Wisconsin (2016) h/b 328pp £77.95 (ISBN 9780299307509)
Repetition is everywhere in literature: writers rehash bits of their own earlier works as well as alluding to the work of other writers, and writers repeat themselves in the course of a single work to help the reader to recognise themes and motifs. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a huge poem drawing on a lot of earlier literature and was massively influential in later ages. This book examines how repetition is a feature of the composition and the reception of this Protean work of literature.
The book consists of an introduction by the editors followed by ten essays by ten different hands. The first four are focused largely on the Metamorphoses as an intertextual poem: Andrew Feldherr opens the book with an interesting essay on Phaethon in book 1, Barbara Weiden Boyd follows this with a piece on the links between Ars Am. 2 and Met. 4 in the tale of Venus and Mars. The next two essays look at what must be a rich seam of intertextuality, the Trojan war. Ovid’s epic may be unconventional in many ways but it can hardly ignore its epic grandparent Homer, and Peter Heslin in the case of Cycnus in Met. 12 and Antony Augoustakis in the case of Hecuba in Met. 13 both point out ways in which Ovid interacts with earlier epic. Cycnus does not appear in the Iliad of course, and Heslin delves into what evidence we have of the Cypria and Sophocles’ (lost) Poimenes. He sees the fight between Cycnus and Achilles as ‘symbolic of Ovid’s emulous engagement with Homer’ and concludes his article with the statement that ‘Ovid won’. The issue revolves around the invulnerability of both men: and Heslin offers an interesting reading of Achilles’ behaviour in Iliad 18 to support his thesis that the hero keeps his invulnerability secret and is mightily thrown off balance when he meets the apparently invulnerable Cycnus, who calls his bluff.
With Hecuba we are on firmer ground, perhaps, as she has a large intertextual footprint in both epic and tragedy, and her savage anger is a quality which finds echoes in her own and others’ narratives elsewhere. Augoustakis applies this feature to the ending of the Aeneid and seeks to show that Ovid is consciously using the Virgilian material to introduce his own ‘Little Aeneid’, linking the themes of blindness and rage and seeing the gouging out of eyes as a metaphor for the ‘mutilation and deformation of literary tradition that Ovid’s poetics of recycling entails’.
Darcy Krasne looks at Fasti 5 and shows the cosmological links with Met. 15 and also makes some tempting suggestions for a political reading of the succession myths. Sharon James’ article on rapes in the Met. comments on the decline of rape as a storyline as the poem progresses: once the poet gets to Roman times he does not tell us about the famous tales of Virginia, Lucretia and others. This is partly for the simple reason that these Roman women were raped without being transformed into anything, and so would not fit the storyline demanded of the Met. —but James argues that Roman rape was a little too close to home and that the poet was fitting in with more contemporary Roman and Augustan sensitivities about their own foundational myths.
Peter Knox provides a cogent article on the ways in which the exiled Ovid looks back in his Tristia on his earlier poems, including the Met.. When the poet alludes to stories which he had already dealt with in earlier happier days, he finds sadness and personal sorrow latent in them. He thus metamorphoses his own earlier Met. and sees his earlier creativity as the cause of his own later destruction.
The later chapters focus on the ways in which Ovid’s text was read and recycled in later writers. Alison Keith looks at Valerius Flaccus, Statius and Silius, while Neil Bernstein widens the intertextual lens forward (to Silius and Lucan) and backward (to Virgil and Lucretius). Bernstein’s methodology is based on the new tesserae search project (tesserae.caset.buffalo.edu) and the figures show the practical application of statistics in this field. In the final chapter, Stephen Hinds looks in detail at the ghost of Ovid as he appears in that late flowering of Latin poetry, Claudian’s de raptu Proserpinae.
The book is immaculately proof-read and printed, and all Latin and Greek are translated into decent English. As with all such books, the reader may find that some of the ideas ventured are more cogent and illuminating than others, and that some of the metapoetic inquiries can sound far-fetched. Ovid of course would not mind in the least: the assumption here is that Ovid was a hugely self-conscious artist who aimed high and often bit off more than he could chew. This book does the same in places, but the menu is rich and always tastefully served.