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Heather James

“A Double Stranger to England: George Sandys’ Ovid, 1625-1642”

Heather James, University of Southern California


George Sandys completed his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses during his voyage to Virginia and his tumultuous years in the Virginia Colony (1621-1625).  Upon his return to England, he introduced his Ovid as a “double Stranger, Sprung from the Stocke of the ancient Romanes, but bred in the New-World.”  The boldness of Sandys’ effort to bring Ovid home to England, however, took full shape only in the celebrated 1632 edition of the poem, Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologized, and Presented with Figures.  With its detailed verbal and pictorial commentaries on Ovid’s poem, mythological materials, and figure, this volume folds Sandys’ experiences of the New world and knowledge of the antique one into a strikingly contemporary project shaped, I suggest, by the community of intellectuals that gathered at Great Tew, the Oxfordshire home of Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland. 


What the Great Tew Circle—led by Falkland and William Chillingworth and including such diverse figures as Edward Hyde, Gilbert Sheldon, George Morley, John Hales, Ben Jonson, Sidney Godolphin, and Edmund Waller—brought to Sandys’ Ovid was a taste for heresy and independent political thought.   What Ovid brought to Great Tew was an exciting case study of the power of an “Ethnicke Muse” to advance contemporary experiments in radical thought on religious and political topics.  Ovid’s rational approach to divine mysteries and political skepticism provided a compelling analogue for experiments in the Socinian heresy and innovations in the language of political critique. 


The relationship of Ovid to the Great Tew Circle did not last:  it fell apart as the specter of civil war in England approached.  The Ovid project required a belief in the radical extension of thought, not religious or political revolution.  As the Civil War approached, Sandys’ Ovid lost his naturalization rights and became once again a stranger in England.



Heather James is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.  She is the author of Shakespeare's Troy: Drama, Politics, and the Translation of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and numerous articles on the transmission of classical culture in early modern England and Europe.  Her current book project, which has received support from the ACLS and NEH foundations as well as the Folger, Huntington, and Beinecke Libraries, is provisionally titled Taking Liberties: Ovid in Renaissance Poetry and Political Thought


Her published work that is of particular interest to this conference includes:


“Shakespeare’s Classical Plays,” Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, eds. Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 153-167. 


“Ovid in Renaissance English Literature,” the Blackwell Companion to Ovid, ed. Peter E. Knox (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009): 423-41.


“Shakespeare and Classicism,” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry, ed. Patrick Cheney (Cambridge University Press, 2007): 202-220.


“The Poet’s Toys: Christopher Marlowe and the Liberties of Erotic Elegy,” Modern Language Quarterly 67:1 (2006): 103-127.


“Shakespeare’s Learned Heroines in Ovid’s Schoolroom,” in Charles Martindale and A. B. Taylor, eds., Shakespeare and the Classics (Cambridge University Press, 2004): 66-85.  


“Ovid and the Question of Politics in Early Modern England,” English Literary History (ELH), 70:2 (2003): 343-73.


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