An essay on the instability of symbols, along with some reflections on the literary use of violets

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Colby Quarterly

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Colby College Library


University of Cape Town

WHEN DAPHNE TURNS into a laurel tree in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Apollo continues to love her, first attempting to embrace her new vegetative presence, and then, still rejected, constructing a set of memorial symbols in her honor. However, one senses a certain desperation in the poet's effort to connect what the laurel has come to signify over time with its immediate physical properties. Since the primary impulse behind the Metamorphoses is etiological, Ovid can't account for the acknowledged nexus between laurel and conquest in morphological terms. He gets round the problem, however, with a set of godly fiats. Deity, after all, is never accountable to anything but itself: But even now in this new form Apollo loved her; placing his hand upon the trunk, he felt the heart fluttering beneath the bark. He errtbraced the branches as if human limbs, and pressed his lips upon the wood. But even the wood shrank from his kisses. And the god cried out to this: 'Since thou canst not be my bride, thou shalt at least be my tree. My hair, my lyre, my quiver shall always be entwined with thee, 0 laurel. With thee shall Roman generals wreathe their heads, when shouts of joy shall acclaim their triumph, and long processions climb the Capitol. Thou at Augustus' portals shall stand a trusty guardian, and keep watch over the civic crown of oak leaves which hangs between. And as my head is ever young and my locks never shorn, so shalt thou keep the beauty of thy leaves perpetual.' Paean was done. The laurel waved her new-made branches, and seemed to move her head-like top in full consent.