Metamorphoses by Ovid

A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books

The Royal Ballet in Trespass, from Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 - a  collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery, London. Photograph: Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

The Royal Ballet in Trespass, from Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 - a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery, London. Photograph: Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

 

The Metamorphoses is introduced in my Penguin edition as Ovid’s “epic work on change”. One wonders, reading it, how writing could ever be about anything else. And perhaps, one realises, it never is.

All there is, is change; constant silent, murmuring or thunderous change, happening always, as hairs grey and clocks tick. Even as I reread the tales in my bed, reread the creation of the world, the other flood, the young women bathing in streams and the overwhelming lust – their own and that of the men and gods around them – that transforms them into birds and trees, I notice, finally looking up, that the new shoot of my jasmine plant has, in that time, lengthened and curved. Even it is constantly metamorphosing.

The paradoxical fact of change being our only constant is, in fact, precisely what Ovid is reminding us of, in this, his “totally unexpected masterpiece”. Even writing or art that glorifies the capturing of a passing moment, a view or a town unspoilt, still life with fruit or Monet’s haystacks in every weather – even these acknowledge, by celebrating this quality of stillness, the inevitability of change: change of the subject, or the artist, who will move, leave, age and die, or the reader or viewer, who will also age, and also die.

There’s nothing to life, Ovid’s masterpiece reminds us, repeatedly, but indifferent, glorious or terrible change – change until the end (and even then, we’ll scatter, sink or rot).

Yet the collection of tales here, told across one long, interlinking poem, has proved, in spite of its content, utterly impervious to the passing of time, remaining, perhaps over and above any other ancient literature, as exciting and engaging today as it must’ve been then.

This is electric writing – writing that startles one into remembering all that words can do. In my limited reading experience, it’s comparable only to the Bible, in its range and breadth.

The Odyssey (never mind Ulysses) is a damp squib taken against the earnest beauty and pathos, the humour and perversion, of the Metamorphoses.

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