The Enduring Spirit of the Metamorphoses

The Enduring Spirit of the Metamorphoses

Joe Kenelm discusses the character of Ovid’s epic and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne.

Ariadne is jolted from her anguished vigil. Abandoned in her sleep, she could only watch as the ship of her beloved Theseus sailed away from the shores of Naxos, and towards the horizon. Suddenly she hears the noises of drunken merriment: shouts and songs, the clashes of cymbals, and ring of tambourines. She turns: a beautiful boy, a garland of grape leaves about his long tresses, throws himself from his chariot towards her. Their eyes meet.

In the Metamorphoses, from which Titian draws his subject, Ovid describes how Bacchus removes the crown from Ariadne’s forehead and casts it skyward. It whirls through the air:

 

During its flight the gems were changed into brilliant fires,

Coming to rest once more in the shape of a jewelled circlet

Between the Kneeler and bright Ophiúcus

 

Wondrously eternalising the mortal Ariadne, Titian depicts the stars of the circlet twinkling upon a rich blue sky. The painting a fitting tribute to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in more than just subject: it encapsulates the very spirit of the poem.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a startling collection of hundreds of stories — a fantastically imaginative and ambitious project, weaving together the diverse bodies of Greek and Latin mythology with the theme of changes of form:

 

Inspire me, O gods. (it is you who have even transformed my art), and

spin me a thread from the world’s beginning

down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

 

Ovid’s parenthetical claim is nothing if not bold, and this unflinching literary confidence is sustained through much of the poem’s 12,000 lines of verse. Indeed, Princeton classicist Denis Feeney points out that by modern sensibilities, the Metamorphoses can be construed as decadent; Feeney quotes literary critic John Bayley’s description of ‘an artist who, while not necessarily corrupt or cruel, sensational or over-ingenious, is liable to make such an impression, in his evident wish to secure certain sorts of novel or striking effect.’

Here, Bayley is actually describing Nabokov; yet in Ovid’s description of Pentheus’s slow dismantling, the words might just as easily apply to the Metamorphoses. His right arm wrenched off by Autonoë, his left by Ino—with ‘no more arms to extend to his mother’, all he can show are the ‘wounded stumps of his sundered limbs’, supplicating to her maternal pity:

 

She stared at him, uttered

A wild shriek, violently shaking her neck and tossing hair,

Then twisted his head right off.

 

It is a brutal episode, but it does not seem needless or indulgent. It conveys instead the dumb savagery of Bacchanalian excess, the maniacal frenzy of the maenad mob.

Metamorphoses, however, does not have great moralistic resonance. The message, if anything, seems to be that ‘transmogrifications in the stuff of life’ –in Ted Hughes’s words – are inevitable: life and death themselves are just metamorphoses in this conception of ceaseless change.

And yet, like Ariadne’s jewelled circlet in the sky, a celestial fixity underpins the poem. In book ten, Ovid presents the tale of Pygmalion’s beloved ivory statue. As the marble gradually loses its hardness, ‘softening, sinking, yielding beneath his sensitive fingers’, cold stone becomes warm, living flesh. It is an exquisite moment that recognises the vitality of art, a testament to the possibilities of the human imagination. The final word of Metamorphoses is ‘vivam’—I will live. Ovid, finally, asserts the immortalising power of poetry.

To return to Titian’s picture, Bacchus’s awkward, adoring lurch momentarily upsends his robe. Just for an instant, it flutters delightedly against the glorious backdrop, pink upon blue. It is a wonderful parallel to the look that passes between Bacchus and Ariadne: dazzlingly beautiful—fleeting and, somehow, undoubtedly lasting. This is Titian’s masterpiece. Yet the spirit could not be more Ovidian.

Featured Image: Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3 by Titian.