Arthur Golding and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Golding and Ovid

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the most influential pieces of literature that has ever been written and today’s post is about Arthur Golding’s 1567 English translation of this well-known text. If you don’t know who Arthur Golding is or why this translation is considered ‘important’ for English literature, don’t worry because that’s what today’s post is all about.

Before I get into the main body of this post, I thought it might be a good idea to introduce Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Arthur Golding.

The Metamorphoses (Latin: Metamorphōseōn librī) is a Latin narrative poem by Ovid. The title translates to the ‘Book of Transformations’ and the title emphasises that this is a poem that focuses on the theme of transformation. It is considered to be Ovid’s magnum opus. First published in 8 AD, the poem consists of 11,995 lines, 15 books and over 250 myths. The poem recounts the history of the world, starting from its creation and concluding with the deification of Julius Caesar.

Arthur Golding (c.1536 – 1606) was an English translator who is now best known for translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He translated over 30 works from Latin into English and in his own time he was most famous for his translations of Caesar’s Commentaries. His translations of the sermons of John Calvin were also very famous in Elizabethan England and they were important in spreading the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation.

Golding wasn’t the first person to translate the Metamorphoses into English and William Caxton, who is thought to have introduced the printing press to England, produced the first translation of the text on 22 April 1480. This translation was in prose and it is a literal rendering of a French translation known as the Ovide Moralisé rather than Ovid’s original Latin text. Golding’s 1576 translation is the next significant translation of the text.

Okay, moving on to Golding’s actual translation now.

Firstly, it’s a full translation of Ovid’s poem. All fifteen books are included. Secondly, it’s a verse translation rather than a prose translation. Ovid wrote the original poem in dactylic hexameter, known as ‘heroic hexameter’, while Golding’s was written in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter. They’re both hexameters, six feet per line, so what’s the difference? A ‘dactylic’ foot is formed with one long followed by two short syllables whereas an ‘iambic’ foot is a short syllable followed by a long syllable. Iambic hexameter was not as popular as iambic pentameter but it was still a common choice for English poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Golding included an epistle and a prologue in his translation, both in the same meter as the poem itself.

One thing I’ve always been fascinated by is Golding’s attempts to assimilate the Metamorphoses into early modern English culture. I have written about this in my academic life but I’m actually going to refer to Joseph Wallace’s article, ‘Strong stomachs: Arthur Golding, Ovid, and cultural assimilation’ in this section.

Wallace notes that ‘Arthur Golding’s prefaces to his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses exemplify the early modern discourse of cultural assimilation’ as he envisioned ‘porous, permeable boundaries separating Christian culture from the pagan culture of Ovid’s poem’ and Golding uses the prefatory material to argue that there are points of contact between Golding’s own culture and Ovid’s culture.1 It may seem odd that Golding tried to link his own world to Ovid’s, despite the paganism of Ovid’s Rome clashing with the firmly Protestant values of Elizabethan England, but, as Wallace suggests, Golding is attempting to express the ‘universality’ of Ovid’s poem.2 However, although Golding encourages his reader to eat Ovid’s poem, he warns against being devoured by the ‘enticing’ pagan imagery3:

Behold, by sent of reason and by perfect syght I fynd
A Panther heere, whose peinted cote with yellow spots like gold
And pleasant smell allure myne eyes and senses too behold.
But well I know his face is grim and feerce, which he dooth hyde
Too this intent, that whyle I thus stand gazing on his hyde,
He may devour mee unbewares.4

Wallace argues that ‘[t]his warning is the necessary corollary to the emphasis on the material similarity of the pagan world to the Christian one’ as ‘such similarity might privilege the dangerous idea that material nature, and the commonality of natural beneficence, can serve as a basis for religious community’.5 So, although there are commonalities between Elizabethan culture and Roman culture, they are material rather than spiritual.

Wallace concludes his article by claiming that through his translation of the Metamorphoses, ‘Golding could portray the act of reading as a material encounter with a culture whose values and practices still had contemporary relevance’ and this line resonated with me because we still view reading in this way today.6 We read and consume classic literature because these texts, no matter their age nor their language, still hold relevance with us today but, like Golding emphasises, we must be careful that we are not devoured by the aspects of these texts that do not align with the more progressive values of our own culture.

There are newer translations of the poem available and I thought it might be an interesting exercise to show the differences between the two that I own, Golding’s and David Raeburn’s.

Raeburn’s translation aims to appeal to a readership who have little to no knowledge of Latin and may never have encountered Ovid or the Metamorphoses before whereas Golding was certainly writing for a readership who knew the tales of the Metamorphoses and had probably read the original Latin poem. Also, it’s worth remembering that Golding’s translation is from 1567 while Raeburn’s is from 2004 so there will be some language differences

Book One – Golding

Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate,
Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they [that] wrought this wōdrous feate)
To further this mine enterprise. And from the world begunne,
Graunt that my verse may to my time, his course directly runner.7

Book One – Raeburn

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me
now to recite. Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread from the world’s beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.8

Book Six – Golding

Tritonia unto all these wordes attentive hearing bendes,
And both the Muses learned song and rightfull wrath cōmendes.
And thereupon within her selfe this fancie did arise.
It is no matter for to prayse: but let our selfe devise
Some thing to be commended for: and let vs not permit
Our Maiestie to be despisde without revenging it.9

Book Six – Raeburn

Minerva, who’d lent an attentive ear to the Muses’ narration,
Commended their song and their justified anger against the Piérides.
Then she said to herself: ‘Is praising enough? I also need to be praised in turn. No mortal shall scoff at my power

Book Thirteen – Golding

As he was speaking this, and still about too utter more,
Dame Scylla him forsooke: wherat he wexing angry sore.
And béeing quickened with repulse, in rage he tooke his way
Too Circes Titans daughters Court which full of monsters lay.11

Book Thirteen – Raeburn

The god was still speaking and would have
said more, but Syclla fled. Enraged by this cruel rejection,
he made for the halls of the sun god’s daughter, the sorceress Circe.12

Finally, I want to look at who was influenced Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses. Let’s start with William Shakespeare.

Madeleine Forey states that ‘[w]hen Shakespeare read Golding’s Metamorphoses, he was apparently struck by many phrases in the ‘Englished’ text, and these phrases subsequently appeared in his own writing’ and I’ll be highlighting some of these phrases in this section.13 Forey also notes that Shakespeare was aware of ‘Golding’s anxious relationship with the Latin original’, which I have discussed earlier in this post, but it’s interesting that Shakespeare frequently echoed Golding’s translation in his own work.14

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus seems to be heavily influenced by Golding’s translation. The entire play is based on the myth of Philomela, which appears in book six of Ovid’s poem, with some other myths from the poem sprinkled into the mix too. In 1988, Anthony Brian Taylor noted that there are language similarities between Golding’s translation and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. One example that Taylor gives of Shakespeare echoing Golding is from 5.315:

Go fetch them hither to us presently.

Why there they are, both bakèd in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.16

This is said to echo these lines from Golding’s translation:

King Tereus sitting in the throne of his forefathers, fed
And swallowed downe the selfe same flesh that of his bowels bred.
And he (so blinded was his heart) fetch Itys hither, sed.17

Tereus is exchanged for Tamora but the use of ‘fetch’, ‘hither’, ‘fed’, and ‘bred’ in Shakespeare’s text indicates some reliance on Golding.

Returning to Forey, in an article entitled “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated!”: Ovid, Golding, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Forey acknowledges that ‘Shakespeare’s debt to Golding’s translation in the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ episode has long been recognised’ but argues that ‘Golding’s presence is to be felt much more widely in A Midsummer Night’s Dream than in the interlude alone’.18 One example the Forey gives is from 3.1, when Titania attempts to seduce Bottom. Here’s Shakespeare’s text:

Feed him with apricots and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;
The honeybags steal from the humble-bees,19

And here’s Golding’s translation:

Came in the latter course, which was of Nuts, Dates, dryed figges
Swéete smelling Apples in a Mawnd made flat of Oysyer twigges,
And Prunes and Plums and Purple grapes cut newly from the trée,
And in the middes a honnycomb new taken from the Bée.20

Shakespeare is borrowing from Golding as he did with his other sources. Altering and tweaking his source to suit his own style more but it’s undeniable that he was indebted to Golding.

Shakespeare wasn’t the only famous writer influenced by Golding! There’s evidence to suggest that both Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe used Golding’s translation in their own works.

Taylor, who I’ve already mentioned in this post, highlights several debts to Golding in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Taylor argues that ‘Spenser associates Florimell, who spends much of her time fleeing from the attentions of would-be lovers, with Daphne, the Penean nymph and one of the most beautiful figures in Metamorphoses’.21 Taylor notes that ‘[i]t is the details of Florimell’s hair, thrown back by the wind in her flight and enhancing her loveliness, that show Spenser implicitly as-sociating her with Daphne’ but, rather than being influenced by Ovid’s original text, as he is in other instances, comparing quotations from the two texts demonstrates that Spenser is recalling Golding’s translation.22 Here’s Spenser’s text:

Still as she fled, her eye she backward threw,
As fearing evill, that pursewd her fast;
And her faire yellow locks behind her flew,
Loosely disperst with puffe of every blast:23

And here’s Golding’s:

So that hir naked skinne apearde behinde hir as she flue,
Hir goodly yellowe golden haire that hanged loose and slacke,
With every puffe of ayre did wave and tosse behinde hir backe.24

As for Christopher Marlowe, it appears that he was indebted to both Ovid’s original text and Golding’s translation in Tamburlaine. Marlowe knew Ovid fairly well and he translated the Amores in the 1580s and he alluded to Ovid in several of his plays but Taylor points out several moments in Tamburlaine that echo Golding’s translation rather than the original text.25

For example, Marlowe utilises Ovid’s creation story in the play but some aspects are, at least in Taylor’s opinion, inspired by Golding. Marlowe’s notion of the gods holding parliament, mentioned at the end of act two (‘more surer on my head, / Than if the Gods had held a Parliament / And all pronounst me king of Persea’), echoes Golding’s translation of the creation story – ‘he sommonde streight his Court of Parliament’.26

Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the most famous translations to have ever been written and, for me, Golding also provides us with an important framework when engaging with literature from another place and time. Although he was clearly concerned with how Ovid’s text clashed with his own culture, both materially and spiritually, Golding made a case for consuming and engaging with literature that does not fit our own worldview.

It also inspired some wonderful literature that we’ve enjoyed for centuries.

Where to read it:

This post does not contain affiliate links.

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1. Joseph Wallace, ‘Strong stomachs: Arthur Golding, Ovid, and cultural assimilation’, Renaissance Studies, 26.5 (2011), pp. 728-743 (728)
2. Wallace, 732
3. Wallace, 734
4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding (London: Willyam Seres, 1567), Epistle
5. Wallace, 734
6. Wallace, 743
7. Golding, Book One
8. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (London: Penguin, 2002), p.5
9. Golding, Book Six
10. Raeburn, p.210
11. Golding, Book Thirteen
12. Raeburn, p.545
13. Madeleine Forey, ‘”Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated!”: Ovid, Golding, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, The Modern Language Review, 93.2 (1998), pp. 321-329 (321)
14. Forey, 321
15. Anthony Brian Taylor, ‘Shakespeare’s Use of Golding’s Ovid as Source for Titus Andronicus’, Notes and Queries, 35.4 (1988), pp. 449–451 (449)
16. William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. by Eugene M. Waithe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5.3.58-61
17. Golding, Book Six
18. Forey, 321-322
19. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. by Peter Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 3.1.157159
20. Golding, Book Eight
21. Anthony Brian Taylor, ‘Spenser and Arthur Golding’, Notes and Queries, 32.1 (1985), pp. 18-21 (20)
22. Taylor, 20
23. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene Disposed into twelue bookes, fashioning XII. morall vertues, (London: Printed [by Richard Field] for VVilliam Ponsonbie, 1596),
24. Golding, Book One
25. Anthony Brian Taylor, ‘Notes on Marlowe and Golding’, Notes and Queries, 34.2 (1987), pp. 191–193
26. Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great Who, from a Scythian shephearde, by his rare and woonderfull conquests, became a most puissant and mightye monarque. And (for his tyranny, and terrour in warre) was tearmed, the scourge of God. Deuided into two tragicall discourses, as they were sundrie times shewed vpon stages in the citie of London. By the right honorable the Lord Admyrall, his seruauntes (London: Printed by Richard Ihones: at the signe of the Rose and Crowne neere Holborne Bridge, 1590), 2.6; Golding, Book One

1. An illumination of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from a manuscript of William Caxton’s translation of the Metamorphoses (1480)
2. Title page of The XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso: Entituled, Metamorphosis … Translated out of Latin into English meeter by Arthur Golding (London: John Danter, 1593)
3. Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse (1891) – via Art UK
4. Tereus’ Banquet (Tereus Confronted with the Head of his Son Itylus) by Peter Paul Rubens (1636-1638) – via Museo del Prado
5. Apollo and Daphne by Piero del Pollaiuolo (1470-1480)
– via The National Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


3 thoughts on “Arthur Golding and Ovid’s Metamorphoses

  1. I couldn’t go to an English class without Ovid coming up, yet I never read the Metamorphoses. Definitely probably should though, and this post just makes me want to more. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, Ovid does haunt English literature classes and once you read the Metamorphoses you start to see it everywhere! And if you do read it, let me know what you think 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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