The Week in Books: Welcome back, Ovid - for English poets, you always were the champion

Plus - in search of the internet and the true colour of fiction

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 12 July 2012 17:14

Which poem written in another language has given birth to the most, and best, offspring within English literature? Partisans might push the claims of the Odyssey, the Iliad and even Dante's Divine Comedy. But for the sheer scope and strength of its echoes over the six centuries that separate Geoffrey Chaucer and Ted Hughes, one answer alone suffices: the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

Written in the first years of the first millennium, before Ovid's taste for subversive sauce led the Emperor Augustus to banish the poet from Rome to the Black Sea coast in 8AD, these 15 books of changes – gods to humans; humans to beasts and plants; nature itself evolving from one form to another – put down deep roots in the Anglophone imagination during the Renaissance. Shakespeare would have known the Latin via his lessons at Stratford grammar school, but the Ovidian motifs that seed the plays – from the weaver-ass shift in A Midsummer Night's Dream to the living statue of The Winter's Tale – also owe a heavy debt to Arthur Golding's translation, in 1567. Its lolloping but oddly addictive seven-beat lines ("fourteeners") never quite caught on in English, but the poem itself sparked transformations of its own at regular intervals, right up to Ted Hughes's fleshy, rugged and bloodstained Tales from Ovid in 1997.

Now, at the National Gallery, the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 project celebrates not just the Venetian maestro but the enduring power of Ovid's stories to mutate into new art of many kinds. A trio of contemporary visual artists – Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger - respond to the three great Ovid-inspired paintings on show: "Diana and Callisto", "Diana and Actaeon", and "The Death of Actaeon". Working with choreographers and composers such as Wayne McGregor and Mark-Anthony Turnage, the Royal Ballet is performing new works that create a dialogue with the paintings, and their stories. And in the book Metamorphosis: poems inspired by Titian, 15 distinguished British and Irish poets look both at the paintings and, inevitably, back to the ever-fertile poetry behind them.

Titian's pictures - and in particular the hunter Actaeon's dire fate, transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds after he spies on the goddess Diana – may offer definitive images of the voyeurism that drives so much art. But the poets show that Titian didn't have the last word. "Diana, scorned by connoisseurs of scrawn/ punishes those who'd pimp her as plump porn", rhymes the inimitable Tony Harrison. As always, since Shakespeare, the ghost of Ovid invites poets to be not mere imitators but themselves in a new key.

Seamus Heaney balances the sacred and profane, will and fate, as Actaeon's rebel hounds "tore mouthfuls of hide and flesh and blood/ Out of what he was". Carol Ann Duffy voices a down-to-earth female conclave which scorns lofty interpretations of this débâcle: ""my point,/ ladies, is this – it's all about paint". Wendy Cope pinpoints a lover for Actaeon, the overlooked handmaiden who pines for "My secret love, who loved me too". Hugo Williams imagines the nymphs as an accusatory parade of past girlfriends, "But I fled from that tumble of looks and limbs,/ dogged by indecision and regret". And Patience Agbabi both focuses on Diana's African attendant ("I am her shadow/ black yet fairer than the mistress") and, in a virtuoso ploy, makes the two halves of her poem reflect each other line by line, like a lustful, or self-loving, viewer peering into a pool or else a glass: "Actaeon, you'll pay the price for looking".

These fresh changes rung on the West's bumper book of transformations prove that Ovid lives, and moves. For me, in this Olympic summer of cosmopolitan cultural jamborees in London and beyond, they tell one more unforgettable story. Look at that gold-medal procession of English poetry, from Chaucer to Hughes, and reflect on the diet that fed its champions. Without translation – that vital art of metamorphosis – they would stumble and limp.

When a dodgy server pulls the literary plug

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Andrew Blum's eye-opening book Tubes, which asks the question: where is the internet? Andrew Gallix, editor of the smart and sparky literary webzine 3:AM, has had reason to find out. His server went down and 3:AM, with its 12 years of archived articles, vanished. Who ran the server, and from where? Gallix's quest led to Dallas, to Missouri, and to some bloke called Florin in Bucharest, Romania – the zine's unwitting host. Florin seems to have switched it on again. O, brave new world…

Beyond grey: fiction's true colours

Even in old-fashioned print, EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is caning sales records. I have an idea for booksellers who might want to tie all these newcomers – or returnees – to reading more tightly to the habit. Offer a discounted copy of another colour-coded novel with every Fifty Shades. Plenty of options spring to mind: Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are not the Only Fruit; Mark Haddon's The Red House; Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun; Alice Walker's The Color Purple; Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger; Martin Amis's Yellow Dog; Monique Roffey's The White Woman on the Green Bicycle; Jennie Erdal's The Missing Shade of Blue; Susan Hill's The Woman in Black; or most of Orhan Pamuk, from The White Castle to My Name is Red. Who knows? Turned-on readers who fancy a gentler seducer than Mr Grey might even try Stendhal's Scarlet and Black.

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