Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Metamorphoses III (1989): Semele

Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Translated by Charles Boer.
Dunquin Series, 17. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1989. 55-56:


new cause for anger: Semele Pregnant By Jove!
Juno’s tongue ready to curse, but says,
“What good’s cursing? it’s the girl I want!
I’ll kill her or I’m not great Juno
& my hand’s not fit to hold scepter-flash,
& I’m not queen & sister & wife of Jove!
sister at least! think that sneak would be content,
a little damage to our marriage? no! pregnant too!
proclaims crime with big belly; wants to be mother
by Jove! it should happen to me! the nerve of pretty people!
she won’t get away with it: Styx-drowned by Jove himself
or I’m not Juno!”

gets up, hides in yellow cloud, heads
for Semele’s house; keeps cloud on till she resembles
the grey-haired wrinkle-skinned bone-bent
cackling hag, Beroe, Semele’s Epidaurian nurse

a long-winded talker; sighs at mention of Jove:
“I hope it’s Jove; I fear it’s others: many men
enter women’s beds using god-names:
it’s not enough to be ‘Jove’: prove love!
if he’s who he says, demand same as Juno,
as much & as good! make him embrace & take you
with his equipment on!”

so Juno cons Semele: girl asks Jove
a gift without naming it

“Anything!” (Jove); “deny you nothing! Styx-god
my witness! one all gods fear”

pleased with herself & too powerful in love,
about to die for it: Semele: “Do me
the way you do Juno!”

god wants to stop her mouth but she gets it
all out; he groans; no unwishing;
no unswearing; extremely sad, he climbs
sky, drags out obedient clouds, joining
storms & thunderclaps & can’t-miss lightning;
tries, best he can, to control these powers:
does not put on firebolt used on
the polybrach giant Typhoeus – too cruel, that! –
instead: a lighter lightning, Cyclopean-made,
its fire not so bad, not so nasty
(the gods’ ‘second force’)

he takes this & enters Semele’s house: her body,
mortal, can’t stand meteorological banging
& burns in his sexual gifts

Foetus Snatched From Mother’s Womb! sewed carefully
(do you believe this?) into papa’s thigh!
till delivery time; Aunt Ino secretly cradles him,
then presents him to nymphs at Nysa Cave: they hide him,
giving food & milk

on earth, this (& Bacchus born safely twice)

[Gustave Moreau, "Zeus and Semele" (1896)]

Critics on Boer's translation:

Here is an Ovid who looks like the Picasso of the Guernica rather than Poussin. … Charles Boer has reshaped The Metamorphoses in a way Olson, Zukofsky and Pound would have approved of, making us see the poem’s violence, turbulence and angular strangeness.
– Guy Davenport

… this is the authentic Ovid ... this was their rock and roll … There’s no drift in Boer’s Metamorphoses, nothing dull … The atmosphere it produces is close to a haunting.
– William Kotzwinkle

Boer on other translators:

Americans have been well-served in the past thirty years with two modern verse translations of the Metamorphoses (the several British attempts at it by comparison seem pedantic and dull). Between the breezy version of Rolfe Humphries (1955) and the lyrical orchestration of Horace Gregory (1958), the Latin-less reader has heard a fine performance of Ovid’s wit and loveliness. [xiii]

My own associations with Semele come mainly from Handel's 1744 "secular oratorio," which is one of my all-time favourite pieces of choral extravaganza. The libretto is by the dramatist Congreve, but it also includes the famous aria "Wheree'er you walk," taken from Pope's "Pastorals." It's an intensely sensual piece of music, almost too lush and overblown some (not I) would say.

As for Boer's translation, it consists mainly of capitalised headlines and breathless telegraphese. Very few of his speakers seem to employ anything resembling idiomatic English. But, to his credit, it reads exceptionally vividly, and he makes absolutely no attempt to gloss over the tell-all sex and violence of the original. I think it's one of the most exciting complete Metamorphoses in existence, and would definitely recommend it.

I really can't imagine why it's been overshadowed by so many duller versions.


Katherine Dolan said...

Thanks -- definitely going to read this now!

Anonymous said...

Dear Jack Ross,
came to your blog by happy accident, via, it would seem, a search on Moreau, and noticed a few shared interests, not least in Handel's Semele, to which I've only recently come (Grange Park Opera, original instruments). I'm doing something at the moment with the Semele/Zeus or Jupiter narrative as groundwork.

Now I've seen yours, here's mine:


Simon Taylor