Metamorphosis, the miraculous transformation from one state to another, one shape to another and one part of reality to another, has a long and powerful appeal to storytellers and poets. In its simplest form, it allows sudden escape routes in a dramatic plot: just as a character is about to suffer some intolerable catastrophe, he or she can be changed into a constellation, a sea bird, a song bird, a wild flower or a snake. Metamorphosis also allows poetic meditation on the nature of different states, the freedom of birds, the fixity of the stars and the painful mortality of man. By the time that Ovid produced his mythological epic Metamorphoses at the beginning of the first century AD, he was able to exploit the potential of the genre for wit and surprise, absurdity and shock as well as for what Ted Hughes once described as "the first principle of poetic creation I this shameless shape-shifting in which anything can stand for or become anything else''.
Hughes's comments in The Times in 1992 were focused on the influence of Ovid's work on the poetry of Shakespeare. But his words were something of an event in themselves. English poets, happy to discuss their roots in Horace, Virgil or Homer, have always been curiously reluctant to comment on their love of Ovid.
For the past 200 years there has been rather little love to comment upon.The works of Publius Ovidius Naso hugely inspired Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. But they languished in the 18th century, were almost dormant in the 19th and won their most substantial modern revival as recently as 1994, when Hughes contributed four pieces to a collection entitled After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun and including poems by Seamus Heaney, Craig Raine and Tom Paulin. Hughes has now added 20 more versions, translating and interpreting further into this newly fashionable extravaganza.
Hughes has his own half-expressed explanation for this modest revival. In a short introduction he notes the coincident timing of Ovid's poem and the birth of Christ. He describes a period of collapse in the old Roman religions and the "psychological gulf'' between the fallen Pantheon and the rise of the new. It is Ovid's embodiment of this "end of an era'' and our own recognition of a similar sense today which Hughes suggests as the source of the new interest.
There is certainly no lack in the Metamorphoses of the morbidity that we associate with fin de si cle. Its 15 books of hexameter verse, though self-consciously light and humorous in parts, include some of the most gruesome passages in ancient literature. Among Hughes's selections is the tale of the Athenian princess, Philomela, who is tricked, captured, raped and physically deprived of her tongue by her sister's wild Thracian husband, Tereus; when the two women take revenge by killing Tereus's son and serving the boy up to him for a special private lunch, they escape his counter-strike only by being transformed into a nightingale and a swallow.
Here is Hughes on Philomela's severed tongue at the moment before Tereus returns to rape her yet again. "The stump recoiled, silenced, into the back of her throat. But the tongue squirmed in the dust, babbling on - shaping words that were now soundless. It writhed like a snake's tail freshly cut off, striving to reach her feet in its death struggle." The same luxuriant way with body parts pervades the dismembering of Actaeon by his own stag hounds, the autocannibalism of Erysichthon and that ripping of Tereus's son by Philomela and Procne "into pulsating gobbets".
It is easy to guess why the schoolboy Edward Gibbon found the Metamorphoses more pleasurable than Virgil's Aeneid. Here was probably the closest he could get to sex and sadism outside the secret libraries.
Traditional teachers accepted Ovid into the classroom because he was in the highest official canon of Augustan poets. He also told the classic stories of Pygmalion, Narcissus (exquisitely turned here by Hughes) and the Midsummer Night's Dream lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. But, better than that for the public school system, Ovid had also been judged to be a critic of the many vices he described. The first full translation into English, by the 16th-century poet Arthur Golding, set the tone: "In no one of all his books the which he wrate do lurk mo dark and secret mysteries, mo counsels wise and sage, mo good ensamples, mo reproves of vice in youth and age".
Hughes is not very interested in reproaching vice himself. As a poetic craftsman, he notes Ovid's originality of expression, citing Holofernes's praise of his "odoriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention" in Love's Labour's Lost. But most of all, like Shakespeare before him, Hughes loves the rich primal material of the Metamorphoses that he can bend to his poetic will.
Take the story of the Sun god's adolescent boy, Phaethon, who drives his father's chariot as fatally as a millionaire's son in a Ferrari; Hughes notes quietly the story's beginnings but then thunders as the boy takes the sun's course too close to the ground. "Earth began to burn, the summits first. Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets, all crops were instant fuel - the land blazed briefly. In the one flare noble cities were rendered to black stumps of burnt stone.'' For the poet laureate, a hard campaigning enemy of our chemical-dependent society, this is global warming that has become a roasting.
Hughes does not select for translation the most political parts of the Metamorphoses. But he does make palpable the repression in Ovid's Rome and the poetic response to it which gives Ovid's work so much of its force for today. It was fear which drove the independent-minded poet into mythological zones where he could feel more free. His lot as a writer was to be active slightly later in Augustus's reign than Horace and Virgil and to know rather more of Augustus as imperial dictator and rather less of him as liberator from republican chaos.
When the unequal clash between poet and emperor finally came, it came with a suitably subtle and metamorphic force of its own. Because of a mysterious mix of crimes involving a poem, probably the "Art of Love", and an "error'', probably sexual, Ovid, one of the most sophisticated men of his day, was transformed into an exile in the provincial Black Sea port of Tomi on the very edge of the Roman world.
The Metamorphoses was barely complete when its creator, telling his friends that the manuscript should be destroyed, had to leave Rome for ever. It is hard not to feel some sense of that impending doom in these hexameter landscapes where, for both Ovid and Hughes, writing 2,000 years apart, there is always black around every blue sky, rape hovering behind each kiss and murder in the green grass of the meadows.
Peter Stothard is editor, The Times.
Tales from Ovid
Author - Ted Hughes
ISBN - 0 571 17759 X and 19103 7
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £14.99 and £7.99
Pages - 160