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Exploring Time and Space: Milton and Ovid

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Professor Maggie Kilgour of McGill University in Montreal says in the Preface that her book “traces the changing role of Ovid through Milton’s poetry.” This seemingly simple task is revealed by Kilgour’s scholarship to be nothing less than an exploration of time and space.

The relation between Milton and Ovid is one we can never be entirely sure of. How did Milton read Ovid, and what influence did Ovid have on Milton’s works? Were all of these influences conscious, or did some just seep into his unconscious and shape how Milton approached various topics?

In talking about Ovid’s poem the Fasti, Kilgour writes that “the poem’s treatment of space is mirrored in its presentation of time. Like Ovid, Milton works to control the reader’s as well as his own experience of time.”

While it is not mentioned by Kilgour, this all reminds me of the origins of modern physics, wrapped up as it is with the concepts of space and time. In this case we have (instead of Ovid) the writing of Ernst Mach from his 1883 book The Science of Mechanics. In 1907 Einstein (a stand-in here for Milton) had what he later wrote was the “happiest thought” of his life when he formulated the equivalence principle that showed a gravitational field was the same as a corresponding acceleration.

Mach’s work provided central elements for Einstein’s thought, and helped set the form in which it was promulgated. But Einstein never recalled his reading of Mach when describing the idea. Likewise we should not expect to find Milton explicity stating what he took from the works of Ovid in his own poetry.

While Kilgour certainly explores a whole host of literary associations between Ovid, Milton, and other authors, her survey is not comprehensive. For example, I was surprised there was no exploration of the role of dragons in Milton’s writing.

In his Areopagitica, Milton alludes to the story of Cadmus sowing dragon’s teeth in Ovid’s Metamorphosis (3:101-130). "I know they [books]are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth," wrote Milton. While Kilgour does mention Cadmus, it is only in relation to his appearance in Metamorphosis 4 (563-603) and the city of Thebes, which he founded. Nothing specifically about the Areopagitica and the dragon motif in Ovid. As a fan of dragons, from St. George’s exploits to the dragon currently starring in The Hobbit movie, I find the omission perplexing as there is certainly more to be said here since (as she says on page 200), “Cadmus founded the cursed city by killing a giant snake.”

An ancient image of Cadmus fighting a dragonAn ancient image of Cadmus fighting a dragonHer use of Cadmus does, however, serve as an exemplar for much of the analysis in her book as it shows Milton’s “reworking of different sources” to create Paradise Lost. She notes the final metamorphosis of Satan in Book 10 of Paradise Lost “is based on the transformation of Cadmus in Metamorphosis 4,” which in turn is “mediated through another important source: Dante’s famous description of the transformation of the thieves into serpents in Inferno 24.”

Speaking of Milton’s work, Kilgour notes that “as in Dante, the prolonged description of the actual moment of metamorphosis is highly Ovidian. Milton lingers on the horror with which Satan becomes aware of his unexpected and unwilled change, and his terror as he discovers his loss of voice.”

A full appreciation of Kilgour’s book can only be had by a close reading of the footnotes that are sprinkled on every page. In the section just quoted, for example, she elaborated on the links between the three great writers. “The use of Dante here is especially appropriate as, despite their obvious differences, Dante and Milton both imagine evil as the failure to be open to change. Both writers turn also to Ovidian forms for thinking about the resistance to change.”

That the works of Ovid - 1600 years old by the time of Milton - should exert such influence across the centuries is remarkable, and all the more reason why this book needed to be written. That it was the winner of the 2012 James Holly Hanford Book Award of the Milton Society of America is a measure of how superbly Kilgour has done both Ovid and Milton a great service.

I noticed two typos: pg. 65: “gives him the chance him”; Pg. 275 a ‘a Virgin… should be a ‘Virgin…

My only other quibbles are the lack of illustrations (the one I use in this review is an image of Ovid from the 1640 English translation of Metamorphosis by Sandys, a book Milton surely saw), and an index that lacks depth. For example, the words “serpents” and “snakes,” both of which appear on page 200 as I mentioned, do not appear in the index. Smaug would breathe fire over this omission!

Milton and the Metamorphosis of Ovid (373 pages) is $135 from Oxford University Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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