Ancient-modern view of change. `Metamorphoses,' by Ovid, speaks to today's world of science

Metamorphoses, by Ovid. Translated by A.D. Melville. New York: Oxford University Press. 480 pp. $3.95, paper. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said ``everything flows.'' Man may stand out in the flux because he has an imperishable soul, but all he can do is observe himself and the world in the grip of ceaseless change. He is no more responsible for what happens to him than are members of the animal world - or vegetable, for that matter.

This ancient vision sounds modern. Today, some biologists and physicists envision an amoral world of instinct and energy. In the face of this new-old science, it's helpful to go back to the ancients, who have been here before us.

Ovid was one of the poets who could see the point of saying ``everything flows.'' He was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. His whole life was lived under the shadow of Caesar's heir, Augustus. Ovid's first poems were witty - some say cynical - poems about love. They brought him into conflict with the emperor, who was campaigning against promiscuity. When Augustus discovered that his own daughter, then his granddaughter as well, had committed adultery, he apparently used the poet as a scapegoat. Ovid spent the rest of his life in Tomis on the Black Sea, occasionally complaining about his barbarian environment (there were no libraries!).

With him to Tomis Ovid took his unfinished manuscript of ``The Metamorphoses.''

In it, ``everything flows.'' It stitches together 250 stories about changes of shape and is itself an outstanding example of the art of transition. It moves chronologically, from the great initial metamorphosis of Chaos to Order to the Augustan metamorphosis of Julius Caesar into a god. Unlike the radical vision of modern scientists, it is a conservative poem, and can be seen as Augustan propaganda. For example, defying the fact that Augustus was the adopted heir of Julius, Ovid writes that Augustus is the son of the god Julius Caesar.

Given Ovid's clear need to clear his name with the emperor, the reader may consider this conventional or even hypocritical, but the sentiment matters very little in the design of the whole poem. Epic in design and bulk (it has more than 12,000 lines; Dante's ``Divine Comedy,'' by comparison, has more than 14,000), it has been called a ``patchwork'' of literary kinds. Myths, legends, fables, and historical stories crowd its witty pages. The poem was enormously influential in the Renaissance, especially on Shakespeare. Next to Shakespeare, it's probably the visual arts that have honored Ovid best: Rubens, Poussin, Bruegel, Bernini, Cellini - the list is illustrious indeed.

Among Shakespeare's plays influenced by Ovid, one need mention only ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' with ``the magic and the freedom, the Puckish element, the blend of charm and moral irresponsibility,'' as one writer says.

The theme of ``moral irresponsibility'' is quite to the point. In Ovid's telling of the story of Apollo and Daphne, for example, the sun god Apollo falls in love with a minion of ``heaven's virgin huntress, fair Diana.'' Daphne had resisted her father's pleas to get married. When Apollo starts to chase her, she flees. It's a close one, but her father comes to her aid and transforms her into a laurel tree. Apollo makes her his tree, ever green.

Ovid's treatment of god and girl is full of feeling. Apollo does not choose to fall in love, he's forced to by Cupid, whose bow and arrow he had made fun of. As for Daphne, Ovid makes her the embodiment of virginal shame: ``a careless ribbon held her straying hair.'' In flight, she's even more becoming: ``...her slender limbs/ Bare in the breeze, her fluttering dress blown back,/ Her hair behind her streaming as she ran;/ And flight enhanced her grace.''

The moment of metamorphosis is rendered quite concretely: ``...through her limbs/ A dragging languor spread, her tender bosom/ Was wrapped in thin smooth bark, her slender arms/ Were changed to branches and her hair to leaves;/ Her feet but now so swift were anchored fast/ In numb stiff roots, her face and head became/ The crown of a green tree; all that remained/ Of Daphne was her shining loveliness.'' This moment of metamorphosis has inspired centuries of poets and artists, not to mention readers.

Far from being morally indifferent to these stories - which, taken individually, suggest various interpretations - Ovid uses them to illuminate the ironies of a world in which identity is like ``yielding wax,'' as he says in a passage on Pythagoras. Finally, in the world of the ``Metamorphoses,'' not quite everything flows. In a sense, Daphne defeats the amoral cosmic force represented by Apollo. She becomes the essence of a certain kind of loveliness. This is not to overlook the fact that in order to resist, she has to descend a few steps in the order of things and become a tree!

We tend to be callous and pseudo-intellectual about the implications of our world views. Ovid shows us how the amoral world of flux and change affects man. That we feel Ovid's pathos is charged to the translator. A.D. Melville has filled the bill: His meter is firm, his word choice idiomatic, his rhythms spellbinding. His translation compares well in charm with the great 18th-century translations of John Gay, and does not seem mean when put next to Dryden's. Its success suggests that if Ovid's world seems as contemporary as the modern physicist's vision of the flow of energy, it may be because it fills out the modern vision by revealing its moral - its distinctly human - ramifications.

A good translation is always a vindication; only more so, in Ovid's case. Reading Melville's ``Metamorphoses'' is true pleasure.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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