Phaethon, Horses and Classical Poetry

I have once before mentioned that I am reading through Ovid’s metamorphoses – and translating them from the original Latin. For the time-being, I am sticking to the literal, but I hope that when I will have a bit more time, I shall present a more literary, poetic version of events.

This Christmas break, I have been working through the tale of Phaethon, son of Sol, the sun-god. Although at times Ovid has a habit of falling into the ridiculous bathos, he often presents a fable with wonderful description.


“interea volucres Pyrois et Eous et Aethon,

solis equi, quartusque Phlegon hinnitibus auras

flammiferis implent, pedibusque repagula pulsant.”


(Meanwhile, the swift Pyrois and Eous and Aethon

And the fourth, Phlegon, horses of the Sun, were filling the air

With their flaming whinnying, and were beating their hooves upon the door-bars.)

Whilst I’m never keen on the repetition of ‘and’ in poetry (surely, in English it becomes somewhat cumbersome?), Ovid conveys the horses’ impatience to get out into the air with such frantically-strung a sentence. I’m sure, if I were any good at scanning Classical poetry, the hexameter is one filled with light dactyls.

It may be an Elegiac Couplet (hexameter and pentameter), but it gives an example to what I mean by scansion.
It may be an Elegiac Couplet (hexameter and pentameter), but it gives an example to what I mean by scansion.

Latin gives the joy of some wonderful words, such as the ‘repagula’ here (the door-bars), which, to me, is quite an ugly word: the prison of the horses, emphasising their stress to break away. However, the ‘volucres’ (‘swift’) is my favourite word of the extract. Because of the verb ‘volare’ (I’m not sure if it actually comes from the verb) to fly, I am conjuring up pictures of these horses that are able to fly at the speed of light. I do assume they can, being Sol’s steeds. If I’m right, Ovid may be playing with words here. And I love a poem that plays with meanings.

There is also, if you look to the third line of the Latin, the use of harsh consonants. Plent, ped, pag, puls. To me, those sounds are the four beats of the horses’ hooves as they thrash against the bars of their imprisonment. The sharpness also complements the fire imagery to portray a vicious beast, yet one well equipped for its job.

Yes, it paints a beautiful picture in sound as well as description, for Latin poetry was always meant to be dictated and read aloud: four horses of fire braying against their reins, hoofs up and manes flowing into the air a cascade of flame.

I am envious of both Ovid’s command of language into word-choice and metric detail, but also his use of description as it is in English, too. We’ve all seen a horse with wild mane and run, but only Ovid presents the beauty of the heavenly horses in words that conjure up modern ideas:

There are many ‘adoptable’ pictures of animals in the internet, some of which are conjured up these depictions of Ovid’s. (off Chicken



3 thoughts on “Phaethon, Horses and Classical Poetry

  1. ował z nieskładnej ileś opowieści Krzyżaka, Amparo tenże sam panujący był
    człekiem wystarczająco rubasznym. Tymczasem ilekroć usiłował wycelować rozmowę w najbardziej zajmującym kierunku, gołowąs
    poseł n.

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