I'm currently reading a collection of essays by Thea Selliaas Thorsen, classical scholar at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Norway's foremost translator of Ovid. The collection contains fifty very short essays on selected pieces from literary history, with an emphasis on the classical heritage. Its title, Kom ikke uten begjær (come not without desire), is taken from an epigram by Paul Valéry. This book is an illuminating and entertaining collection, and to me as a medievalist not as well-versed in the classical literature, it is highly educational. And it also serves as a good reminder of how resilient past texts are even into our modern age.
This latter issue is something that has been on my mind ever since I took a course in Latin poetry in 2012, a course taught by Thea. During that term I started to reflect on the numerous allusions to Ovid - and other classical poets - in works by modern poets whom I had discovered at university and was by then consuming avidly. By reading Thea's essays, a great number of which feature Ovid in some capacity, I was again brought back to this topic, and I was reminded that I have wanted to write something about this for years now. So when I serendipitously opened one of Derek Walcott's early collections and found a sequence of poems titled Metamorphoses after Ovid's magnum opus, I wanted to share it here. In addition to an exctract from Walcott's sequence, I also present an extract from the similarly-titled sequence of poems by Geoffrey Hill.
From Metamorphoses, by Derek Walcott
I - Moon
Resisting poetry I am becoming a poem.
O lolling Orphic head silently howling,
my own head rises from its surf of cloud.
Slowly my body grows a single sound,
slowly I become
an oval, disembodied vowel,
I grow, an owl,
an aureole, white fire.
I watch the moonstruck image of the moon burn,
a candle mesmerized by its own aura,
my hot congealing face, towards that forked mountain
which wedges the drowned singer.
That frozen glare,
that morsured, classic petrification.
Haven't you sworn off such poems for this year,
and no more on the moon?
Why are you gripped by demons of inaction?
Whose silence shrieks so soon?
- From The Gulf, 1969
Apollo and Daphne, from Ovid's Metamorphoses
Antonio del Pollaiolo, probably 1470-80, National Gallery, London
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)
From Metamorphoses, by Geoffrey Hill
3 The re-birth of Venus
And now the sea-scoured temptress, having failed
To scoop out of horizons what birds herald:
Tufts of fresh soil: shakes off an entire sea,
Though not as the dove, harried. Rather, she,
A shark hurricaned to estuary-water,
(The lesser hunter almost by a greater
Devoured) but unflurried, lies, approaches all
Stayers, and searches of the fanged pool.
4 Drake's drum
Those varied dead. The undiscerning sea
Shelves and dissolves their flesh as it burns spray
Who do not shriek like gulls nor dolphins ride
Crouched under spume to England's erect side
Though there a soaked sleeve lolls or shoe patrols
Tide-padded thick shallows, squats in choked pools
Neither our designed wreaths nor used words
Sink to their melted ears and melted hearts.
- From For the Unfallen, 1959