How we cite our quotes:
My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world's beginning to our day. (1.1-4)
These are the opening words of the poem, and they provide a pretty straight-up description of what Ovid is about to tell us. What we find interesting here is the way Ovid weaves together the ideas of change and continuity: by hoping that he can sing a "seamless" song about change from the beginning of the world to the present day, he kind of suggests that change is itself a constant – an interesting paradox. (This idea will come up again at the end of the poem, in the speech of the philosopher Pythagoras.) What also stays constant is the gods, even though they undergo many weird transformations, as we will see.
One man seeks refuge on a hill, another
rows in his curving boat where, just before,
he'd plowed; one sails across his fields of grain
or over the submerged roof of his villa;
sometimes an anchor snags in a green meadow;
sometimes a curving keel may graze the vines.
Where grateful goats had grazed among the grass,
the squat sea-lions sprawl. And undersea,
the Nereids, amazed, stare hard at cities
and homes and groves; through woodlands, dolphins roam;
they bump against tall branches, knock and shake
oak trees. (1.293-303)
One of the interesting things in Ovid's poem is how he switches between describing transformations that could only come about by supernatural means (i.e., when a god turns somebody into a tree) and transformations that are natural. In this passage, from Book 1, Ovid describes the effects of a flood. Now, on the surface, this flood is supernatural in origin (it is caused by Neptune, god of the sea, who is carrying out the orders of Jupiter); on the other hand, even if this flood is much bigger and more impressive than an ordinary flood, is it really that far removed from reality? Can you think of other instances in Ovid's poem that seem to blur the distinction between natural and supernatural? Or is the supernatural sometimes just a metaphor for natural processes?
But as he wept, his voice grew faint, his hair
was hid beneath white plumage, and his neck
grew longer, stretching outward from his chest.
A membrane knit together reddened fingers;
wings wrapped around his sides; a pointed peak
replaced his mouth. For Cycnus had become
a swan – a strange new bird, who does not trust
his wings to seek the sky of Jove, as if
that bird recalled the cruel lightning bolt
the god had hurled. And so the swan seeks out
still pools and broad lakes; hating all that's fiery,
he chooses water – fire's contrary. (2.367-380)
At many times in The Metamorphoses, Ovid tries to explain part of the world as it exists in his day by pointing to what it was before. In this case, Ovid tries to explain the behavior of swans, which don't like to fly very much and stay close to water. He says they do this because the first swan used to be a boy named Cycnus, who was traumatized when he saw the fiery death of his friend Phaethon. (Phaethon made the mistake of trying to drive the chariot belonging to his father, the Sun-god.) In this case, the original being (the boy) and the later creature (the swan) even share a name: "cycnus" was also the Latin word for swan. We still see this word in the English word "cygnet," which refers to a baby swan. Is the word's transformation into English just another metamorphosis? It is also interesting to consider that real swans undergo a metamorphosis from having brown feathers as cygnets to white feathers as adults.