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Tue, 11 Aug 2009 16:18:27 -0500
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The Image of the Poet in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. By BARBARA PAVLOCK. 
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. Pp. x + 196. Cloth, $55.00. 
ISBN 978–0–299–23140–8.

Order this text for $55.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2009.08.04

Pavlock’s (P.) monograph examines figures from Ovid’s Metamorphoses who 
act as substitutes for the poet and his poetics. Some of the usual suspects 
(Arachne, Pythagoras and Pygmalion) are not featured or are only touched 
upon briefly; instead, P. focuses on Narcissus, Medea, Daedalus, Orpheus 
and Ulysses. The diverse figures chosen show how mutable Ovid’s 
conception of the poet can be, and the variety of literary theories 
marshaled here (Bakhtin, narratology, generic theory and a healthy helping 
of intra/intertextuality) demonstrates P.’s interest in novel ways of 
illuminating this self-conscious poet and his self-conscious creation. The 
analysis is intriguing throughout and, it seems to me, asks the right 
questions of Ovid’s text. P.’s conclusions may surprise some readers, 
as the figure of Ulysses emerges as “the strongest surrogate of the 
poet” (p. 132).

The opening chapter investigates the story of Narcissus and discusses how 
elegiac poetry and the elegiac voice are both manipulated and shown to be 
inadequate in the epic world of the Metamorphoses. Ovid’s inclusion of 
elegiac elements in the Metamorphoses is pervasive and striking, and often 
has troubling consequences, including metamorphosis itself. One thinks of 
Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne and his ringing “me miserum” (1.508), as 
well as the passion that strikes figures as disparate as Tereus 
(6.455–74), and Mercury (2.726–9), and it is easy to see the centrality 
of desire and elegiac language for Ovid’s epic. The Narcissus tale allows 
Ovid to bring to light “an underlying, if suppressed, truth of elegy: the 
elegist, in rendering the beloved an object and in obsessively gazing on 
and pursuing the image of his own making, reveals his inherent 
narcissism” (p. 15). Through an examination of comparable passages from 
the Amores, Ars Amatoria and Propertius 1.18, P. connects the Narcissus 
tale to elegiac predecessors, and shows how the iteration of tropes such as 
the dura puella, servitium amoris and elegy’s contamination of other 
genres are implicitly critiqued through this deluded poet-lover/beloved. As 
Narcissus’ song transforms into a lament, and Narcissus himself wastes 
away until only his eponymous flower remains, P. finds echoes of 
Theocritus, Cornelius Gallus, Sappho and Horace. These are perceptive 
readings, especially that of Horace 2.5, and illustrate the variety of 
intertextual sources at play throughout the Metamorphoses. Ovid 
incorporates these sources to point to a continuity or difference in 
perspective and significance, whether that be thematic, generic or 
theoretical. The connections P. discovers make one wonder whether Ovid’s 
language is especially meta-poetic and allusive when he composes stories 
featuring stand-ins for Ovid himself. These may be the moments when one 
would expect him to be particularly mindful and concerned about the 
polyvalent resonances of his poetic creation.

In Chapter 2, Medea’s apparent self-knowledge of her literary tradition 
suggests a parallel with Ovid’s “ability to transform his inherited 
material and create a new kind of poem” (p. 41), and she can accordingly 
be viewed as a surrogate poet. In her description of her love for Jason, 
Medea’s rhetoric continuously reflects and refracts details of her story 
from Apollonius and Euripides, while her language may recall Vergil and 
Horace. P. explicates a link with Horace Odes 1.1.36 (sublimi feriam sidera 
vertice) when Medea dreams of wedded bliss with Jason (vertice sidera 
tangam, 7.61), claiming that Medea appropriates a position “in the poetic 
sphere for herself, especially as she begins to project an increasing 
awareness of her literary counterparts in Euripides and Apollonius” (p. 
42). While this is true, Medea’s reformulation also displays Ovid’s 
wit. Because of her skill as a sorceress (an aspect downplayed in P.’s 
study), Medea can seemingly do the impossible (note her question: quid enim 
non carmina possunt?, 7.167), including reach the stars themselves in her 
dragon-drawn chariot (sublimis rapitur, 7.222). Medea can do magic with her 
carmina, just as Ovid can in his epic carmen. P. finds in Medea’s flight 
a rich catalogue of myths that foreshadow characters, storylines and 
transformations yet to come, as well as mimicking the make-up of the 
Metamorphoses as a whole: “the imaginative travelogue that Ovid creates 
here through his surrogate’s flight is a microcosm of his revisionist 
approach to epic” (p. 59). P. presses the travelogue material and 
discovers rewarding connections with Medea’s character as well as 
Ovid’s own “production of clever plots that subvert traditional mores 
and undermine conventional notions of order on all levels” (p. 60).
If Medea’s allusive rhetoric and plotting define one aspect of Ovid’s 
poetic project, Daedalus’ artistry and his creation of the intricate, 
winding labyrinth may clarify another facet of Ovid’s authorial persona. 
Chapter 3 attempts to delineate Daedalus’ problematic status as inventor, 
especially when set against his sympathetic characterization in the Aeneid, 
as well as to discuss aspects of Book 8 that provide symbolic 
representations of the Metamorphoses as a whole. For P., the labyrinth is 
the paradigmatic compositional metaphor because it “characterizes the 
form of the Metamorphoses, its sinuous movement from tale to tale with 
clever, if tenuous, transitions between individual episodes and books” 
(p. 65). This characterization seems strained to me and the unfortunate 
repetition of the adjective “labyrinthine” (pp. 67, 68, 69, 71, 
passim), and use of the term “labyrinth” (pp. 70, 72) for aspects of 
narrative construction only exacerbated my unease. But P.’s observations 
about the characters of Daedalus, Icarus, Theseus, Meleager and Achelous 
are evocative and hint at the complex shifts of tone and genre throughout 
the Metamorphoses. For example, she argues that Achelous’ bombastic 
narrative transcends poetic decorum in his excessive use of epic allusions. 
Such an observation hints at the importance of internal narrators for Ovid, 
and implies that he can criticize the speaking delivery, intertexts and 
subject matter of such characters. P. concludes that Ovid “has situated 
the river god’s storytelling in a context from which the reader, unlike 
the hero Theseus, can take his clues and thus find in the pompous river 
god’s narratives a source of entertainment and enlightenment” (p. 88).

The implications of such a reading become clear in Chapter 4, which 
analyzes Orpheus’ rendition of the affair of Venus and Adonis in Book 10, 
and reveals how the doubling of embedded narrators suggests the 
self-absorption of both Orpheus and Ovid. P. begins by analyzing Venus’ 
use of the story of Hippomenes and Atalanta, and shows that the underlying 
praise of Hippomenes’ virtus would not deter Adonis from hunting more 
dangerous prey, but rather incite his valor and lead to his doom. But this 
is Orpheus telling the story of Venus telling the story to Adonis, and the 
narratological frames may indicate Orpheus’ own investment in it: 
“Orpheus’ narrative of Adonis’ fate implies that the object of desire 
is irretrievable, that symbolic forms of recovery through metamorphosis and 
ritual are illusory” (p. 105). In fact, however, this is Ovid telling the 
story of Orpheus telling the story of Venus telling the story—so how does 
it reflect upon Ovid himself and his own poetics? Therein lies the rub with 
narratological readings of this sort: how distinct are the focalized 
narratives of Venus, Orpheus and Ovid? For P., close attention to the 
different stories reveals that Venus is ultimately too self-absorbed to 
care about Adonis, while Orpheus casts Hippomenes in his own likeness and, 
although he highlights incest in his tale of Myrrha and Cinyras, is 
“blind to this symbolic level of his tales” (p. 106). But surely Ovid 
controls Orpheus’ narrative voice? P.’s investigation of the Vergilian 
intertexts of Book 10 may suggest that he does not, given that “his 
recollections of the Aeneid here seem to be appropriations without 
engagement, a kind of slippage…. The poet, in effect, takes on some of 
the character of his surrogate narrator of Book 10, who in his 
self-absorption conflates his own voice with Venus’ in the story of 
Atalanta and Hippomenes” (p. 108). It would thus appear that Ovid has 
become Orpheus-like in his use of Vergilian material and has grown over 
fond of wearing his Orpheus mask. (A devil’s advocate would wonder if 
Orpheus has been Ovid-like all along). Such an investigation is worthwhile, 
and P. has done a fine job of explicating some of the intricacies of a 
narratological reading. But the process can be dizzying.

In her final chapter, P. turns to the debate between Ajax and Ulysses over 
the arms of Achilles and finds that Ulysses, through his self-awareness and 
his clever use of language and the poetic tradition, is a suitable 
surrogate for the poet. Close examination of Ulysses’ claims reveals how 
often he spices up his divine lineage, his battle prowess and his ties with 
Achilles in a way that diverges from the Homeric tradition but is made 
plausible through his rhetorical and poetic flair. His focus on words as 
opposed to deeds may subvert the heroic ethos of traditional epic, but fits 
in well with Ovid’s fluid Metamorphoses. Ulysses’ rhetorical strategy, 
it turns out, is to lie in order to succeed: “The clever Greek has thus 
implemented an imaginative strategy that his alert audience (and the 
reader) can grasp: his claim of carrying Achilles’ body out of the battle 
is a fictional device rather than hard fact” (p. 126). This section might 
have benefited from delving further into the differences (and similarities) 
between poetry and rhetoric, and Ulysses’ lies may remind one of 
Quintilian’s injunctions to the orator not to lie unless he has a good 
memory (mendacem memorem esse oportere, I.O. 4.20.91). While Ulysses’ 
audience seems not to notice his fictitious touches (they do give him 
Achilles’ arms), Ovid’s use of Ulysses’ sophistic narrative 
“simultaneously encourages the reader to probe the instability of values 
that he as poet so frequently challenges” (p. 131). P. concludes that 
Ovid’s portrayal of Ulysses in the final books of the Metamorphoses and 
his revisionist view of the epic tradition suggest the importance of this 
figure for Ovid’s poetics and for his epic as a whole.

This book will be of interest to all readers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 
especially those exploring meta-poetic figures in the text and the internal 
dynamics of Ovid’s poetic language. P.’s attention to philological 
matters is rigorous throughout and provides a firm foundation for her more 
sophisticated theoretical excursions. Her model readings show how the 
application of intertextual and narratological theories of literary 
criticism can aid the reader in gaining insight into Ovid’s poetics.

Amherst College
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