Book Review: Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes

tales-from-ovid-191x300At first blush, the marriage between Ovid that most latin of poets and Ted Hughes would seem as unlikely a match as any you could imagine. Not in ability, of course, but in language and temperament.

Hughes as a poet has always seemed to me one of the most earthy, physical, and Anglo-Saxon of all contemporary poets. Classical Ovid and the dactylic hexameter (the poetic meter form used in classical epic poems such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, often called the “heroic” hexameter) would seem to be polar opposite of Hughes. Yet Hughes pulls it off, creating one of the best books of poetry I have read in a very long time.

When I think of Hughes I think of poems like “February 17th” which is about a farmer struggling to help a still-born lamb to be delivered to save the mother. Such lines as these seem so earthy, so removed in style and substance from what we think of when we think of the heroic:

The corpse that would not come. Till it came.
And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow
Parcel of life
In a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups –
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

Yet in these lines we also see what Hughes does best, perhaps better than anyone ever: he sees and gives voice to the natural and nature in a way simultaneously factual and mythic.

In Tales from Ovid, Hughes picks and chooses which of Ovid’s many stories he wants to translate and re-tell. His choices include some of the most violent and disturbing stories that Ovid wrote: ‘Echo and Narcissus,’ ‘Bacchus and Pentheus,’ and ‘Jove’s rape of Semele’. But in the same way that the language of “February 17th” transfigures the brutality and tragedy of a still-born lamb, in Hughes’s poetry even Ovid’s most violent stories and images become transcendent as in these lines from the story of Semele:

Her eyes opened wide, saw him
And burst into flame.
Her whole body lit up
With the glare
That explodes the lamp –

In that splinter of a second,
Before her blazing shape
Became a silhouette of sooty ashes
The foetus was snatched from her womb.

Ovid’s stories are of change, metamorphosis. In the late 20th and early part of the 21st century, it is a theme that seems most relevant… and obviously one that attracted Hughes the poet/prophet. But beneath the theme of change runs the deeper current of love. Ovid, even in the most violent and brutal of his stories, is always writing about love. It is after all love (sometimes broken and warped love in the form of lust and jealousy) that creates the action between the gods and the people in these familiar stories. Certainly in the late 20th and first part of the 21st century the theme of love remains as relevant as when Ovid first penned these stories centuries ago.

 

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