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Commentary on Metamorphoses

T he Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) is one of the small handful of classical writers whose work has never been out of circulation, a claim that cannot be made even for Homer. His dates span the before-and-after of Western civilization, 43BCE - 17CE. His urbane, witty, learned, sexy writings allegorize imperial power in post-civil-war Roman life under Augustus, in stories about the gods of the ancient world.

E very significant writer in the Western literary canon draws on Ovid's poetry - just as Bottom does, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, producing a play about the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe that comes straight out of Shakespeare's copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses. During the past decade of our own century, Ovid's work has returned to prominence in celebrated new translations (by Ted Hughes, among others), and as a point of reference that adds a touch of Classical glamour to journalistic discussions of topics ranging from food fetishes to the Clinton sex scandal.

M y inspiration in writing a life of Ovid is Jack Miles's extraordinary achievement in God: A Biography (1995), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Miles demonstrates that a work of literature can legitimately provide the resources for biographical treatment of a subject who does not actually exist in any other historical way. Ovid did exist, and my book will be able to draw on abundant scholarly resources concerning his life and work. But at the center of the book will be the vivid literary persona Ovid constructed to represent himself, and that he claimed, at the end of his epic poem Metamorphoses, would "be living always." The book I envision will introduce this permanently interesting character to readers in the third millennium of his immortality. It will be published by Viking Press in 2008, the 2000th anniversary of Ovid's banishment from Rome.

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