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Into something new and strange! — Lead out unbroken song

Here's a post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 4 years ago, in 2020, on the World Wide Web.

To-day in the world of Greek and Roman Myths, stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses are usually carried off, willy-nilly,[1] and dropped into mythologickal source-books to be read as stand-alone tales. Or they are redeployed as background stories for building the world of modern fantasy novels. So it goes, and there are plenty of instances in which this is done well and we’re all the richer for it. But the Metamorphoses itself is written as a single epic poem — or a sort of one, anyway. The Iliad sings the rage of Achilles over a few weeks of the ninth year of the Trojan War; the Odyssey and the Aeneid tell or sing of a man and his wandering over the course of years. Metamorphoses promises to tell of the theme (altered forms, new bodies) in unbroken song from creation of the universe to the narrator’s own times in the days of Caesar Augustus.

Here are the opening four lines of Metamorphosis, Book I in their original Latin.[2]

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

The opening is hard to translate directly into English. Latin is a highly inflected language: grammatical roles within a sentence are determined mainly by word-endings, not by word-order (as in English or modern Romance languages). So you can arrange the same words into all kinds of different orders without losing the meaning of the parts.[3] Latin poetry exploits unusual, inverted, infixed or interspersed word orders much more than Latin prose does, and Ovid especially loves to do this in the Metamorphoses, whether for rhetorical effect, or just for the hell of it. Here’s a word-by-word breakdown of the Latin:

prep.adj., neut. acc. pl.v., 3d sg. pres. act. ind.n., masc. nom. sg.part., perf. pass., fem. acc. pl.v., pres. act. inf.n., fem. acc. pl.
[into][new][carries off][mind]
[soul, spirit]
[changed, altered][4][to tell, to speak][forms, shapes]
n., neut acc pl.n., masc voc plperf. pass. part., neut dat plconjpron., 2d pl accv., 2d pl perf. act. ind.[5]conj.pron., fem acc pl
[things begun]
v., 2d pl pres act imperadj, neut dat pladj., fem abl sgprepn., fem abl sgn., masc gen sg
[breathe upon]
[blow on][6]
[my][and also the first][from][origin][of the world]
prepadj., neut acc pladj., neut acc sgv., 2d pl pres act imperadj., neut acc pln., neut acc sg
[to, toward][my][unending, continuous][lead out][times][song]

The word order makes it impossible to translate word-for-word into grammatical English — the first two words, In nova… agree with the last word of the opening clause, corpora, and wrap around the rest of the sentence;[7] fert animus… dicere (a mind carries me off to tell) is interspersed with, or shuffled into, mutatas… formas (altered forms). A word-for-word translation would be gibberish:

Into new– it carries (me) off, a mind does, of altered things, to tell– forms–
Bodies! …

Here’s a prosy sort of translation, going clause by clause, that tries to get the literal meaning into grammatical English:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

A mind carries me away to tell of forms changed into new bodies; o gods, as you have changed both yourselves and others, breathe upon my undertakings, and from the first beginning of the world, to my times, lead out an unbroken song.[8]

In my prosy translation we lead off with a mind, a mood, my soul, at the very start, but in the Latin poem animus is right in the middle of the line. To keep up with English grammar, the easiest thing to do is to sacrifice Latin word-order. But the word order in the Latin is important. Classical epics have a topic, a subject that they tell or sing, often introduced in the first word or the opening few words of the poem.[9] The topic of the Metamorphoses is In nova… (corpora) that is, Into new (bodies)! — or if we grant the effects of the long break (down to the next line) before we find out that the nova are in fact corpora, you might think of it as Into something new… This won’t make for a fluent sort of poem, but if we try to translate poetically into units that preserve something like the order in which the opening introduces its themes, word by word, at the cost of some grammatically necessary repetition, we’d get something more like this:

Into something new —
a mind carries me off to tell —
of shapes so changed into new bodies;
o Gods, these things I’ve begun–
for You have changed Yourselves, and others too–
Breathe upon my works–
and from the first beginning of the world,
to my own times
lead out an unbroken song.

Let’s try to put some of all that together into a roughly line-by-line verse translation. I’ve tried to keep some indication of places where the poet uses word order for an effect.


In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

Invocation: Into Something New and Strange

Transformed! A mind takes me, — to tell of figures changed into new
bodies. Gods, — You transformed Yourselves, others too, — so breathe
upon the things I have begun: from the world’s first beginning,
without pause through to my own day, lead out an unbroken song.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got in my notebook. What do you think? How would you handle these lines?

All the original translations that I post to this blog are freely available in the public domain.

  1. [1]And often first edited to taste, or to bring them into conformity with details taken from other stories that the re-teller knows from Homer, or Vergil, or Bulfinch’s.
  2. [2]I got the text from P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses at the Perseus Digital Library; they transcribed the text from Hugo Magnus’s edition of 1892 (Gotha: Friedr. Andr. Perthes).
  3. [3]puella amat puerum and puerum amat puella both mean the same thing, but the girl loves the boy and the boy loves the girl do not. Puella is in the nominative case, so it must be the subject of the verb whether it comes before or after. Puerum is in the accusative, which in this sentence indicates that it is the direct object of the verb, even if it comes before.
  4. [4]Or moved, mutated, different, successive.
  5. [5]Syncopated form, short for mutavistis.
  6. [6]Often said of the gods or of winds or sea, to indicate favor or providential encouragement.
  7. [7]You can tell nova is intended to modify corpora because they agree in case, number and gender (neuter, plural, accusative). Corpora is in the accusative because it is governed by the preposition In, which means located in, within on with an ablative object, and into, onto with an accusative object.
  8. [8]Some notes on grammatical and semantic issues in making the translation: In nova… corpora: neuter accusative plural, together with mutatas… formas, forms altered into new bodies. In the accusative because they are the object of preposition in, i.e., suggesting motion into or onto. Translators pretty uniformly translate this according to one possible meaning, the human form, figure or body. I’ve done the same. But it could also used to mean appearances or beauty. animus, a mind — Classical Latin doesn’t have or need definite or indefinite articles, so a mind, the mind, mind, Mind are all possible here. Could be translated as mind, thought, intelligence, spirit, soul, life-force, character, will, emotion, mood or temper. The interesting thing here, compared to the tradition of ancient Greek epic, is that the poet says *he* is moved to tell. He asks the gods to aid what he’s undertaken, but he, not they, has undertaken the project. In Homer, the invocation asks the goddess or the muse to sing through the poet. Vergil, like Ovid, begins Of arms and the man I sing. Fert… dicere: bears (me) off, carries (me) away to tell. Fert is a standard word for carrying or bearing a burden, also often used to mean take, take away, carry away or carry off. (When used of a person, it can mean to capture, abduct or rape — a common theme throughout the tales in the poem.) di: vocative plural, calling out to some gods or all the gods. coeptis… meis: lit. my things begun or undertaken; it took me forever to figure out how these fit together with the clause, but these are in the dative here, because they are a dative object for the intransitive form of adspirate See notes on transitive and intransitive forms in Wiktionary: aspiro. nam vos mutastis et illas: this is highly condensed, but vos could be either nominative or accusative according to the form of the word; mutastis is a contraction or syncopated form, shortened from mutavistis. In context, y’all (that is, di, the gods) would be an appropriate subject for the 2nd person plural mutastis, but I think the fem. acc. pl. et illas, lit. and those, and those (others), suggests vos is supposed to be a direct object paired together with the others (other shapes, besides their own), that the gods have transformed into new bodies. Primaque ab origine: The -que suffix (too, also) breaks off the word in front of it from the previous clause; ablative feminine prima, first, agrees with origine, origin or beginning. ad mea… tempora, perpetuum… carmen: to my times, unending or nonstop song. Again, agreement determines which adjective goes with which noun, despite the shuffled word-order. deducite: Literally, lead out (y’all); it can mean to draw out or spin, as a thread, to stretch out or extend, to pull out, as a ship from harbor. It could also mean escort or accompany, if you think that the poet also here wants to emphasize his own role in composing the poem, and is asking the gods to accompany the unceasing song not to spin it out themselves.
  9. [9]The Iliad 1.1: meninRAGE; the Iliad is the song of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles. The Odyssey 1.1: andrathe man; the Odyssey tells us the man of many ways. Aeneid 1.1: arma virumque; the Aeneid sings arms and the man, who first….

2 replies to Into something new and strange! — Lead out unbroken song Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2020-05-09:

    […] talked a bit about the epic structure and the opening lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I. The Homeric epics begin in medias res — with a quarrel […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2020-05-25 – Quem dixere CHAOS: Before sea and dry lands and heaven over all, the senseless weight and the seeds of ill-joined things in strife!:

    […] Modifiers aren’t nearly as interspersed, or as far separated from the nouns they modify, as they were in the opening invocation, but they still break across some gaps, especially in the second line and the last […]

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