Friday, March 30, 2012


Edward J. Kenney (ed.), Gioachino Chiarini, (trans.), Ovidio Metamorfosi. Volume IV. Libri VII-IX. Scrittori greci e latini. Roma; Milano: Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2011. Pp. lxxii + 484. ISBN 9788804604242. €30.00.

Reviewed by Joseph B. Solodow, Southern Connecticut State University;Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site

Following three other volumes in the same series—Books I-II, by Barchiesi (2005), III-IV, by Barchiesi and Rosati (2007), V-VI, by Rosati (2009)—the present volume, though similar in many respects, yet differs from them conspicuously. The format is the same, naturally, and this commentary too explicates the course of the narrative, with all its turnings, as well as the nuances of the language, and it illuminates no less thoroughly the backgrounds to the poem, whether literary, historical, mythological, material, or cultural. But this introduction, though rich with insight, lies more within the tradition of belles lettres than the others do, a tendency rare and perhaps refreshing in our hard-charging, theory-driven times. And whereas the earlier volumes ignored the grammar of the Latin, leaving it to be elucidated by the facing-page Italian translation, this commentary often does explain it. Moreover, it is not only less informative in one important regard, but also somewhat less exciting in its interpretative stance (see my unrepentantly enthusiastic review of the preceding volume, by Rosati, in CR 61 (2011) 133- 36). Nonetheless, on these three central books of the the Metamorphoses no more valuable commentary exists: this is now unquestionably the authoritative edition, and for sound reasons it will long remain so.

Conforming to the plan adopted for this set, Kenney's edition is based on the Oxford Classical Text of Tarrant (2004). The forty places where he differs are conveniently listed. He is less inclined than Tarrant to expel verses as interpolations, and perhaps I may be permitted here simply to state my opinion that on the whole Kenney's text represents an improvement. Five of the differing readings are his own innovations.1 The texts of those passages and many another he discusses with concision, understanding, and enlightenment. Kenney confines a few further suggestions of his own (on 7.195, 7.535, 8.411-13, 9.396, 9.756) to the apparatus criticus, from which, furthermore, the neophyte reader will learn to appreciate the immense contribution to the text made by Nicolaus Heinsius: his name appears there more often than those of all other scholars combined.

The Introduction is a rapid and elegant survey of the poem's key characteristics, of a sort that only a scholar deeply familiar with Ovid could produce. (Kenney's first published work on the poet stretches back more than a half century; the bibliography here cites twenty items by him that are devoted to Ovid, and they are not all. And perhaps for the first time in this long career his given name peeps out from behind "E. J.") The Introduction spotlights Ovid's intertextual play, the correspondence between the variety of his material and the variety of his treatments thereof, the prominence given to the feminine, the centrality of the narrator, to whom even the gods are secondary, and, briefly, some leading features of Ovid's language and style. With appropriate nuance, persuasively, and movingly, Kenney defines the poem as an epic of the human spirit—a view which would render it more nearly universal than the Aeneid. In this connection, the speech of Pythagoras, which opens the final book and has long been an object of critical controversy, he interprets as detailing the most extreme test of the soul—its very destruction. (But is any soul there recorded as reacting to its own metamorphosis in any way?) The Introduction is illuminated, like the commentary, by apt references to other writers, not only our own classics, like Shakespeare, Dryden, Defoe, Sheridan, Trollope, and Kipling, but also Lewis Carroll and P. G. Wodehouse, Camus and Nabokov. The editor is truly a man of letters.

The commentary is bound to be the most interesting and valuable part of the volume. It addresses surely the questions readers would want answered—and translates the many quotations from Greek and Latin—and it provides them and scholars alike with scores of revealing observations and unexpected insights. About nempe at 7.53, Kenney points out the particle's relative frequency in Ovid—found 35 times: in Virgil just once—and suggests a good explanation thereof. The setting for Jason's confrontation with the fire-breathing bulls (7.101-03) is said to resemble the Circus Maximus, with Aeëtes presiding over games like an empurpled emperor. In recounting the plague at Aegina, Ovid switches abruptly from the pluperfect tense to the present, tristes penetrant ad viscera morbi (7.601): Kenney likens this to a marginal note on a patient's chart, implying, I take it, the intrusion of the narrator into the text. The long description of Hercules's final torments is momentarily interrupted by the phrase nec modus est (9.172), which declares the hero's agonies to be unending—and which, Kenney suggests, may also be a metapoetic reference to the possible weariness of the reader. Original comments like these invite us to a profound enjoyment of the poem.

On the one hand, unlike his predecessors in the set, Kenney often pauses to explain the grammar of the Latin. He reminds us that utrum is sometimes omitted in the first half of an alternative question, that the infinitive is a neuter noun, that here we have a dative of purpose, there the ab urbe condita construction. Some philological notes, to be sure, broaden into valuable general observations, such as those about the avoidance of unelided atque in elegy (7.535) or an idiomatic use of et to express bitter incredulity (9.203). Nonetheless, the grammatical notes might nearly all have been dispensed with; so too the oft-repeated remarks about the (illusory) nuances of -que ("but," "because," ...) or about golden lines or, worse, lines that are nearly golden. Nec modus est. On the other hand, the introduction to Book VIII merely mentions the especially dramatic alternations in tone and style, announces the existence of thematic connections among the stories, and refers to Ovid's ways of weaving the stories together. Kenney endorses the views of other scholars on these significant topics, but, unfortunately, refuses to share them with the reader. Yet the reader would greatly value a summary of what Hutchinson, Crabbe, and Tsitsiou-Chelidoni, respectively, have to say about these matters. The introductions to VII and IX are similarly skimpy. The grammatical explanations ought to have been jettisoned, so that this type of interpretative material could be taken on board, not merely listed on the manifest. Let me make it clear, nonetheless, that Kenney's line-by-line exegesis of the poem can scarcely be bettered.

For Book VIII we possess a plethora of commentaries, comparisons among which illuminate the particular qualities of the one under review. At 8.251-59 Ovid describes Perdix's metamorphosis into the partridge. Hollis's commentary (1970—the 1983 reprint merely adds a page of addenda) emphasizes literary history here: the passage, it says, reflects the tradition of the Greek Ornithogonia, which typically stresses both the intervention of a god, often provoked by pity for unjust suffering, and the bird's retention of the person's name after metamorphosis. Bömer (1977) offers comments about individual phrases and their placement in the verse (for example, at illum at the end of 251) and about the technical terms of metamorphosis, like abire in. Kenney is more prone to literary observation and literary interpretation. He notes the suspenseful, dramatic effect of at illum and points out the ironic contrast between the artificial wings that destroy Daedalus's son Icarus and the real wings with which Minerva rescues Daedalus's victim Perdix, a contrast invited by the repetition of excipere.

The story immediately following is the Calydonian boar hunt and its aftermath, which confronts critics with the problem of wildly varying genres and styles. Hollis identifies in his introduction a different style in each of the three parts: the boar hunt is epic; the dilemma of Meleager's mother Althaea, tragic; the metamorphosis of Meleager's sisters, "whimsically Alexandrian" and "comic." Bömer is somewhat more sophisticated, and Kenney in turn defers to his exhaustive account of the sources of the story, the variants, and, surprisingly, even Ovid's treatment. Yet the comments he adds, though brief, are subtle. He stresses the boar hunt's quality as an "epicizing tour de force" (a refined formulation), which transfers the themes of battle to the hunt, and thereby strips away all traces of epic dignity, turning the hunt into uproarious farce. The transition to the sharply contrasting passage that follows is gradual, he points out. He rejects the description of the metamorphosis as "comic."

Not every shaft hurled hits its target, of course. Of a phrase from the Perdix story, ingenii quondam velocis (8.254), Kenney says that quondam has nearly adjectival force: is it not, rather, simply an adverb modifying velocis, "his formerly quick spirit"? In the second verse following, non tamen haec alte volucris sua corpora tollit, he explicates tamen as "despite knowing how to fly" and claims that volucris serves as the protasis of a conditional sentence; presumably, therefore, he would translate it "if [although?] a bird [and thus capable of flight], nevertheless [tamen proleptic: see OLD s.v. 4] it does not raise its body aloft." Chiarini, however, renders the verse "Quest'uccello non riesce a sollevare il corpo di molto," which is less tortuous and completely correct.

One can always uncover omissions, of varying significance—all the more readily in a commentary upon an author who has been the object of such very intense, fruitful scrutiny during recent decades. The epic motif of the the dead or wounded hero carried off the battlefield by his companions might have been noted at 8.361; Hollis notes it. Certain chronological inconsistencies, such as arise at 8.403 and 9.198, might have been pointed out, and their presence explained, by reference to Cole's illuminating Ovidius Mythistoricus: Legendary Time in the Metamorphoses (2008), p. 55.2 The singular nature of Ovid's contrary-to-fact sentences, instances of which are found at 7.350-51, 8.365-68, 8.376-77, and 9.666-68, might have been indicated, with reference to The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1988), pp. 45-46, 57-60. That Hercules' labors, plus four parerga, are merely catalogued by himself and not recounted (9.182-198) is in line with the poem's strong tendency to refer obliquely or summarily to well-known episodes from mythology and to employ characters rather than the authorial narrator to refer to them; this might have been stated for the reader's benefit. The association repeatedly made between Erysicthon and fire (ardor 8.828, incensa 829, flamma 846, the simile at 837-39) is probably a learned allusion to the name Aethon, which he bears in the pseudo-Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, frag. 43a.5 M.-W. There are very few references to the thematic links between stories.And so on.

Nonetheless, this is an outstanding commentary by one of our pre-eminent scholars of Latin poetry, and accordingly we welcome the news that Cambridge University Press is planning to publish the entire Fondazione Valla set of the Metamorphoses in English.


1.   At 7.430 and 7.504 the spellings Erectheidis and Achaeidos do seem better. Replacing harenas with harenis at 7.267 is an unmistakable gain: the sands of the shore are now the source of the magical ingredient (pearls), not the magical ingredient itself, and pearls from the East now are neatly contrasted with those from the West. By reading suoque at 9.771 Kenney removes an un-Ovidian inconcinnity. At 8.56- 57 the exchange of vinci and multis does not alter the meaning, but it does prevent the sentence from ending lamely and is strongly supported by the word order in the other passages the editor cites.
2.   It is evident that the gestation of this volume was exceptionally long. Though not published until 2011, the Introduction was written ten years earlier (p. xxxiii, n. 1). Still, several later items were taken into account, not, however, Cole's book nor the article that paved the way for it, in HSCP 102 (2004).

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