Monday, February 2, 2009

Polyphemus in Love

It is one of the ironies of Ovid that he gives one of the most moving love songs to the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who in previous literature is presented as rather unskilled in speech. But, being smitten by Galatea, love transforms the Cyclops from a ravening killer to an eloquent love poet. Galatea, however, does not return his love, for she loves another, Acis. Recognizing his own seemingly frightening appearance, Polyphemus says:

Don't think me ugly because my body's a bristling thicket
of prickly hair. A tree is ugly without any foliage;
so is a horse, if a mane doesn't cover his tawny neck;
birds are bedecked in plumage, and sheep are clothed in their own wool.
Men look well with a beard and a carpet of hair on their chests.
I've only one eye on my brow, in the middle, but that is as big
as a fair-sized shield. Does it matter? The Sn looks down from the sky
on the whole wide world, and he watches it all with a single eye.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.845-53)

In the larger section and the book as a whole, Ovid does something interesting; he transforms, metamorphosizes if you will, the monsters from Homeric and Virgilian epic into multidimensional characters, filled out by love and loss. Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops, becomes a hopeless, and somewhat eloquent, lover and love poet. Scylla, the monstrous woman with dogs for her lower body, who eats Odysseus' men in the Odyssey, becomes a tragic woman. She is sought by someone she doesn't love. He will not let go of his love for her and seeks help from Circe, but Circe falls for him, and out of spite, transforms Scylla into her monstrous shape. It was, then, in revenge that she ate Odysseus' (now Ulysses') men, since Circe had helped Ulysses and became his lover. Ovid does something very Homeric and un-Homeric at the same time. Like Homer, he evokes strong pathos in his stories, but, unlike Homer, that pathos is directed toward the monstrous characters. We see things from their point of view, and we sympathize with them.

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