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Passionate biology

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, Faber, pounds 7.99; Ruth Padel applauds shape-shifting sensuality
iwThe Metamorphoses was a dicey project for a poet of urban sex. Ovid - who lived from 43BC to around 17AD - had published Amores (love poems), Heroides (love-letters from legendary women), Art of Love (a treatise on seduction); then he embarked on Metamorphoses: "Bodies Changing Shape". By 6AD he had finished, then got exiled - for sex, it's said: either a politically sensitive affair or the dazzling smut he'd written. But his weird epic became one of the best-sellers of the millennium.

Its success was due to four things. His technical brilliance and newly sinuous hexameter. His focus on the significant moment, which made him Mr Big for painting and opera. The extreme pain of his stories, which he matched (however bizarre the situation: women becoming bears, men becoming mincemeat, hoopoes, anemones) with extreme feeling. Plus his rushing enjoyment of the physical world. Things happen to bodies in lush landscape. Human physicality is Gaia-linked to creation. Geography is passionate biology.

The idea of "bodies changing" is basic to us. We fear it, desire it (see under Slimming magazine), watch it happen. Fatter, bigger, thinner, stronger, iller. How we end is different from how we began, as the Sphinx pointed out. (You know: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, three in the evening?") The most dramatic metamorphoses are to do with sex - which is where Ovid and Ted Hughes come in.

Ovid's Metamorphoses begins "My mind is going to new things". An epic about bodies, beginning with "mind"? This sums Ovid up. Cerebral and sensual; but wit first. Hughes makes something quite different. "Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed/to different bodies," he starts. His first noun is "bodies". He doesn't mess with "mind"; he's after bigger game.

Tales from Ovid reminds us of Hughes's stature as a tragic poet. Ovid tells tragic stories for formal and evocative purposes, not out of need. Hughes's voice is naked, his sensuality tougher and darker than Ovid's. But they meet, in their unflinching way, with passion.

The stories have everything Hughes made his own: animals, pain, cruelty, land, death - plus grief for a world that's like this. He picked the stories he wanted and wrote poems in varied forms with page-turning narrative drive and a wonderful strength, delicacy, and music. Poems of desire, sex, jealousy, the dangers of self-reliance. (Phaethon thinks he's good with horses.) And the Alzheimer's nightmare of being the same person inside after cruel transformation:

Human tears shone on his stag's face

From the grief of a mind that was still human.

He ends with two lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, "Their addiction to each other,/absolute, helpless, terminal", expressed through a crack in the wall. There are walls between us all. That crack is an image of poetry, or any formal miracle of verbal communication. It seems feeble compared to the way bodies communicate, but lasts longer:

This crack, this dusty crawl-space for a spider

became the highway of their love-murmurs,

Brows to the plaster, lips to the leak of air

And cooking smells from the other interior.

Tales from Ovid witnesses to meditation on the dangerous physical boundaries by which we live, as bodies that want to join each other. "Burn us as we lived/in the one flame", says Thisbe to posterity. Those lovers joined their bodies only in death. And this is where Hughes's whole book, having begun with creation, ends:

The two lovers in their love-knot,

One pile of inseparable ashes,

Were closed in a single urn.

Here is a master-poet writing some of his most powerful and poignant work. Read him.