Exploring Ovid

Some think that Ovid never scaled the peaks of Parnassus, but frisked around on the slopes—and only occasionally the higher ones.

His writing shows a remarkable range of expression: elegant, ingenious, charming, witty, whimsical, paradoxical, outlandish, nightmarish, grotesque, voyeuristic, titillating; sentimental, sympathetic, affectionate, touching; and sometimes inspiring.

The trouble with this is that any extract chosen for pupils to read is quite likely not to give a genuine impression of the man’s work—it is not, in fact, a sample.

A reminder of this was the passage from the Metamorphoses chosen for last year’s A2 unseen paper (not to be revealed here, as not yet in the public domain). It was as unrepresentative as one could imagine of Ovid’s talent: a short transformation story, unnecessary for the continuum: a bit of prose that had been versified with less than his usual skill, with careless choice of words and containing material that did not add up in the minds of a modern reader: and so some of the ablest students found it baffling.

And then there was the Sixth Former who saw fit to express exasperation with the selection from the Amores that they were obliged to read:

“Didn’t Ovid get bored with his endless couplets? They are a bit like tweets. Didn’t he get fed up with showing off?”

It is perhaps salutary to a read passage or two where Ovid seems to have used time and craftsmanship: or perhaps had been visited by his elusive Muse. Among many is the description of the Cave of Sleep in Metamorphoses Book 5:

Est prope Cimmerios longo spelunca recessu,
mons cavus, ignavi domus et penetralia Somni,
quo numquam radiis oriens mediusve cadensve
Phoebus adire potest: nebulae caligine mixtae     595
exhalantur humo dubiaeque crepuscula lucis.
non vigil ales ibi cristati cantibus oris
evocat Auroram, nec voce silentia rumpunt
sollicitive canes canibusve sagacior anser;
non fera, non pecudes, non moti flamine rami     600
humanaeve sonum reddunt convicia linguae.
muta quies habitat; saxo tamen exit ab imo
rivus aquae Lethes, per quem cum murmure labens
invitat somnos crepitantibus unda lapillis.
ante fores antri fecunda papavera florent              605
innumeraeque herbae, quarum de lacte soporem
Nox legit et spargit per opacas umida terras.
ianua, ne verso stridores cardine reddat,
nulla domo tota est, custos in limine nullus;
at medio torus est ebeno sublimis in antro,           610
plumeus, atricolor, pullo velamine tectus,
quo cubat ipse deus membris languore solutis.