Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, Faber, pounds 7.99; Ruth Padel applauds shape-shifting sensuality
Saturday 24 May 1997
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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi Arabia mosque bombing: Two volunteer security guards hailed as heroes for stopping Isis suicide bomber reaching worshippers
- 2 Maisie Williams has an excellent message for one confused fan
- 3 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 4 Tampon tax scrapped in Canada after petition convinces conservative government
- 5 Kate Moss on the naked Calvin Klein shoot and the obsession that ended her relationship
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
ASAP Rocky gives nauseating response to explicit Rita Ora rap: 'I'm not saying she's a terrible person'
Big Brother 2015 new housemates: Simon Gross returns as stripper Marc O'Neill, model Harry Amelia Martin and X Factor reject Sam Kay join
Burning Man festival revellers accidentally torch prehistoric artefacts in Israel
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote