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.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected