Ovid Transformed: The Poet and the “Metamorphoses”

Casa delle Letterature
Arts Director Karl Kirchwey presents the first Discussion panel on Shakespeare and Ovid
Stephen Greenblatt and Seamus Heaney
Alice Fulton
Ovid Transformed: The Poet and the Metamorphoses
Anna and Christopher Celenza
Alessandro Schiesaro, Kim Bowes and Ramie Targoff
Karl Kirchwey, Jane Alison and Timberlake Wertenbaker
Ovid Transformed: The Poet and the Metamorphoses
Karl Kirchwey and Seamus Heaney
Jhumpa Lahiri and Adele Chatfield-Taylor
Lucy Corin
Jessica Fisher and James Lasdun
Christopher Martin, Frank Bidart, James Lasdun and Marina Warner

Last Thursday and Friday evenings saw the unfolding of a series of readings, conversations, and exchanges among scholars and writers of various disciplines who share a common interest in the Roman poet Ovid. The event was generously supported by Nancy M. O’Boyle, the Syde Hurdus Foundation, the Casa delle Letterature di Roma Capitale, and the British School at Rome and arranged in collaboration with the Keats-Shelley House. Events unfolded at two beautiful venues, with a first gathering among the orange trees of the open atrium at the Casa delle Letterature in central Rome, and the subsequent evening taking place at the American Academy in Rome’s Villa Aurelia, looking out upon the ancient city from the heights of the Janiculum Hill.

Events were launched by their organizer, Andrew Heiskell Arts Director, Karl Kirchwey, FAAR’95, and began with a discussion about Shakespeare and Ovid between the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, Stephen Greenblatt, RAAR’10, Senior Research Fellow and Honorary Professor of Latin, Philip Hardie of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Professor of English at Boston University, Christopher Martin. Ramie Targoff, Professor of English at Brandeis University, RAAR’12, acted as moderator, opening conversation by inviting each scholar to recall an episode of Ovidian inspiration from Shakespeare’s plays, which summoned examples from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Titus Andronicus. There followed a discussion about Shakespeare’s highly mediated relationship to Ovid’s works via the sanitized Christian translations of the English Renaissance. The panel agreed that Shakespeare generally seems to have looked to Ovid more for comic than tragic inspiration. Nevertheless the great English playwright shared the Roman poet’s profound search for immortality through the art of the written word.

Panelists were then joined by Alessandro Schiesaro of La Sapienza, Alice Fulton of Cornell University, William B. Hart Poet-in-Residence Seamus Heaney, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Jane Alison of the University of Miami for a delightful series of readings from various translations and reimaginings of The Metamorphoses, which revealed Ovid’s many transformations from Latin into early modern and contemporary English. Reading from her poem “Give” (1994), Alice Fulton reimagined Apollo’s unrequited lust for Daphne from the hounded and hardened perspective of the nymph- turned-tree. Seamus Heaney then told of Orpheus’s unfaltering devotion to the love of his lost Eurydice, reading from his translation of the myth. After being plunged into the intense darkness of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s retelling of the myth of Tereus, Procne and Philomela in her play The Love of the Nightingale (1988), audiences were buoyed back up by a more comic tale of love. Arts Director Karl Kirchwey closed out the session to hoots of laughter with Alessandro Boffa’s reinterpretation of the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus as a love story between a snail named Viskovitz and him/herself. An interlude for drinks and casual conversation followed before the evening’s final conversation about the difficulties, joys and art of translating The Metamorphoses.

The second evening of events shifted gears to discuss the poet himself, Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE–17/18 CE), and his dramatic fall from the cultural heights of Augustan Rome to dismal exile at the edge of civilization, ruined, as he said, on account of “a poem and an error.” His pleas for mercy ignored, Ovid wrote his last lines at the margins of the Latin-speaking world in Tomis on the Black Sea. Exactly what happened to Ovid in that peripheral realm, and what sent him there in the first place, has inspired the imaginations of many contemporary authors. Jane Alison opened the first series of readings with a section from her novel, The Love-Artist (2001), in which she imagined the events that might have led to Ovid’s exile. Marina Warner of the University of Essex then read from David Malouf’s novel An Imaginary Life (1978), which imagines a friendship between Ovid and a wild boy after exile. Jhumpa Lahiri (RAAR’13) shared Antonio Tabucchi’s story, “Dream of Publius Ovidius Naso, Poet and Courtier” (1992) wherein Ovid imagines himself as a doomed butterfly recalled to Rome. Time then permitted an Ovidian transformation of the scheduled program, which was extended to include the myth of Diana and Actaeon with readings by James Lasdun from John Cheever’s short story “Metamorphoses” and by Seamus Heaney from his poem “Actaeon.” Karl Kirchwey restored to the program an unread excerpt from Christoph Ransmayr’s novel, The Last World (1988) about the political repercussions, both for Augustan loyalists and for the opposition, of Ovid’s banishment.

After a public reception, the evening seemed to mirror Ovid’s gloomy fall with darker and more disturbing explorations of the human psyche from the poet’s tales of Metamorphoses. Jane Alison shared her translation of “Cinyras and Myrra,” while poet Frank Bidart (Wellesley College) gave a vivid reading from his reimagining of the tale in “The Second Hour of the Night” (1997). James Lasdun shared his translation of “The Plague at Aegina” (1994) followed by Lucy Corin (University of California at Davis) who read another section of Ransmayr’s The Last World. Jessica Fisher (Williams College), Marina Warner and Philip Hardie then explored three versions of the myth of Leto, Diana and Apollo. Jessica Fisher read from Paul Muldoon’s “The Lycians” (1994), Marina Warner read from her novel The Leto Bundle (2001), and Philip Hardie ended the Ovid readings (as Alessandro Schiesaro had begun them the night before) with a reading from Ovid in Latin. A final conversation between Christopher Martin, Frank Bidart, James Lasdun and Marina Warner closed out the long evening. Frank Bidart observed that Ovid is a fertile seedbed of ideas. James Lasdun noted that after Darwin and Freud it would be impossible to see Ovid with the eyes of earlier generations of readers, and Marina Warner added that indeed his stories provide an inexhaustible supply of relationship permutations. Christopher Martin remarked that The Metamorphoses is a poem which collapses time, and indeed with respect to such fragmentation, mutability and multiplicity, all the participants in Ovid Transformed might agree that this most classical and ancient of poets is remarkably modern.

Shakespeare and Ovid from American Academy in Rome on Vimeo.

The Life Transformed- Ovid's Biography and Fiction, a Reading from American Academy in Rome on Vimeo.

The Metamorphoses- Translation and Reimagining, a Reading from American Academy in Rome on Vimeo.

The Metamorphoses - Translation and Reimagining, a Conversation from American Academy in Rome on Vimeo.

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