This Furious Influence: Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

Even at only a few hundred pages in, I’ve discovered so many literary gems from reading Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  One of my favorite discoveries so far has been Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.”  I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses.

“Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of  senses that is trigged when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden.  Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by a arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Then his sense of hearing is delighted as she sings a lovely song and plays the flute, “Never was any sense so set a fire/With an immortal ardour, as mine ears.” But my favorite piece of the poem is the description of Ovid’s sense of smell when it takes in Corinna’s perfumes as she bathes:

Come, sovereign odours, come
Restore my spirits now in love consuming,
Wax hotter, air, make them more favoursome,
My fainting life with fresh-breath soul perfuming.
The flames of my disease are violent,
And many perish on late helps presuming,
With which hard fate must I stand content,
As odours put in fire most richly smell,
So men must burn in love that will excel.

When Corinna is finished with her bath, she looks into a mirror and accidentally sees Ovid in the reflection. When he is caught spying on her he not only asks for forgiveness but convinces her to give him a kiss. All of his senses are so consumed with her by the end of the poem that he vows to write and dedicate his Amores to her.

Her moving towards him made Ovid’s eye
Believe the firmament was coming down
To take him quick to immortality,
And that th’ Ambrosian kiss set on the crown;
She spake in kissing, and her breath infused
Restoring syrup to his taste, in swoon:
And he imagined Hebe’s hands had bruised
A banquet of the gods into his sense,
Which fill’d him with this furious influence.

Although there are multiple allusions to the Metamorphoses, Chapman’s ability to capture the sensuality, atmosphere, and tone of the Amores is what impressed me the most about his poem. I was especially reminded of Amores 1.5 which I have been inspired to translate…

3 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

3 responses to “This Furious Influence: Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

  1. Craig

    Thanks for this, Melissa. I believe I’m not alone, at least among English Lit majors, in thinking that George Chapman is little more than a footnote to Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Your post now makes me want to read both his poetry and his translations. A great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Leslie Meek

    Now I have had two revelations in as many days; the first, glutted with Shakespeare and searching among his contempories for like skill with English, happening upon Ovid’s Banquet of Sense, and the second, finding another fan.
    I studied Latin poetry under inexpert tuition at Victoria University in Wellington. Ovid’s poetry rose above the dreary critique of the tutor and has fascinated me since. Similarly, I enjoy his Amores, in particular 1.5.
    I found in class I had to defend him against charges of sexism and misogyny.
    Reading Chapman’s verse I feel at last the reason for Ovid’s banishment is uncovered, and in deligtfully ravishingly detail, teasing me to enjoy, like Ovid, the pleasures of human emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

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