And the light, penetrating to the lower world, strikes terror into the infernal king and his consort

Ovid shares with the others writers I most love a quality I can only think of as the literary equivalent of Lila. He cannot deny himself the joy of creative play – however it might break the seemingly required tone of a passage – because that joy is his necessary essence. At least until the exile days. Here are a few such bits from his story of Phaethon in Book 2 of The Metamorphoses, a story that in his hands combines global and historic catastrophe with comic montage. The whole tale is too long to give here (though easily found online) so here’s a small primer of his sober narration, as Phaethon’s failed piloting of the sun’s chariot begins its damage:


Great cities perish with their walls, and the vast conflagration reduces whole nations to ashes. The woods are ablaze with the mountains; Athos is ablaze, Cilician Taurus, and Tmolus, and Oete, and Ida, dry at last, but hitherto covered with springs, and Helicon, haunt of the Muses

 magnae pereunt cum moenibus urbes,
cumque suis totas populis incendia gentis
in cinerem vertunt; silvae cum montibus ardent;
ardet Athos Taurusque Cilix et Tmolus et Oete
et tum sicca, prius creberrima fontibus, Ide
virgineusque Helicon

And now some of the play:

176-177 – A constellation flees in terror from the out of control chariot

They say that you also, Boötes, fled in terror, slow though you were, and held back by your clumsy ox-cart.

te quoque turbatum memorant fugisse, Boote,quamvis tardus eras et te tua plaustra tenebant.


208-209 – the moon taken by surprise

The Moon in amazement sees her brother’s horses running below her own

inferiusque suis fraternos currere Luna
admiratur equos


252-253 – those poor swans

and the swans, which had been wont to throng the Maeonian streams in tuneful company, are scorched in mid Caÿster.

quae Maeonias celebrabant carmine ripas
flumineae volucres, medio caluere Caystro;


254-255 – the Nile’s hidden source explained

The Nile fled in terror to the ends of the earth, and hid its head, and it is hidden yet

Nilus in extremum fugit perterritus orbem
occuluitque caput, quod adhuc latet


260-261 – my favorite, the terror of sunlight in Hades

Great cracks yawn everywhere, and the light, penetrating to the lower world, strikes terror into the infernal king and his consort

dissilit omne solum, penetratque in Tartara rimis
lumen et infernum terret cum coniuge regem;


267-268 – those poor seals

 The dead bodies of sea-calves float, with upturned belly, on the water’s top

corpora phocarum summo resupina profundo
exanimata natant


And the crown, Earth’s speech (272-300). Earth, it should be noted can scarcely speak at 282 (vix equidem fauces haec ipsa in verba resolvo) but still manages nearly another 20 lines of top quality Roman rhetorical bombast.


Not so all-fostering Earth, who, encircled as she was by sea, amid the waters of the deep, amid her fast-contracting streams which had crowded into her dark bowels and hidden there, though parched by heat, heaved up her smothered face as far as the neck. Raising her shielding hand to her brow and causing all things to shake with her mighty trembling, she sank back a little lower than her wonted place, and then in broken tones she spoke: “If this is thy will, and I have deserved all this, why, O king of all the gods, are thy lightnings idle? If I must die by fire, oh, let me perish by thy fire and lighten my suffering by thought of him who sent it. I scarce can open my lips to speak these words”—the hot smoke was choking her—“See my singed hair and all ashes in my eyes, all ashes over my face. Is this the return, this the reward thou payest of my fertility and dutifulness? that I bear the wounds of the crooked plow and mattock, tormented year in, year out? that I provide kindly pasturage for the flocks, grain for mankind, incense for the altars of the gods? But, grant that I have deserved destruction, what has the sea, what has thy brother done? Why are the waters which fell to him by the third lot so shrunken, and so much further from thy sky? But if no consideration for thy brother nor yet for me has weight with thee, at least have pity on thy own heavens. Look around: the heavens are smoking from pole to pole. If the fire shall weaken these, the homes of the gods will fall in ruins. See, Atlas himself is troubled and can scarce bear up the white-hot vault upon his shoulders. If the sea perish and the land and the realms of the sky, then are we hurled back to primeval chaos. Save from the flames whatever yet remains and take thought for the safety of the universe.”

Alma tamen Tellus, ut erat circumdata ponto,
inter aquas pelagi contractosque undique fontes,
qui se condiderant in opacae viscera matris,
sustulit oppressos collo tenus arida vultus
opposuitque manum fronti magnoque tremore
omnia concutiens paulum subsedit et infra,
quam solet esse, fuit fractaque ita voce locuta est:
“si placet hoc meruique, quid o tua fulmina cessant,
summe deum? liceat periturae viribus ignis
igne perire tuo clademque auctore levare!
vix equidem fauces haec ipsa in verba resolvo”;
(presserat ora vapor) “tostos en adspice crines
inque oculis tantum, tantum super ora favillae!
hosne mihi fructus, hunc fertilitatis honorem
officiique refers, quod adunci vulnera aratri
rastrorumque fero totoque exerceor anno,
quod pecori frondes alimentaque mitia, fruges
humano generi, vobis quoque tura ministro?
sed tamen exitium fac me meruisse: quid undae,
quid meruit frater? cur illi tradita sorte
aequora decrescunt et ab aethere longius absunt?
quodsi nec fratris nec te mea gratia tangit,
at caeli miserere tui! circumspice utrumque:
fumat uterque polus! quos si vitiaverit ignis,
atria vestra ruent! Atlas en ipse laborat
vixque suis umeris candentem sustinet axem!
si freta, si terrae pereunt, si regia caeli,
in chaos antiquum confundimur! eripe flammis,
si quid adhuc superest, et rerum consule summae!”

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