Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, Wolfgang Görtschacher (ed.), Ovid's Metamorphoses in English Poetry. Wissenschaft und Kunst 10. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2009. Pp. xxi, 303. ISBN 9783825355203. €48.00.

Reviewed by Mary-Kay Gamel, University of California, Santa Cruz (mkgamel@ucsc.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The seventeen essays plus introduction of this collection discuss the reception of Ovid's Metamorphoses in English poetry. The authors, all scholars of English literature, ranging from emeriti to new PhDs, are connected to a broad range of European and American institutions. The first two essays and the last focus on poetry from different periods; the remaining fourteen focus on particular eras, authors, and texts, including Chaucer, Elizabethan poets, Blake, and American modernists; the volume concludes with two new translations from the Metamorphoses.

The last thirty years have seen a huge increase in attention to Ovid's poetry; many important studies of his poetry's reception in later literature have appeared and others appear regularly.1 There have also been new translations, adaptations, and poems inspired by Ovid.2 The volume under review, like many collections of this sort, is a mixed bag; in general, the narrower the focus, the more effective the individual essay tends to be—Hui's essay, for example, on the neglected play Titus Andronicus is strong, although there is no mention of performance. Several essays delineate the important Ovide moralisé tradition of finding Christian allegories in the Metamorphoses. Some essays provide useful overviews, such as Fielitz on Ovid in the 18th century, with special focus on Thomson's The Seasons (1730), and Antal on Blake's complex relationship to classical authors vs. the Bible. There are odd lacunae (for example, almost nothing from the nineteenth century, though Keats, both Shelleys, William Morris, W.S. Gilbert, and others might well have been included). Strangely, however, George Sandys' 1632 translation and Irish poet Derek Mahon's work get two essays each. Some of the essays which take on different examples of the reception of a particular figure are effective—for example, Tomiche's comparison of Eliot, Pound, and Ransom's different responses to Philomela, and Petersen's discussion of Salmacis-Hermaphroditus, which includes Elizabethan poems, Ted Hughes, and Jeffrey Eugenides' 2002 novel Middlesex. Liassis' messy discussion of Myrrha, however, wanders all over the place, making questionable assertions throughout (e.g., Ovid offers "an ethical agenda endorsing the propriety of moderation, not excess" 2).

The introduction is brief and schematic; there is no general discussion of the issues involved in Ovid's poetry and its reception, such as Brown (1-21) and Hopkins (1-36) provide.3 There is very little attention to Ovid's poetry; most of these essays cite the poems in translation and make little if any reference to the Latin. (Boisseau's chapter, which closely compares Mahon's "Galatea" with Ovid's text, is an exception.) It is certainly valid to consider translations when those are what the English poets would have known, such as Golding's 1567 or Sandys' 1632 Metamorphoses, but Schmidt's discussion of Sandys says virtually nothing about Ovid. Winch's discussion of Lady Wortley Montagu's use of Iphis and Pygmalion is powerful, but has little connection to the Ovidian text. Pursglove discusses two different Ovidian versions of Cephalus and Procris (in Ars III and Metamorphoses VII)—but with no reference to the Latin, no discussion of why the two versions are so different, and his conclusion is anticlimactic, even bathetic: "an object lesson in how a great poet can make two very different works of art from essentially the same material" (111). Some authors, moreover, demonstrate what seem to me serious misunderstandings of the Ovidian poems they discuss. Young connects Niobe with Phyllis Wheatley and contemporary female rappers, in the process accusing Ovid of writing "abuse narratives" about women. Rossiter offers an elaborate reading of Wyatt's sonnet "Whoso list to hunt I know where is an hynde" in terms of poetry (Ovid's Actaeon, Petrarch), history (Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn), and religion (the Gospel of John). The reading is intriguing, but in the process the author insists "in Ovid's text Actaeon takes 'carnal pleasure' in the sight of the naked Diana" (84). There is no evidence in Ovid's text of such pleasure or even that sight: as soon as Actaeon appears, her followers surround Diana and all he apparently sees of her is her head (III.182). In her discussion of Ovid's Orpheus and the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo Higgins speaks of the "happy ending" which the English poet substitutes for "the chaos of the singer's dismembered body scattered on the hills of Thrace while his singing head floats down the river Hebrus" (38); she omits the happy ending supplied by Ovid when the singer's shade goes back to Hades, finds and embraces his wife, and "here they walk together side by side; sometimes Orpheus follows her, other times he goes ahead, and now he can safely look back at his Eurydice" (XI. 64-6).

No connections are made between the essays, as so often in such collections, even though the possibilities are rife—the motif of women deprived of speech in Hui's discussion of Titus Andronicus and in the Philomela poems discussed by Tomiche, or the references to Pygmalion in the essays by Sabatier and Boisseau. There is very little use of theory. Hui invokes semiotics and Derrida, Winch contemporary feminist and Orientalist approaches, Moylan Lacan and Zizek—but only briefly. There is no discussion at all of the different meanings and uses of myth, or of the theoretical basis of classical receptions.

Finally, the volume is very sloppily edited and proofread, with many unfortunate errors: the title page mentions "Assistent Editors;" one contributor (Schmidt) does not appear on the list of contributors; Ovid's Tristia is called De Tristibus (71); Leontes' wife in The Winter's Tale is called Paulina, Bassianus in Titus Andronicus Basanius; "their corpora mutate into other forma (131); Lavinia seeks Ovid's Metamorphoses from her cousin Lucius, not his "grammar book" (136); and so forth. The print is small and hard to read, quotations in footnotes run from one page to another quite confusingly (e.g., 52-3), and it is tedious to track down citations through individual footnotes. There is no list of works cited in the volume as a whole or in individual chapters, and the index is quite unsatisfactory, full of omissions. The volume contains no plates despite a number of references to artists' depictions of the stories discussed; for example Pursglove's discussion (121-23) really needs the Piero di Cosimo painting mentioned.

It is hard to understand what audience this volume aims to reach—classicists unacquainted with English literature might find the references useful, but I believe both they and English literature scholars will find the problems and omissions troubling. To anyone in either of these groups interested in the reception of Greek and Roman poetry in English I recommend Brown's book on the Metamorphoses or, for a sampling of classical authors and their reception in contemporary poetry, Harrison's fine collection which includes strong contributions from classicists, English literature scholars, and poets.4

Table of Contents

1. Nora Liassis, "against mighty nature's laws . . . "—The Reception of Myrrha's Tale in Metamorphoses.

2. Per Serritslev Petersem. "Receptions of Ovid's Salmacis-and-Hermaphroditus Metamorphosis from Arthur Golding to Ted Hughes."

3. Ann Higgins, "Love in the Middle English Sir Orfeo: Ovid's Orpheus Transformed."

4. Michael Foster, "The Absent Birds and the Squawking Rabble: Chaucer's Rhetoric of Omission and Consolation in the Book of the Duchess.

5. William Rossiter, "I know where is an hynde": Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Transformation of Actaeon."

6. Armelle Sabatier, "Ovid's Pygmalion and the English Renaissance Poets."

7. Glyn Pursglove, "'As Shafalus to Procus, I to you'" an Ovidian Married Couple amongst the Elizabethan and Victorian Poets."

8. Andrew Hui, "Voice, Writing, and the Ovidian Play of Signs in Titus Andronicus."

9. Laura Boerckler. "George Sandys's 1632 Ovid Translation and the Renaissance Reader."

10. Gary A. Schmidt, "A Double Stranger: Sandys, Ovid, and the New World."

11. Sonja Fielitz, "'Rediscovering' Ovid in the Eighteenth Century: James Thomson's The Seasons."

12. Alison Winch, "Iphis her wish (however wild) obtain'd": Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Sexual Metamorphoses."

13. Eva Antal, " . . . Labour of Love": Transformation of the Ovidian Flower-Figures in William Blake's Songs."

14. Anne Tomiche, "Philomela in American Modernist Poetry (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and John Crowe Ransom)."

15. Maryvonne Boisseau, "Mahon and Ovid: Subtext and Hidden Agenda."

16. Christopher Moylan, "Ovid and Derek Mahon: Poets in Exile."

17. Jennifer R. Young, "Was Niobe Black? Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Sister Trope."


1.  For example, Charles Tomlinson, Poetry and Metamorphosis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Charles Martindale, ed., Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); David Gallagher, Metamorphosis: Transformations of the Body and the Influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the Germanic Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). There are also studies of Ovid and individual authors, such as A. B. Taylor, ed., Shakespeare's Ovid: The Metamorphoses in the Plays and Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
2.  For example, Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun, eds., After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (New York: FSG, 1994), Christopher Martin, ed., Ovid in English (London: Penguin, 1998).
3.  Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphosis of Ovid: from Chaucer to Ted Hughes (London: Duckworth, 1999); David Hopkins, Conversing with Antiquity: English Poets and the Classics, from Shakespeare to Pope (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
4.  Stephen Harrison, ed. Living Classics: Greece and Rome in Contemporary Poetry in English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

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