The most obvious aspect of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is that the stories which are related have, in common, the task of providing moral insight to the prospective reader (or listener). This transmission of moral insight and proscriptive reflection is largely accomplished through the use of symbolism and poetic metaphor.
There is an implicit understanding on Ovid’s behalf that humanity shares a common sense of iconographic expression and therefore the “poetic justice” which is administered through Ovid’s conception of transformation and metamorphosis is a sense of justice which will resonate with universal significance. In fat, it is precisely due to the urge to make the moral instruction of the stories universally applicable which demands that Ovid resort to the use of poetic metaphor, symbolism, and figurative language in order to fully transmit his ideas.
The task of seeking universal moral equivalency and a sense of harmonic — obviously Divine — justice is both enabled and strengthened by Ovid’s gestures toward universality because this insistence on mythic and poetic discourse, rather than deductive or purely philosophical language and concepts drives forward the sense that Ovid’s moralistic instruction emanates from the cosmos itself and is an integral part of the universe despite recognition or lack of recognition by humanity.
In fact, this latter observation plays a key role in the sustaining or irony which is one of the most profound and important components of Ovid’s poetic technique. The use of irony by Ovid is meant to indicate that the perceptual capacities of human beings are quite limited, but in addition to being limited, these slight capacities are also weakened by failings in the moral and spiritual fiber of any given individual. The individual tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses are accordingly meant to express variations on a single them: that of human vanity adn human pride as it is contrasted with Divine vanity adn Divine pride.
Of course, the issue of pride and self-love as an agency for self-ruin is most fully and most overtly probed by Ovid in the story of “Narcissus and Echo. ” The story of Narcissus and Echo actually begins with the advice of Tiresias: “So blind Tiresias gave to all who came/ Faultless and sure reply far and wide” (Ovid, Narcissus and Echo, 30-31). It is important to keep in mind that because Tiresias was, himself, a victim of Divine justice, that his gift of prophecy is, itself, an irony.
Therefore, the prophecies which he utters are rightly to be considered an organic outgrowth of Divine justice, replete with ironic resonance. In the case of Narcissus and Echo, the irony of Divine Justice is furthered by the condition of Echo who, herself, has become a victim of Divine justice. Although Echo is an agent in Narcissus’ eventual downfall, her moral failing had already been exposed and she had been punished: “The goddess saw the truth; “Your tongue,” she said/ “With which you tricked me, now its power shall lose,/ Your voice avail but for the briefest use” (Ovid, Narcissus and Echo, 62-65).
The most interesting aspect of Echo and Tiresias’ respective punishments is that while they see to reflect the capricious nature of the Gods, in actuality the punishments express a seeming limitation of the Gods’ powers, in that the Gods must respond in proportion to the moral failing of any given individual mortal. In the case of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the proportional punishment which Orpheus receives due to his moral breach is seemingly disconnected with his actual “sin;” however, when examined closely, the “poetic justice” of the story becomes quite clear.
In order to understand how the ironic expression of the story helps to forward a sense of moral an ethical harmony, it is important to observe exactly what the repercussions of the Gods’ punishment of Orpheus actually were: “The double death of his Eurydice/ Stole Orpheus’ wits away” (Ovid, Orpheus and Eurydice, 75-76). One might think: why did the Gods not take away Orpeus’ musical talent? Wouldn’t that have been a “quicker” way of punishing him and also driving home the moral lesson? The answer to that question lies in the fact that it was love and not vanity about his talent which caused Orpheus to act immorally and disobey the Gods.
Therefore, it might be said that love caused madness in Orpheus which was first rewarded by the Gods, but then punished due to Orpheus, at the last moment, aspiring to something other than his love for Eurydice and that was to “see” the power of the Gods for himself. In order to fully represent the idea of poetic justice, that human nature brings upon itself the destruction and deprivations which are in perfect balance to the original moral failing, Ovid forwards the sense of poetic justice not only in its negative capacity, but in its positive capacity as well.
In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice for example, the original repercussion for Orpheus’ descent into the underworld was the reclamation of his love. Similarly, in the story of Pygmalion, the sense of poetic justice is positivistic because Pygmalion himself takes a position of moral integrity. By refusing to wed any real woman due to the sinful nature of worldly women as he knew them: “Pygmalion had seen these women spend/ Their days in wickedness, and horrified/ At all the countless vices nature gives/ To womankind lived celibate and long/ Lacked the companionship of married love” (Ovid, Pygmalion, 293-296).
Pygmalion excited the positivistic function of “poetic justice” which led to his creation of the “perfect” woman who was given life by the Gods. However, whether perceived as positivistic or as a negative influence, the sense of poetic justice as portrayed by Ovid is that it is both ubiquitous and omnipotent: that is justice is the cosmos and vice-versa and that it is only humanity which often finds itself out of harmony with cosmic truth.