Lines 644-691 from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book Three with a photo by Stanley Stellar

When I recently saw the photo by Stanley Stellar of a beautiful painting of a phallic man with a dolphin, I remembered some lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a tale told by the captain of a ship who tries to stop his crew from kidnapping the god Bacchus who finally in retaliation changes them all into dolphins. The photo was taken by Stanley Stellar in 1977 on the West Piers of NYC, a popular gay cruising spot at the time. I think it’s very beautiful and am grateful that the photographer had the presence of mind to capture it back then.

Boy and Dolphin, Tava Von Will, West Village Gay Piers 1977 — in New York, New York. Photo by Stanley Stellar

Getting back to Ovid, I began to audit a Latin class at Hunter College in the early 90s that was taught by Professor William Mayer who let me attend without registering. My first assignment was to do a translation, and I picked lines 644-691 from Book Three of The Metamorphoses. I looked in a box on a shelf and found my old homework, printed when printers were printing with spooled paper way back when. I hope you enjoy the Latin, the translation, and the notes that follow. Until I saw the photo by Stanley Stellar, I’d forgotten these lines lying in the dusty dark. Thank you, Stanley Stellar.




Lines 644-691 from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first the Latin, then the English:

obstipui “capiat” que “aliquis moderamina!” dixi
meque ministerio scelerisque artisque removi.
increpor a cunctis, totumque inmurmurat agmen;
e quibus Aethalion “te scilicet omnis in uno
nostra salus posita est!” ait et subit ipse meumque
explet opus Naxoque petit diversa relicta.

tum deus inludens, tamquam modo denique fraudem
senserit, e puppi pontum prospectat adunca
et flenti similis “non haec mihi litora, nautae,
promisistis” ait, “non haec mihi terra rogata est!
quo merui poenam facto? quae gloria vestra est,
si puerum iuvenes, si multi fallitis unum?”
iamdudum flebam: lacrimas manus inpia nostras
ridet et inpellit properantibus aequora remis.

per tibi nunc ipsum (nec enim praesentior illo
est deus) adiuro, tam me tibi vera referre
quam veri maiora fide: stetit aequore puppis
haud aliter, quam si siccam navale teneret.
illi admirantes remorum in verbere perstant
velaque deducunt geminaque ope currere temptant:
inpediunt hederae remos nexuque recurvo
serpunt et gravidis distinguunt vela corymbis.
ipse racemiferis frontem circumdatus uvis
pampineis agitat velatam frondibus hastam;
quem circa tigres simulacraque inania lyncum
pictarumque iacent fera corpora pantherarum.

exsiluere viri, sive hoc insania fecit
sive timor, primusque Medon nigrescere toto
corpore et expresso spinae curvamine flecti
incipit. huic Lycabas “in quae miracula” dixit
“verteris?” et lati rictus et panda loquenti
naris erat, squamamque cutis durata trahebat.
at Libys obstantis dum vult obvertere remos,
in spatium resilire manus breve vidit et illas
iam non esse manus, iam pinnas posse vocari.

alter ad intortos cupiens dare bracchia funes
bracchia non habuit truncoque repandus in undas
corpore desiluit: falcata novissima cauda est,
qualia dividuae sinuantur cornua lunae.
undique dant saltus multaque adspergine rorant
emerguntque iterum redeuntque sub aequora rursus
inque chori ludunt speciem lascivaque iactant
corpora et acceptum patulis mare naribus efflant.
de modo viginti (tot enim ratis illa ferebat)
restabam solus: pavidum gelidumque trementi
corpore vixque meum firmat deus “excute” dicens
“corde metum Diamque tene!” delatus in illam
accessi sacris Baccheaque sacra frequento.’


“I was dumbstruck and then, ‘Let another steer,’ I said
removing myself and my skill from the whole evil mess.
I’m cursed by all, a murmuring mob at my throat
when out of them, Aethalion spoke: ‘You know our safety
depends on you,’ then he went down to do my work
turning the ship from Naxos to another port.

“The God, acting as if he began to understand the fraud
in these men, looked out from the curved bow and wept
his eyes full of tears and said: ‘This isn’t the shore
you promised me, sailors. This is not what I asked.
What have I done to deserve this? Where’s the glory
if all of you youths, who are many against one, deceive a boy?’
I cried, I wept, but the unholy crew laughed
at my tears and pulled, as if lashed, their oars into the sea.

“Now I swear to you by him—for there is not
a god nearer than him—that I tell you the truth, which is greater
than the faith in truth itself. The ship stopped
in the ocean’s gulf as if were docked in a ship-yard.
My shipmates tried their oars, amazed they worked
the sails and strained with hope, but we didn’t move
then ivy twines their oars, more snakes along the winding knots
and climbs the ropes weighing the sails down with berries.
Then the God himself, clusters of grapes around his head,
shakes a spear covered with vines and leaves and grapes.
Near him vague forms of lynx appear and tigers parade
and the fierce bodies of spotted leopards lie down.

“Some men jumped—whether from madness or whether
from fear—overboard. Medon first turns black, his body bends
his spine curves out. Lycabas begins to say to him:
‘What’s happening, Medon? What spell of change—‘
but his mouth grows wide mid-sentence, his nose spreads
and scales cover his hardening skin as Libys wishing
to move the motionless oars, sees in a little while
his hands are not hands, they are small and called fins now.

“Another wants to lift his arms to the twisted ropes
but he has no arms, only a legless trunk
falls back into the surf with a tail forked, curved
like those slivered horns of a waning moon.
They jump and splash making us wet, emerge, go back below again
only to a rise like a chorus line on stage above the waves
they throw their playful bodies blowing the sea of of their snouts
Out of twenty—that’s how many the ship was carrying—
I was left, myself cold and afraid, trembling,
but the God assured me saying, ‘Don’t be afraid.
To Dia row,’ and then when we reached that coast
I attended his holy orgy and became a priest myself.”




Some Notes on Ezra Pound’s translation, as well as my own

When Ezra Pound in Canto 2 translates some of these lines, he often does it between the lines especially when the cats appear:

And out of nothing, a breathing,
hot breath on my ankles,
Beast like shadows in glass,
a furred tail upon nothingness

The above is a beautiful translation of lines 668-669

quem circa tigres simulacraque inania lyncum
pictarumque iacent fera corpora pantherarum.

though they do not follow Ovid’s words faithfully, they do follow faithfully what Ovid feels, but I do think Ezra Pound goes overboard with metaphor in lines 660-661:

quam veri maiora fide: stetit aequore puppis
haud aliter, quam si siccam navale teneret.

And the ship like a keel in ship-yard,
slung like an ox in smith’s sling,
ribs stuck fast in the ways,
grape cluster over pin-rack,
void air taking pelt.

The ship still in the ship-yard is enough. Ovid has no ox in a sling. I tried not to add anything:

than the faith in truth itself. The ship stopped
in the ocean’s gulf as if were docked in a ship-yard.

though in line 663, I do say

the sails and strained with hope, but we didn’t move

when Ovid says

velaque deducunt geminaque ope currere temptant
they draw down the sails and with twin hope they try to go

As I am doing it but we didn’t move seems enough.

In line 665, it might be better to say

and ropes decorate the sails heavily with berries

because distingunt means they decorate and gives the feeling of festivity, but I changed that to and climbs the ropes weighing the sails down with berries. Weighing the sails down with berries becomes heavy as it goes along; down with berries is heavy and it ends the line so that it adds an extra heaviness. The heaviness seemed more important than the decorating. Here is my translation of lines 664-65:

then ivy twines their oars, more snakes along the winding knots
and climbs the ropes weighing the sails down with berries.

Ovid’s use of the four sailors to describe the change into dolphins is beautiful and I tried to follow, though I say slivered when Ovid says

qualia dividuae sinuantur cornua lunae
such as the the horns of the waning moon are curved.

I say

like those slivered horns of the waning moon.

I like slivered; it’s violent, diminished and implies change.

In line 691, I had originally translated I attended his holy rites, then looking over Arthur Golding’s translation And thus his Orgies I frequent I changed rites to orgies because orgy is better.


I’ll end with a non sequitur, some lines from a poem I wrote called Fucking, from Part Three, The Revenge of the Rejected Ones. It’s not a translation, but Bacchus and Ovid had a lot to do with it.

From one end of Sodom to the other of Gomorah
I once walked hand in hand with Jehovah.
He didn’t blink an eye. Just don’t try
to rape his angels. Always ask.
Pan means all: he was half-goat.
Priapus is proper in the garden.
Bacchus with his Grapevines entwines the Oars
and sends the Sailors jumping mad into the Sea
to Dolphins changed in Whips of Waves
where Mothers turn upon their Sons
tearing them Limb from Limb
stuffing them in their Wombs again.
Old time orgy’s what I am when I’m in you coming
hissing out the sun. I’m like the sea
torn from the land in waves that come
to lift to fall not on but into sand
as flame will into ash or breath to death
the wood that’s ash never to be the wood again
where I now dip a finger
not penitent
but with a vague regret?
What was it? What is gone?
I can’t recall orgasm.
And you asleep
arms legs round me
like spokes without a rim
I want to shake awake and ask,
“What we began shall we begin?”

Etruscan water jar, 500 BCE

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