmuted into an original work of poetic art.’

I found this very interesting because, as I know from my reading of Cicero’s De rerum deorum, Cicero strongly criticised Epicureanism, principally because it counselled withdrawal from the public realm, whereas Cicero espoused Stoicism, which was more suitable to his model of the responsible Republican citizen throwing himself into the permanent civil strife which is what Republican politics consisted of.

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

Worth reminding myself how many invocations there are in the poem. These are (it seems to me) of three types.

1. Virgil tends to start each book with an extended appeal to one or more gods, chosen to be appropriate to the subject matter, calling on them to assist him in his task or organising the right material and help his eloquence.

2. As mentioned above, he also appeals to his worldly patron, Maecenas, friend and cultural fixer for Augustus.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right…
(2.39 to 40)

Lend kind ears to this part, my lord Maecenas (4.2)

3. Lastly, there are the direct addresses to Octavian/Caesar/Augustus himself, or references to his greatness:

and I address you too, O Caesar, although none knows the gathering of gods
in which you soon will be accommodated…
(1.24 to 25)

Long, long ago since heaven’s royal estate
begrudged you first your place among us, Caesar…
(1. 502 to 503)

…and you yourself, Caesar, first of all mankind,
you who, already champion of Asia’s furthest bounds,
rebuffs the craven Indian from the arched portals of the capital…
(2.170 to 173)

These addresses are often very extravagant, witness the 18 lines at the start of book 1 (1.24 to 42) extravagantly wondering whether Caesar will be gathered among the gods, whether the wide world will worship him as begetter of the harvest or master of the seasons, or whether he will become ‘lord of the endless sea’, worshipped by sailors, or becomes a new sign of the zodiac. Whatever the details, his power will reach to the ends of the earth and everyone will bow down to him.

These are quite extravagantly oriental obeisances before a Great Ruler, worthy of the emperors of Babylon or Assyria. In Georgic 3 Virgil dreams of erecting a marble temple in his home town of Mantua, by the banks of the river Mincius and:

At its centre I’ll place Caesar, master of the shrine,
and in his honour – the day being mine – resplendent in my purple robes,
I’ll drive five score of teams-of-four up and down along the bank.
(3.16 to 19)

But the thing is… Virgil was right. Augustus did usher in a new golden age of peace and prosperity and he was worshipped as a god (in the superstitious East, anyway), had a month named after him and any number of other imperial honours.

Fallon fantastic

Spring it is, spring that’s good to the core of the wood, to the leaves of groves,
spring that reawakens soil and coaxes seeds to fruitfulness.
(1.323)

The Peter Fallon translation of the Georgics is absolutely brilliant. Rather than sticking to any defined metre, his lines feel wonderfully free, each line free to have the rhythm and shape its content suggests. That means there is no monotony of rhythm but a continual cascade of surprises. Here’s his translation of Virgil’s (oblique) description of Epicurus:

That man has all the luck who can understand what makes the world
tick, who has crushed underfoot his fears about
what’s laid out in store for him and stilled the roar of Hell’s esurient river.
(2.400 to 402)

The tone is relaxed (‘what makes the world tick’), the rhythm is deliberately playful (holding ‘tick’ over till the second line), there are rhymes but not at each line end, instead dotted artfully within the line (‘about/out’ and ‘store/roar’) and then a surprise at the end where he allows himself the unusual word, the Latinate word ‘esurient’ (meaning hungry or greedy), gently reminding us that this is a translation from another language: the low tone (tick) for us, the high tone (esurient) reminding us of the much more formalised, aristocratic Roman origins of the work.

The free verse allows a free attitude. It allows his lines to be hugely varied and inventive, jewelled with occasional recherché vocabulary (hasky 1.453; smigs 3.311; violaceous 3.372; exscinding 3.468; mastic 4.39, eft 4.242, clabber 4.478, paludal 4.493) and effects subtle or obvious, ever-interesting and accessible. Take the entertaining alliteration, distantly echoing the organising principle of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Now tell me about the tools and tackle unflagging farmers had to have…
(1.160)

I’ll waste none of your time with made-up rhymes,
or riddles, or prolonged preambles.
(2.45 to 46)

It’s high time we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.542)

First find a site and station for the bees
far from the ways of the wind…
(4.8 to 9)

a swarming tone that brings to mind the broken blast of a bugle-horn
(4.72)

the Curetes’
songlike sounds, their shields clashing like cymbals.
(4.150 to 151)

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

already she was making her stiff way across the Styx
(4.506)

In fact once I started to look for alliteration I found it everywhere: it’s a key component of Fallon’s style. He combines it with internal rhymes for greater effect:

and, though enraptured by such strange delight, they mind
their nestlings and newborn, seed and breed of them.
(4.54 to 56)

the way a troubled sea shrieks and creaks at ebb-tide
(4.262)

He can be intensely lyrical:

Come the sweet o’ the year, when streams begin to melt and tumble down the hoary hills
and clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds…
(1.43 to 44)

Oh for the open countryside
along the Spercheus, or the mountains of Taygetus, its horde of Spartan maidens
ripe for picking! Oh, for the one who’d lay me down to rest
in cool valleys of the Haemus range and mind me in the shade of mighty branches!
(2.486 to 489)

Come night, the youngsters haul themselves back home, exhausted,
leg-baskets loaded down with thyme; they pick randomly on wild strawberry,
the blue-grey willow, spunge laurel (that’s the bee plant), blushing saffron,
and a luxury of limes and lindens and lilies tinted rust.
(4.180 to 184)

Fallon is sometimes demotic i.e. uses everyday turns of phrase:

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

and no let up and no let off, they’re kicking up such a storm (3.110)

The Lapiths, all the way from Pelion, bequeathed us bits and bridles
and – riders astride – the lunging ring, and taught the cavalry
to hit the ground running
(3.115 to 117)

and spare no end of trouble to flesh him out and fatten him up
(3.124)

You see, that’s why they banish horses to the back of beyond
(3.212)

There’s nothing that can snaffle them when they’re in season
(3.269)

at the mercy of the worst those east winds have to offer
(3.383)

…all this
in case an east wind occurred to sprinkle them [bees]
while they were dawdling, or dunked them head first in the drink.
(4.28 to 30)

and on their beaks they hone their stings; they are limbering up
(4.73)

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

And uses short phrases of command in the many places where Virgil tells us to sit up and pay attention, in phrases which are presumably as short and imperative in the original Latin as in this translation:

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

Listen. Here’s how you’ll tell the sort of soil you’re dealing with. (2.226)

So spare no efforts to shield them from the bite of frosts and icy winds (3.318)

So listen now, while I outline the qualities bestowed on bees by Jupiter…(4.149)

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

Mostly, it hovers around a combination of the above with a sort of semi-hieratic, not-too-elevated form of translationese i.e. not language any ordinary English speaker would write, which registers the heightened tone of the original, but without heaviness or portentousness, acknowledging the folk wisdom and maybe proverbial basis of a lot of the content:

For that’s the way it is –
World forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall
(1.199 to 200)

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

And it was he that felt for Rome that time that Caesar fell…
(1.466)

In a slightly different mood I might have complained about this unevenness of tone, except that it’s carried out with such style and charm. You like Fallon for his cheek and tricks and twists and endless invention. It’s a mashup of registers and tones, which matches his mashup of rhythms. There are hundreds of precise and evocative moments. I love his descriptions of birds, especially the crow:

Then a crow, strutting the deserted shore,
proclaims in its mean caw, Rain, rain, and then more rain.
(1.387 to 390)

This is up there with Rolfe Humphrey’s translation of Epicurus as maybe the best two verse translations I’ve ever read.

And that’s a fact

Fallon’s translation has frequent repetition of the phrase ‘that’s a fact’ and ‘it’s a fact and true’ (2.48 and 61), ‘as a matter of true fact’ (4.221).

a) I wonder why Virgil felt the need to keep telling his readers that what he’s telling them is true.

b) It automatically raises the doubt that the opposite is the case. I planted seven trees in my garden this spring, dug over two separate borders, forked in manure and compost, and planted bushes and flowers for bees and insects. I didn’t find a single sentence in all these 2,188 lines of hexameter verse which was remotely useful or even rang a vague bell.

I wonder if any of Virgil’s advice is true. I have no doubt he conscientiously gathered tips and folklore on the widest range of agriculture available to him (and the notes point out his abundant borrowings from all available previous writers on these subjects). I have no doubt that he crammed in as many relevant myths and legends as he could, plus the usual tall tales about remote peoples and their fantastical habits (most memorable is the absolute winter passage in Georgic 3). But I wonder if any of it is true.

What would be interesting to read is an assessment of the book by an agricultural expert, going through line by line, and assessing whether anything he tells us about planting vines or trees (2.290) or nipping buds off new vines (2.366), or how to select the best breeding stallion or ram, or how to ensure a good yield of milk from your sheep – whether any of it is the slightest use.

‘Take my word’ he says (4.279). Should we?


Credit

Georgics by Virgil, translated by Peter Fallon, was first published by The Gallery Press in 2004. I read the 2009 Oxford University Press edition, with an excellent introduction and notes by Elaine Fantham.

Roman reviews

The Eclogues by Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Historical background

Virgil was born in 70 BC, in the consulships of (the bitter rivals) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaius Pompeius. When Virgil was 7, Cicero was consul and managing the Catiline conspiracy. When he was 10, the rivals Pompey and Crassus were reconciled by Julius Caesar who formed them into the behind-the-scenes alliance which later came to be called the First Triumvirate.

The 50s BC in Rome were characterised by the street violence of rival political gangs led by Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo. For most of the decade (58 to 50) Julius Caesar was racking up famous victories in his campaign to conquer all of Gaul. In 53 Crassus’s army was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae and he was killed, ending the triumvirate.

At the end of the 50s, the 18 year old Virgil arrived in Rome to find a career. Throughout 50 BC the political crisis grew deeper and, eventually, in January 49, Caesar illegally led a legion of his Army of Gaul across the river Rubicon, thus triggering civil war with Pompey and the senate. Virgil was 21.

This civil war dragged on for 5 long years, dividing families, laying waste tracts of land which armies marched across despoiling, with a series of battles in which Romans killed Romans at locations around the Mediterranean, until Caesar’s final victory in Spain at the Battle of Munda in March 45.

Caesar returned to Rome and began administering the empire, briskly and efficiently. Soon after he had had himself made dictator for life, he was assassinated in March 44. Virgil was 26. But removing the dictator did not bring the moribund forms of the old Republic back to life, as the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, had hoped. Instead it inaugurated another 13 years of political instability, with the arrival in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius, complicating an already fraught situation.

After initially fighting against Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, Octavius made peace with him in November 43, inviting a third military leader, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Virgil was now 27.

In 42 BC the combined forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (where the poet Horace led a legion on the losing side).

The second triumvirate lasted a long time, from 43 to 31 BC, although the partners often fell out, fiercely criticised each other and sometimes threatened open conflict. Antony assigned himself rule of the eastern Mediterranean in which capacity he a) embarked in 36 BC on an ill-fated attempt to invade the Parthian Empire, which ended in complete failure; and b) based himself in the capital of Egypt, Alexandria, where he famously had a long relationship with its queen, Cleopatra, fathering 2 children by her.

In 36 a war against Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus, who obstinately held the island of Sicily and was using his fleet to attack Roman ships, provided the pretext Octavius needed to accuse Lepidus of ineffectiveness and corruption and send him into internal exile in Italy. Virgil was 34.

The second triumvirate had become a duumvirate and very unstable, with Octavius using Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as undignified, unroman, unpatriotic. Eventually Octavius declared open war on Antony, marching his forces to meet Antony’s legions in Greece, and defeating his fleet at the naval Battle of Actium, in September 31, after Cleopatra famously led her small contingent away from the battle, prompting the latter to follow her and abandon his own sailors to defeat.

The ill-fated couple returned to Alexandria and, when Octavius approached the city with his legions, both committed suicide.

Not only was Octavian now the only one of the triumvirate left but, after the long 18 years of almost continual civil war since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was the only figure with any authority left in Roman politics.

With astonishing assurance he proceeded to transform the constitution of the old Republic into the shape of what would become the Roman Empire, with him at its centre holding all the strings. Virgil was 39 when Octavius emerged as the strongest figure in Rome, and 43 when, 4 years later, the senate awarded him the title by which he is known to history, ‘Augustus’. His entire adult life had been lived against a backdrop of war, dispute and destruction.

The Oxford University Press edition

The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis made translations of The Georgics in 1940 and of The Eclogues in 1963. These (fairly dated) translations are still available in a nifty Oxford University Press paperback, with a 1983 introduction by academic R.O.A.M. Lyne (both, like most classicists, educated at private school and Oxbridge).

Virgil the poet

Let Athena dwell in the cities she has founded. For me the woodlands.
(Eclogue 1, line 62)

Between 42 and 39 Virgil wrote ten short poems known as the Eclogues. In the introduction to this OUP volume, R.O.A.M. Lyne explains that Virgil’s explicit model was the Greek poet Theocritus (300 to 260 BC). Theocritus wrote a variety of poems but is famous for his idylls and bucolics. The word idyll is Greek and originally meant simply ‘little scene’ or ‘vignette’. In Theocritus’s hands, an idyll became a short poem describing an idealised view of country life among peasants, farmers and especially shepherds. A bucolic is a similar form, describing idealised peasant life in the country.

Theocritus helped establish the long literary tradition whereby apparently artless depictions of idealised country life turn out to be the opposite of naive and simple-minded but often the most sophisticated verse of all. Theocritus’s shepherds display a surprising ability to quote previous poets or refer to Greek legend and seem to spend far more time reciting beautifully formed verse to each other than tending their flocks.

Theocritus stands at the start of that tradition that pretending to rural simplicity is nearly always associated with sophisticated and aristocratic audiences who like to take a break from their more serious urban responsibilities with fantasies of country living. Look at the elaborate form and demandingly allegorical content of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the 18th century’s endless paintings of shepherds and swains. Vide Marie Antoinette’s fondness for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Virgil takes the already sophisticated form Theocritus had developed and adds a whole new range of subterranean depths to it. His stretching of the form he inherited is indicated by the very first eclogue in the set. This deals, albeit tangentially, with a controversial aspect of contemporary Roman policy (see below). Other poems address the turmoil of romantic love with a disruptive intensity not found in Theocritus.

An indication of his difference is that Virgil didn’t use Theocritus’s term, idyll, but called his poems eclogues, eclogue in Latin meaning ‘draft’, ‘selection’ or ‘reckoning’. By the Middle Ages the terms idyllbucolic and eclogue had become almost synonymous.

Eclogue 1

A dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus describes having been up to Rome to petition ‘the young prince’ to keep his family land. The prince grants his petition and so Meliboeus is a ‘fortunate old man’, whereas Tityrus laments that he and many like him will be dispersed to Scythia, ‘bone-dry Africa’, even to Britain, ‘that place cut off at the world’s end (line 66).

This poem was probably written in 41 BC, when Octavian was arranging the demobilisation and settlement around Italy of soldiers who had fought for him and Antony in the campaign to defeat the assassins of Julius Caesar, which climaxed in the Battle of Philippi (October 42 BC). Antony went on to sort out the East while Octavian was given the unwelcome task of settling the demobbed veterans. He carried out the very unpopular policy of dispossessing current farmers from their land in order to assign it to veterans (who often had no clue about running a farm, something Meliboeus bitterly points out in this poem):

To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops!

And laments that this is what the civil wars have brought them to:

…To such a pass has civil
Dissensions brought us: for people like these have we sown our fields.

So the first eclogue may be cast as a Theocritan idyll, and feature descriptions of idealised country scenery and farming practices – but it makes no bones about dealing with very contemporary politics, unfair state policy, unfairness and bitterness.

Eclogue 2

By contrast the second eclogue consists of the soliloquy or monologue of the shepherd Corydon who burns with love for the ‘handsome boy’, Alexis. Corydon boasts of his ability with the Pan pipes, the fertility of his flocks, and the idyllicness of the lives they could live together…but to no avail.

And, again, although the poem is deceptively dressed in rural imagery, the feeling is intense:

Yet love still scorches me – love has no lull, no limit. (line 68)

It’s worth pointing out that this is an explicitly homosexual poem, which did Virgil no harm at all with his patron, Maecenas nor his emperor.

Eclogue 3

The third eclogue feels different, again. It features rough and tumble squabbling between Menalcas and Damoetas, which leads up to Damoetas suggesting they hold a singing contest to decide who’s best.

At which point the poem turns from consisting of Virgil’s standard hexameters into alternating series of four-line, four-beat stanzas which have much shorter lines, a lyric format which Day-Lewis captures by making them rhyme.

The wolf is cruel to the sheep,
Cruel a storm to orchard tree,
Cruel is rain to ripened crops,
Amaryllis’ rage is cruel to me.

Eclogue 4

A dramatic departure from the stereotypical idea of an easy-going chat between shepherds, this eclogue is an extremely intense, visionary poem prophesying the birth of a divine baby who will usher in a Golden Age, peace on earth and describes a new age of peace and plenty when farm animals mind themselves and there is enough for all.

Later, Christian, commentators took this to be a prediction of the birth of Christ (about 40 years after the poem was written) and this was part of the mystique that grew up around Virgil in the Middle Ages, one reason why Dante chose him to be his guide through Hell in his long poem, the Divine Comedy.

Chances are, however, that Virgil had a much more mundane practical event in mind. The alliance between Octavian and Antony following Caesar’s assassination was very ropey indeed, and kept needing patching up. One such occasion was the Pact of Brundisium, agreed in 40 BC, whereby, among other provisions, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (a betrothal portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra). According to this interpretation, the ‘saviour child’ of this poem is the son everybody hoped would be born of this union, who would usher in a post-civil war era of peace and plenty.

In the event, the alliance wore very thin before Octavius eventually declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, leading to their naval defeat at the Battle of Actium and their double suicide soon thereafter. Thus, the cynical reader may conclude, all hyperbolic expectations of a New Age tend to be brutally disappointed by real world politics.

Eclogue 5

In a completely different mood, back in the land of idylls, shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus bump into each other and decide to have a singing contest, taking turns to sing poems they have written about the lovely Daphnis.

Eclogue 6

Two naughty shepherds (Cromis and Mnasyllus) come across the old drunk, Silenus, in a cave and tie him up, but he insists on singing a series of strophes absolutely packed with references to Greek mythology, a kind of 2-page summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eclogue 7

Goatherd Meliboeus relates how Daphnis called him over to listen to a singing competition between Corydon and Thyrsis, who proceed to take turns singing 12 4-line rhyming stanzas.

More sweet than thyme, more fair than pale ivy,
More white to swans you are to me:
Come soon, when the bulls through the meadows are homing,
Come soon, if you love me, my nymph of the sea!
(lines 37 to 40)

Eclogue 8

Another singing competition, this time between Damon and Alphesiboeus, and this time, instead of alternating short verse, each takes it in turn to sing a page-long poem made of longer, rhyming stanzas, each ending with the same line repeated as a refrain. Damon’s verses go like this:

A child you were when I first beheld you –
Our orchard fruit was chilled with dew –
You and your mother both apple gathering:
Just twelve I was, but I took charge of you.
On tiptoe reaching the laden branches,
One glance I gave you and utterly
My heard was ravished, my reason banished –
O flute of Maenalus, come, play with me!

Alphesiboeus’s verse is more interesting: it describes the magic, witchcraft, incantations and magic objects the narrator creates and casts in order to get his beloved, Daphnis, to return to him:

These keepsakes he left with me once, faithless man:
They are things that he wore – the most precious I own.
Mother earth, now I dig by my door and consign
Them to you – the dear keepsakes that pledge his return.
Make Daphnis come home from the city, my spells!

This also appears to be an explicitly gay poem, a man keening for his male lover.

Eclogue 9

This is another poem lamenting the unfair and divisive policy of land sequestration. Two out of the ten poems are on this subject. Sad Moeris complains to Lycidas that an outsider has taken over his farm and made him a servant on his old land and that’s why he is now driving his (the new owners’) goats to market.

Interestingly, Lycidas says he’d heard that the intercession of the poet Menalcus had prevented the land appropriation going ahead. Not so, replies bitter Moeris. But the interesting point is: is this a reference to Virgil’s attempts to moderate the land confiscation policy by appealing to Augustus? And a sad reflection on his failure?

MOERIS:… But poems
Stand no more chance, where the claims of soldiers are involved,
Than do the prophetic doves if the eagle swoops upon them.

This touches on the broader point of Virgil’s ambiguity: his verse is very finely balanced between political allegory, factual description and poetic fantasia. It hovers and shimmers between different layers of meaning.

Meanwhile, the two characters manage to get over their initial bitterness and swap fragments of poems they themselves have written or other people’s lines which they remember. Lycidas points out that the wind has dropped, the lake waters are still. It’s a golden opportunity to stop their trudge to the market town and recite to each other their favourite old songs. At which point the poem ends.

Complex effects. Although the rural setting and the simple names and many of the homely details about goats and plants and whatnot frankly derive from his Greek model, the emotion or psychological effect is more complex and multiflavoured than Theocritus.

Eclogue 10

A poem dedicated to Virgil’s friend, Caius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet. He wrote elegies devoted to a fictional female figure, Lycoris who, the note tells us, is probably a code name for the courtesan Cytheris, also Mark Antony’s lover. (Shades of Catullus’s beloved Lesbia, being the code name of Clodia, lover of umpteen other young Roman men. Roman poets and their aristocratic affairs).

The translation

I liked Day Lewis’s translation well enough, it is light and clear, as the examples I’ve quoted demonstrate. I suppose you could quibble about the slight unevenness of register: some of his phrasing uses the vague, rather stagey diction of so much translationese:

Let us honour the pastoral muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Whose singing, when they competed together, left the lynxes
Dumbfounded, caused a heifer to pause in her grazing, spellbound,
And so entranced the rivers that they checked their onward flow.
(Eclogue 8, opening lines)

It’s clear enough but not really what any actual modern poet would write. Anyway, my point is that this slightly stiff style comes a cropper in the many places where Day Lewis attempts a more demotic, matey note:

I’m driven from my home place but you can take it easy…

I have two roes which I found in a dangerous combe…
Thestylis has been begging for ages to take them off me…

‘Bumpkin! As if Alexis care twopence for your offerings!’

I wonder when the last time was that any English speaker used the word ‘bumpkin’ in a literal, serious sense? Or:

‘Watch it! What right do you have to lecture a chap!’

‘You desperado, while his mongrel was barking his head off!’

‘Strike up if you have a song to sing, I’ll not be backward…’

‘I’ll not be backward’ – of course I understand the meaning, I just kept being brought up short by Day Lewis’s well-meaning 1950s slang. Maybe it’s in the original: maybe the Virgil has a variety of tones, from the tragically lovelorn to the banter of farm workers. But this unevenness is definitely a feature of the Day Lewis translation.

Scansion

Scansion means the method of determining the metrical pattern of a line of verse. Latin (and French and Italian) verse uses patterns based on the number of syllables in a line and the different ‘lengths’ of each syllable. English poetry, rather more crudely, is based on the number of beats in each line. In English poetry each beat is at the heart of a ‘foot’, and each foot can have 1, 2 or 3 other unstressed syllables either before or after the beat. Thus a iambic pentameter is a line made up of five beats and so five ‘feet’, with each ‘foot’ made up of two syllables, the beat falling on the second one, di dum. A ‘foot’ with two syllables with the stress falling on the second one was called, by the ancient Greeks, a iamb, and so a iambic pentameter is a five-beat line, consisting of five feet, all of them in the form di dum.

Di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

But I struggled to figure out the metre of many of Day Lewis’s verses. First off, the eclogues are not all written in the same style. Day Lewis varies the verse forms a lot. There appears to be a long form line for the basic narrative sections, which he varies when the various shepherds and goatherds go into their singing competitions. But I found it difficult to scan even his basic form. Take the opening of Eclogue 4:

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

This seems to me a regular iambic heptameter i.e. seven beats.

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

But the next two lines throw me:

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all: but if it’s
Forests I sing, may the forest be worthy of a consul.

If the first line is intended to have only 7 beats in it, surely it would end on ‘if’. Not only do these lines not have 7 beats but the beat is difficult to assign. Is it shrub-be-ries or shrub-ries? Either way that appears to be a trochee i.e. a foot which starts with the beat instead of having it second.

Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe Day Lewis writes a loose long line which occasionally falls into the regularity of a heptameter but just as often skips round it. Maybe it’s designed to shimmer round regularity just as Virgil’s allegories and political meanings shimmer into view then disappear again.

At the start of the book Day Lewis writes a brief note about his approach to translation, which mentions that in some of the singing competitions between shepherds he uses ‘rhythms of English and Irish folk song’. This explains the stimulating variety of verse forms found throughout the book. Some of them have a regularity I enjoyed, but I found others puzzling and a bit irritating:

The fields are dry, a blight’s in the weather,
No vine leaves grow – the Wine-god is sour

So far I read these as having four beats per line (and so tetrameters), with variation in the feet i.e. they’re not all strict iambs. But having got into that swing, the next 2 lines (and there are only four; this is a quatrain) threw me by having five beats, but beats which don’t occur in any neat way:

Shading our uplands – but when my Phyllis comes here,
Green shall the woodlands be, and many the shower.

I wondered whether he was using the Latin technique of literally counting the syllables in each line and ignoring the beats, but I don’t think it’s that, since the first line has 10 syllables, the second 9, the third 12 and the fourth 12. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I found this lack of regularity in Day Lewis’s verse irksome and distracting.

Competition

All the histories I’ve read of the period describe the escalation of once-sensible rivalry between Rome’s leading men into increasingly violent, bitter and unforgiving conflict. It becomes almost an obsession of Tom Holland’s account, which blames out-of-control, toxic political rivalry for the Republic’s collapse.

That was my first thought when I realised that, far from idyllic peace and tranquility half of the poems describe and enact poetic competitions. Now I know that the competing goatherds aren’t bribing the voters and having each other’s supporters beaten up in the streets, as in the chaotic final decades of the Republic, nothing like that, the competitions are presented as amiable, good-hearted exercises (Eclogues 7 and 8). Still. Its presence in these would-be idyllic poems suggests that competition was a fundamental category which informs / underpins / infects absolutely every aspect of Roman existence.


Credit

The Eclogues by Virgil were translated into English by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963. I read them in the 1999 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Roman reviews

History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


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