Saturday, 12 April 2014

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. 
[Act I, scene I]

So begins William Shakespeare's Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, one of his earlier plays written around 1595 and published in 1597. It was inspired by The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 (front-piece pictured on the right), and the prose version Palace of Pleasure by William Painter (1567), but the tale is much older than that. In 1496 Masuccio Salernitano wrote Mariotto and Gianozza (very similar to Romeo and Juliet), and older still, in Canto VI of Purgatorio Dante writes, "Come see the Capulets and Montagues": Purgatorio was written in the early part of the 14th Century, over two hundred years before Romeo and Juliet, Romeus and Juliet, and Palace of Pleasure. There is evidence to suggest that these versions may have origin in 'Pyramus and Thisbe' from Ovid's Metamorphoses - they too were "a pair of star-cross'd lovers" whose end is comparable to Romeo and Juliet's.

Romeo and Juliet, by Frank Bernard
Dicksee (1884)
In my mind, Romeo and Juliet is an excellent example of a classic that should be read with no preconceptions. Like Wuthering Heights, we've been prepared for an epic love story, a great romance that has survived through the centuries. Romeo has become an idealised lover: the Oxford English Dictionary defines "a Romeo" as "An attractive, passionate male seducer or lover", and Romeo and Juliet's love for each other is so intense that they're prepared not only to leave their families, but ultimately die. But is this the case? This is not a romance and this is not love: Romeo and Juliet is a frightening tale of obsession and lust. I don't say this to devalue it, far from it: as a tale of an intense crush, it is more powerful and moving than many of its kind. I loved Romeo and Juliet.

In the beginning, we see Romeo in love not with Juliet but Rosaline, the niece of Juliet's father Capulet (from the first scene of the first act we know the Montagues and Capulets are at war; they have hated each other for generations), and she has chosen to be celibate ("She hath forsworn to love"), and so we meet Romeo in a very dark, depressed state. He is, as he was with Juliet, full of violent and passionate declarations of love: "One fairer that my love! The all-seeing sun / Ne'er saw her match since first the world begun." His family are concerned - Benvolio tells Lady Montague he has seen Romeo pining "underneath the grove of sycamore" (a sycamore can represent eternity, though in Ancient Egypt it stood on the threshold between life and death: as with Hamlet, the symbolism of flowers and trees are an important part of Shakespeare's poetry and plays). She urges Benvolio to speak with Romeo, and it is in this scene where he reveals his love for Rosaline. Benvolio tells him to forget her and find another ("Examine other beauties"), which, as we know, he does.

Juliet and her nurse, by John Roddam Spencer
Stanhope, 1863.
Seeing Juliet for the first time, Romeo says,
O she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear -
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
On discovering Juliet is a Capulet, he exclaims, "O dear account! My life is my foe's debt". Rosaline (a Capulet) and her "exquisite" beauty have disappeared from his mind, all within an afternoon. The following events are yet faster: it's easy to forget that within less than a week of meeting, Romeo and Juliet would be dead. Later that evening after their first kiss (and words exchanged, so full of religious significance) they decide to get married, which they do the next day. The following day, having learned of her betrothal to Count Paris, Juliet plans with the Friar to take a drug that will make her appear to be dead:
Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilléd liquor drink thou off,
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest...
Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, 1996.
She takes the potion that evening, and the next morning is found apparently dead. Romeo, who is banished for killing Juliet's cousin Tybalt, hears she is dead but has not received the message from the Friar. He buys poison to kill himself, and the next day, the final day, Romeo sees her in the crypt. He drinks the poison, Juliet wakes up finding him dead and, like Thisbe, stabs herself with her lover's sword.

This is a tragedy, there is no doubt of that. They were star-crossed lovers, and the portents of doom were seen early with references to stars ("Then I defy you, stars!", "I fear, too early: for my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars", and " O, here / Will I set up my everlasting rest, / And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars / From this world-wearied flesh"), as well as words such as "fatal", and "fortune's fool". Also, Mercutio's mention of Dido, Cleopatra, Hero, and Thisbe too: in the Aeneid, Dido killed herself after she was deserted by Aeneas; Cleopatra allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake after Anthony, who has stabbed himself, believing her to be dead; Hero drowned herself after her lover drowned, and Thisbe, as I've said, stabbed herself on finding her lover had killed himself.

As for love, this I do question. A five day old love, and a man (we can guess he's in his mid to late teens; Juliet "hath not seen the change of fourteen years") whose all-consuming eternal love for one shifted within the space of a few hours to another. It was too short to be enduring, and too quick to be deep. It was lust, as I said, and obsession. It is the crush of two teenagers that would result in their death, and the death of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and Lady Montague. If it is love, then it is a destructive love. Furthermore, I do not see it as The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, only the tragedy of Juliet. Romeo is too mercurial, it is too obvious that had they have lived, he would have been lusting after the next "pretty piece of flesh" soon after. This is perhaps unkind of me: he was young and passionate, and as much a victim of it as Juliet was, but as I pitied Hamlet's Ophelia, so too I pity Romeo's Juliet.

I'm glad to have re-read this play. When I first read it many years ago I was full of preconceptions and ideas of how I thought it played out, and I missed what a whirlwind of events it was. It is exceptionally high-paced, and truly it is so very beautiful. I think in revisiting Shakespeare I may be warming to him a little more!

Further Reading

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope.

From March through to August, Amanda and Melissa are hosting the Chronicles of Barsetshire read-along beginning with the first in the series, The Warden.

The Warden (which was originally going to be titled The Precentor) was completed in 1854 (it was sent to William Longman, a publisher, on 8th October) and first published in January 1855, and it was Anthony Trollope's fourth novel (following The Macdermots of Ballycloran, 1847, The Kellys and the O'Kellys, 1848, and La Vendée: An Historical Romance, 1850).  

The idea for The Warden was born when Trollope had returned to England from Ireland and was on a fact-finding mission to develop the rural delivery of letters (Trollope worked for the General Post Office from 1834 to 1867 and is credited with introducing the post box, or pillar box, to Great Britain). During this time he visited Salisbury in Wiltshire, in the south west of England (in the news recently because of the floods). He wrote in his autobiography (An Autobiography, 1883) that he had never lived in a cathedral city other than London, nor had he intimately known any clergymen, yet in Salisbury he was inspired to write The Warden, and indeed the Chronicles of Barsetshire. In The Warden, Trollope tells the story of Septimus Harding, a precentor of the church and warden of Hiram's Hospital. He is a good man who is in possession of a vast income, which, at the time, the Church of England was criticised for. As Trollope writes in the second chapter,
Mr. Harding has now been precentor of Barchester for ten years now; and, alas, the murmurs respecting the proceeds of Hiram's estate are again becoming audible. It is not that anyone begrudges to Mr. Harding the income which he enjoys, and the comfortable place which so well becomes him; but such matters have begun to be talked about in various parts of England. Eager pushing politicians have asserted in the House of Commons, with very telling indignation, that the grasping priests of the Church of England are gorged with wealth which the charity of former times has left for the solace of the aged, or the education of the young. The well-known case of the Hospital of St. Cross has even come before the law courts of the country, and the struggles of Mr. Whiston, at Rochester, have met with sympathy and support. Men are beginning to say that these things must be looked into.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop Grounds, by
John Constable (1825)
"These things" were indeed a matter of interest. Victoria Glendinning in her biography of Trollope wrote of "hostile press reports" about almshouses (such as Hiram's Hospital") and other charitable donations "providing incomes for idle clergymen". Whilst Trollope agreed in principle with the press, he found their method, their attacks, as a "second evil": in his autobiography, Trollope writes,
The archdeacon came whole from my brain after this fashion;—but in writing about clergymen generally, I had to pick up as I went whatever I might know or pretend to know about them. But my first idea had no reference to clergymen in general. I had been struck by two opposite evils,—or what seemed to me to be evils,—and with an absence of all art-judgement in such matters, I thought that I might be able to expose them, or rather to describe them, both in one and the same tale. The first evil was the possession by the Church of certain funds and endowments which had been intended for charitable purposes, but which had been allowed to become incomes for idle Church dignitaries. There had been more than one such case brought to public notice at the time, in which there seemed to have been an egregious malversation of charitable purposes. The second evil was its very opposite. Though I had been much struck by the injustice above described, I had also often been angered by the undeserved severity of the newspapers towards the recipients of such incomes, who could hardly be considered to be the chief sinners in the matter. When a man is appointed to a place, it is natural that he should accept the income allotted to that place without much inquiry. It is seldom that he will be the first to find out that his services are overpaid. Though he be called upon only to look beautiful and to be dignified upon State occasions, he will think £2000 a year little enough for such beauty and dignity as he brings to the task. I felt that there had been some tearing to pieces which might have been spared. 
Septimus Harding (Donald Pleasance)
and Eleanor (Janet Maw) in the
BBC's Barchester Chronicles. 
Although in love with Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor, it is John Bold in The Warden who determines to expose the "first evil", and he enlists 'The Jupiter' (a thin disguise of 'The Times', used in all of the Barchester Chronicles, as well as Trollope's The Bertrams, 1859, and The Struggles of Brown, Jones & Robinson, 1862) to aid him in his quest. The editor, who Trollope wryly notes, "compounded thunderbolts for the destruction of all that is evil, and for the furtherance of all that is good, in this and other hemispheres", portrays Harding as a selfish and greedy man (nothing could be further from the truth), and the image is eagerly taken up by Dr. Pessimist Anticant and Mr. Popular Sentiment, parodies of Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens. Here's the description of Mr. Popular Sentiment from Chapter XV:
Of all such reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr. Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest. Namby-pamby in these days is not thrown away if it be introduced in the proper quarters. Divine peeresses are no longer interesting, though possessed of every virtue; but a pattern peasant or an immaculate manufacturing hero may talk as much twaddle as one of Mrs. Ratcliffe's heroines, and still be listened to. Perhaps, however, Mr. Sentiment's great attraction is in his second-rate characters. If his heroes and heroines walk upon stilts as heroes and heroines, I fear, ever must, their attendant satellites are as natural as though one met them in the street: they walk and talk like men and women, and live among our friends a rattling, lively life — yes, live, and will live till the names of their callings shall be forgotten in their own, and Buckett and Mrs. Gamp will be the only words left to us to signify detective police officer or a monthly nurse.
Anthony Trollope, by 'Spy'
(Leslie Wood) for Vanity Fair,
5th April 1873).
How it all resolves itself: well, as ever I won't spoil it! But this is one very interesting novel for the subject matter, the portrayal of the social lives of the clergy in the 19th Century, and the attack on Dickens, and it surprises me that it's not generally well received. Even at the time of publication there was little interest in it (as Trollope himself notes, "The novel-reading world did not go mad about The Warden..."). I love it, though - it's a gentle novel, with real, 'whole' characters (George Orwell described it as one of his best works), and Septimus Harding is one of my favourite characters of all time. The novel is the first of a series, but it is not merely that, to me it stands alone also. I've loved Trollope for a long time for his informal conversational style. As Henry James wrote, Trollope was one of those writers "who have helped the heart of man to know itself".


Tuesday, 1 April 2014


The very first day of April, and I have been so busy recently I could happily go to bed and sleep the rest of the day away! Things, as I've said previously, have been hectic, but they're gradually starting to calm down a little: the worst of it is over, in short.

March was a very good reading month, but not so much a blogging month: I did have to make the choice between reading and blogging and the former won: I read fifteen books in March, ten of which were from my Classic Club list (now only twenty to go!). I'm so looking forward to finishing my list, if only so I can write a new one. Reckon I'll finish it around autumn time; I certainly don't plan on reading ten in April and May!

As for March reviews -
I still have a few more to write: I finished The Warden for the Chronicles of Barsetshire read-along, and I want to write about that in the next few days, and I do want to write something on Oblomov (I've written a paragraph so far). Finally, I'm still reading The Odyssey (I think everyone who joined in with that read-along has finished!), so by the end of the month I'll have something to say about that one. 

So, April. Firstly, I'm about half way through Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and I do want to write about that. Also - the April highlight - Fanda is hosting the second Zoladdiction month, and I'm aiming to at least read and review The Belly of Paris, and I like to think I'll get on to The Conquest of Plassans. I hope that I'll be ready to make my Zola website public next year, which involves re-reading the Rougon-Macquart novels (any excuse!). I'm also contemplating re-reading Lolita for my 25 re-reads, and I'm thinking I might also read Moby-Dick by Herman Melville for The Classics Club Transcendental Literature Month. Quite a lot of re-reading going on, in short! Oh, and how could I forget - April is the month for Barsetshire Towers, another re-read, to join in with the aforementioned Chronicles of Barsetshire read-along. In May, we'll be up to Doctor Thorne - I haven't read this, nor any of the following books from this series.

As for new books (new to me, anyway) - I do plan to read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, and a few others from my Classics Club list. I may even re-visit D. H. Lawrence (the Women in Love incident is very hard to recover from: I do believe it is the worst book I've ever read), though I don't know if I'll go for The Rainbow or Sons and Lovers (anyone have any thoughts?).

And that is how April is looking! For now, I'm going to go to bed and read Oliver Twist. Love this book!

Anyone got any exciting April plans?

Monday, 31 March 2014

Russian Literature 2014: First Check-in.

We're almost a quarter of the way through 2014 (!), and, as promised, here is the first check-in post for the Russian Literature 2014 Challenge

I aimed to read 12 Russian classics this year, and so far I've read four and reviewed two (though one, Oblomov, is on the way for next week):
And, for good measure, I wrote a little about Virginia Woolf's essay on Russian Literature, 'A Russian Point of View', from The Common Reader: First Series

So, how is everyone else getting along? Anyone tackled War and Peace yet? If you've read or written anything about Russian Literature, let everyone know by leaving a comment to this post, linking your posts in the comments if you've managed to write any, or if you want, write a check-in post on your blog and let us know, again by linking it in the comments (either cut and paste the url(s) or use this code:
I hope everyone is enjoying this challenge! I'm thinking my next Russian novel will be August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn, which is also on my Classics Club list. I'm a little intimidated by this one!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

New stash, and other things.

Barter Books.
Sunday was my birthday, and yesterday I had a birthday outing to Barter Books, where I spent my birthday money! Here's what I got:

  • The Complete Poems by Emily Jane Brontë. I haven't read much poetry at all by the Brontës, so it's time to remedy that. 
  • Kilvert's Diary by Rev. Francis Kilvert. A few years ago I read The Assassin's Cloak, an anthology of diarists including Kilvert (who was writing in the late 19th Century). I remembered particularly enjoying his entries, so I've been on the look out ever since. 
  • The Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802 by Rev. James Woodforde. Seeing this in the biography section reminded me to look out for Kilvert, so that itself was fortuitous! But this one looks intriguing: it's remarkable for being rather unremarkable - Rev. Woodforde wrote in his diary almost every day for fifty years, and he chronicles his day to day activities. In a way, it's like finding an everyday relic from the past - it's always exciting to find treasure, but the treasure is untypical; one learns a lot more from the mundane. And, that said, it most likely isn't a mundane read, I think it will be fascinating.
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. This was the only title on my Classics Club list that I didn't own or have access to. 
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I first read about this when reading an essay on Virginia Woolf's Orlando and I've wanted to read it for a while.
  • Praise of Folly by Erasmus. I've read next to nothing from the Renaissance period, and I think this will be a good start!
  • Germinal by Émile Zola, translated by Leonard Tancock. My copy of Germinal translated by Peter Collier is one of my most favourite books, but I'm interested to see how a different translation would fare. 
  • Electra and Other Plays by Sophocles. Sophocles is 32 in The Guardian Top 50 Literary Figures, and I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with him!
  • A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck. It's Steinbeck, need I say more? 
  • Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans. Described on the back as "A key text for Wilde; for Zola 'a terrible blow to Naturalism'; and for the public, a work of alarming depravity" - it's hard not to want to read this!
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I wasn't greatly into Crime and Punishment translated by Jessie Coulson, yet I've loved the other "big four" (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov) so perhaps I'll prefer this translation.
  • Esther Waters by George Moore. I've not read anything by George Moore, and this was described as being "one of the first English novels to defeat Victorian moral censorship", so I think it's an important one. 
  • Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. The only German Literature I've read is Goethe, and this is described as "Possibly the most famous German novel of the ninteenth century", comparable with both Flaubert and Chekhov. I'm looking forward to this. Interestingly, Douglas Parmée, the translator, also translated Émile Zola's The Earth, which is one of the few Zolas I didn't like, so we'll see what I make of it.
  • Selected Letters by Madame de Sévigné. These were written between 1648 - 1696, and it will be good to get an insight into what was happening in France then.
Finally, on my birthday itself, my mother gave me Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst. Having planted about three or four plants in the garden now, I fancy myself as a gardener, so this will be some inspiration! It's a beautiful book, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

And - as I was putting these on LibraryThing, I noticed I now have over a thousand books! This has been a life-long goal! If you want to see what I've got, they're all here

So, there's my new stash!

This week is set to be intensely busy, and I may not be around so much. I finished Oblomov and I'm hoping to write a few words on it, and I do want to at least read The Warden before the month is out (I may have to leave off reviewing it until early April). So, I may not be around so much. Oh, and a word on The Odyssey - I'm still reading it, and I'm quite into it, but I won't finish it this month for sure, and again, it'll be April before I get to write about it. Hopefully I'll surprise myself, but it's unlikely!

Have a good week, everyone!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Kiss, by Karolina Světlá.

This was a chance read: a few days ago I was going through some of my mother's books and I found Selected Czech Tales translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick (published in 1928 by Oxford University Press). This morning I began reading them, beginning with The Kiss by Karolina Světlá, and I thought I'd write a little about the story and do some research into this author who, until this morning, I hadn't come across. I have to say - the majority of what I have read has been written in Czech and translated by Google, so there's every chance some of this may be inaccurate (I do hope not). If this is the case then my apologies, and I hope there's someone out there who can correct me if I'm wrong anywhere. Furthermore, not all of the titles I have mentioned could be translated, but where possible I have give the English translation. 

The Kiss, or Hubička in it's original language, is a short story which was written in 1871. It was written by Karolina Světlá (born in 1830 in Prague), who, before marrying Petr Mužák in 1852, was known as Johana Rottová (Karolina Světlá was a pseudonym). She was a part of the 'Májovci', or the 'May School', which published a year book titled Máj (May), and one of it's aims was to reintroduce Czech as a literary language and improve the status of their nation in the Austria-Hungary empire whilst fighting for liberty, justice, and democracy. Her sister, Sofie Podlipská, was the Czech translator of the French novelist George Sand (author of Indiana), and the two sisters greatly admired Sand's work. In 1871, Světlá founded the 'Ženský výrobní spolek český' ('The women's guild of Czech production') to help girls from poor families, and she wrote many articles on the status of women in society.

From what I've read about Světlá, it seems she wrote a lot about rural life, some of which (for example Zvonečková královna and Nemodlenec) are anti-Catholic. Marriage is a common theme: Vesnický román (1867), or Village Novel, is about a loveless marriage, and love and relationships feature also in Kříž u potoka (Cross at the Brook, 1868) and Upomínky (Reminders, 1874). In Kantůrčice she writes about problems women face in society. In Hubička, or The Kiss, which is the short story I read this morning, Světlá writes about Lukáš Paloučku, who is in love with Vendulku Palouckou and she with him, however he was unable to marry her as their great-grandfathers were brothers (this was legal, and the church did not object: the objection rested solely with Lukáš' parents). He marries another, and Vendulku refuses to marry, wishing to remain faithful to him, however (right at the very beginning of the book, this isn't really a spoiler) his wife dies and they are free to marry each other. Paloučku, Vendulku's father, has misgivings about the match and warns them that they would be incompatible owing to their stubbornness, however they pay no heed and Vendulku goes to live with Lukáš before their marriage. When they are alone, Lukáš tries to kiss Vendulku, but she refuses, and what ensues is a tale of a great battle of wills that quickly gets out of hand.

As I've said, I read the translation by Marie Busch and Otto Pick, neither of whom I know anything about. It's a fairly early translation first published in 1925, but really I'm in no position to comment on whether or not it is adequate (having struggled with Google's translations, any translation seems to me a masterpiece now). All I can say is I enjoyed it so very much, and I adored the opening - the descriptions of village life, particularly women in village life, and the gossip (and the pleasures of gossip) that takes place in these little communities. Světlá writes,
To whomsoever this may not be a repetition of a well-known feature, it should be known that gossip in and out of season is as indispensable to us mountain-dwellers, as water to a fish. If anyone ever were to stop out talking and chattering, he would condemn us to death. We who live around the Jeschken Mountain would rather do without daily bread and content ourselves with dry potatoes, that renounce our sweetest habit. We will never give up gossiping; it eases life's burdens, steels our coourage, keeps us healthy - in short, gossip is as important as going to confession.
I'm looking forward to reading a little more by Karolina Světlá when (if, perhaps) any more comes my way. It's very exciting to come across an author who is important to literature, but it's frustrating that it is so hard to come across much information in English. I loved the realism in it, the conflict, the questions raised, and the descriptions of village life. I'm so happy to have found Světlá. One to watch out for. And, of course, it's exciting to branch out from the traditional Western Canon and find new (to me) and important authors of the classics. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the short stories in this collection.

I'll conclude with this YouTube clip of the operatic version of The Kiss, composed by Bedřich Smetana and first performed in Prague in 1876.

Further reading:

Friday, 21 March 2014

Metamorphoses, by Ovid.

Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy -
not Jupiter's wrath, nor fire or sword, now devouring time.
That day which has power over nothing except this body of mine
may come when it will and end the uncertain span of my life.
But the finer part of myself shall sweep me into eternity,
higher than all of the stars. My name shall be never forgotten.
Wherever the might of Rome extends in the lands she has conquered,
the people shall read and recite my words. Throughout all ages,
if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame.
- Epilogue of Metamorphoses.
From January 1st to 6th March I have been reading Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso. The original title, Metamorphoseon Libri ('the book of transformations') comes from the Greek word μεταμόρφωσις, meaning 'to transform', and it has associations with magic, sorcery, or divine intervention. It was completed around 8 AD, 2006 years ago, and has influenced the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Ted Hughes (Tales from Ovid is one of the best books I've ever read), and Émile Zola, as well as a great many painters such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Titian.

'Apollo and Daphne', by John William
Waterhouse (1908).
It was Ted Hughes that introduced me to Ovid with his Tales from Ovid, a collection of fourteen tales including Creation, Midas, Pyramus and Thisbe, Echo and Narcissus, Niobe, and Pygmalion. Ovid's Metamorphoses contains over 250 tales within its 15 books, in which he describes creation, establishment of a world order, the relationship of the gods and goddesses with humanity, the Trojan War, and recounts the stories of Medea and Jason, Venus and Adonis, Io, Apollo and Daphne, the Minotour, Icarus, Bacchus, Echo and Narcissus, and a great many other tales, a number of which may be familiar to the reader. It is vast, epic (though scholars argue that classifying it as "an epic" is problematic): around 12 000 verses of chaos, drama, mirth, violence, tragedy, everything. I can't help but feel that if one understands and really involves oneself in Metamorphoses, the bulk of the Western Canon will fall into place. For that, I will be re-reading Metamorphoses, possibly as soon as next year. It is one to be read a number of times: this is my first reading and so I am overwhelmed by it. It is impossible to review this in straight lines because there are no straight lines in Ovid. Metamorphoses leaps and crashes, it has a frenetic energy, and I allowed myself to be carried away by it, which was both thrilling and disconcerting. 

Jason and Medea, by John William
Waterhouse (1907).
The one thread that runs through, which goes without saying of course, is metamorphosis; change, transformation. Metamorphoses begins with these words,
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas 
corporadi, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen! 
[Changes of shape, new forms, are the themes which my spirit impels me
now to recite. Inspire me, O Gods (it is you who have even 
transformed by art), and spin me a thread from the
world's beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.]

Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903).
Change manifests in different ways: sometimes, a character quite literally morphs into something else: Daphne turns into a laurel tree to escape Apollo, who is trying to rape her (Book I). Scylla is transformed by Circe into a monster (Book VIII) and is set opposite Charybdis (Scylla and Charybdis appear in The Odyssey by Homer and later James Joyce's Ulysses), Io is turned into a snowy white heifer by Jupiter, seeking to hide his infidelity from his wife (and sister) Juno (Book I), who herself turn punishes Echo (from the Greek "ἦχος", meaning "sound") by making her unable to speak, save repeating the words of others (Book III). Callisto (in Greek "Καλλίστη", meaning "most beautiful") is also punished by Juno, who turns her into a bear and sets her amongst the stars (Book II). In other examples, Ovid is more subtle; there are metaphorical metamorphoses as it were, and it isn't only humans that change: in Pyramus and Thisbe, for example, it is a mulberry tree that undergoes the transformation.

Thisbe, by John William
Waterhouse, 1909.
Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe (Book IV) was a great source of inspiration for Émile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons (the first of his Rougon Macquart series). In Ovid, the two are frustrated by only being able to talk through the small chink, they conspire to pass the guards and meet face to face:
… after
their tale of woe, they made a decision: when all was quiet
that night, they would try to elude their guards and steal out of doors;
then once they'd escaped from their homes, they'd abandoned the city as well.
In case they got lost on their journey out in the open country,
their rendezvous would be Ninus' tomb, where they'd hide in the shade
of a certain tree – a tree which was tall and heavily laden
with snow-white berries, a mulberry – close to a cooling fountain.
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe ends with a kind of Romeo and Juliet tragedy: Thisbe is attacked by a wild beast, however survives, however Pyramus finds her blood-red cloak and plunges his sword in his side:
Mine is the guilty soul. Poor girl, it is I who've
destroyed you
by making you find your way at night to this frightening place,
without being there to meet you...
Thisbe finds his body and kills herself,
… then placing the tip of the sword close under her breast
she fell on the steely weapon, still warm with her Pyramus' blood
Those prayers, however, had touched the hearts of the gods and the parents:
the fruit of the mulberry tree, when it ripens, is now dark red;
and the ashes surviving the funeral pyres are at rest in the same urn.
Iin Zola, the two lovers are Silvère and Miette who meet when Silvère climbs the wall that divides their families' property. They open a door, which is part of the wall, which, on discovering this, brings back terrible memories for Silvère's Aunt Dide. Following this episode, Miette and Silvère resolve to meet elsewhere, in the old cemetery of Jas-Meiffren, Plassans. They climb up a mulberry tree and sit underneath (as Pyramus and Thisbe did before them) on the tombstone bearing the inscription “Here lies... Marie... died”, where, on the night of the coup d'etat, they wait to join the insurgents from La Palud and Saint-Martin-de-Vaulx.

And it was not only Zola who was inspired by Ovid. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and there are other references in Cervantes, Dumas, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Edith Wharton.

Of course, there is a great deal more to say on Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is densely packed with tales that have been inspired and gone on to inspire a great many. Ovid raises humanity and lowers the gods and goddesses, he inspires, he shocks with tales of incest and rape; it's dark and light and everything in between. And, as I say, it is the kind of book to return to. I don't regret being carried along by it as I was, but I think it would be fascinating and very enlightening to read it slowly and dwell upon each and every story. Pyramus and Thisbe is certainly one of my favourites, but I loved the tale of Midas, who is cursed by Bacchus with the "golden touch" (Book XI). And Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor who falls in love with his statue (Book X) and Aphrodite, who takes pity on him, is a source of inspiration for Edward Burne Jones:

The Heart Desires
The Hand Refrains
The Godhead Fires
The Soul Attains
Metamorphoses is a remarkable work, and a must-read not least because of the impact it has had on the Western Canon, but it is also thoroughly engaging and very readable. For years I'd been intimidated by it, but that was completely unfounded! I'm looking forward to reading it again and learning more about Ovid, and really involving myself in each tale.