From Metamorphoses. Ovid states his poem’s purpose in its opening lines—“My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed/into new bodies”—and then tells some 250 stories of transformation, among them those of Icarus, Pygmalion, and Orpheus. Ovid attributed his exile from Rome by Augustus to “a poem and a mistake”—the former his Art of Love, the latter perhaps his having known about the indiscretions of the emperor’s granddaughter. His books were ordered to be removed from the city’s libraries. Ovid died near the shores of the Black Sea in 17.
Narcissus trifled with so many
water nymphs, nymphs of the wooded mountains,
as well as a host of male admirers.
One of those spurned raised his hands to heaven:
“May he himself love as I have loved him,”
he said, “without obtaining his beloved,”
and Nemesis assented to his prayer.
There was a clear pool of reflecting water
unfrequented by shepherds with their flocks
or grazing mountain goats; no bird or beast,
not even a fallen twig stirred its surface;
its presence nourished greenery around it,
and the surrounding trees would keep it cool.
Worn out and overheated from the chase,
here comes the boy, attracted to this pool
as to its setting, and reclines beside it.
And as he strives to satisfy one thirst,
another is born; drinking, he’s overcome
by the beauty of the image that he sees;
he falls in love with an immaterial hope,
a shadow that he wrongly takes for substance.
Transfixed, suspended like a figure carved
from marble, he looks down at his own face;
stretched out on the ground, stares into his own eyes
and sees a pair of stars worthy of Bacchus,
a head of hair that might adorn Apollo;
those beardless cheeks, that neck of ivory,
the decorative beauty of his face,
and the blushing snow of his complexion;
he admires all that he’s admired for,
for it is he that he himself desires,
all unaware; he praises and is praised,
seeks and is the one that he is seeking;
kindles the flame and is consumed by it.
How many times, in vain, he leans to kiss
the pool’s deceptive surface or to plunge
his arms into the water, keen to clasp
the neck he glimpses but cannot embrace;
and ignorant of what it is he looks at,
he burns for what he sees there all the same,
aroused by the illusion that deceives him.
Why even try to stay this passing fancy?
Child, what you seek is nowhere to be found,
your beloved is lost when you avert your eyes:
that image of an image, without substance,
arrives with you and with you it remains,
and it will leave when you leave—if you can!
For neither his hunger nor his need for rest
can draw him off; prone on the shaded grass,
his insatiate stare fixed on that false shape,
he perishes by his own eyes.
Translated by Charles Martin. © 2004, Charles Martin. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.