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Love: First sights in Ovid

By Jane Alison

Among the myriad transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—transformations of girls to trees or stars, boys to flowers or newts, women to rivers, rocks to men—the most powerful can be those wrought by erotic desire. Woods, beaches, and glades in Ovid’s poem are ecologies of desire and repulsion: one character spots another through the trees, and you can almost see the currents of desire flow as one figure instantly wants what he sees—and the other starts running away.

And Sight is what first lights passion. Sometimes Cupid is there with his quicksilver arrows to inject love or loathing, and when it happens, it’s instant. Yet at that mercurial moment of first sight, Ovid often lingers. He dilates the scene or freezes the image altogether into ekphrasis. Why? Narrative artists always modulate time—rushing, skipping, slowing—and Ovid was one of the earliest. But why, exactly, at moments like this?

Perseus and Andromeda, fresco, last decade of 1st BCE. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Perseus and Andromeda, fresco, last decade of 1st BCE. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Here, for instance, is Apollo seeing Daphne, early in the poem:

                              He stares ablaze at eyes
like sparkling stars; looks at her mouth, and just looking
won’t do; praises her fingers and hands and wrists
and arms that are bare almost all the way up;
what’s hidden he’s sure is better. But she flits off
quick and light as wind . . . .
Yet this suits her, too. The wind bares her body,
breeze flowing through her fluttering dress,
light air streaming the hair out behind her—
more lovely even leaving.

Perseus as he flies near Andromeda, chained to a cliff in sacrifice to a sea-beast:

The instant Perseus saw her, chained by the arms
to rugged rocks (if a breeze hadn’t riffled her hair
and a slow-motion teardrop not rolled from her eye,
he’d have sworn she was marble), he inhaled love
unaware and stared, so entranced by the image he saw
that he almost forgot to keep beating his wings.

Or Salmacis as she spots Hermaphroditus in her mossy glade, pondering whether to swim in her pool:

He couldn’t wait: lured by the water’s light touch
he slipped the soft clothes from his slender self.
This really stirred her: the boy’s naked body lit
Salmacis with lust. . . .
He slapped his body briskly with open palms
and leapt into the pond. Arms stroking in turn
he gleamed in that translucent pool like a figurine
of ivory or white lilies encased in glass.

Diver diving from a rock, Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, 520-510 BC
Diver diving from a rock, Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, 520-510 BC. Alfredo Dagli Orti / The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

Or Narcissus, in another glade, as he crouches to drink and is startled by his reflection:

Amazed by himself, he holds his face rapt
and sits still, like a figure of Parian marble.
Lying down, he gazes at twin stars, his eyes,
and hair that could belong to Apollo or Bacchus,
the peachfuzz cheeks, ivory neck, delectable
mouth, and snowflake paleness tinged by a blush—
he admires everything for which he’s admired.

Yes, Ovid wants the reader to gaze at the beautiful girl or boy, to take part in this (parodic) gaze; and yes, this beauty is part of an equation with art—this boy is so beautiful he must be art itself. But Ovid’s stilled moments of first sight do something else narratively, for it isn’t only the love-object who is fixed before the reader’s eyes, but both object and observer: the whole moment of entrancement is caught. It’s a little like watching a laboratory experiment: there, in a glass dish, is one chemical; now we add another; and look, upon contact, one singes black at the edges, it begins to smoke . . .

Perhaps the naturalist in Ovid wanted to study closely the first effect of desire—the Ovid who looked at a piece of coral and tried to understand what made it rigid. But he might have had other reasons beyond the scientific, the aesthetic, and the parodic for stilling that moment of sight, a tinge of something felt: what is it like when you first see the one who cuts into your heart and changes you forever? This moment of sight is compacted with potential, not only in narrative but in life.

Long before writing Metamorphoses, Ovid wrote Amores, poems whose speaker tells of his infatuation with Corinna, his delight, jealousy, cruelty, panic, loss—the life-cycle of his love. We don’t see the moment when he first sees this young woman who ravages him, whose very eyes make him blind, who lets him pound on her door at night and finally leaves him holding only the poems he’s written about her. But early on, he offers an image of Corinna, when she’s stolen into his bedroom one hot afternoon as he lies in shuttered light:

When she stood before me, her dress on the floor,
her body did not have a flaw.
Such shoulders I saw and touched—oh, such arms.
The form of her breast firm in my palm,
and below that firm fullness a belly so smooth—
her long shapely sides, her young thighs!
Why list one by one? I saw nothing not splendid
and clasped her close to me, bare.

Perfect beauty is not interesting. More interesting, maybe: should we believe—within the fiction—that Corinna has really stolen into the bedroom, or should we read with shuttered lids and see the moment as drowsy fantasy? Is this stilled, visual moment a way of almost having what is longed for by transmuting the beloved to phantasia, to imagination: to art?

Perhaps those pictorial moments that follow, years later, in Metamorphoses hold ghosts of a more earnest impulse; perhaps they offer a preemptive memorialization. The lover looks and longs and might not be able to clasp what he (or she) sees, but the image, the phantasia: this at least will stay in the eyes and be held. As long as the beloved is only an image, all is in the lover’s control, and that first still image, that moment of first sight, can become the most loved of all.

Jane Alison is author of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. Her previous works on Ovid include her first novel, The Love-Artist (2001) and a song-cycle entitled XENIA (with composer Thomas Sleeper, 2010). Her other books include a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes (2009), and two novels, Natives and Exotics (2005) and The Marriage of the Sea (2003). She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

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  1. […] approaches Valentine’s Day from a number of different angles. Author Jane Ellison contemplates the power of the human gaze and the transformative force of erotic desire in Ovid’s works her essay “Love: First Sights in Ovid.” In another installment of OUP’s Very Short […]

  2. […] be the life-breath of Ovid’s great Metamorphoses. In his poem are changes as real as being born, falling in love for the first time, or dying. In it, too, are changes that seem fantastical: a boy becomes a spotted newt; a girl […]

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