Ovid's Metamorphoses: Narcissus

As you begin this part of Narcissus's story, remember the prediction of the prophet Teiresias when Narcissus was born: Being consulted as to whether the child would live a long life, to a ripe old age, the seer with prophetic vision replied ‘If he does not discover himself.’ You will see just why someone who is obsessed with himself can be called a "narcissist."

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

(a continuation of the story of Echo)


Narcissus sees himself and falls in love

As Narcissus had scorned her, so he had scorned the other nymphs of the rivers and mountains, so he had scorned the companies of young men. Then one of those who had been mocked, lifting hands to the skies, said ‘So may he himself love, and so may he fail to command what he loves!’

Rhamnusia, who is the goddess Nemesis, heard this just request.

There was an unclouded fountain, with silver-bright water, which neither shepherds nor goats grazing the hills, nor other flocks, touched, that no animal or bird disturbed not even a branch falling from a tree. Grass was around it, fed by the moisture nearby, and a grove of trees that prevented the sun from warming the place. Here, the boy, tired by the heat and his enthusiasm for the chase, lies down, drawn to it by its look and by the fountain.

While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, which is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.

Flat on the ground, he contemplates two stars, his eyes, and his hair, fit for Bacchus, fit for Apollo, his youthful cheeks and ivory neck, the beauty of his face, the rose-flush mingled in the whiteness of snow, admiring everything for which he is himself admired. Unknowingly he desires himself, and the one who praises is himself praised, and, while he courts, is courted, so that, equally, he inflames and burns.

How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool, how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see, he plunged his arms into the water, but could not catch himself within them! What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.

Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!

Narcissus laments the pain of unrequited love
   
No care for Ceres’s gift of bread, or for rest, can draw him away. Stretched on the shadowed grass he gazes at that false image with un-sated eyes, and loses himself in his own vision. Raising himself a little way and holding his arms out to the woods, he asks, ‘Has anyone ever loved more cruelly than I? You must know, since you have been a chance hiding place for many people. Do you remember in your life that lasts so many centuries, in all the long ages past, anyone who pined away like this? I am enchanted and I see, but I cannot reach what I see and what enchants me’ – so deep in error is this lover – ‘and it increases my pain the more, that no wide sea separates us, no road, no mountains, no walls with locked doors.

‘We are only kept apart by a little water! Whenever I extend my lips to the clear liquid, he tries to raise his lips to me. He desires to be held. You would think he could be touched: it is such a small thing that prevents our love. Whoever you are come out to me! Why do you disappoint me, you extraordinary boy? Where do you vanish when I reach for you? Surely my form and years are not what you flee from, and I am one that the nymphs have loved! You offer me some unknown hope with your friendly look, and when I stretch my arms out to you, you stretch out yours. When I smile, you smile back. And I have often seen your tears when I weep tears. You return the gesture of my head with a nod, and, from the movements of your lovely mouth, I guess that you reply with words that do not reach my ears!

‘I am he. I sense it and I am not deceived by my own image. I am burning with love for myself. I move and bear the flames. What shall I do? Surely not court and be courted? Why court then? What I want I have. My riches make me poor. O I wish I could leave my own body! Strange prayer for a lover, I desire what I love to be distant from me. Now sadness takes away my strength, not much time is left for me to live, and I am cut off in the prime of youth. Nor is dying painful to me, laying down my sadness in death. I wish that him I love might live on, but now we shall die united, two in one spirit.’

Narcissus is changed into a flower

He spoke, and returned madly to the same reflection, and his tears stirred the water, and the image became obscured in the rippling pool. As he saw it vanishing, he cried out ‘Where do you fly to? Stay, cruel one, do not abandon one who loves you! I am allowed to gaze at what I cannot touch, and so provide food for my miserable passion!’

While he weeps, he tears at the top of his clothes; then strikes his naked chest with hands of marble. His chest flushes red when they strike it, as apples are often pale in part, part red, or as grapes in their different bunches are stained with purple when they are not yet ripe.

As he sees all this reflected in the dissolving waves, he can bear it no longer, but as yellow wax melts in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire. He no longer retains his colour, the white mingled with red, no longer has life and strength, and that form so pleasing to look at, nor has he that body which Echo loved.

Still, when she saw this, though angered and remembering, she pitied him, and as often as the poor boy said ‘Alas!’ she repeated with her echoing voice ‘Alas!’ and when his hands strike at his shoulders, she returns the same sounds of pain.

His last words as he looked into the familiar pool were ‘Alas, in vain, beloved boy!’ and the place echoed every word, and when he said ‘Goodbye!’ Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’

He laid down his weary head in the green grass, death closing those eyes that had marvelled at their lord’s beauty.

And even when he had been received into the house of shadows, he gazed into the Stygian waters. His sisters the Naiads lamented, and let down their hair for their brother, and the Dryads lamented. Echo returned their laments. And now they were preparing the funeral pyre, the quivering torches and the bier, but there was no body. They came upon a flower, instead of his body, with white petals surrounding a yellow heart.





(1200 words)


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