Metamorphic metametricality

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Any blogs from me will be short and sweet this summer, my writing schedule being what it is, and highly likely to be about Ovid for the same reason.

For this one, two assumptions are required: first, that Ovid is so very self-aware a poet that his narrative might at any moment enact his literary principles; and secondly that the metre of poetry in antiquity, and in Rome specifically, was meaningful in its own right.

I’m here concerned with the Metamorphoses, unusual among Ovid’s works for being composed in the dactylic hexameter, stereotypically the metre of epic, the highest form of poetry. The hexameter was known as the herous or ἡρωικός, the “heroic” metre, its very name implying it was intrinsically suited to tell the deeds of great men: I discussed an ancient response to the hexameter and its ethos, the sotadean metre, in another blog here. The Metamorphoses is ostensibly a heroic epic, as its metre and length and cast of heroes imply, but Ovid is throughout this poem superbly disrespectful of the sublime values an epic was supposed to embody.

Ovid’s inappropriate approach to writing epic has been noted, and deplored, ever since he wrote it, and a recurrent theme of the criticism of ancient figures like the Senecas Elder and Younger and Quintilian and more modern critics like John Dryden, as an article of mine argued many moons ago,* was that Ovid’s approach to writing epic, properly the task of a mature and serious sensibility, was mischievous–childish, to use a metaphor regularly found: Seneca the Younger chastises Ovid’s addiction to pueriles ineptiae, “childish silliness”, for example, and Dryden talks of the “boyisms” that mar the dignity of his epic poetry.

The main point of my article was to show, not just that Ovid was perfectly aware how far he was falling short of epic respectability in the Metamorphoses, but that Ovid took poetic self-awareness to an ever higher level, actually anticipating within his poem the criticisms that would be directed at it. At three points in particular, Cupid’s encounter with Apollo in Met. 1, Phaethon’s piloting of the sun chariot in Met. 2, and the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus in Met. 8, I suggested that these accounts could be read as “metaliterary drama”, vignettes programmatically encapsulating the deeper character of the poem. In each case, simply put, a heroic circumstance is disrupted by a child, Apollo transformed from the conqueror of Python into a plaintive lover, the horses of the sun careering out of control and scorching the earth under Phaethon’s inadequate control, and Daedalus’ momentous achievement of flight ruined by Icarus’ boyish refusal to obey instruction. Ovid was staging in his own narrative the childish subversion of epic values he would later himself be told off for.

It’s Icarus’ story that I want to bring back to metre. One metaliterary vignette, I’d suggest, is the scene from Met. 8 where Daedalus is meticulously constructing wings for himself and his son. Icarus does what children do, getting in the way (193-203, with the Miller Loeb translation, slightly adapted).

tum lino medias et ceris alligat imas
atque ita conpositas paruo curuamine flectit,
ut ueras imitetur aues. puer Icarus una                               195
stabat et, ignarus sua se tractare pericla,
ore renidenti modo, quas uaga mouerat aura,
captabat plumas, flauam modo pollice ceram
mollibat lusuque suo mirabile patris
impediebat opus. postquam manus ultima coepto              200
inposita est, geminas opifex librauit in alas
ipse suum corpus motaque pependit in aura.

Then Daedalus ties the feathers together with twine and wax at middle and bottom;
and, thus arranged, he bends them with a gentle curve
so that they look like real birds’ wings. His son Icarus
was standing by and, little knowing that he was handling his own peril,
with smiling face now snatched at the feathers
which the shifting breeze had blown about, now moulded the yellow wax
with his thumb, and by his play hindered
his father’s wondrous task. When now the finishing touches
had been put to the work, the maestro himself balanced his body
on two wings and hung poised in the beaten air.

We all know how this story ends. What for me is typical of Ovid about this passage is how he paints a picture which is vividly true to life, the child chasing feathers and moulding the wax into shapes, but which at the same time works perfectly as a metaphor for the Metamorphoses as a whole, a poem that refuses to abide by the rules, a world where things never go for its heroic protagonists as they should. (Denis Feeney once explained to me why he liked Toy Story so much: “It’s just like the Metamorphoses: Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s a superhero, but in fact he’s just a toy.”)

But what about the metre?

Bear in mind that I’m currently thinking too much about Ovid, and I’ve been thinking too hard about metre for years. But just note how the boy Icarus enters and exits this scene, puer Icarus una… in 195 and impediebat opus in 200: in each case Icarus isn’t just disrupting Daedalus’ wondrous task, but interrupting the heroic measure, intervening halfway into the dactylic hexameter, departing halfway through.

Ovid’s intense self-consciousness undoubtedly extends to the metres he uses, we know that from elsewhere. And whether or not there is metrical self-awareness here, it is poetically effective to have Icarus butting in unexpectedly after the line has started. But I suspect that Ovid thinks of the metre of his poem, as much as any other element of it, as a conventional epic feature ripe for his mischievous attention, and wants us to appreciate it as such.

Here, I think, as heroic action is disrupted by this childish impulse, whether we call it Icarus’s or Ovid’s, so is heroic form.

*”Child’s play: Ovid and his critics,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003), 66-91.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

3 responses to “Metamorphic metametricality”

  1. Alexius says :

    Your post reaffirms one of the reasons why I like Ovid so much. It is insightful to posit Ovid’s utter self-awareness of his disruptions to both epic tradition and epic meter, and his willingness to make those disruptions noticeable to his readers. After your reading and interpretation I feel that Ovid exhibits a very modern sensibility about poetry and art, an artist very well aware of the trials and rewards of artistic creation.

  2. mypoetrystuff says :

    Great stuff – you pick up subtleties beyond my Icarus-like wings. However, doing a few childish loops and swoops, I’ll try to build on your analysis the best I can. So, I draw attention to the hexameter-loaded, diareses-aerated quality of the clause midway between your underlined ‘interruptions/disruptions’: quas uaga mouerat aura. It seems like a deliberate placement, especially coupled with the following line’s captabat plumas, whose caesura in the third foot matches the caesura in the underlined impediebat opus. In other words, your disruptions are interrupted by a wonderfully fetching depiction of air and feathers.

  3. Peter D Grudin says :

    Many thanks for this very interesting piece. It s worth noting, by the way, that both Dryden and Pope used a “heroic” verse form to write mock-epics, MacFlecknoe and The Rape of the Lock. They, too, knew what they were doing. Pope for instance wrote mock epics in the same form in which he translated Homer: heroic couplets. Dryden used the same form in his translation of The Aeneid. It makes sense. In order to write a mock epic it seems to me one would have to use epic forms.,

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