Ovid’s poetic legacy: a journey

From John Keats to Bob Dylan, Ovid's images of metamorphosis transform from generation to generation.

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An illustration of a scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Homer told the tale of Achilles and his wrath; Virgil sang of arms and of men. Bestowing a new existential purpose upon the epic genre, and through continual narrative vividly portrays the movements running throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses veers away from the familiar realm of the battlefield, once so essential in identifying epic as the poetry of war. Instead, the Roman poet is preoccupied with the form of storytelling itself, with his tales: his is an epic of art, and art that emerges from metamorphoses.

Even the construction of Ovid’s epic reflects metamorphosis. Made up of 15 books, each one ends with a transformation, flowing naturally into the next. Ovid sets up a harmonious balance between the cyclical nature of the cosmos and the linear timeline of history so that the two spheres coexist as the backdrop for his investigation of humanity. The Metamorphoses starts with the origins of the world born out of chaos, allowing the reader to see myths of antiquity through Ovid’s eyes as they navigate through time up until the poet’s present day. Ovid refers to his poem as an all-encompassing “carmen”, or song, for the nature of mankind, evolving continuously as the poet himself assumes different personae.

Ovid embodies a prolific poetic imagination that has enthralled the minds of modern poets and Renaissance artists alike. They subsequently strove to emulate his remarkably self-conscious approach to the creation of art, something so modern in sensibility. In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Romantic poet Keats alludes to the Ovidian retelling of myths, harking back to Philomela and her metamorphosis into a nightingale. Bob Dylan is another modern bard following in Ovid’s footsteps, inviting us to “dance to the nightingale tune” in his song ‘Jokerman’. By reworking the ideas of the Roman poet, these two descendants carry on a literary tradition established millennia ago. The animal itself becomes symbolic for movement and transformation. Keats, Dylan, and Ovid all share a desire to achieve that same level of raw truth first encapsulated by Homer. And so, just as the nightingale’s song is passed down through centuries, thus the songbird of poetry is immortalised through generations of reincarnation.

The metamorphosis of Ovid’s poetry has ensured its legacy, as prophesied in his own words: “I shall live through the ages.” Like the phoenix rising from the ashes in the final book, Ovid’s spirit is reborn every time a new bard reinterprets his words.

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