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


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.

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