Friday, May 01, 2009

Metamorphosis

I've just started reading An Imaginary Life by David Malouf- a short novel, told from the perspective of the Roman poet Ovid, in exile at Tomis on the Black Sea.

I was struck by this passage I read on my way to school the other day:

...the stone sleeping in the sun has once been molten fire and became stone when the fire was able to say, in its liquid form: "I would be solid, I would be stone"; and the stone dreams now that the veins of ore in its nature might become liquid again and move , but within its shape as stone, so that slowly, through long centuries of aching for such a condition, for softness, for a pulse, it feels one day that the transformation has begun to occur; the veins loosen and flow, the clay relaxes, the stone, through long ages of imagining some further life, discovers eyes, a mouth, legs to leap with, and is toad.

Vivid descriptions of transformations are of course one of Ovid's strengths. Here are two of my favourites- the statue Galatea, crafted by Pygmalion, coming alive, and Daphne, pursued by Apollo, becoming a laurel tree:

vix prece finita torpor gravis occupat artus,
mollia cinguntur tenui praecordia libro,
in frondem crines, in ramos bracchia crescunt,
pes modo tam velox pigris radicibus haeret,
ora cacumen habet: remanet nitor unus in illa.
Hanc quoque Phoebus amat positaque in stipite dextra
sentit adhuc trepidare novo sub cortice pectus
complexusque suis ramos ut membra lacertis

oscula dat ligno; refugit tamen oscula lignum.

Scarcely had Daphne finished her prayer, when a heavy slowness seized her limbs, her soft breast is embraced by thin bark, her hair grows into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet, just now so speedy, stick fast with sluggish roots, the canopy hides her face: only her shining beauty remains unchanged. Apollo loves her still, and placing his right hand on her trunk, he feels her heart still trembling beneath the new bark, and he embraces her branches with his arms, as if they were really limbs, and kisses her woody trunk; yet even as a tree she shrinks from his kisses!

(Metamorphoses I.548-556)

ut rediit, simulacra suae petit ille puellae
incumbensque toro dedit oscula: visa tepere est;
admovet os iterum, manibus quoque pectora temptat:
temptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore
subsidit digitis ceditque, ut Hymettia sole
cera remollescit tractataque pollice multas
flectitur in facies ipsoque fit utilis usu.
dum stupet et dubie gaudet fallique veretur,
rursus amans rursusque manu sua vota retractat.
corpus erat! saliunt temptatae pollice venae.

When Pygmalion returned, he made for the statue of his girl and, lying on the couch, began to kiss her: she seemed to be warm; again he brings his mouth near, and he also tries her breasts with his hands: the ivory softens as it is touched and having lost its hardness gives way beneath his fingers and yields, just as Hymettian wax softens in the sun and, kneaded by the thumb, is moulded into many shapes, and becomes usable by being used. While he gapes in amazement and doubtfully rejoices and fears that he is deceived, the lover strokes the answer to his prayer again and again with his hand. She was flesh! As he touches them, the veins throb beneath his thumb.
(Metamorphoses X.280-289)

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7 comments:

Mike Salter said...

That second passage (the Pygmalion one) I'll be doing with my Year 11s in about five weeks' time. It's a really beautiful story, brilliantly told (one of the things I love about it is how Ovid switches the gender of the adjectives describing the "ebur"/"puella" between neuter and feminine throughout...even in the bit you've quoted, there's 'visA tepere est' followed 'temptatUM mollescit ebur').

sarah s said...

Hey Joel, i thought you might like this since you are always talking about that thesaurosaurus comic that you saw

http://www.snorgtees.com/thesaurus-p-543.html?osCsid=d8c863046f333dad188bb3a669aea47a

also you might have fun times with this comic
http://www.qwantz.com/archive/001453.html

and i have seen a good one about your favourite movie The Princess Bride but it has rude words in it so i won't share that

i hope all is well with you and your class!

Anonymous said...

congratulations mr morrisen! =]

Anonymous said...

Just in case it's gone by the time you get back to school --

Congratulationes tibi damus, magister (senex)!!!-- odi et odi 12 Latin '08

Mike Salter said...

...congratulations mr morrisen! =]...

I take it from this that the happy day has arrived JM...congratulations and all the best to the three of you!

jm said...

thank you all for your kind thoughts. both meredith and jemima are healthy, and the three of us are enjoying adjusting to new life as a family.

jm said...

sarah, thanks for both those links. The dinosaur comic one was particularly hilarious.