Books That Changed My Life: Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
‘I don’t get poetry.’ It’s a miserable cliché, but generation after generation takes it to heart. In fact, as a teenager studying for my GCSEs, I believed it myself.
Still sporting K-Swiss trainers and a swooping Justin Bieber fringe long after it was a good look (if ever it was), I was stuck in my old ways. I was a novels person, I thought — poems were too brief to affect me deeply or really sear themselves onto my psyche. Yes, they could be memorable: even now, I can recite Vernon Scannell’s ‘Nettles’, with its artfully simple cadences, by heart. And they could be funny: you had to love Daljit Nagra for rhyming ‘chutney’ with ‘Putney’ in ‘Singh Song!’ But I would have taken the complex cast and sweeping drama of Great Expectations over Carol Ann Duffy’s onion any day.
You may have heard that Ofqual, the exams watchdog, has axed poetry as an integral component of the English GCSE syllabus next year to compensate for lost school time. The truth is somewhat more prosaic — teachers can choose to drop one of three modules, the others being the nineteenth-century novel and post-1914 British fiction and drama.
Even so, the news resonated with me because, given the choice at the start of my GCSEs, I would have opted out of poetry without a second thought. (Who would want to spend week after week over-analysing a load of samey sonnets, anyway?) I wasn’t given the choice, however, and so I persisted — and, by the end of Year 11, a book from a surprising origin had given me a newfound appreciation for verse that helped me through my exams and has stayed with me ever since.
While brainstorming topics for my Extended Project, I kept thinking about a Roman writer named Ovid, whose name I had begun to encounter more and more, from Shakespeare’s plays to the lyrics of a Bob Dylan album. His influence seemed to be everywhere, and he was held in reverential terms by scholars. Maybe I could research his impact on Western literature — how hard could that be? (In case the Promethean scale of my pretentious teenage overreach isn’t clear enough, I didn’t even know how to pronounce ‘Ovid’ at this point. You say it with a short o, not, as I assumed, ‘ohh-vid’).
Unfortunately, two more pressing problems stood in my way. Firstly, I didn’t know any Latin. Secondly, Ovid was a poet. What changed everything for me was my dad’s crinkled paperback of Tales from Ovid — Ted Hughes’s celebrated English translation of Ovid’s grand opus, the Metamorphoses.
How do I begin to describe the Metamorphoses?
It was finished around the time of the birth of Christ and, other than the Bible, it’s hard to think of a book more influential on Western writing. Ovid was a great poet and also an exceptional editor, retelling familiar Roman myths of gods, nymphs, giants and the usual megafauna of classical poetry with his own particular focus on human psychology and the power of feeling. He playfully scoots over exposition, deeming it ‘no part of the story’, and zooms in on moments of extreme passion, desire and transformation: characters literally turn into birds, mountains and stars.
Almost uniquely for a Roman poet, Ovid is as interested in telling stories from a female as well as male point of view. And although he didn’t come up with his stories, such was their strength that Ovid’s were the versions read and plundered by generations of subsequent authors. If you’ve read or heard of tales like Pygmalion, Actaeon, Venus and Adonis, Echo and Narcissus, or Pyramus and Thisbe, chances are they can be traced back to the Metamorphoses.
The action and the drama of all this instantly appealed to my younger self, but the fact that it was all in verse was deeply ominous. Shakespeare’s characters spoke to each other in verse, sure — but one enormous, long poem? Wouldn’t it make the stories repetitive and lightweight? Nor was I reassured by Hughes’s slightly pompous introduction (he solemnly informs that, by Ovid’s time, ‘The mythic plane, so to speak, had been defrocked’).
What I didn’t expect was for the ensuing poetry to be a masterclass in the concentration and distillation of language into something undeniably punchy, frank and earthy. Tales From Ovid made me realise how powerful it could be to tell an all-encompassing story with a gimlet eye.
Reading it for the first time, I was amazed that the book opens with a creation story, directly encouraging those Biblical parallels. And what an opening it is. The universe is dark, until ‘God, or some such artist as resourceful, / Began to sort it out’. We then witness humanity’s fall, how ‘Man tore open the earth, and rummaged in her bowels’, unleashing hatred and war and a world where ‘The inward ear, attuned to the Creator, / Is underfoot like a dog’s turd.’ (Very few translators capture Ovid’s weirdness as well as his wisdom).
Mankind has become a lost cause, so Jupiter brings a flood to wash everyone away. Pagan gods collide with the story of Noah in a thunderous statement of the book’s mythic intent: ‘Drowned mankind, imploring limbs outspread, / Floats like a plague of dead frogs.’
From there, the book essentially proceeds as a compilation of climaxes: crossroads of change and moments of transition. Like all great storytellers, Ovid and Hughes linger on these biting points until they are almost unbearably affecting. Take Echo, whose doomed love for Narcissus causes the sadness in her voice to be heard forevermore:
She was in love…like a cat in winter at a fire
She could not edge close enough
To what singed her, and would burn her.
She almost burst
With longing to call out to him and somehow
Let him know what she felt.
The sizzling sibilance of ‘She almost burst’, the way the line-lengths coil up before springing out, spilling over with desire and desperation – it’s fantastic stuff.
The transformations are as brutal as often as they are beautiful. Here’s Jove transforming the murderous King Lycaeon into a wolf: ‘As he tried / To force out screams / He retched howls. / His screams / were vomited howls.’ A common theme, in fact, is the horrifying power of the gods — and their king is the most ruthless of all. Ovid paints a deeply unflattering portrait of Jupiter, warts-and-all: he’s slippery, shapeshifting, seductive and a cold-blooded killer, who you can imagine Romans fearing as much as worshipping.
My indifferent teenage self was buffeted into submission by the overwhelming force of Hughes’s language and blindsided by the flexibility of his blank verse, expanding and contracting like a living organism. I loved the literalness of the stories, the way giants slumber under continents and how Phaethon, son of the sun, comes face to face with the beasts living in the Zodiac constellations. I couldn’t help but goggle at the skilful adaptation and translation, which transformed poetry from two millennia ago into something that felt so present, passionate and disturbing. And the idea that feelings are so strong you could be physically transformed by them made perfect sense to my adolescent self.
In fact, I would soon undergo my own transformation of sorts, ditching the K-Swiss trainers for Vans and wearing Superdry hoodies, which — OK, would date just as poorly, but were at least a bit less of an affectation. I held on to the terrible fringe for a little while longer, but my most important metamorphosis was a literary one: I began reading other long poems in translation, like Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, alongside my usual fix of Dickens and Oscar Wilde, and I never again doubted the transformative power of poetry.
It is always a humbling experience to encounter a book so good it changes your mind. But I’m particularly glad Tales From Ovid helped me ‘get’ poetry when it did. To me, the GCSE years seem like a greenhouse where your appreciation for poetry can bloom — or wither, sometimes never to recover. If you know a teenager who is apathetic about poetry, try showing them one of the Tales from Ovid: proud Phaethon incinerating the earth with his juvenile hubris, perhaps, or Pygmalion, consumed with false love for his own artwork.
They prove beyond any doubt that poetry is a form bound up with transformation — one that people in a transitional period of life can benefit from most of all.
James Riding is a writer and reviewer. He has contributed pieces to The London Magazine, Literary Review and Review 31.
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