Our book today is not just Ovid's epic, twisty-delightful poem The Metamorphoses but one particular English version of it: the translation by Arthur Golding begun sometime in the early 1560s and given its more of less final form in 1567.
Although Golding probably did most of the early work on his translation while staying on the estate of that ultimate Elizabethan courtier William Cecil, nobody should mistake Golding himself for a courtier, at least not of the polished, refined kind that's become synonymous with the word. Golding came from money, it's true, but it was the money of a grounded, four-square landowning family out in the hills and dales of Essex, not a newly cosmopolitan clan like the Cecils. Golding came from livestock-keeping, cony-catching, ruddy-faced rural stock. He was what a later writer of genius would term a country booby squire. A great English novelist could have been describing Golding's father:
He was a short, stumpy man, with red cheeks and a round face; who was usually to be seen till dinner-time dressed in a very old shooting coat, with breeches, gaiters, and very thick shoes. He lived generally out of doors, and was almost as great in the preserving of game as in the breeding of oxen. He knew every acre of his own estate, and every tree upon it, as thoroughly as a lady knows the ornaments in her drawing-room. There was no gap in a fence of which he did not remember the exact bearings, no path hither and thither as to which he could not tell the why and the wherefore.
Unfortunately for Golding, when his father and brother left the world, they left behind a mass of financial entanglements and debt, but it would likely not have mattered in any case: Golding was terrible with money and it was terrible with him - when he died in 1606 (after having spent a couple of stints in debtors' prison), he had scarcely an unattached farthing to his name.
He always had hopes of money, however, and never more so than when his sister married one of the foremost peers of the realm, John de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford. That John's son - and therefore Golding's nephew - was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has been catnip to conspiracy theorists for over a hundred years, for obvious reasons. Shakespeare's plays are absolutely rife with allusions to Ovid, echoes of Ovid, thefts from Ovid, and in one case Ovid's book as an actual prop on stage. Shakespearean scholars have proven to their own satisfaction that their boy (despite Ben Jonson's claim) could read Latin with handy skill, but even if this is true (it isn't, but even if), it's still certain he knew Ovid in English translation front to back - and that means he knew the Golding Ovid, since there were no other serious contenders for the whole of that generation. Authorship theorists naturally say young Edward had a hand in writing Golding's translation, and even if he didn't, they say, surely the presence of his uncle-in-law translating away right under his nose is the reason Ovid's work is so heavily represented in Shakespeare's - that is, Edward's - famous stage plays.
Golding certainly dedicated works to Edward, no doubt in hopes of financial consideration, and the dedications themselves are enough to satisfy the authorship theorists, despite the fact that Golding's prose reads nothing like Edward's, and despite the fact that his signature iambic heptameter (his rolling "fourteeners," a meter that's gone entirely out of fashion, alas) is both better and worse than - and in any case totally dissimilar to - anything Edward wrote. There comes a point, always, with authorship theorists where you just have to declare a pace on all their houses and walk away from the whole subject. If Edward de Vere wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, well then his connection to Golding makes all that much more sense. If Shakespeare wrote his own plays, his debt to Golding - and his ease of contracting it - is obvious.
In either case, we come back to the Golding Ovid itself, the poem Ezra Pound was fond of calling the most beautiful in the English language (rather embarrassing that, even for Golding fans such as myself). Critics have pounded on Golding's clumsy inaccuracies since the ink was first wet on them, and more than one august modern authority has pronounced him shallow, wayward, and thoroughly obtuse - bad Latin and worse English. These authorities always grudgingly admit that his version of The Metamorphoses is fun to read (one recent editor compares Golding to a sports caster), but that's about as far as they'll go - as a translation of Ovid, they're all quick to point out, Golding is a travesty.
Let's see an example from one of these killjoys, in this case John Frederick Nims:
In XIV the Sibyl tells Aeneas that nothing is impossible for human worth to achieve: "Invia virtuti nulla est via." The point is in the words: no via is invia. If one believes, with Goethe and Valery, that what one wants from a translator of poetry is not mere paraphrase of thought but a rendering of equivalent effect, then one will not be satisfied with a translator who ignores such points, as Golding does with "No way to vertue is restreynd."
But is this so unsatisfying? Ovid's word order is intentionally inverted, to start the line with its own obstacle, literally something like "Impassible to virtue, there is no way" (by smoothing this out to 'no via is invia,' Nims is, ironically enough, misserving Ovid) - and Golding preserves this by starting his line with that flat 'no way.' He also preserves the liquidity of Ovid's agent in the line - his 'to vertue' very neatly acts as both a path and a personification: vertue is both the seeker and the destination.
A best-seller in his own day because of how incredibly damn lively his verses were, Ovid would certainly have approved of how lively Golding's version of his great poem is. Examples are everywhere (his time in William Cecil's house wasn't wasted), and in order to enjoy them, all the Latinless modern reader has to do is a) overlook the less formal spellings of the day, and b) train the ear to hear the bawling, anthem-at-the-ballpark rhythm of the 'fourteener' at its best. Here's poor Cadmus in the horrifying process of becoming a snake:
He falleth groveling on his breast, and both his shankes doe growe
In one round spindle Bodkinwise with sharpnd point below.
His armes as yet remayned still: his armes that did remayne,
He stretched out, and sayde with tears that plenteously did raine
Adowne his face, which yet did keepe the native fashion sownd:
Come hither wyfe, come hither wight most wretched on the ground,
And whyle that ought of mee remaynes vouchsafe to touche the same.
Come take mee by the hand as long as hand may have his name,
Before this snakish shape doe whole my body over runne.
He would have spoken more when sodainely his tongue begunne
To split in two and speache did fayle: and as he did attempt
To make his mone, he hist: for nature now had cleane exempt
All other speach.
And his wife's misery at witnessing this transformation is no less riveting:
His wretched wyfe hir naked stomack beete
And cryde: What meaneth this? Deare Cadmus, where are now they feete?
Where are thy shoulders and thy handes? thy hew and manly face?
With all the other things that did thy princely person grace
Which now I overpasse?
And Golding's lifelong protestations of extreme devout (even Puritan) religious belief - in his dedication to the Earl of Leicester, he actually tries to maintain that reading Ovid is good for your moral fiber - are constantly undercut by this translation of his, since staying true to Ovid means giving readers (including Robert Dudley, who needed no instruction in the ways of princely persons) time after time things they won't find in their Sunday psalters, as, to look no further, Cadmus' serpentine reaction to his wife's entreaties:
When this was spoken, Cadmus lickt his wyfe about the lippes,
And (as a place with which he was acquaynted well) he slippes
Into hir boosome, lovingly embracing hir, and cast
Himself about hif neck, as oft he had in tyme forepast.
Purists (from whose ranks Golding has had the bad luck to draw virtually all his editors) will protest that whatever this is, it isn't Ovid - and technically they'll be correct. Ovid's Latin is whittled and supple, cascading over the listener with the transparent mastery of water. He achieves metrical effects that even Marlowe, attempting to translate, couldn't duplicate.
Those purists will point out that even if Golding's conscious response to this steep gradient was therefore to embrace the effusive prolixity of English, to make a country song out of what was a city entertainment, he largely fails, stuffing Ovid's gorgeous lines with inept circumlocutions that a better poet - even a better 16th century versifier - would have avoided.
To which I say, fine, yes, you're probably right. But Golding was good enough for Shakespeare (even a heroically Latinate Shakespeare), who knew a thing or two about versifying, and if you spend even half an hour reading Golding's Ovid, you'll see why. There's life here, in leaping, quarreling, laughing abundance. That's pretty good, for a country booby squire. I'm no poet, but I think Ovid would have approved.