What's the Latin for`the Brookside vice'?

TALES FROM OVID by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 14.99/pounds 7.99

Where's the pleasure in mutilating this dead body?" demanded Ovid in the last lines of his last poem, the final Epistulae ex Ponto: "There's no space now for another wound." But then, who ever respected the wishes of a dead poet? In the 2,000 years since Ovid's death, anyone who's anyone in the western canon has had a stab, including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, plus a whole arsenal of axe-wielding modern poets in Faber's 1994 onslaught, After Ovid.

Nevertheless, while the Americans seem to have taken the Metamorphoses, in particular, to heart with a string of recent translations, over here we can field only two: Mary Innes's 1955 prose version and A D Melville's accomplished, if starchy, verse rendition from the mid-Eighties, a far cry from Golding's influential 1567 translation and the elegant 18th-century contributions by Dryden, Addison and Pope. Still, there has always been something not quite pukka about Ovid - a hint of recklessness, the whiff of excess. From the ardent passions of his youth - promising his father in a perfect hexameter that he really would give up poetry for a steady job - to the unknown crime against the emperor Augustus, which led to those long, tormented years of exile, this lack of self-restraint can jar on British sensibilities. And for a culture which, like that of Rome itself, elevates the status quo to almost mythic status, the Metamorphoses holds particular terrors, offering a celebration of change, an orgy of transformation, untrammelled revolution spinning on and on across 15 books and nearly 12,000 lines.

Ted Hughes, one of the most enthusiastic (and successful) contributors to After Ovid,has now produced 20 new versions to place alongside his previous four, again all based on tales from the Metamorphoses. At first glance, it seems almost as unlikely a coupling as Europa and the bull. Imagine Ovid as a modern English poet and an urbane, raddled, figure springs to mind, some bitter has-been seeing, out his days in self-imposed exile in some faded Eastern European port; a quiet life in rural Devon with the official sanction of Poet Laureate doesn't quite compute.

So how does our man fare? As After Ovid suggested, extraordinarily well. Hughes is far too experienced a poet to be overwhelmed by Ovid's forceful persona. Neatly side-stepping all the agonised debates about how to render alien verse forms in English, he retains his own informal structures, capturing the rise and fall of Latin hexameters through repetition, alliteration, and a beat as relentless as Niobe's tears:

Her bowels, her womb, all stone

Packed in stone.

And yet

This stone woman wept.

An even more pressing problem is Ovid's dense, slippery poetics - try to pin him down in rigid, word-hungry English and he slides through the fingers like a Tory minister on a sleaze charge. Hughes ignores the contortionist tendencies of previous translators, teasing out the concision of Ovid's Latin into lengthier, more elastic conundrums. As Modesty, Loyalty and Truth, for example, "take flight" ("fugere") during the harsh Age of Iron, Hughes has them "Go up like a mist - a morning sigh off a graveyard", as if rubbing a child's magic pencil over Ovid's text to reveal another hidden, secret poem behind. Again, when Lycaon is transformed into a wolf with "vestigia" of his former self, Hughes understands only too well how "still his humanity clings to him / And suffers in him", finding whole new worlds of terror in Ovid's terse few words.

It's this relentless gaze, the unblinking stare of a hawk hovering above its prey, that distinguishes Hughes's approach. He grubs out each last scrap of Ovid's detail - Winter's beard "jagged with icicles", Thetis "trussed ... up like a chicken", Phaethon's horse churning up the clouds until Ovid's colour-washed world glows once again, like Minerva's tapestry, with "every graduation / Of tints in the rainbow". And from the man who brought us Pike and Crow it's hardly surprising that when it comes to gore, he can go as far as Ovid - and often further, scarcely flinching as Philomela and Procne tear Itys's "hot little body / Into pulsating gobbets", or Achilles breaks Cygnus's nose "like a crushed pear".

Hughes is equally unfazed by Ovid's psychological flourishes.Narcissus's ghost admiring itself in the waters of the Styx, Hercules's anxious mother, for whom "each new task had come as a fresh disaster", spring to life with humour and compassion. Ovid's infamous wit, "my undoing" as he wails in the Tristia, poses fresh hazards, in its wry self-mockery (reassuring incredulous readers, for instance, that it's better not to believe such horrors as Myrrha's passion for her father), and its knowing nods, for the benefit of his literate audience, to his own plundered sources - Catullus, Callimachus, Homer.

But Hughes, not famed for light relief, has his own solutions. "It is no crime," he begins the story of Actaeon and Diana, "To lose your way in a dark wood." Elsewhere, Dante is exchanged for demotic, as "victa ... pietas", or "honour overcome", becomes "trampled underfoot like a dog's turd" and the salve the Sun-god Apollo rubs on his son Phaethon becomes a "medicinal blocker / To protect him from the burning". And just as Ovid introduced contemporary legal and military terms to epic verse, Hughes ,too, is unafraid to take risks with language. "You have become sots," Pentheus rages against the Bacchic revellers of Thebes:

You have dunked it all, like a doughnut

Into a mugful of junk music ...

Traditionalists who view Classics as a personal dolls' house, lovingly recreated in minute detail but still theirs and theirs alone to play with, may be appalled. But Hughes is addressing one of the great dilemmas of classical translation; how to make the poetry as fresh on the page as it must have been for Ovid's first readers nearly two millennia ago. For this was not just an age before mass media, but an age before story- telling itself became homogenised, with characterisation, psychological subtlety and above all, sensation culturally enshrined in works of prose. Who needs Ovid's Myrrha when we have Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss?

Perhaps surprisingly for someone whose poetry has often been considered static, Hughes reanimates, and in reward is reanimated by, Ovid's narrative tension. As red-haired Galanthis suddenly becomes a weasel or Arethusa hides like a hunted mare from Alpheus, our hearts, too, are in our mouths - tales told as if around a Moortown hearth, the dull rain drumming overhead, and Myrrha writhing in her sleep in the very next hamlet. But if Hughes revives that sense of wonder, he also adds a far harsher sense of possibility, a darker sense of knowing - the terror of violence and abuse, of famine and drought, of an Earth "singed to the roots", and an indelible imprint of how

in the one flare noble cities

Were rendered

To black stumps of burning stone.

Hughes plays with our knowledge as Ovid once played with his readers'. Now the Creator "deploys cloud" like a NATO general in Desert Storm, and Jove attempts in vain to protect Semele from the "nuclear blast / Of his naked impact". On a lighter note, we meet the "protester" - an early Swampy - who objects to Erisychthon's destruction of Ceres' sacred grove, and follow Myrrha as she contemplates the intricate complications of the Brookside vice ("Sister to your son, / Co-wife to your mother, your brother's mother ...")

But where Hughes excels, as ever, is not in the humour but the horror. As the world is submerged in "Flood" - a survivor from After Ovid and still the stand-out piece - he turns to a rather different Authorised Version for inspiration:

Drowned mankind, imploring limbs

outspread,

Floats like a plague of dead frogs.

Again, such inventions might enrage those who see classical translations as second-best substitutes for those who cannot read the original. But Hughes belongs to a far older tradition; one which does not parrot, but transforms. He takes up the torch Chaucer passed to Golding, which Golding then passed to Shakespeare, and on to Milton and Dryden - Hughes is the latest in a long line of perpetual metamorphoses for Ovid's "perpetuum carmen".

Hughes rescues Ovid's often disturbing vision from his predecessors' urge to domesticate and disarm (Chaucer's Procne even goes on pilgrimages), exchanging rude mechanicals for nature red in tooth and claw. And even if he does perform wholesale butchery on Ovid's intricately woven corpus, hacking it into separate bloody chunks and ripping out the fragile threads that bind it inexorably together, Tales From Ovidis not so much a mutilating wound as a remedy to "reanimate / This revival of those mar-vels". Cancel the wake. Ovid is alive and well and living in rural England.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution