Monday, July 09, 2007

Metamorphoses II (1993): The Crow

[The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A New Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993. 60-61.]

"My father was a king, the famed Coroneus
of Phocis; and I was a lovely princess
with many suitors (do not laugh at this!).
My beauty was my ruin. For, in fact,
while I was walking on the shoreline sands,
as I still do, the sea-god saw me and
grew hot with love; his pleas and honeyed words
were useless; he made ready to use force.
He chased me; as I ran, I left behind
the hard-packed sands and staggered wearily
along the soft and yielding shore -- in vain;
then I invoked both gods and men. My voice
could reach no mortal. But, a virgin, I
did stir the virgin goddess with my plea.
And as I stretched my arms out toward the sky,
they started to grow darker, sprouting feathers.
I tried to free my shoulder, flinging off
my robe; but it, too, had become a cloak
of feathers, rooted deeply in my skin.
I tried to beat my bared breast with my hands:
but I, by now, had neither hands nor breast.
I ran, but now my feet no longer sank
into the sands; I skimmed along the ground,
then I flew off, on high, into the sky:
there I was taken by Minerva as
her stainless, blameless comrade.

But by now
to what does all my serving her amount?
I am supplanted by Nyctimene,
one who became an owl because of her
outrageous sin. Have you not heard men speak
of what is known to all of Lesbos -- how
Nyctimene defiled her father's bed?
And as a bird, yet conscious of her crime,
she flees men's eyes and flees the light: she hides
for shame among the shadows; she has been
cast out by all and exiled from the sky."

The crow is flying along with the raven, Phoebus Apollo's bird, who is anxious to tell his master about his mistress Coronis' adultery. They're gossiping to pass the time away. The number of stories within stories and stories melting into other stories at this point in Ovid's epic is literally beyond exact computation: speakers quoting speakers quoting speakers.

Two points might repay investigation here:

1/ Mandelbaum's translation, "fluid, readable, and accurate" according to his fans -- clunky and uninspired to his rivals, is justified by its author as follows:

... all that is here is not all that semes [sic]. Ovid's fictions form a bacchanalian narrative revel, in which each element may be drunk or delirious, but which -- in its endless deceptions -- provides truth. (Ovid read not only his Gorgias but his Hegel carefully.) [558]
I'm an ignorant man. I'll grant you that. But what precisely does that mean? I guess he intends to say that Ovid's as interested in the facts as he is in the delirious "revel" of language, but it still seems (or semes) an extraordinarily opaque way of putting it. Perhaps that's the point.

To me, I'm afraid, the translation seems a bit clunky: too many internal rhymes and limping pentameters: "on high, into the sky" ... or "And as I stretched my arms out toward the sky." It's a fantastically difficult and finicky task to convert so much verse into other verse, though, so I wouldn't want to overstress such deficiencies. The real worry is when Mandelbaum goes on to quote some verses of his own composition:

The-Copious, the Ever-Swift,
and Sad-Seigneur-of-Scrutinists ...
"Prelude" to The Savantasse of Montparnasse (1988) [555]
Fucking hell! I thought that kind of thing went out with Lionel Johnson and the poetes maudits of the 1890s. It raises that old issue about whether indifferent poets can make good translators. To some extent, of course, this whole set of meditations on the Metamorphoses is designed to look at that question from a number of different angles.

2/ I guess, however, I mostly chose to reproduce the crow section of Ovid's epic because of my interest in Crow the trickster figure. Not just the one in Ted Hughes' book Crow (1970), nor even the version in The Crow (1994), that dodgy proto-Emo movie Bruce Lee's son Brandon got killed making, but (above all) that Anansi / Maui / Brer-Rabbit-like antihero of the Inuit and other northern cultures.

Crows are battlefield scavengers, cunning and resourceful rather than brave and forthright. The constellation "Corvus" is supposed to be named after one of Apollo's crows who decided to wait for some figs to ripen, rather than hastening back to his master with the water he was supposed to be collecting. He blamed his dilatoriness on a watersnake, but the god saw through the ruse at once.

One wonders if there's some connection here with Noah's raven, sent out from the ark to test the reappearance of dry land. The snake, too, seems to suggest certain Biblical parallels.

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