Ovid’s tale of Echo and Narcissus is one of unrequited love and the waste it brings. Echo falls in love with Narcissus, who turns her away scornfully. Devastated by his rejection she roams the forest without food or rest, until she fades into nothing but a voice. Narcissus is punished for his pride and, catching sight of his reflection in a calm pool, in turn falls in love with his own beautiful image. Unable to fulfil his desire he too wastes away. He dies at the side of the pool, but instead of a body all that remains is a small white flower with a yellow centre, the Narcissus.
Echo was a talkative and cheeky Nymph employed by Jupiter to distract his wife while he was off having affairs. When Juno finds out, she curses Echo to only ever repeat other people’s last words. Narcissus was a handsome youth who was desired by many but scorned all those who approached him.
On a hunting trip Narcissus strays away from his friends and is spied by Echo. The nymph falls instantly in love. The following dialogue between the two is a brilliant display of the adaptability of language. By taking away her power of speech Juno threatened to transform Echo into a nonbeing, a person without a voice. But the nymph resists this fate and maintains control, giving her own meaning to the words of Narcissus.
By chance, the boy, separated from his faithful band of followers, had called out ‘Is anyone here?’ and ‘…Here!’ Echo replied. He is astonished, and glances everywhere, and shouts in a loud voice ‘Come to me!’, and ‘Come to me!’ the voice replies. He looks back, and no one appearing behind, asks ‘Why do you run from me?’ and receives the same words back. He stands still, and deceived by the likeness to an answering voice, says ‘This way! Let us come together’. And, never answering to another sound more gladly, Echo replies ‘…Let us come together!’ and to prove her words she comes out of the woods to put her arms longingly around his neck. He flees from her and cries ‘Take your hands off me! May I die before you enjoy my body.’ She answers, only ‘…enjoy my body.’
In my post on Ovid’s Pygmalion, I explored an example of suppressed perspectives and voices in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here again the female voice is suppressed. But through Ovid’s creativity she overcomes this attempt to control her, ironically displaying her own control over language. It is another way to subvert the limitations placed upon the female gender. Woman inevitably play a secondary role in Roman history and literature, but even as just an echo of the male voice, the female intrudes into the text and shapes it to her own end.
However we should perhaps not get too carried away. Ultimately it is Ovid, a male poet, who is controlling the dialogue. Arguably it is rather his voice, his playfulness and delight in the adaptability of language, that we hear.
Narcissus then will fall to the same fate as Echo. He rejects one suitor too many and the goddess Nemesis punishes him with his own unrequited lust. Catching sight of his reflection in a pool he is transfixed by the beautiful youth he sees, but is frustrated in his attempts to embrace him. Eventually he realises it is himself and in this knowledge he wastes away, distraught at the impossibility of his desire.
As he sees all this reflected in the dissolving waves, he can bear it no longer, but as yellow wax melts in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire. He no longer retains his colour, the white mingled with red, no longer has life and strength, and that form so pleasing to look at, nor has he that body which Echo loved. Still, when she saw this, though angered and remembering, she pitied him, and as often as the poor boy said ‘Alas!’ she repeated with her echoing voice ‘Alas!’ and when his hands strike at his shoulders, she returns the same sounds of pain. His last words as he looked into the familiar pool were ‘Alas, I loved you in vain, dear boy!’ and the place echoed every word, and when he said ‘Farewell,’ ‘Farewell,’ said Echo.
Narcissus falls in love with his visual reflection, but Echo is his auditory reflection, echoing his last goodbye as the visual fades away. The beauty of Narcissus dies but his voice lives on in Echo. She takes his words and turns them into her own eternal farewell, mourning the beautiful boy who, like her, was destroyed by a hopeless love.
Narcissus is obsessed with his own reflection, with a passing trick of mirrors and light. Many scholars have seen a reflection of Ovid himself in Narcissus, of the poet’s love of wordplay and duplicity, his delight in hidden voices and fleeting visions. He admires himself, seduced by his own brilliance, which is reflected back at him by his marvelling audience and within his very texts. And yet the poet was to live his last days in exile, banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus, mysteriously charged with ‘a poem and a mistake’. He dies far away from his wife and friends, isolated from the city of his great success. In the end nature reflects art and the glorious image of the infamous poet fades away. But his ‘farewell’ echoes through history in the extraordinary texts that are his legacy.
For a feminist reading of this story see ‘The Latest Word from Echo’, Anne-Emmanuelle Berger and Rachel Gabara in New Literary History (1996).