Elaine Fantham
Ovid's Metamorphoses

At Alexandria, Theocritus wrote pastoral and urban poetry in hexameters; Apollonius composed his epic voyage of the Argonauts, an epic colored by the legacy of Euripidean tragedy as well as Homer; and others, such as Aratus and Nicander, produced didactic poems on astronomy, medicine, and botany. The most versatile of these learned cosmopolitan ports was Callimachus, who adapted elegiac couplets to retelling stories of city foundations and the origins of names and customs from all over Greece, freely choosing and changing his versions of other men's myths. Although Callimachus also wrote personal epigrams of love, friendship, and criticism, he was most influential for his less personal elegy, in which detachment, allusiveness. and variety of tone and pace together constituted a distinctive idiom. He also wrote at least one short narrative in hexameters, the Hecale, which countered epic content—the hero Theseus setting out to fight the monstrous bull of Marathon, and the establishment of an Athenian festival—with the calculated simplicity of Hecale's hospitality to the hero when he was forced to shelter from the storm in her hut.

Two generations before Ovid, Catullus and his friends adopted Callimachean principles, translating some of his poetry and imitating his techniques in a new kind of hexameter poem. Only Catullus 64 survives, celebrating the wedding of Peleus and Thetis with the embedded internal narrative of Ariadne abandoned on Naxos. His friend Cinna composed a miniature epic on Myrrha's incestuous passion, and Calvus told the story of Io's rape by Jupiter. (The short epic called Ciris, on Scylla's criminal passion for Minos, seems to be dependent on Ovid.) Other miniature epics (of unknown authorship) reflect the influence of Hecale, such as Culex, the pathetic tale of the gnat crushed when he saved a shepherd from a deadly snake, and Morelum, a realistic portrait of a peasant rising to light his fire and prepare his lunch. By the time Virgil composed the sixth Eclogue, the song he created for Silenus shows that the poet knew or could imagine almost every kind of poetry in hexameters, from cosmogony, to erotic myth, to tales of metamorphosis, and poems celebrating che artistic succession handed down from Orpheus and Hesiod to Virgil's older friend Gallus.

Ovid's own career brought him to narrative hexameter poetry after more than twenty years as a successful composer of love elegy, first 'autobiographical,' then mythical and even didactic. Didactic poetry was normally composed in hexameters (like Lucrctius's On Nature and Virgil's Georgics), but Ovid had continued to use elegiac verse for his three books of instruction to lovers and one professing to provide remedies for love. He even composed a tragedy, the Medea, Ovid may also have begun his new elegiac sequence called Fasti, which celebrated the festivals and myths of the Roman calendar, soon after he embarked on the Metamorphoses. Familiarity with the ideals of Callimachus had encouraged Roman poets to fuse different types of narrative and levels of seriousness within single works or collections, until, like the menus of cosmopolitan cuisine, the diet stimulated the reader with the piquancy of the hybrid and the unexpected.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.