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Fair or Fowl?: Golding's Translation of Ovidian Bird Lore into Moral Exempla

Luisa Ostacchini[1], Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick


This article offers an exploration, with specific reference to Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, of the way in which classical bird lore was transformed into a source of moral exempla in the Renaissance. Tales of birds and beasts were instrumental to moral teaching, and many studies have investigated the ways in which Ovidian animal lore became reconciled with Christian values in Renaissance art and literature, but little attention has been paid to the specific role of birds in this tradition.

Birds have been associated with levity and the celestial since prehistoric times, but in Metamorphoses they become darker creatures entirely. Golding's Renaissance rendering sees these darker imaginings of birds used to discuss the chaotic consequences of unrestrained human emotion at a time when the value of 'moderation' was at the forefront of religious, social and moral discourse. Through examining three major bird transformations ('Tereus, Philomel and Procne', 'Scylla and Minos' and 'Cygnus'), this article argues that Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses utilises these birds as sources of exempla in order to underline the importance of the 'middle path' in human emotional experience, and in doing so suggests that the act of translation itself becomes another form of metamorphosis.

Keywords: Ovid, Golding, Birds, Renaissance, Metamorphoses, Translation


The importance of animal lore to medieval and Renaissance culture is undeniable. Tales of birds and beasts were not only entertaining, but also instrumental to moral teaching, since they 'provided the basis for a broad range of moralising sermons and animal-exempla' (Boehrer, 2007: 1). In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the medieval attitude to Publius Ovidius Naso (hereinafter Ovid) was one of great reverence. Coon claims that 'we are more than mystified to see Ovid occupy a place in company with the saints' (Coon, 1930: 286), yet the sheer scope of the poem surely made it ideal for the moral-conscious translator. To read Ovid is, in many ways, to be guided through a sort of verbal natural history museum. Through the fifteen books of the poem hundreds of tales and a veritable menagerie of creatures are laid out like specimens, providing a wealth of possible sources for moral teaching and guidance. Arthur Golding's translation of 1567 carried this medieval mode of Ovid into the Renaissance. By applying Christian teachings to the otherwise heavily pagan tales, his translation reincarnated the Metamorphoses as a poem that provided 'Instructions which import the praise of virtues and the shame / Of vices' (Golding, 2002b:65–66). Golding weaves Christian undertones through many types of flora and fauna, but the way in which birds are used is particularly unusual.

Birds have been associated with levity, freedom and the celestial throughout the ages. Indeed, they have frequently figured as highly mystical creatures in art and literature – vehicles for understanding the emotional rather than the physical aspects of life. The human soul has been inextricably linked with bird imagery for thousands of years (Rowland, 1978: xiii), and archaeological evidence suggests that the association of birds with spiritual transcendence of the body – especially after death – dates back to prehistoric times (Armstrong, 1970: 14). In her work Birds With Human Souls, Rowland writes that birds are consistently associated with lightness and harmony: 'Specific birds may be bad and they may haunt the living as revenants or represent the Seven Deadly Sins. But they are not like animals whose sensual natures illustrate the baser traits of humanity' (Rowland, 1978: xv).

Yet birds in the Metamorphoses reveal some of the deepest flaws of humanity, with specific emphasis on the dreadful potential of human emotion. From the lustful violence of Tereus, to the injurious love of Scylla, to the all-consuming grief of Cygnus, bird transformations highlight the destructive power of unbridled human emotion. Perhaps owing to its sensitivity to Renaissance values, where 'the ubiquitous principle of moderation was a profoundly coercive tool of social, religious and political power' (Shagan, 2011: 3), Golding's translation demonstrates this with particular acuteness. Birds are used in Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses to highlight and make vivid the chaotic consequences of unrestrained human emotion, thereby emphasising the need for moderation.

The tale of Tereus, Philomel and Procne

Bird imagery is used in the Metamorphoses to suggest that lust can lead to violence and should be restrained. Golding's translation makes every detail vivid, making the violent aspects more horrifying and thereby emphasising this need for restraint. In a time when, as Shagan writes, 'moderation was often coded as Protestant' (Shagan, 2011: 3) and 'the "middle way" defined ethical spectrums' (Shagan, 2011: 4), Golding's translation aligns a lack of moderation with a lack of morality, granting his cause a sense of religious importance. One of the most shocking tales of violence in Ovid's poem is surely that of Tereus, Philomel and Procne. Much critical thought has been devoted to the plight of Philomel and Procne, and the tale has often been suggested as a means to 'put the claim of these birds to our sympathy on a broader and, so to speak, humanitarian basis' (Douglas, 1928: 89). Yet the poem goes so much beyond merely evoking sympathy that to read it in such a way seems naïve. The bird imagery in the tale says much about the human capacity for violence. It is, above all, a tale of the immensely destructive power of unrestrained human emotion. Tereus' eventual transformation into a bird is filled with violent imagery:

And he, through sorrow and desire of vengeance waxing wight,
Became a bird upon whose top a tuft of feathers light
In likeness of a helmet's crest doth trimly stand upright.
Instead of his long sword, his bill shoots out in passing space.
A lapwing namèd is this bird: all armèd seems his face.
(Golding, 2002a: 6.849–53)

The very act of this transformation is snatched and violent, even in Golding's lengthy fourteeners. Many of the transformations in the poem are described in intricate detail, showing the merging of human and avian characteristics until they are completely entangled in one another. For example, the tale of the crow shows the gradual shift from a woman's body, when she describes how her 'arms waxed light with feathers black' (Golding, 2002a: 2.732), her human clothes transformed to 'rooted feathers' (Golding, 2002a: 2.734) and 'of my feet as erst remainèd not the print' (Golding, 2002a: 2.737). In the case of Tereus, however, the transformation is abrupt – one barely knows when the man ends and when the bird begins. The sudden nature of this transformation makes it all the more discordant and unnatural; a violent termination of humanity under the pressure of Tereus' raging emotions.

Indeed, throughout the tale, bird imagery is linked to points of extreme emotion, and the awkward tangle of human and avian suggests that such unbridled emotion is unnatural and chaotic, thereby warning against it. When Tereus is overwhelmed with lust for Procne, he is described as a 'ravening fowl with greedy eyes' (Golding, 2002a: 6.660) and when he eventually rapes her, in her terror she views him as 'the greedy hawk that did her late with griping talons tear' (Golding, 2002a: 6.673). The frequent emphasis on hunger and consumption, invoked by 'ravening' and 'greedy' makes Tereus appear horrifying and predatory, suggesting that his overwhelming lust has made him bestial and monstrous. It has been argued that Ovid's Metamorphoses demonstrates a 'yearning for a fanciful world order in which the concerns of the mind and the heart held their own […] against the insipid laws of nature' (Fränkel, 1945: 89), but here is a world where the emotions of the heart overthrow the natural order, allowing such unnatural transformations to occur and causing destruction. Emotion becomes something of a catalyst, transforming Tereus into a predatory bird; the more intense his emotional state, the less human he becomes. Tereus is, ultimately, not appalling because he is a bird, but because he is still human. As a human, Renaissance values dictate that he ought to have superiority over the natural world (Fudge, 2004: 2), but he allows his lust to dominate him and takes on animalistic qualities. This demonstrates that, without moderation, emotion can have chaotic consequences. Kaufhold writes that 'throughout the narrative we have seen Tereus as a bird figuratively. When he becomes one literally, it appears entirely fitting' (Kaufhold, 1997: 71). Yet to describe this transformation as 'fitting' suggests a certain degree of order, undermining how very unnatural and disordered the metamorphosis of Tereus is – it is frenzied and snatched and tumultuous, a violent end to a violent tale. There is a sense of horror attached to Tereus' final transformation because it demonstrates that emotion has completely overwhelmed any hope of rational human thought, leaving only violence and cruelty.

Golding's translation in particular emphasises the fact that Tereus's human emotions have resulted in these violent ends, thereby warning against a lack of moderation. Though Golding's work has been criticised for being 'verbose' and it has been said that he 'often fails to convey the subtleties of the original' (Roe, 2000: 32), his translation uniquely emphasises the problematic aspects of human emotion, going beyond the bounds of the Latin original in order to convey a firmer moral message. While it is true that Ovid's concise 'cristae' (Ovid, Metamophoses 6.672) – with its carefully balanced double connotations of the bird's crest and a human helmet – captures the blurred lines between human and animal with an elegance that far surpasses Golding's, this is not to say that his translation does not have a particular power of its own. The length and splendour of the fourteen-syllable lines allow Golding to explore fully the rich imagery in order to convey his moral message.

Where other translators have attempted to preserve the concise nature of Ovid's original, they have stripped much of the true horror from Tereus. Caxton's translation, for example, merely describes the transformation as follows: 'Thereus became a lapwynch, whych is a fowl byrde and a vylaynous for the trayson that he hade don to the damoyselle Phylomena' (Caxton, 1998: 30–3 1). 'A fowl byrde and vylanous' is bewilderingly vague, and fails to convey the true dreadfulness of the tale at all, so falls short in its attempt to provide any sort of moral guidance. Golding's Tereus, however, is utterly horrifying because he is so clearly and undoubtedly human, which makes him a perfect source for instruction. Tereus the bird is marked with the tools of human violence – the 'helmet's crest' and 'armed' visage, with their connotations of soldiers and battle, are a reminder of humankind's capacity for violence. Golding constantly reminds the audience that Tereus is not appalling because he is a bird, but because he is human – despite his superiority over the natural world, he allows his human lust to dominate him, resulting in bestial violence and chaos. In this way, Golding's translation uses bird imagery to provide a firm warning that lust must be restrained, since to unleash it is to create chaos and horror.

The tale of Scylla and Minos

As well as being employed to condemn lustful emotions, birds are used in Golding's translation to demonstrate that love – even if pure in intention – can be equally destructive, and must be carefully kept in moderation. The bird transformations at the end of the tale of Scylla and Minos in book VIII of the Metamorphoses demonstrate that the unbridled passion of human love can create chaos, which suggests that human emotions must be carefully restrained lest they become dangerous. Golding translates the fates of Nisus and Scylla in glorious detail:

Whom when her father spied (for now he hovered in the air
And, being made a hobby-hawk, did soar between a pair
Of nimble wings of iron mail), he soused down amain
To seize upon her as she hung and would have torn her fain
With bowing beak. But she for fear did let the carrack go.
And as she was about to fall, the lightsome air did so
Uphold her that she could not touch the sea, as seemed tho.
Anon all feathers she became and forth away did fly,
Transformed to a pretty bird that stieth to the sky.
(Golding, 2002a: 8.190–98)

The scene is frantic and chaotic – within only nine lines, both characters have metamorphosed completely into birds, demonstrating that any sense of natural order has been thoroughly destroyed by Scylla's crime. Perhaps the most striking part of Golding's description is the sheer fury of Nisus's attack. The phrase 'iron mail' conjures images of warfare and human violence in much the same way as the description of Tereus in book VI, demonstrating that human violence disrupts the natural order of the world. Ovid originally describes Nisus's wings as being 'tawny' or 'golden' in colour ('fulvis haliaeetus alis' – Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.146) – by replacing this with 'iron', Golding casts a much colder and sharper image, allowing military associations to permeate the more natural bird image. Iron has strong connotations of warfare, since it is so vital for arms-making, and the very nature of warfare means that, by extension, this suggests a certain sense of destruction. Furthermore, the word 'torn' seems brutal because it suggests a bloody and rushed ripping action, animalistic and imprecise, which emphasises the sense that human emotion has chaotic consequences. This serves to remind the audience that passionate emotion can lead to fighting and bloodshed, and as such should be kept regulated. While Scylla's uncontrollable love for Minos does not immediately seem as problematic as Tereus's rape of Philomel, the use of bird imagery with a military focus forces them into alignment. Both are acts of passion that result in disorder and bloodshed. Golding's decision to transform the original description of 'fulvis' into something much harsher serves to place emphasis on the conflict created by human emotion, which makes the idea of emotional moderation all the more urgent. Forey writes that 'the intersection of puritanism and the classical text was not achieved in Golding's work without a degree of tension' (Forey, 1998: 321), yet here Golding deftly incorporates the highly prized value of moderation into the eerily sublime and thoroughly pagan image of humans transforming into birds. By altering the original text and expanding its details into something much richer, Golding finds a way to transform Ovid's often bizarre pagan imagery into a vehicle for moral teaching.

However, upon closer examination, Nisus' violent fury is not the only discordant aspect to the bird metamorphosis. Scylla's transformation equally serves as a warning in Golding's translation. While her final form may immediately seem somewhat tranquil compared to her father's, with the soft alliteration of 'feathers she became and forth away did fly' giving a sense of gentleness, there is also a sense of fragility and extreme loneliness that warns against excessive emotion. Earlier in the poem, Scylla reflects that 'happy were I if with wings I through the air might glide / And safely to King Minos' tent from this same turret slide' (Golding, 2002a: 8.77–78). Golding fills the bird imagery here with a sense of levity. The harmonious rhyme of 'glide' and 'slide' suggests a weightlessness that is frequently associated with love – 'according to the Greek philosopher Socrates […]the lover has wings to bear him upward, towards the realm of the gods. To worship beauty truly and chastely is to rise towards heaven in […] Neo-Platonist thought' (Jones, 2013: 151). There is the underlying sense that emotion can bring relief and comfort – lightness against the 'sturdy storms of Mars' (Golding, 2002a: 8.23).

It is important to note that love is not in itself condemned, but rather the excessive and passionate extent to which Scylla allows it to dominate her actions. 'The obedience of the passions to reason was largely synonymous [in the Renaissance] with the quality of "moderation"' (Shagan, 2011: 35), yet Scylla abandons all reason in the face of her devotion to Minos. The way in which Scylla's wish to 'glide' is eventually fulfilled suggests that she is so consumed by her emotion that she is totally overwhelmed by it – her physical transformation becomes an external manifestation of her internal dreams and emotions as they entirely overcome her. Enterline argues that being a woman is dangerous in the Metamorphoses because 'being a woman in Ovid's poem means to embody the principle of resistance' (Enterline, 2000: 32), but Scylla's very downfall is in her lack of resistance. Her final tragedy is that even when shunned, she is unable to resist the pull of her emotions. Love has so overtaken her thoughts that she has embodied it, becoming a creature so full of levity, 'all feathers', that she becomes insubstantial. In this way Golding's translation utilises Ovid's original bird imagery and transforms it into something much more sinister to demonstrate the danger of unrestrained emotions.

The tale of Cygnus

In much the same way that the Metamorphoses warns against the power of unrestrained love, bird transformations serve to suggest that grief requires moderation. Golding's translation, with its lengthy lines and parable-like interpretation of Ovid's pagan imagery, captures the way in which grief becomes those who submit to it, demonstrating that emotion can become overwhelming and all-encompassing if not restrained appropriately. While grief may not seem a culpable trait in modern society, until the very late sixteenth century it was 'regarded as subversive of the rule of reason and domestic and social order' (Pigman, 1985: 2). Golding's translation of Cygnus' transformation demonstrates the unnatural and consuming nature of excessive grief:

Anon his voice became more small and shrill than for a man;
Grey feathers muffled in his face; his neck in length began
Far from his shoulders for to stretch; and, furthermore, there goes
A fine red string across the joints in knitting of his toes.
With feathers closed are his sides, and on his mouth there grew
A broad blunt bill; and, finally, was Cygnus made a new
And uncouth fowl that hight a swan.
(Golding, 2002a: 2.465–71)

While Ovid's telling evokes a sense of pathos for Cygnus, Golding's work possesses a more sinister undertone. Whereas Ovid's Cygnus merely shifts his shape, there is a sense that in Golding's version he becomes trapped within the swan's body, 'muffled' and 'closed', caged by his own overwhelming emotion. The lengthy meter draws out the transformation, demonstrating Cygnus's gradual loss of his human characteristics to his deep grief, suggesting that to submit to such overwhelming emotion is to lose oneself entirely. It is particularly poignant that Cygnus's speech is affected, since the ability to speak is one of the main characteristics that separates human from animal. The interruption of the lines with frequent use of caesura gives an unnatural and discordant tone to this transformation, emphasising the way in which such grief disrupts natural order. It has been suggested that 'Ovid sometimes achieves a […] softening effect by intruding everyday human reactions at the moment of a grotesque and potentially horrible transformation' (Segal, 1971: 382), but here the intrusion of human characteristics serves to make the metamorphosis all the more disturbing. Each reminder of his humanity (the 'feathers' that are eerily like clothing, his 'small and shrill' attempts to speak as a man) serves to demonstrate how inhuman his grief has made him. Cygnus' transformation into a bird is not a relief but a prison, and through his description Golding warns of the capacity of grief to overwhelm entirely, to a point where even the most basic forms of humanity are concealed by it.

Conclusion: the final act of metamorphosis

From violent hunters to living prisons, Ovid's birds are certainly far from heavenly in the hands of Golding. They become emblems of human emotion – once painted with Protestant meanings, their flight comes to represent not so much freedom as a lack of restraint and a defiance of order. Following this article, further research into the use of bird lore in the sixteenth century might reveal whether this manipulation of the bird as an image became more wide-spread in the light of Golding's translation. Indeed, it may even prove useful to scrutinise imagery of other animals in Golding's Metamorphoses, in order to come to a fuller understanding of the ways in which this hugely influential – but often overlooked – text reconciles pagan animal mythology with Renaissance moral teaching.

Though Golding (along with Sandys and other translators who followed the tradition of moralising Ovid) is frequently criticised for a lack of coherence between pagan and Christian, 'tacking on a moral simple and implausible enough to please' (Lerner, 1988: 122), both Ovid and Golding are concerned with the same thing. Both poets wrote around the idea of preserving some kind of order – be it Ovid's more natural order or Golding's Protestant moral one. Golding does not 'tack on' a moral so much as transform the text entirely, making descriptions more vivid and characters more complex so as to make the fantastical tales into exempla relevant to the everyday Christian lifestyle. The use of birds in the text demonstrates this clearly, as Golding manipulates them to suggest the importance of the values of moderation and restraint. Ultimately, as Ovid himself wrote, 'omnia mutantur, nihil interit' [everything changes, nothing perishes; author's own translation] (Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.165) – Golding shapes this classical work into his own moralistic creation, but the charm and host of wonderfully weird pagan imagery of the original remains. Through reconciling the classical with the puritanical, Golding's act of translation becomes yet another form of metamorphosis.


I wish to thank Dr Paul Botley for all his support and guidance. This article would not have been possible without his expertise, advice and encouragement. More importantly, I wish to thank him for encouraging me to pursue my love for Ovid, and for the invaluable discussions about the aforementioned that took place leading up to this research. Particular thanks must also be given to both the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning, and the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, which kindly provided the funding that enabled me to attend the BCUR.


[1] Luisa Ostacchini is about to enter her third year at the University of Warwick, reading English Literature. She plans to pursue postgraduate study and work towards a future career in academia.


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Ostacchini, L. (2014), 'Fair or Fowl?: Golding's Translation of Ovidian Bird Lore into Moral Exempla', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, BCUR 2014 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.