Learning to Love…Ovid!

 In light of yesterday’s Grand National, I thought I’d turn to a Latin poet whom I have recently come to appreciate.  I first encountered Ovid at around the age of fourteen, when I was handed his guide to picking up women at the racecourse, taken from his work Amores, as a translation exercise.  I was slightly alarmed to be presented with a text which advocated spying on women as they watched the horses go round the track, and sneakily groping people amongst the crowded stands, and so pigeonholed Ovid as a rather immature, trivial and tedious poet.  It’s safe to say, we got off on the wrong foot.

Photo by Greg Roberts. Grand National day 2014. 
I wonder how many race goers took Ovid's advice to heart...

I ran into Ovid again at AS level, with Book VIII of his epic poem, The Metamorphoses being assigned as a set text.  Once again, I was far from overwhelmed.  Reading his portrayal of the various exploits of Scylla and Daedalus, I felt that this was an extremely formulaic, derivative and, ultimately unimaginative work. Surely anyone could take a bunch of familiar myths involving some kind of transformation and cobble together a lengthy poem? Though at times I found Ovid’s vibrant use of Latin somewhat enjoyable, I wondered whether such care was being given to the execution of Ovid’s work in a bid to distract from its lack of originality.  Take for example the line fistula disparibus paulatim surgis avenis (Ovid. Met. VIII. 192).  Ovid’s Latin mirrors its subject matter, with words seeming to lengthen as the line goes on, only for it to finish with the shorter surgis avenis, just like the panpipe it describes.  Undeniably a beautifully crafted line of hexameter, yet I still couldn’t rid my mind of the niggling thought that Ovid was just a poet who, lacking imagination, had taken and regurgitated a collection of myths, tales and other people’s work. 

Ovid appears again!

 All of this changed in my second year of university.  When I received the list of texts to be studied at the beginning of the year and saw Ovid Metamorphoses Book XIII, I groaned inwardly. But with the beginning of term, came the start of a new chapter in my relationship with Ovid.  As I read this text, digested secondary scholarship and wrote critical commentaries on a few passages of it, I began to see that I had been wrong to take the opinion that Ovid was an unimaginative and talentless poet.  While reading a section describing the judgement of arms between Ajax and Odysseus (Ovid. Met. XIII.1-398), I noticed that the text had a very formal nature, the structuring of the speeches of each hero perfectly mirroring their well known characteristics; in the case of Ajax, strength and brawn, in the case of Odysseus, wit and scheming.  My mind drifted back to my thoughts on Ovid’s description of Daedalus and his wings reflecting his subject matter.

Ajax's speech, on the left, is rigidly and decisively organised.  By contrast, Odysseus' speech, on the right, is more free flowing, and has a more varied structure.

 It was as I read Ovid’s treatment of the sacrifice of Polyxena and the lament of Hecuba, a topic covered by Euripides in his own Hecuba, that I realised Ovid’s poem was doing more than just relaying the favourite myths of the Roman people.  Not only was Ovid drawing from a vast melting pot of literary genres, writers, poets and moral lessons in the construction of his epic poem, and then combining the material selected on a large scale, he was in fact creating a text which reflected his subject matter on multiple, complex levels.  As shown in the above description of Daedalus’ panpipe-inspired wings, and the contrasting speeches of Odysseus and Ajax, Ovid was a master at literally illustrating his ideas with words.  But what of the text as a whole?

Ovid flirts with such a variety of genres and styles, and drawing from such a vast range of sources, ranging from myth to Homeric epic to tragedy to rhetoric, would mean that the final work could not be a consistent whole.  The text takes on a different appearance when dealing with the pastoral Polyphemus as opposed to when conveying the heart wrenching lament of Hecuba.  One might argue that the inclusion of such a variety of inspirations and ideas does not necessarily make Ovid’s poem rich and diverse, but instead is a fundamental weakness of the text, which lacks uniformity and constancy. 

The song of Polyphemus, on the left, uses an abundance of pastoral, natural language, and the text flows pleasantly to reflect this.  The lament of Hecuba, on the right, is filled with desperate exclamations and dark sentiments.

I disagree.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though not an epic in the traditional Homeric or Virgilian form, is majestic in its own right, as his epic represents exactly what he claims to wish to write about.  His opening lines, ‘In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas’ corpora, announce a journey through time and transformations, a journey mirrored by the very material of the poem itself.  Like the characters within the text who undergo a variety of changes, Ovid’s poem is in a constant state of flux and metamorphosis, continually shifting between genres, times and ideas.  For me, this quality of ‘unquantifiableness’ is what makes Ovid’s Metamorphoses so special and interesting.  I’m glad I’ve finally come to appreciate Ovid and at least one of his works in the way he deserves.  I’m now so intrigued by his use of Latin and his habit of ‘playing’ with epic, that he’s even found his way into my dissertation…

Happy with Ovid!


  1. If your idea of great literature is that which is original, you are sure to be continuously disappointed. As Pete Seeger once said: "Plagiarism is basic to all culture." But certainly, there are those who merely copy and those who augment and synthesize, creating something new. Ovid is a great resource for mythology, but he is also a genre-bending originator!


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