Literary Analogues: Epic Themes & Invocations

From Ovid's Metamorphoses Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures >> note 1

In Paradise Lost, Milton alludes directly to the story of Narcissus in Eve's recounting of her first responses after creation (NAEL 8, 1.1897–98). Of course the story of Narcissus was often allegorized: a seventeenth-century example is here afforded by the translator Sandys himself, a modern one by Freud. The image is a familiar emblem representing the story and interpreting its meaning as "Amour sui": self-love. Milton, however, may invite as much contrast as comparison by the intertextual allusion, attaching other significations to the story as it pertains to Eve.


[Click on image to enlarge] [Narcissus spurned the love of many nymphs and youths, among them Echo. One of the youths pronounced a curse, that Narcissus might fall in love with himself, and die.]

A spring there was, whose silver Waters were,
As smooth as any mirror, nor less clear:
Which neither Herdsmen, tame, nor savage Beast,
Nor wandering Fowl, nor scattered leaves molest;
Girt round with grass, by neighbouring moisture fed,
And Woods, against the Sun's invasion spread.
He >> note 2 tired with heat and hunting, with the Place
And Spring delighted, lies upon his face.
Quenching his thirst, another thirst did rise;
Raised by the form which in that glass he spies.
The hope of nothing does his powers invade:
And for a body he mistakes a shade.
Himself, himself distracts: who pores thereon
So fixedly, as if of Parian stone. >> note 3
Beholds his eyes, two stars! his dangling hair
Which with unshorn Apollo's might compare!
His fingers worthy Bacchus! his smooth chin!
His Ivory neck! his heavenly face! wherein
The linked Deities their graces fix!
Where Roses with unsullied Lilies mix!
Admired all; for which, to be admired;
And inconsiderately himself desired.
The praises, which he gives, his beauty claimed.
Who seeks, is sought: the Inflamer is inflamed.
How often would he kiss the flattering spring!
How oft with down-thrust arms sought he to cling
About that loved neck! Those cozening lips
Delude his hopes; and from himself he slips.
Not knowing what, with what he sees he fries:
And the error that deceived, incites his eyes.
O Fool! that strivest to catch a flying shade!
Thou seeks what is nowhere: Turn aside, 'twill fade.
Thy form's reflection does thy sight delude:
Which is with nothing of its own induced.
With thee it comes; with thee it stays, and so
'Twould go away, hadst thou the power to go.
Nor sleep, nor hunger could thy lover raise:
Who, laid along, on that false form does gaze
With looks, which looking never could suffice;
And ruinates himself with his own eyes.
At length, a little lifting up his head;
"You Woods, that round about your branches spread,
Was ever so unfortunate a Lover!
You know, to many you have been a cover;
From your first growth to this long distant day
Have you known any, thus to pine away!
I like, and see: but yet I cannot find
The likest, and seen. O Love with error blind!
What grieves me more; no Sea, no Mountain steep,
No ways, no walls, our joys asunder keep:
Whom but a little water does divide;
And he himself desires to be enjoyed.
As oft as I to kiss the flood decline,
So oft his lips ascend, to close with mine.
You'd think we touched: so small a thing does part
Our equal loves! Come forth, what e'er thou art.
Sweet boy, a simple Boy beguile not so:
From him that seeks thee, whither would'st thou go?
My age nor beauty merit thy disdain:
And me the Nymphs have often loved in vain.
Yet in thy friendly shows my poor hopes live;
Still striving to receive the hand I give:
Thou smiles my smiles; when I a tear let fall,
thou shed another; and consent in all.
And, lo, let thy sweetly-moving lips appear
To utter words that come not to our ear.
Ah, He is I! now, now I plainly see:
Nor is it my shadow that bewitched me.
Love of myself me burns: (oh too too sure!)
And suffer in those flames which I procure.
Shall I be wooed, or woo? What shall I crave?
Since what I covet, I already have.
Too much hath made me poor! O, you divine
And favoring Powers, me from myself disjoin!
Of what I love, I would be dispossessed.
This, in a Lover, is a strange request!
Now, strength through grief decays: short is the time
I have to live; extinguished in my prime.
Nor grieves it me to part with well-mist breath;
For grief will find a perfect cure in death:
Would he I love might longer life enjoy!
Now, two ill-fated Lovers, in one, die."
This said; again upon his Image gazed;
Tears on the troubled water circles raised:
The motion much obscured the fleeting shade.
With that, he cried (perceiving it to vade),
"O, whither wilt thou! stay: nor cruel prove,
In leaving me, who infinitely love.
Yet let me see, what cannot be possessed;
And, with that empty food, my fury feast."
Complaining thus, himself he disarrays:
The blows that solid snow with crimson stripe;
Like apples party-red, or Grapes scarce ripe.
But, in the water when the same appear,
He could no longer such a sorrow bear.
As Virgin wax dissolves with fervent heat;
or morning frost, whereon the sunbeams beat:
So thaws he with the ardor of desire;
And, by degrees consumes in unseen fire.
His meager cheeks now lost their red and white;
That life; that favor lost, which did delight.
Nor those divine proportions now remain,
So much by Echo lately loved in vain.

                         * * *

Ah, Boy, beloved in vain! so Echo said.
Farewell. Farewell, sighed she. Then down he lies:
Death's cold hand shuts his self-admiring eyes:
Which now eternally their gazes fix
Upon the waters of infernal Styx. >> note 4
The woeful Naiades >> note 5 lament the dead;
And their clipped hair upon their brother spread. >> note 6
The woeful Dryades >> note 7 partake their woes:
With both, sad Echo joins at every close.
The funeral Pyre prepared, a hearse they brought
To fetch his body, which they vainly sought.
Instead whereof a yellow flower was found,
With tufts of white about the button crowned.


George Sandys's moral allegorization of the Narcissus story

Narcissus * * * admires [his] bodily beauty, frail and like the fluent water; which is no other than the shadow of the soul: for the mind does not truly affect the body, but its own similitude in a bodily form. Such Narcissus, who ignorantly affecting one thing, pursues another; nor can ever satisfy his longings. Therefore he resolves into tears and perishes: that is, the soul so alienated from itself, and doting on the body, is tortured with miserable perturbations; and dies, as it were, infected with that poison: so that now it rather appears a mortal body than an immortal soul. This fable likewise presents the condition of those who adorned by the bounty of nature, or enriched by the industry of others, without merit, or honor of their own acquisition, are transported with self-love and perish, as it were, with that madness. * * * Narcissus is therefore converted to a flower of his name, which signifies stupid: flourishing only in the Spring, like those who are hopeful in the first youth, but after fall from expectation and opinion: the flower, as they altogether unprofitable, being sacred to Pluto and the Eumenides, for what bore of itself no fruit, but past and was forgotten, like the way of a ship in the sea was consecrated of old to the infernal Deities. But a fearful example we have of the danger of self-love in the fall of the Angels; who intermitting the beatific vision by reflecting upon themselves, and admiring their own excellence, forgot their dependence upon their creator.


Sigmund Freud, from On Narcissism >> note 8

Freud explains that the psychoanalytic term "narcissism," used to describe the ego's fascination with itself, is derived from "the Greek legend of the youth Narcissus, who was in love with his own reflection." Freud then goes on to explain the role of narcissism in human sexuality.


We say that a human being has originally two sexual objects — himself and the woman who nurses him — and in doing so we are postulating a primary narcissism in everyone, which may in some cases manifest itself in a dominating fashion in his object-choice.  * * * With the onset of puberty the maturing of the female sexual organs, which up till then have been in a condition of latency, seems to bring about an intensification of the original narcissism, and this is unfavorable to the development of a true object-choice, with its accompanying sexual overvaluation. Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object. Strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man's love for them. Nor does their need lie in the direction of loving, but of being loved, and the man who fulfills this condition is the one who finds favor with them. The importance of this type of woman for the erotic life of mankind is to be rated very high.

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