The 20th March 2017 marks the birthday of Publius Ovidius Naso. Known simply as Ovid, the Roman poet and exile commands a gargantuan legacy that has left an indelible mark on the Western literary cannon. Ovid is perhaps best known today for his epic work Metamorphoses, a hefty compilation of myth that covers everything from the Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar.
Literary giants across the ages have constructed their masterpieces upon the foundations of Ovidian lore. For instance, the Florentine poet Petrarch, who pioneered the art of the sonnet in Renaissance Europe, owes much to Ovid in his defining work Il Canzoniere. In the famous canzone 23, the poetic persona imagines himself subjected to a series of Ovidian metamorphoses, transforming from man to laurel, swan, stone, fountain, voice and stag:
What a state I was in when I first realized
the transfiguration of my person,
and saw my hair formed of those leaves
that I had hoped might yet crown me…
This particular episode of metamorphosis draws its roots from the tale of Daphne and Apollo. The god of poetry, infatuated with the chaste river nymph, pursues her through the woods until she ultimately transforms into a laurel tree to evade his clutches. It is by now a classic scene that has been re-imagined and retold on countless occasions, appearing in films as varied as Disney’s Hercules and Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In a particularly famous literary example, Shakespeare pays homage to the tale in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Helena, assuming the role of Apollo, chases Demetrius through the woods, crying out:
The wildest hath not such a heart as you.
Run when you will, the story shall be changed.
Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase.
Teeming with magical transformations, interactions between gods and humans and a mess of romantic entanglements, Shakespeare’s beloved comedy draws heavily from Ovid’s bawdy, unpredictable world. Revisiting the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, which provides the backdrop to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare gives the Ovidian tale of ill-fated lovers a comic twist by making it the subject of the mechanicals’ play.
Of more controversial fame, Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus takes inspiration from the dark side of Ovid’s world, adapting the tale of Philomela and Procne as a central plot point. The character of Lavinia, daughter of the eponymous Roman general, is violently mutilated by her rapists in a mirror image of Philomela, whose hands and tongue are cut off by her brother-in-law in the Ovidian tale. Lavinia actually uses a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to show what had happened to her through pointing to the story of Philomela, perfectly illustrating how Ovid’s stories present a frame through which other stories can be told. Written at a time when audiences were hungry for violent revenge plays, the tragic tale of Philomela gets a 16th century reworking that appeals to a particular people at a particular time, showing how Ovid’s timeless tales can be recalled and tailored to a specific period.
Besides offering a narrative blueprint from which new stories are born, Ovid’s influence extends to the words we use and the ways in which we understand ourselves. Take, for instance, the tale of Narcissus and Echo. The beautiful Narcissus is adored by the nymph Echo; he spurns her advances out of a complete disinterest in love, until he unknowingly happens across his own reflection in a pond. Believing himself to be another, he is enthralled by the beauty of his reflection, maddened to death by its unattainability. As Ted Hughes envisions it in Tales from Ovid:
He beat his bare chest with white fists.
The skin flushed under the blows.
When Narcissus saw this…
It was too much for him.
Like a wax near the flame…
He melted – consumed
By his love.
Echo faded away from a broken heart until only her voice remained, fated to repeat the last words of anyone nearby. Hence the modern definition of the word ‘echo’: sound repeated by reflection. The afterlives of Narcissus, on the other hand, have become entwined with Freudian psychoanalysis. ‘Narcissistic’ is a word now used to describe a person who takes an excessive interest in the self, resulting in problems maintaining healthy relationships with others. As such, Freud modelled his theory around the story of Narcissus as recorded in the Ovidian tale, demonstrating the power of stories to affect the ways in which we understand and articulate our experiences.
Ovid’s immense legacy represents the formidable power of story-telling and the ways in which they are central to the human experience. Such stories have no expiry date; they are continually recycled and retold in an endless echo through time. Perhaps the canny Roman recognised the power of his stories as the gateway to immortality when he ended the Metamorphoses with the words:
Throughout all ages, if poets have vision to prophesy truth,
I shall live in my fame.
Narcissus’ 21st century update