|Thisbe, by John Waterhouse.|
Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes is one of the best books I have ever read. Ever.
I don't remember buying this, but I must have bought it new. I'm guessing I've had it for at least five years, and why I don't know, but without any kind of investigation it was immediately put at the top of my "very intimidating" pile. That pile, these days, is largely poetry: Paradise Lost, The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, Odyssey, and The Canterbury Tales remain (though I have plans to read the anthology, more later, and am currently reading, and more or less enjoying, Odyssey). I don't do too well with poetry because of the little I've read, I've struggled with, so I don't read any more because I officially do not understand poetry, and will never understand it because I don't read it. A vicious circle. And, the mere mention of Ovid, a Roman poet born 20th March 43 BC officially made me think Tales from Ovid was absolutely out of my league. Ancient Literature is one of my blocks, and so too is poetry, ego the "very intimidating pile".
However, Tales from Ovid is not a translation, it is an interpretation published in 1997. And I do love Ted Hughes and don't often struggle with him. Entirely disregarding this fact, however, I decided to read Tales for the challenge, and was expecting another Iliad result.
So perhaps my glee is based on my surprise and boost to my confidence. It's a big thing, for me to enjoy and understand poetry from start to finish, and oh, Lord! I enjoyed this! Again read in my new favourite spot on the kitchen sink, the bright sun turning to dusk, various hot drinks, and Trotwood playing in the aviary then later by my side, I was happy all through the hours it took to read. And I read it from start to finish - it was utterly engaging, completely accessible to my poetry-blocked brain, and has made me desperate to seek out Ovid's Metamorphoses. It truly was a perfect reading experience, and I almost worry that it will never be repeated.
In it there are fourteen tales, including Creation, Midas, Pyramus and Thisbe, Echo and Narcissus, Niobe, and Pygmalion.
If I had to pick a single favourite... No. if I had to pick just four favourites, they would be Creation, Phaethon, Myrrha, Pygmalion, and Niobe. So five. Five favourites.
I do love a Creation story, and so quite possibly I would have loved this even if Ian Banks had have penned it.
He gave the bright ground of heavenTo the gods, the stars and the planets.To the fish he gave the waters.To the beasts the earth, to the birds the air.Nothing was any closer to the godsThan these humble beings,None with ampler mind,None with a will masterful and ableTo rule all others.Till man came.
Hughes writes of a mythological time when there were no need for laws. The Golden Age:
And the first age was Gold.Without laws, without law's enforcers,This age understood and obeyedWhat had created it.Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.
(Which put me in mind of the Tao Te Ching - "returning to the source is serenity"). Hegel and Marx talk about the history of ideas, where two groups are in conflict over an idea, for example capitalism is the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This pre-dates that, this is pre-historic and there is no conflict. Man reaps what nature produces, "Men needed no weapons. / Nations loved one another." Even in the third age, the age of brass where "blades their hands snatched up / Before they cooled", still then "Mankind listened deeply / To the harmony of the whole creation". It was the Age of Iron when "the day of evil dawn[ed]". Earth was torn up and "not even heaven was safe". The conflict between man and nature was born and raged.
The following chapter tells the tale of Phaethon, who is mocked by his friends who do not believe that his father is Pheobus, the sun god. He seeks Pheobus and asks him to prove to the world that he is his father Pheobus swears on the lakes of hell that he will give him what he asks for. Phaethon asks for one day to drive the chariot of the sun, and despite grave misgivings, his father grants his wish.
Vulcan had made it. The axle-tree was gold.And the chariot-pole was gold. The wheel-rims were gold.The wheel=spokes silver. The harness, collar and traces,Crusted with chrysolites and other jewelsBlazed in the beams of the sun-god.And as Phaethon stood there, light-headed with confidence,Giddy with admirationOf the miraculous workmanship and detail,Dawn opened her purple doors behind him,Letting the roses spill from her chambers.
Pheobus warns him, "Share your heat fairly / Between heaven and earth, not too low / And not crashing in among the stars. Too high / You will set heaven aflame - and too low, earth.... But Phaethon, too drunk with his youth to listen, / Ignored the grieving god". What ensues is a rapid, panicked, and heady description of disaster, and of course, regret.
Next up is Myrrha, who is in love with her father, Cinyras. Unable to contain and cope with her lust, she attempts suicide, however is stopped by her nurse who contrives a plan to trick Myrrah's father into sleeping with her. On the ninth day, he discovers exactly who it is he is having sex with and tries to kill her, but she dodges him "like a bat" and flees. She prays,
O you gods,If there are any gods with patience enoughTo listen to meWho deserveThe most pitiless judgementWhich I would welcome -I only fear that by dyingI would pollute the dead.Just as my life contaminates the living.Give me some third way, neither wholly deadNor painfully alive. Remove meFrom life and from deathInto some nerveless limbo.
Myrrha's child was Adonis, who follows in the next chapter.
|Venus bringing to life Pygmalion's bride (Burne Jones)|
Later in Tales comes the story of Pygmalion, who, disillusioned and sickened by the women around him, creates a statue "Lovelier than any living woman". He falls in love with his statue, wooing her, buying her gifts; clothes, jewels, and flowers, and loving her most of all when she is naked. He prays to the gods that he could find a woman that resembled his creation, and Venus hears, and brings the statue to life:
Pygmalion hurried away homeTo his ivory obsession. He burst in,Fevered with deprivation,Fell on her, embraced her, and kissed herLike one collapsing in a desertTo drink at a dribble from a rock.But his hand sprung off her breastAs if stung.He lowered it again, incredulousAt the softness, the warmthUnder his fingers. WarmAnd soft as warm soft wax -But aliveWith the elastic of life.
My final favourite is grim. Niobe. "Niobe was proud. She was proud." And she gets her comeupance in a way that only the ancients can deliver - with intense cruelty and astonishing inhumanity. She insults the gods, and pays the ultimate price - all of her children are killed, and she is turned into a living statue:
Niobe gazed at the corpses.All her children were dead.Her husband was dead.Her face hardenedAnd whitened, as the blood left it.Her very hair hardenedLike hair carved by a chisel.Her open eyes became stones.Her whole bodyA stone.Life drained from every part of it.Her tongueSolidified in her stone mouth.Her feet could not move, her handsCould not move: they were stone,Her veins were stone veiins.Her bowels, her womb, all stonePacked in stone.And yetThis stone woman wept.A hurricane caught her upAnd carried herInto Phygia, her homeland,And set her down on top of a mountain.And there, a monument to herself,Niobe still weeps.As the weather wears at herHer stone shape weeps.
This book needs to be read. Everyone should read Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes. Please just read it. It is perfect.