Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Pygmalion from Ovid's Metamorphoses

From Pygmalion and Galatea Series: The Heart Desires by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

This is the beginning of the Metamorphoses series of posts, in order to make myself read them properly. I do not like mythology on the whole (I prefer modern fantasy set in an earlier time) but these are the masters who inspired our modern literature. Modern fantasy is better-structured, with set rules in a defined world, and is more satirical, but for sheer epic feeling you can't beat ancient poetry. I think it's the meter that does it.

Many of you who are familiar with Greek mythology will surely have heard of Pygmalion and his statue Galatea.  I bought a copy of a translation by A.D. Melville, published by Oxford World's Classics. Now Melville was apparently an amateur who had a degree in the classics, it is true, but was a solicitor for his working life. Latin was a hobby, and this hobby was more common among educated men in the early 20th century. I recommend this version over the Penguin classics version, as the 1980 translation is more faithful to the antiquated air than the modernised 21st century version. That is why I normally get translations from the earlier 20th century rather than from my own era. The modern age has a tendency to use technical terms and anachronisms that do not end an ancient air to the classics. In good emotional poetry, too many technical terms are to be avoided. This is how the Romantics are regarded as more poetic than the Metaphysicals. Modern translations also prefer the modernist prosaic verse, whereas older ones prefer a slightly more lyrical or epic feel, which makes you actually think it is a piece of poetry rather than glorified prose. An even better translation in my opinion (but which I have not got) is by A.E. Watts (1954), whose language actually sounds more poetic than Melville, who tends to be a bit prosaic, as he tries to be faithful to the original text. If you didn't know it was Ovid you would think Watts was a poet in his own right. Other famous translations are by John Dryden (metaphysical poet) and George Sandys, who wrote in couplets as typical of their time. The couplets make it sound like poetry, but Dryden's is better than Sandys', who sounds choppy in his attempts to rhyme. Several passages which ought to have power are rushed and abrupt. The good thing about Dryden is you get the old feeling, but it is easier to understand the 20th century translations, which conform to some aspects of Victorian epic poetry, or early modernism.
The Hand Refrains by Burne-Jones

I know we typically see Pygmalion as that crazy sculptor who falls in love with his own statue but is anguished because she his ideal is not real, and so suffers. This view only became popular from the 19th century onwards.   In the original, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the statue has no name. Pygmalion, tired of unchaste women around him, crafts his idol out of clay and falls in love with it. He wishes it was real. One day he prays to Aphrodite to give him a woman just like his statue, Aphrodite brings the statue to life. Here is Melville's passage:
Beneath his touch the flesh
Grew soft, the ivory hardness vanishing,
And yielded to his hands, as in the sun
Wax of Hymettus softens and is shaped
By practised fingers into many forms
 And usefulness acquires by being used.
His heart was torn with wonder and misgiving
Delgiht and terror that it was not true!
Again and yet again he tried his hopes -
She was alive! The pulse beat in her veins!
The Godhead Fires

It is hard to get the entire text from the internet, so I have typed part of it from my book. Another translator of the 1950's is Rolf Humphries, not bad, but certainly not as poetic as Watts. Were I to rate the translators, I would put Watts first, and Melville second. Humphries or Dryden would come third.
The Soul Attains

It is noteworthy that Watts, a modernist, writes in couplets using the style of the late Victorians or early Modernists. While his book I hear doesn't come with notes, and may not be entirely true to the original, as an original work of poetry it is to be appreciated.

Note on the two versions of each scene: the dark, Renaissance-looking one was the first version painted. Later on, Burne-Jones painted in oils softer, more colourful, chalky-looking versions. The first has the merit of intensity and the sense of past. The second is brightened by colours, and in a sense, looks more like a daily matter. In a way it is convincing, because how much darkness can you get in life?  The girl however is lifeless in the colourful version, and seems unresponsive to Pyggie's passion. Granted, statue fetish is a disturbing matter, but one would like to see warm affection.

If Pygmalion were to be written today I suspect it would be classified under the fetish section. It is strange, while this was perfectly all right for the Victorians, who would deem actual intercourse too horrid to publish,
while we would be all right with intercourse but disapproving of statue fetish. I don't really care, as long as it's true, passionate, non-adulterous, and most importantly, not obscene. You can be sensuous without being obscene, like Charlotte Brontë or Keats. The epitome of sensuousness is the sincerity of the feelings, so wicked rakishness is not sensuous, it is just boring.

Ironically Ovid was disdained by the Victorians for writing erotic poetry (I don't think Metamorphoses was classified as such, and to me most of it is fairly clean). I haven't read those so I can't pronounce judgement on them.

If anyone has any classical mythology works to recommend (monsters, transformations and battles are preferred) please recommend. I am reading up for the background of a 1810-1820 setting which I am writing at present.

No comments:

Post a Comment