Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My soul would sing of metamorphoses

A few days ago I posted here an old Globe column about the metamorphosis of the woolly bear caterpillar into an Isabella moth. That same day I was reading again Ovid's Metamorphoses in the splendid translation by Allen Mandelbaum. That classic poem begins with the creation of the world, a metamorphosis of chaos to order, then follows the subsequent history of the Earth through ages of gold, bronze and iron. The poet then gives us the stories of gods and humans that were part of the intellectual inheritance of his time -- and, at a greater remove, ours.

The Metamorphoses is a saga of constant change of one thing into another, the archetypal transformation perhaps being that of Daphne into a laurel tree when she is pursued -- and caught! -- by Apollo. By this mutation her virginity and, more importantly, her autonomy, is preserved. The moment of change has been a popular subject of the arts, never more strikingly than in the marble statue of Bernini. It has always been a great mystery to me how anyone with Renaissance tools could carve stone with such delicacy.

The book of the world described by science might well be called The Metamorphoses. We are a flux of atoms -- caterpillar to moth, cornflakes to human flesh, stellar atmospheres to laurel leaves. Conservation laws are at the heart of physics; in the flux of change, some things remain the same. Ovid knew this. He knew his own atoms would return into the eternal flow, and who knows but that some of his atoms have made their way into the glass of Italian wine that stands just now at my elbow. Ovid knew too that a kind of immortality would be his, that some things endure through the ages:
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people's lips; and through all time --
if poet's prophecies are ever right --
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life.