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Ekphrasis and the Theme of Artistic Failure in Ovid's Metamorphoses

  • Eleanor Winsor Leach (a1)


In his review of the first edition of Brooks Otis's Ovid as an Epic Poet, William Anderson challenges the notion that structural symmetry is the principle that governs Ovid's narrative design. To propose an alternative view of Ovidian aesthetics, he takes for his example the weaving contest of Arachne and Minerva in Book 6. Minerva's tapestry which depicts her own victory in the contest for the naming of Athens is arranged in a completely symmetrical design. The judging gods stand six on either side of Jupiter; the disputants likewise stand on opposite sides. Each corner of the tapestry contains a panel showing the punishment of mortals who in one way or another have challenged the gods, and the whole is framed with an ornamental border of olive leaves. “The goddess,” as Anderson says, “produced a perfect piece of Classicistic art, structurally balanced and thematically grandiose, in support of the established order.” With this monumental and authoritarian piece of work, the tapestry of Minerva's rival Arachne contrasts in every way. It is flagrantly asymmetrical and lifelike:

a swirl of divine figures in unedifying situations … one god after another gratifying his lust for a human woman. There is no apparent structure to the tapestry which consists of nine affairs of Jupiter; six of Neptune; four of Apollo and one each of Liber and Saturn. Juxtaposed as they apparently are, they have a cumulative effect, much as Baroque paintings do by contrast with the neatly arranged masterpieces of Raphael.



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1. A.J.P. 89 (1968) 93–104. Anderson has developed the remarks made in this review into more extensive interpretive comments in his edition, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Books 6–10 (Norman, Oklahoma) 151–171.

2. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, note 1 above, 169, Anderson implies some conclusions by comparing Minerva’s tapestry with “certain surviving examples of Augustan classicistic art,” while he assimilates Arachne’s work more closely to Ovid’s own style by calling it, “freer, more mannered, more dramatic and distorted, less specifically detailed.” He conjectures that Minerva would have won a clear-cut victory in the original version of the contest story and thus Ovid would have “changed the story to produce this ambivalent result.”

3. Bauer, Douglas F., “The Function of Pygmalion in Ovid’s MetamorphosesT.A.P.A. 99 (1962) 1–21, catalogues the figures turned into stone in each book and includes references to statues and the materials of sculpture. The topic is also treated by the authors listed in note 4 below.

4. Laslo, N., “Riflessi d’arte figurata nelle Metamorfosi di Ovidio,” Ephemeris Dacromania 6 (1935) 368–4–40, and Bartholomé, Heinrich, Ovid und die antike Kunst (Leipzig, 1935), are concerned with Greek and Roman art as an “influence” on Ovid’s descriptive style and much of their discussion has to do with specific works of art, although the latter deals with Ovid’s general interest in art as a reflection of his Augustan environment. Grimal, Pierre, “Les Métamorphoses d’ Ovide et la peinture paysagiste à l’époque d’Auguste,” R.E.L. 16 (1938) 145–161, deals more theoretically with parallels between Ovid’s descriptive and atmospheric effects and those of the paintings of his time and speaks of a general tendency towards a kind of naturalism, a point echoed by Christopher Dawson in his extensive study of the paintings, Romano-Campanian Mythological Landscape Painting, Y.C.S. 9 (1944: rep. Rome, 1965) 177: “Ovid is the literary counterpart of the landscape and mythological landscape painters; both are at once the products and creators of the artistic taste of their times.” Herter, H., “Ovids verhältnis zur bildenden Kunst” in Herescu, N. I., ed., Ovidiana: Recherches sur Ovide, Publiées à l’occasion du bimillénaire de la naissance du poète (Paris, 1958) 49–74, concludes that Ovid’s pictorial grasp of “die echte oder die mythische Wirklichkeit” need acknowledge no debt to the visual arts, while H. Bardon, “Ovide et le baroque,” Ouidiana, 74–100, speaks of an imagination that makes the poet’s world tangible to the reader. Viarre, Simone, L’image et la pensée dans les Métamorphoses d’Ovide (Paris, 1964), treats the subject of visual imagination extensively in her first four chapters (1–96), then, after summarizing: “Ovide sculpte des formes et utilise la matière comme un sculpteur; il fait voir les couleurs, des lignes, des paysages dignes d’un peintre; il découpe et monte le film mouvementé de sa vision à la manière d’un cineaste,” she goes on to show how Ovid exceeds the techniques of the visual arts in his portrayal of motion and the dynamic life of nature. See also Menzione, Antonio, Ovidio: Le Metamorfosi: sintesi critica e contributo per una rivalutazione (Turin, 1964) 265–268.

5. Friedlander, P., Johannes von Gaza und Paulus Silentiarus und Procopius von Gaza, Einleitung über die beschreibung von kunstwerken in der antiken literatur (Leipzig, 1912: rep. Hildesheim, 1969) 1–23, discusses the tradition as a series of variations on Homer; Fairbanks, A. W., Introduction to Philostratus Imagines (Cambridge, 1931) xvii–xix, remarks on the intermingling of literary and visual perspectives; Bartholomé, note 4 above, analyses the visual composition of Ovidian ekphraseis with reference to literary models and ancient works of art. Friedlander’s remark that Ovidian ekphraseis have nothing new to contribute to the tradition epitomizes the somewhat negative attitude that scholars have often taken towards this phenomenon. The importance of these passages as a vehicle for serious literary statement has suffered considerable damage from the rather conspicuous function of ekphrasis as ornamental and recreational digression in oratory. See Norden, E., Die antike Kunstprosa (Leipzig, 1909) 285–286; Bonner, S. F., Roman Declamation (Berkeley, 1949) 58–59. Although imitation within the declamatory schools is a token of the admiration with which ekphrasis in poetry was regarded, it should not be taken to indicate that the purposes of the poets and orators were precisely the same. In recent years the best contributions to our understanding of the literary function of ekphrasis have been made within the context of practical criticism (e.g. Putnam, M. C. J., The Poetry of the Aeneid [Cambridge, Mass., 1964] 147–150; Lawall, Gilbert, Theocritus’ Coan Pastorals: A Poetry Book [Cambridge, Mass., 1967] 27–31; Curran, Leo, “Catullus 64 and the Heroic Age,” Y.C.S. 21 [1969] 171–192; Boyle, A. J., “The Meaning of the Aeneid: A Critical Inquiry, Part II: Homo Immemor, Book VI and its Thematic Ramifications,” Ramus 1 [1972] 116–119). Some interesting theoretical points have recently been added by Kurman, George, “Ecphrasis in Epic Poetry,” Comparative Literature 26 (1974) 1–13, who stresses the non-rhetorical elements of the tradition: the link with the theme of creation; the power of art to illustrate history, create life and frustrate time; the similarity between ekphrasis and the epic simile, and its relationship with prophecy. Only his concluding remarks, that ekphraseis may be regarded as “miniature dramas” interjected into the larger frame of the epic poem, seem to me off the point.

6. The similarity between these two kinds of “epic device” has scarcely been given adequate theoretical notice although the modern critic habitually uses the same technique of symbolic interpretation for both. However, Castiglione, L., Studi intorno alle fonte e alle compozione delle Metamorfosi di Ovidio (Pisa, 1906: rep. Rome, 1964) 329–331, does compare the episodes of Arachne, the Pierides and Orpheus with the bard songs of Demodocus in the Odyssey and Orpheus in the Argonautica.

7. Heraclitus, Quaestiones Homericae, excerpted in Dindorf, G. ed., Scholia Graeca in Homeri lliadem, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1877) vol. 4, 187–191.

8. Lawall, Gilbert, “Apollonius’ Argonautica: Jason as Anti-Hero,” Y.C.S. 19 (1966) 154–158. The scenes advise Jason to depend upon the power of the gods; make use of magical charms; rely upon the power of Aphrodite; avoid war and utilize his resources of intelligence and trickery.

9. An extensive analysis of the relationship of the song to its context is given by Segal, C. P., “The Song of Iopas in the Aeneid,” Hermes 99 (1971) 336–349.

10. Frécaut, J. M., “Les transitions dans les Métamorphoses d’Ovide,” R.E.L. 46 (1968) 261–263, observes that the typical situation involves the curiosity of a person who questions, more or less directly, a friend, a host, a passing traveller. Curiosity is often aroused by a chance allusion and the tale-teller is eager to relate to another a marvelous history in which he has participated or which he has witnessed.

11. For the chronological pattern see Pierre Grimal, “La chronologie légendaire des Métamorphoses,” Ovidiana, 245–252; Coleman, R., “Structure and Intention in the Metamorphoses,” C.Q. 65 (1971) 461–476. Grimal, 253, points out that the tales of the Muses and Minerva form a kind of entr’acte: legends looking back to former times, while Coleman remarks on Ovid’s balancing of straightforward chronological progress against “inset patterns,” i.e., groups of stories bound together by thematic associations of similarity or contrast. “In themselves” he observes, “these patterns tend to work against the perpetuitas carminis (continuousness of the song) by marking off an internally close-knit unit.”

12. Viarre, Simone, “Pygmalion et Orphée chez Ovide (Met. X. 243–297)”, R.E.L. 46 (1968) 235–236, observes that the stories from Pygmalion through Adonis trace the history of a family associated with the Cypriot Venus as a vegetation goddess.

13. Although various structural and functional parallels between these stories have often been observed, e.g., Castiglione, note 6 above, 329–331, Grimal, note 11 above, 253–254, they have never been linked as stories of artists. One reason is that the Pierides and Arachne episodes have been taken at their face value as examples of the gods’ righteous punishment of impiety. Thus Otis, Brooks, Ovid as an Epic Poet, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1970) 146, sees the dominant themes of the incidents to be determined by the kinds of stories told in the frames. The tales of the Minyeides, Pierides and Arachne are all examples of human offense and divine ira (the Pierides and Arachne in their “positive impiety, deliberate hybris” offer very serious offenses indeed) while the story of Orpheus is primarily told as a love story. The insert tales in these four episodes do, Otis observes, have something in common. They are all love stories which Ovid inserted primarily for the sake of balancing his amatory theme against the theme of divine anger.

14. The various modes of authorial intervention that M. von Albrecht has discussed in Die Parenthese in Ovids Metamorphoses und ihre dichterische Funktion, Spudasmata 7 (Hildesheim, 1964), give myriad insights into the minds of the characters and the frequently paradoxical nature of the situations, yet betray remarkably little of the author’s own thoughts or purposes. By addressing both reader and character, he creates a direct relationship between them, while he, as it were, steps aside (see also, Otis, note 13 above, 335–338). Thus Otis, quite accurately remarks (343): “Ovid is not to be ticketed on the basis of any one part of the poem. His own identity is as elusive as that of his characters.”

15. E.g., Frécaut, J. M., L’esprit et l’hunor chez Ovide (Grenoble, 1972) 269: “Le charme des M’tamorphoses auquel ont ’t’ sensibles la plupart des lecteurs, consiste dans un style aux mille nuances que ne se plie aux lois d’aucun genre litt’raire, sans être désordonné, dans un jeu aux mille reflets qui ne s’interdit d’aborder aucun des grands thèmes poétiques sans être prétentieux, destructeur ou grotesque.”

16. Quotations are from P. Ovidius Naso Metamorphosen, Haupt, M., ed., 10 Auflage, von Albrecht, M., ed. (Zurich, 1969).

17. Aelian, Varia Historia 3.42. Nicander Book 4 in Liberalis, Antoninus, Metamorphoses 10, ed. Papathomopoulos, M. (Paris, 1968). The description here is ἐκτóπως φιεργοί (10.4–5: unusually devoted to work). In both versions, the sisters are married. Ovid, by making no mention of husbands, puts a stronger emphasis on their similarity to Minerva herself and makes their dedication to the civilized life seem a matter of personal preference rather than duty. In Nicander’s version, Bacchus approaches the sisters in the guise of a young girl and urges them to join in the rites. Ovid makes their defiance less direct.

18. The association between weaving and love stories seems to be borrowed directly from Vergil, G. 4. 333–346, where Cyrene and her nymphs listen to Clymene’s song of the loves of the gods from the beginning of time. From this model, Ovid also takes the suggestion for his inclusion of the adultery of Mars and Venus (G. 4. 345–346: curam . . . inanem/ Volcani, Martisque dolos et dulcia furta; “the barren love of Vulcan, and the wiles and sweet thefts of Mars”). In its context, Clymene’s song contrasts with the unhappy love of Orpheus. Ovid has incorporated the contrast between carefree divine and pathetic mortal love into the structure of the four tales.

19. For various observations on thematic links between the tales see Haupt-von Albrecht, note 16 above, ad v. 36, 199 (erotic-aetiological character of metamorphoses and Asian settings in first and third tales); Pöschl, V., “L’arte narrative di Ovidio nelle Metamorfosi,” Atti del Convegno Internazionale Ovidiano, 2 vols. (Rome, 1959) 2. 295–305 (symbolic shadings of individual tales); Otis, note 13 above (three different types of amatory pathos in first, third and fourth); Segal, Charles P., Landscape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hermes, Einzelschriften 23 (Wiesbaden, 1969) 49–53 (use of landscape in first and fourth).

20. Segal, note 19 above, 50.

21. Castiglione, note 6 above, 362–363, comments on Ovid’s refinement of the story.

22. Callimachus, Hymns 2. 110–112; Lucretius, D.R.N., 1. 117–118; 927; Propertius 3.3.5; 3.1.3.

23. The incident has no known source and the usual conjectures have been made: Pauly-Wissowa vol. 24, 19, s.v. Pyreneus, either a Phocian regional tale or the invention of a Hellenistic poet; Röscher, s.v. Pyreneus, 3345, the lost original must have been a kind of Wielandsage involving the creation of a means of flight. The incident, however, is so perfectly contrived to display the character of the Muses, that there seems no reason at all why Ovid could not have invented it. We can then see in it an inversion of the gracious commerce between the Muses and men to be found in such passages as Hesiod, Theogony 80–97 (the Muses’ counsel to the rulers of men) or Pindar, Olympian 14 (invocation to the Graces of Orchomenos). The only critic who shows any sympathy for Pyreneus’ point of view is Viarrc, note 4 above, 385, who sees the psychological import of the desire for flight as a manifestation of subconscious impulse.

24. Nicander (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 9). This version places the birth of the Heliconian spring at the very moment of this triumph of the Muses.

25. Nicander (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 28) is the oldest extant version, and the myth can perhaps be safely called an obscure one although Porphyry De Abstinentia 3.16 alleges that it was told by Pindar. Gwyn Griffiths, J., “The Flight of the Gods before Typhon: An Unrecognized Myth,” Hermes 88 (1960) 374–376, proposes that it involved an assimilation of the Greek gods to the animal-formed gods of Egypt.

26. Anderson, A.J.P., 102–103, seems to share Heinze’s favorable opinion of the tale, suggesting that Ovid has given it certain literary qualities that make it, on his own terms, deserving of victory, namely, a “desultory, asymetrical structure” similar to “the kind of epic structure which Ovid himself chose for the Metamorphoses.” But Otis, note 13 above, 153–154, noting ironic undercurrents in the tale is not sure that the reader should accept it soberly: “It is rather disconcerting to witness the respectable Muses relating to the respectable Minerva the tale of Pluto’s unpremeditated amor. Ovid, of course, preserves appearances by an epic tone and decorum … but he certainly brings out the humor of the action; the gods who are at such pains to punish criticism are, in fact, only too vulnerable to it. The story of Prosperpina is far more akin to the impious stories of the Pieriae than the somewhat unsophisticated Muses can readily understand.”

27. Menzione, note 4 above, 139: “E un’immagine che potrebbe essere simbolicamente applicata al trascolorante monde fiabesco delle Metamorfosi.”

28. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ad. 6.72.

29. Laslo, note 4 above, 391, calls it a little gallery. The separate events need not necessarily be imagined as run together; the phrase suam faciemque locorum (“the proper appearance of the places”) suggests that each incident had its distinctive background. Ovid is probably thinking of a series of pictures like that in the Odyssey frieze. Suam jaciemque locorum is somewhat suggestive of the language Vitruvius uses to indicate the topographical verisimilitude of the landscape painter’s art (De Architectura 7.5.2: ab certis locormn proprietatibus imagines exprimentes; “forming images in accordance with the peculiar characteristics of places”).

30. Ovid clearly makes the point that the artist’s intentions are at the mercy of his interpreter. The degree of misunderstanding involved may be illuminated by Johnson’s, W. R. remarks on the erotic character of the Metamorphoses,The Problem of the Counter-Classical Sensibility and its Critics,” California Studies in Classical Antiquity 3 (1970) 123–152: “It seems to me not improbable … that the Metamorphoses is an attack on Augustus’ efforts to reform society by means of an artificial religious revival and the imposition of stringent and inhuman moral codes. From this point of view, the Metamorphoses’ beautiful and original treatment of eroticism, so far from being merely another indication of Ovidian shallowness, constitutes a bold and powerful defense of human nature, human dignity and human individuality in the face of ferocious and arbitrary attempts to control human nature and finally to enslave it.”

31. Lafaye, G., Les Métamorphoses d’Ovide et leur modèles grecs (Paris, 1904; rep. Hildesheim, 1971) 102: “ce qu’il aime c’est précisément cette galanterie, dont les auteurs de métamorphoses lui donnaient l’exemple.” Otis’ remark, note 13 above, 153, that Arachne is to be distinguished from Ovid because her intentions are deliberately blasphemous is not very convincing. The subject is also treated by Curran, Leo in “Transformation and Anti-Augustanism in Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Arethusa 5 (1972) 83–84, where Arachne’s work is said to represent Ovid’s Alex-andrianism.

32. The short description of the labyrinth (8. 160–168) constitutes a kind of ekphrasis. In an interesting paragraph, Bartholomé, note 4 above, 79–80, points to a curious contradiction where the error variarum viarum (“wandering of the various paths”, 161) is compared with the windings of the River Meander, something far less complicated than the labyrinth itself. In the light of this comparison he finds it strange that Daedalus should lose himself inside. From another point of view, one might see the craftsman as having transformed a natural model into something fantastic and baffling. Ovid may be thinking of the fact that the Meander pattern, as developed in artistic decoration, is far more contorted than the natural figure from which it takes its name, yet this concept of transformation through complication has its relevance to the general picture of art in the poem. Daedalus’ self-confusion within the labyrinth is a symbolic detail that foreshadows the fatal consequences of his next attempt to imitate nature: the wings. His artistic failure thus falls into the general pattern being unfolded in the poem, but Ovid greatly undercuts the pathos of his story by appending the tale of his jealous murder of his nephew Perdix (8.236–259) directly after the death of Icarus. He is thus not only unable to control the consequences of his art, but also unable to control himself. In the Aeneid, Daedalus’ creation of the temple doors at Cumae (6.14–33) makes him a true artist, and, as A. J. Boyle has observed, note 5 above, 118–119, his history and his failure are closely analogous to Aeneas’ own experience. In the Metamorphoses Daedalus is no more than a craftsman and is far less sympathetic than other artists, perhaps because he has served a king, perhaps because Ovid wishes to undercut the dignity of the Vergilian figure.

33. The significance of the apotheosis is still one of the most controversial points in the poem. Fränkel, Hermann, Ovid: A Poet between Two Worlds (Berkeley, 1945) 211–213, and Wilkinson, L. P., Ovid Recalled (Cambridge, 1953) 193, take the apotheosis quite seriously as a token of man’s triumph over nature and mortality, but Otis, above note 13, 167, 329–330, is unable to find the clear symbolic significance that he would like to see: “[apotheosis] comes as an oddly perfunctory conclusion to his amatory tragedy … how can the gods who caused the suffering now assume an attitude of justice and mercy — no longer amorous and spitefully or rightfully, if mercilessly, avenging but actually benevolent? There is an evident shift of point of view.” In the long run, Otis attributes this ambivalence to Ovid’s own ambivalence towards his heroic subject, his lack of sympathy with the Augustan world, all of which seems to him to create unresolved problems in the poem. More recent studies are putting the case for Ovid’s negativism more strongly. An insight into the peculiarly half-hearted impression given by Ovid’s treatment of apotheosis is supplied indirectly by Wade Stephens’ point in “Two stoic Heroes in the Metamorphoses: Hercules and Ulysses,” Ovidiana, 273–282, that the tradition of Stoic apotheosis as recorded by Cicero involves deification by human gratitude rather than by divine intervention. It is just this nobler, more humane perspective that Ovid excludes, making apotheosis a token of the capriciousness of the gods even in their so-called justice. Thus Galinsky, Karl, “Hercules Ovidianus (Metamorphoses 9. 1–272),” Wiener Studien 85 (1972) 93–116, brings out all the details that undercut the dignity of Hercules’ last moments. This Hercules is the comic strongman, dying in the posture of a banqueter on the pyre. Even as he is en route to join the gods, he denies their existence. After Hercules’ death, the succeeding apotheoses become more and more wooden and comic. Galinsky bolsters this point by remarking on the Vergilian identification of Hercules with Aeneas: another vestige of Augustanism that Ovid attacks through his parody. The case is also put by Coleman, note 11 above, 476: “Caesar’s translation to the heavens, while it links him with Hercules, Aeneas and Romulus, is after all, no more glorious a consummation than had been granted to Callisto and Areas. Deification — astrification — what are these but two more varieties of metamorphosis to be treated with as much or as little suspension of disbelief as the rest?”

34. The tone is aptly interpreted by Segal, Charles in “Ovid’s Orpheus and Ovidian Ideology,” T.A.P.A. 103 (1972) 473–494. While Otis, note 13 above, 351, considers the parody chiefly as an undercutting of Vergil’s Augustanism, Segal regards it as the means to a new and more individualistic characterization.

35. Orpheus creates a grove of trees to shade his mountain-top retreat. Pöschl, note 19 above, 297–298, shows how the trees in Ovid’s catalogue, with their reminiscences of bucolic, epic and elegiac poetry, are an externalization of Orpheus’ poetic identity: a summary of the artist’s career.

36. Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 493, 501, 517, shows that it is possible to fit the stories to the declared theme, but only through careful interpretation.

37. The varied facets of this interassociation have now been illuminated by many critics. See inter al. Fränkel, note 33 above, 96–97; Bauer, note 3 above, 9–21; Otis, note 13 above, 370–372; Anderson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 484–535. Coleman, note 11 above, 466–470, provides a representative summary saying, “Each seems to focus on one or more aspects of the plight of Orpheus himself, the death of a loved one, the punishment of impiety, conversion to homosexuality with its concomitant attribution of depravity to women’s love, and transformations that exhibit a special relationship between life and death.”

38. As Viarre, note 12 above, 239, points out, Pygmalion asks for a wife similis eburnae (276: “like the ivory woman”), while Myrrha declares to her father that she wishes to marry a man similem tibi (364: “like you”), and wishes that her father felt a similis furor (355: “passion like her own”).

39. Viarre, note 12 above, 243–244, points to an association between statues and corpses; the association with Vergil’s gates of the underworld would be very much to the point, and as Bauer, note 4 above, 16, remarks, Ovid uses ebur 6 times in this short tale as if to be sure the reader noticed what the material of the statue was. Anne Amory Parry’s remarks on the association of ivory “with deceptive truth and with Penelope” in the Odyssey, The Gates of Horn and Ivory,” Y.CS. 20 (1966) 3–57, might also be taken into acount.

40. With each critic building upon the remarks of his predecessors, there is a kind of inevitable progression in the interpretations of the story. Hermann Fränkel, note 33 above, 96, associated Pygmalion directly with Ovid as a symbol of “the artistȁs boundless liberty to represent such perfection as nature could never produce.” Bauer, note 3 above, 12–14, developed this idea even further, seeing in the transformation of the statue a paradigm of “the poet’s resurrection of the heritage of antiquity for the benefit of posterity; a miracle of art.” Neither gave much attention to the more obvious and immediate link between Pygmalion and Orpheus which Viarre, note 12 above, 235–246, developed in detail with the indisputable conclusion that “Pygmalion in reanimating the corpse of a loved woman realizes the dream of Orpheus in bringing Eurydice to life.” Segal, note 34 above, synthesizes and reinterprets the observations of all three of his predecessors, understanding the intertwinement of the Pygmalion and Orpheus stories as “a metaphorical reflection of the creative and restorative power of his own [Ovid’s] art” (491). But it is hard to think that Ovid could imagine himself in Pygmalion’s role, begging a goddess to give life to the work he has so proudly created.

41. The most detailed discussion of the sources is in Otis, above note 13, 418–419. Otis himself does not stress the art theme but associates the story with that of Iphis as a “miraculous reward for human love and piety.”

42. Segal, note 34 above, 490–494, regards the entire Orpheus story as a “fairy-tale” that Ovid has made truer and more real than the contemporary myths of Augustan ideology, but this conclusion necessitates one’s reading of the reunion of Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld as a wholly fortuitous event and overlooking the disappearance of Orpheus’ art.

43. One other extensive ekphrastic passage in the poem, the description of the doors of Apollo’s palace (2.1–19), differs from those I have been discussing in that it is a work of divine art, forged by Vulcan, with no piece of human art-work for contrast, and also in that it is not shown in the process of creation. Its debt to the Homeric shield of Achilles and the “Hellenistic” asymmetry by which earth and sea are treated in unequal detail are discussed by Bartholom’, note 4 above, 74–80, who remarks also on its symbolic relationship to the narrative as a foreshadowing of the world that Phaethon will see in his journey and fall. In this context, one may add, its function can be considered ironic. I cannot entirely agree with Herter, note 4 above, 57, that the sculpture has no psychological effect upon Phaethon, even though he does not stop to study it on his way into the palace. The doors present the view of the universe that appears to the minds of the gods, far off, highly systematized, making the course of the sun appear simple with no sense of the perils of the journey. The constellations of the zodiac are neatly arranged, six on each door. The symmetry is unnatural and gives Phaethon no warning of that moment when he will see the great arms and tail of the Scorpion, stretching across the space of three constellations (195–200), the final terror that will cause him to lose all control of the fiery chariot. From the human point of view, the work of divine art presents that same over-exaggerated image of order that characterizes other “official” self-presentations of the gods.

44. Otis, above note 13, 315, sees Marsyas’ tale as the last of the sequence of divine vengeance tales that include the stories of the Pierides, Arachne, and Niobe.

45. The sinister and negative qualities of the Ovidian Circe in Books 13 and 14 are brought out by Segal, C. P. in two papers: “Myth and Philosophy in the Metamorphoses: Ovid’s Augustanism and the Augustan Conclusion of Book XV,” A.J.P. 90 (1969) 269–274; Circean Temptations: Homer, Vergil, Ovid,” T.A.P.A. 99 (1968) 419–442. In his opinion, the “Augustan” themes that begin to develop with Aeneas’ journey towards Italy are seriously undercut by the depiction of Italy as “Circe’s realm of violence and magic.” One might add that Circe in her section of the poem functions as an anti-artist, far more powerful than the true artist Canens, and thus gives the impression that Italy, far more than Greece in the earlier parts of the poem, is a country where natural and supernatural forces are wholly hostile to the fragile strivings of art.

46. The more serious aspects of this piece as a poem about the function of poetry are discussed by Erbst, Helmut, “Dichtkunst und Medezin in Theokrits 11. Idyll,” M.H. 22 (1965) 232–236; Holtsmark, E. B., “Poetry as Self-Enlightenment in Theocritus,” T.A.P.A. 97 (1966) 253–260; Spofford, Edward W., “Theocritus and Polyphemus,” A.J.P. 90 (1969) 22–35; Brooke, Anne, “Theocritus’ Idyll 11: A Study in Pastoral,” Arethusa 4 (1971) 73–82. In observing that “Ovid has converted the light comedy of Theocritus into farce,” Otis, note 13 above, 287, somewhat underestimates the thematic complexity of both poems, but especially Ovid’s total inversion of the Theocritean celebration of art. For such a reversal to take place, it is necessary, as Heinrici. Dörrie, argues, Die Schöne Galatea (Munich, 1968) 54–57, to break the stasis of the Cyclops’ continual and futile illusion by introducing a new figure, Acis, to create through jealousy “einen psychischen Ablauf in die Secle des Kyklopen.” Thus Dörrie very plausibly suggests that Acis must be Ovid’s original invention.

47. Menzione, note 4 above, 159, sees the hyperbolic qualities of the episode clearly: “Polyphemus is no longer the immature young giant of Theocritus’ eleventh Idyll, but the dreadful monster of tradition, his song grotesque and absurdly hyperbolic.”

48. Coleman, note 11 above, 470. Otis, note 13 above, 192–193, also suggests a comparison between the two stories, calling the tale of Midas a story of aesthetic insensitivity: “Pygmalion is the artist rewarded; Midas is the philistine punished or stigmatized; a reverse miracle. The true artist does not want to turn his world into gold.” But of course, metaphorically speaking, the Augustan artist does attempt to turn his world into gold.

49. Asses ears: Aristophanes, Plutos 287; capture of Silenus: Herodotus 8.138; Xenophon, Anabasis 1.2.13; Aelian, Varia Historia 3.18; Cicero, Tusc. 1.48. Hyginus, 191, gives the same two parts to the story as Ovid does, but reverses their order, thus destroying the thematic progression from art to nature so important to Ovid’s tale.

50. Johnson, note 30 above, 142–144. Noting Ovid’s development of the topos in 1.107–115, he observes: “Presiding over the deterioration is Jupiter himself, and under his rule the rest of the poem will unfold, a mirroring of the disintegration of reality, of the illusion of classical order, and of the viciousness of gods and men to man.”

51. The failure of Ovid’s commitment to an “Augustan” purpose in his amatory epic that disturbed Otis so greatly that he considered it a flaw in the poem has been taken up by Segal, note 19 above, 71–94; note 45 above; Coleman, note 11 above; Johnson, note 30 above; Curran, note 31 above. In various ways all these critics argue that Ovid’s deliberate purpose from the very beginning of the poem included the creation of a negative picture of divine authority — as a kind of allegory of human political authority — and of official mythologies. (Little’s, Douglas alternative proposition, “The Non-Augustanism of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Mnemosyne 25 (1972) 389–401, that Ovid was a pleasure seeking poet of Greek fantasy who was simply indifferent to politics, does not take full account of the political consciousness of such episodes as that of Arachne.) In accordance with the several critics who have written on the baroque or mannerist vision of the poem, Bardon, note 4 above, Pöschl, note 19 above, R. Crahay, “La vision poétique d’Ovide et l’esthetique baroque,” Atti del Convegno internazionale ovidiano, Vol. 1, 91–110, and also Viarre, note 4 above, these exponents of Ovid’s anti-Augustanism tend to stress the dynamic and sensuous image of Ovid’s “continuum of nature” as the major creative achievement of the Metamorphoses. Viarre, 357–444, regards the poem as a celebration of the dynamic inter-relationship of nature and man; Segal, 86–88, places particular emphasis on the moral ambivalence of nature; Curran, 82–88, remarks on Ovid’s flaunting of the traditionally Roman desire to keep nature under human control. Johnson’s concluding statement on the literary value of “counter-classical” poems captures the general perspective of these new approaches (150–151): “But if we need poems that celebrate the human spirit and the place of man in the goodness of existence and in the beauty of universal order, we need no less poems that warn of the enemies of that order which are within us and that remind us that great virtues can degenerate greatly. We need, that is, not only a poetry of celebration but a poetry of disenchantment.”

52. For the ira Iovis and the inter-relationship of myth and reality in these stanzas, see Segal, note 45 above, 288–292; Johnson, note 30 above, 147–148. In similar fashion, Hollemin, A. W. J., “Ovidii Metamorphoseon Liber XV 622–870 (Carmen et error),” Latomus 28 (1969) 460, observes, “Ovid aimed at deprecating the legalized immortality of dynasts as contrasted with the true gloria immortalis of free poetry”.

53. This paper was composed during my term as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University, Spring 1974. I wish to express my thanks to Prof. Hayden White, Director of the Center and to Wesleyan University for the highly congenial atmosphere afforded by the Center.

Ekphrasis and the Theme of Artistic Failure in Ovid's Metamorphoses

  • Eleanor Winsor Leach (a1)


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