chapter  VI
17 Pages

FORM CHANGED: OVID’S METAMORPHOSES

Let me explain more fully how Ovid teases us in the opening two lines. When we first read or hear nova (‘new’), we do not realize that it goes as an adjective with corpora (‘bodies’) in line 2, and so we Start by translating the first four words as a sense-unit: ‘My spirit takes me into new things.’ Hardly have we finished correcting ourselves, than Ovid plunges us and himself into the parenthesis which for perhaps fifteen hundred years has been misunderstood. All our manuscripts, which go back to sources no later than the fifth or sixth Century, give the reading illas for the final word of 2, which means that the scribes understood the pronoun ‘them ’ to refer to the forms of line 1, not the beginnings. So for centuries it was assumed that the parenthesis rather ineptly gave the gods credit for causing metamorphoses. However, Kenney (1976) and Kovacs (1987) show that the correct reading is neuter plural illa, to refer by the pronoun to coeptis (‘beginnings’). That explains why Ovid placed his qualifying remark where he did: he asks the gods’ favour on his poem as it starts, because the gods have often exerted their power to change a poem at the outset, and it m ight even be feit that they have altered this very poem. When Ovid embarks on this parenthesis, he has written in line 1 a normal hexameter (constructed in two sections with a caesura after anim us), and in line 2 he has brought us to the middle, where he again places his caesura. The parenthesis completes the hexameter. For a first-time audience of the poem, however, this would be a unique moment. Never before had they experienced a poem by Ovid which consisted of continuous hexameters: he was the greatest master of the elegiac metre alive in Rome, and he had been unchallenged for fifteen or twenty years, since Properdus stopped writing verse. What Ovid in fact made a caesura would normally, in his elegiac Couplets, have functioned as the break between the halves of the pentameter. Thus, as the admiring audience Start to sit back to another elegant Ovidian perform ance in elegiacs, they suddenly hear a metrical conclusion to the line, emphasized by the many long syllables of the spondees, which transforms their expectations and the poetic form from elegiacs into hexameters. And that meant that, incredibly or at least paradoxically, the world’s most successful elegiac poet was suddenly an epic poet. Could he, with the help of the gods, really carry through this transform ation, no m atter what it dem anded of him? O r might his approving audience have put the question in a more benevolent fashion, such as: Could Ovid’s innovative genius work as creatively and delightfully with the conventions o f epic as it had worked in mastering the elegiac form? What kind of epic has he achieved?