Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Few Notes (for Me) on Ovid's Metamorphoses, 11.1-84

Ovid is my favorite poet. We expect a certain bright, flamboyant humor from Ovid.  He is brilliant and outrageous, but also has a talent for portraying sad, grotesque, and monstrous scenes.  His masterpiece, Metamorphoses, a ballet of a poem, is a collection of myths and legends linked by transformation, and had an enormous influence on European writers.  Shakespeare's Touchstone in As You Like It called Ovid "the most capricious poet." The scholar L. P. Wilkinson called him "baroque."

Death of Orpheus
I settled down for an evening of reading, secure in the joy of Ovid's humor, but found myself instead reading one of the most grotesque myths, Orpheus' murder by the Maenads.

Carmine dum tali silvas animosque ferarum/

Threicius vates et saxa sequentia ducit,

As usual, the arrangement of words is amazing and dramatic, though only a very literal translation will show the effect of the inflected language.  First a literary translation by  Horace Gregory, which isn't very close to the Latin:

"The songs that Orpheus sang brought creatures round him,/ All beasts, all birds, all stones held in their spell."

A literal translation by me will show the word order but make little sense: 

"While by such song [referring to the stories Orpheus told in Book X), the woods and minds of wild beasts/ the Thracian bard led and (with) the rocks following (him)....

Note that Orpheus, "the Thracian bard," (Threicius vates), is located in the middle of the words, after "woods and beasts," before "rocks following."  He is surrounded by the beasts, trees, and rocks he charms.   "Such song" (carmine...tali)  binds all of it together...and draws the Maenads, who are furious that he has rejected women and sung of homosexuals.  

The first Maenad cries,

'en,' ait 'en, hic est nostri contemptor!"  

"Lo," she says, "behold!  Here is the despiser of us."   

The scene in which the Maenads rip Orpheus apart is one of the goriest and most appalling in the poem.  But there are beautiful lines:  the animals and rocks mourn, and while Orpheus's head and lyre float down the river, playing some flebile tune, it is grotesque but also beautifully phrased.  It is sad and bloody, but Orpheus gets to go to Elysium with Euridice.

And Apollo punishes the Maenads by turning them into trees. (Not so severe, really.)

The metrical pyrotechnics are fantastic. Dryden, however, said of Ovid:

"Ovid, with all his sweetness, has as little variety of numbers and sound as [Claudian]:  he is always, as it were, upon the hand-gallop, and his verse runs upon carpet-ground.  He avoids all synaloephas [elision] that, minding only smoothness, he wants both variety and majesty."  

I dont' agree.  I love the smoothness of the meter.

Here is Dryden's translation of this scene: 

HERE, while the Thracian bard’s enchanting strain
Sooths beasts, and woods, and all the listn’ing plain,
The female Bacchanals, devoutly mad,
In shaggy skins, like savage creatures, clad,
Warbling in air perceiv’d his lovely lay,
And from a rising ground beheld him play.
When one, the wildest, with dishevel’d hair,
That loosely stream’d, and ruffled in the air;
Soon as her frantick eye the lyrist spy’d,
See, see! the hater of our sex, she cry’d.
Then at his face her missive javelin sent,
Which whiz’d along, and brusht him as it went;
But the soft wreathes of ivy twisted round,
Prevent a deep impression of the wound.
Another, for a weapon, hurls a stone,
Which, by the sound subdu’d as soon as thrown,
Falls at his feet, and with a seeming sense
Implores his pardon for its late offence.
The Death of Orpheus
But now their frantick rage unbounded grows,
Turns all to madness, and no measure knows:
Yet this the charms of musick might subdue,
But that, with all its charms, is conquer’d too;
In louder strains their hideous yellings rise,
And squeaking horn-pipes eccho thro’ the skies,
Which, in hoarse consort with the drum, confound
The moving lyre, and ev’ry gentle sound:
Then ’twas the deafen’d stones flew on with speed,
And saw, unsooth’d, their tuneful poet bleed.
The birds, the beasts, and all the savage crew
Which the sweet lyrist to attention drew,
Now, by the female mob’s more furious rage,
Are driv’n, and forc’d to quit the shady stage.
Next their fierce hands the bard himself assail,
Nor can his song against their wrath prevail:
They flock, like birds, when in a clustring flight,
By day they chase the boding fowl of night.
So crowded amphitheatres survey
The stag, to greedy dogs a future prey.
Their steely javelins, which soft curls entwine
Of budding tendrils from the leafy vine,
For sacred rites of mild religion made,
Are flung promiscuous at the poet’s head.
Those clods of earth or flints discharge, and these
Hurl prickly branches sliver’d from the trees.
And, lest their passion shou’d be unsupply’d,
The rabble crew, by chance, at distance spy’d
Where oxen, straining at the heavy yoke,
The fallow’d field with slow advances broke;
Nigh which the brawny peasants dug the soil,
Procuring food with long laborious toil.
These, when they saw the ranting throng draw near,
Quitted their tools, and fled, possest with fear.
Long spades, and rakes of mighty size were found,
Carelesly left upon the broken ground.
With these the furious lunaticks engage,
And first the lab’ring oxen feel their rage;
Then to the poet they return with speed,
Whose fate was, past prevention, now decreed:
In vain he lifts his suppliant hands, in vain
He tries, before, his never-failing strain.
And, from those sacred lips, whose thrilling sound
Fierce tygers, and insensate rocks cou’d wound,
Ah Gods! how moving was the mournful sight!
To see the fleeting soul now take its flight.
Thee the soft warblers of the feather’d kind
Bewail’d; for thee thy savage audience pin’d;
Those rocks and woods that oft thy strain had led,
Mourn for their charmer, and lament him dead;
And drooping trees their leafy glories shed.
Naids and Dryads with dishevel’d hair
Promiscuous weep, and scarfs of sable wear;
Nor cou’d the river-Gods conceal their moan,
But with new floods of tears augment their own.
His mangled limbs lay scatter’d all around,
His head, and harp a better fortune found;
In Hebrus’ streams they gently roul’d along,
And sooth’d the waters with a mournful song.
Soft deadly notes the lifeless tongue inspire,
A doleful tune sounds from the floating lyre;
The hollows banks in solemn consort mourn,
And the sad strain in ecchoing groans return.
Now with the current to the sea they glide,
Born by the billows of the briny tide;
And driv’n where waves round rocky Lesbos roar,
They strand, and lodge upon Methymna’s shore.

But here, when landed on the foreign soil,
A venom’d snake, the product of the isle
Attempts the head, and sacred locks embru’d
With clotted gore, and still fresh-dropping blood.
Phoebus, at last, his kind protection gives,
And from the fact the greedy monster drives:
Whose marbled jaws his impious crime atone,
Still grinning ghastly, tho’ transform’d to stone.
His ghost flies downward to the Stygian shore,
And knows the places it had seen before:
Among the shadows of the pious train
He finds Eurydice, and loves again;
With pleasure views the beauteous phantom’s charms,
And clasps her in his unsubstantial arms.
There side by side they unmolested walk,
Or pass their blissful hours in pleasing talk;
Aft or before the bard securely goes,
And, without danger, can review his spouse.
The Thracian Women transform’d to Trees
Bacchus, resolving to revenge the wrong,
Of Orpheus murder’d, on the madding throng,
Decreed that each accomplice dame should stand
Fix’d by the roots along the conscious land.
Their wicked feet, that late so nimbly ran
To wreak their malice on the guiltless man,
Sudden with twisted ligatures were bound,
Like trees, deep planted in the turfy ground.
And, as the fowler with his subtle gins,
His feather’d captives by the feet entwines,
That flutt’ring pant, and struggle to get loose,
Yet only closer draw the fatal noose;
So these were caught; and, as they strove in vain
To quit the place, they but encreas’d their pain.
They flounce and toil, yet find themselves controul’d;
The root, tho’ pliant, toughly keeps its hold.
In vain their toes and feet they look to find,
For ev’n their shapely legs are cloath’d with rind.
One smites her thighs with a lamenting stroke,
And finds the flesh transform’d to solid oak;
Another, with surprize, and grief distrest,
Lays on above, but beats a wooden breast.
A rugged bark their softer neck invades,
Their branching arms shoot up delightful shades;
At once they seem, and are, a real grove,
With mossy trunks below, and verdant leaves above.

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