Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Maggie Kilgour, Milton and the Metamorphosis of Ovid. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xxiii, 373. ISBN 9780199589432. $135.00.

Reviewed by Erick Ramalho, Shakespeare Studies Centre, Brazil (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is at the end of the review.]

This is a book on Milton's changing modes of reading and reworking Ovid's verse in the setting of the multifarious strands of the reception thereof in early modern England and in the light of Ovid's handling of his own sources. Maggie Kilgour succeeds in arguing that Ovid becomes 'part of the fabric of Milton's thought' (p. 326) chiefly as the book brings out new interpretations with sound textual evidence of Milton's contextualised reading and re-reading (underlying his own literary output) of a multifaceted Ovid. Milton and the Metamorphosis of Ovid, published in the 'Classical Presences' series by the Oxford University Press, is a fine study of Milton and Ovid, mainly because of the way it addresses matters of classical reception in early modern English literature.

The book is divided into four numbered chapters between the introduction and the concluding chapter, along with an epilogue-like section. The Preface lays out the book's scope and method, which are further outlined in the introduction. The focus is on Milton's readings of Ovid also in response to Renaissance literary trends related to his work. The Introduction puts forth noteworthy observations on Ovid's revision of Virgil and how it may bear on the early modern reception of the two poets. It also offers valuable assessment of relevant scholarship on Ovid and Milton. As is made clear from the outset, the book is a study of how the Ovidian presence and influence changes (non-linearly, of course) throughout Milton's work from his earlier to his final writings.

Chapter 1 musters evidence for possible modes by which Milton read and adapted Ovidian material and technique in his early works (rightly including his neo-Latin verse). It considers Milton's appropriation of Ovid in connection with influential kinds of earlier Ovidian reception chiefly by Spenser and Shakespeare. Chapter 2 furthers the examination of Milton's early writings and what there is in them that might be ascribed to his reading of Ovid in relation to kinds of Ovidianism in the Caroline period. In the light of Ovid's poetic working with time in the Fasti in the context of the Augustan political use of the calendar, the chapter puts forth well-argued assumptions about Milton's (likewise historically contextualised) handling of time-related matters in Comus and in his Latin writings.

Both chapters 3 and 4 focus on Paradise Lost and its Ovidian aetiological change of forms in connection with artistic creativity. Chapter 3 deals with sources worked anew, particularly the Miltonic re-working of the Narcissus myth. Beyond his association with Eve in Paradise Lost Narcissus is considered in relation to poetic creativity and the Fall. Chapter 4 examines the Ovidian material underlying the poet's craft of creation in Milton's epic. Kilgour proceeds further with the contrast begun in Chapter 3 between divinely sourced creativity, along with its reliance on the changing of forms, and mere copying, which, fraught with envy, betrays the evil origins of its (un-creative) barrenness. These Miltonic notions are considered in the light of ancient usage in poetry or philosophy of ζῆλος, φθόνος, aemulatio and, above all, nuances of inuidia in Ovid.

The book's conclusion demonstrates a point of its own; namely, that matters of reception may be found in Samson Agonistes (amongst other of Milton's writings published late in his life) and read in relation to Ovid's (self-referential) thoughts on the topic in the verse he wrote in exile. Likewise the book's closing section, aptly titled 'Go Little Book' in the fashion of Chaucer, delves into Milton's Latin ode Ad Joannem Rousium and how it brings out matters of authorial self-representation and future reception in like manner to those in Ovid's work.

Kilgour also handles several kinds of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature as well as instances of Ovid's reception by continental poets like Dante and Petrarch. By reading Milton's Latin verse together with his writing in the vernacular, Kilgour is in agreement with major works in the field like John Hale's Milton's Languages: The Impact of Multilingualism on Style1 and Stella Revard's Milton and the Tangles of Neaera's Hair: The Making of the 1645 Poems.2 Revard's, it is worth recalling, is a study of (amongst other topics) Milton's verse in relation to Renaissance neo-Latin poetry. Whilst 'primarily an exercise in practical criticism' (p. xviii) Kilgour's book is informed, too, by a historical perspective. In this and other aspects it appears to bespeak the influence of Colin Burrow's outstanding book Epic Romance: Homer to Milton.3 Furthermore Milton and the Metamorphosis of Ovid was published in the same year as Estelle Haan's Both English and Latin: Bilingualism and Biculturalism in Milton's Neo-Latin Writings.4 The reader will profit from Kilgour's and Haan's respective analyses, for example, of Ovid's presence in Milton's Elegia Quarta.5

Kilgour's book is written in a crisp and lively style that tallies with its reader-friendliness. The Latin-less reader is aided by translations in brackets after every Latin or neo-Latin quotation. Greek prose is quoted in translation only, and Hesiod's original verse-lines are not provided in quoting (in prose translation) from Works and Days (p. 235). I have spotted but a few misprints in the whole book: on p. 65 for 'gives him the chance him to reflect' read 'gives him the chance to reflect'; on p. 114 n. 49 for 'between two works' read 'between the two works'; and in Ars Amatoria 1.663 quoted on p. 220, for 'osucla' read 'oscula'. In the Index, for 197 n. 96 read 197 n. 95 (in De Doctrina Christiana); for 187 n. 64 read 187 n. 63 and for 213 n. 131 read 213 n. 130 (both in 'Du Bartas').

The book is in sum a skilfully woven work of criticism without a thread awry in its scholarly fabric. Book-length studies of a like kind, and also of Latin and Greek works little attended to in Milton scholarship, would be most welcome.

Table of Contents

Note on Editions
Introduction: Milton and the Renaissance Ovids
Milton's Ovidian art
Some other Renaissance Ovids
Ovid and Virgil
Beyond the Metamorphoses
Portrait of the artist as a young devil
Chapter 1: Choosing Ovids (1)
Mastering the arts of allusion
First flowers
Comus and the Translatio Ovidii
Chapter 2: Choosing Ovids (2)
More Ovids
Rereading Ovid's rapes
Poet of the year
It's about time
Milton and the passing of time
Masquing revolution
Chapter 3: Reflections of Narcissus
Forms of change
Ovid's original
Renaissance Narcissi
Milton's original copy
Falling, in love
Chapter 4: Self-Consuming Artists
Milton Narcissus
Envy and emulation
Ovidian invidia
Milton and the arts of envy
Falling poets
Sin and her originals
Conclusion: Last Words
The once and future Milton
Ovid's bad readers
The author as reader
The anxiety of reception
Reading Samson Agonistes
A phoenix too frequent
'The last of me or no I cannot warrant'
Go Little Book


1.   John K. Hale, Milton's Languages: The Impact of Multilingualism on Style (Cambridge, 1997).
2.   Stella P. Revard, Milton and the Tangles of Neaera's Hair: The Making of the 1645 Poems (Columbia and London, 1997).
3.   Colin Burrow, Epic Romance: Homer to Milton (Oxford, 1993).
4.   Estelle Haan, Both English and Latin: Bilingualism and Biculturalism in Milton's Neo-Latin Writings (Philadelphia, 2012).
5.   See respectively Kilgour (Milton and the Metamorphosis of Ovid, 51–54) and Haan (Both English and Latin, 62–5).

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