Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997)


‘Why are you reading that?’ the Emerging Artist asked with genuine curiosity. Unvoiced supplementary clauses hung in the air: ‘… when you don’t have to?’  ‘… when the world is going to hell in a handcart?’

I said, ‘I bought it on impulse when I was spending my voucher at Sappho’s.’ I could have explained the impulse further. I regularly ran into Ovid’s poetry in my years of Latin at school and university, mainly in unseen passages for translation. His sometimes racy retellings of miraculous transformations have had a huge afterlife – they live on in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (source of My Fair Lady), Yeats’s Leda and the Swan, and commonplace phrases like ‘the Midas touch’ or ‘the narcissistic president’. According to Clive James, Shakespeare knew the Metamorphoses by heart. I liked the idea of reading the original – though not enough to wrestle with the Latin. So I was drawn to a book described on its back cover as ‘the best rendering of Ovid in generations’.

Ted Hughes published this version of 24 of the 250 stories from the Metamorphoses the year before he died. It doesn’t read as if it was written by someone winding down. From the urbane, orderly originals in which line after line conforms to the strict scanning requirements of epic hexameter, he produced a collection that is richly varied in form, and gives close attention to physical, even visceral sensation.

The first section, eighteen pages long, tells a creation story, followed by a flood story – a striking reminder that the Hebrew Bible stories didn’t exist in isolation from the surrounding cultures. And the next 20 pages tell the story of young, ambitious Phaethon, who rode the sun’s chariot across the sky, lost control and nearly destroyed the world, a story that reads – in Hughes’s version – as a worst-case scenario for climate change brought about by reckless abuse of natural resources. Here’s the section where the Goddess of Earth pleads with the supreme God:

She choked in a squall of ashes.
‘See my hair singed to the roots,
My eyes cauterised by your glare.
Are these my reward
For my fertility, my limitless bounty,
My tireless production?
Is this my compensation
For undergoing the ploughshare,
The pick and the mattock,
My flesh gouged and attacked and ground to a tilth
Year in and year out? Is this how you pay me
For foddering fat beasts,
For plumping the milky grain that suckles man,
For concocting the essences and rich herbs
That smoke on your altars?

And then the book settles down to less cosmic tales, but tales that are a long way from having lost their sting: Proserpina, Echo and Narcissus, Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta), Pygmalion and Galatea, Pyramus and Thisbe (darker than the Midsummer Night’s Dream version); Midas, Tiresias and Arachne; the birth of Hercules (a truly terrible labour for his mother Alcmene, who was sabotaged by the god who usually helps labour go well), the incest of Myrrha (‘Hatred for one’s father is a crime. / Myrrha’s love for her father / Was a crime infinitely worse’), Niobe (all I knew was that she wept, now I know why!), Actaeon turned into a stag for seeing Diana naked, Erysichthon condemned to starve (the most graphic story in the book, and completely new to me), and more.

There are occasional apparently anachronistic scientific terms, but Hughes generally stays true to the cosmology and geography of the original. There are many references to other classical stories, some of which I recognised from my childhood reading of Kingsley’s Heroes, many not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a terrific read.

Now I want to geek out about translation for a while, so feel free to stop reading.

Having struggled with translation of Latin poetry in my distant youth, I was aware that this book is in no way a literal translation. Occasionally, I’d be struck by a vivid phrase or sentence and surmise that the Latin original was just two words, a noun and participle (not even a full verb).

I wanted to have a close look at a passage. Somehow I ended up with part of the story of Pygmalion. In case someone reading this doesn’t know the story, Pygmalion is a sculptor who can’t stand actual women but sculpts his ideal woman out of ivory. Besotted with his creation, he prays to Venus, and she answers his prayer by bringing the statue to life. I picked 20 lines of the original in which he falls in love (creepily) with the statue, then – deferring to my need and yours to do other things – I cut it down to five lines.

The original, Book Ten, lines 254-258:

saepe manus operi temptantes admovet, an sit
corpus an illud ebur, nec adhuc ebur esse fatetur.
oscula dat reddique putat loquiturque tenetque
et credit tactis digitos insidere membris
et metuit, pressos veniat ne livor in artus

Here’s a very literal translation:

Often he moves his hands to the work, testing whether it be
flesh or ivory; nor does he yet acknowledge it to be ivory.
He gives kisses and thinks they are returned, and he speaks, and grasps
and believes his fingers sink into the parts he has touched,
and fears that bruising may appear on the limbs when they have been pressed.

Even this isn’t word-for-word, because word order doesn’t matter in Latin the same way it does in English, and in Latin you can tell which words belong together by their endings (it is the hands/manus that are testing/temptantes, which is hard to convey in English). A thing that is kept in this translation is the absence of a pronoun for the statue after ‘it’ (illud) in the second line – important to the sense that Pygmalion is dealing with inanimate matter, but awkward in English. A lot else is lost, which is of course why non-literal translation is desirable. We’ve lost the way metre works in the original: every line ends with the same sequence of long and short syllables – long-short-short-long-long (though the last is occasionally short) – which creates a particular kind of music. We’ve also lost (and I have no idea if Ovid’s first readers cared about it) the use of rhyme and other repeated sounds: dat (gives) and putat (thinks) in the third line, say, and especially the metrically complex repetition of ebur (ivory) in the second line, echoed by livor (bruising) in the fifth.

A search on the internet found a verse translation that stays very close to the original. It’s by Rolfe Humphries (1954), in six lines of blank verse:

He would often move his hands to test and touch It,
Could this be flesh, or was it ivory only?
No, it could not be ivory. His kisses,
He fancies, she returns; he speaks to her,
Holds her, believes his fingers almost leave
An imprint on her limbs, and fears to bruise her.

This has some of the metrical formality of the original, but the other lost things stay lost, and the demands of English mean that the statue becomes a ‘she’ – anticipating the transformation that doesn’t actually happen until more than 20 lines later in Ovid.

The most famous translation by an established English poet is by John Dryden (1631-1700). Here’s the relevant passage, which throws careful word-by-word accuracy to the wind:

The Flesh, or what so seems, he touches oft,
Which feels so smooth, that he believes it soft.
Fir’d with this Thought, at once he strain’d the Breast,
And on the lips a burning kiss impress’d.
‘Tis true, the harden’d breast resists the gripe,
And the cold lips return a kiss unripe:
But when, retiring back, he look’d again,
To think it iv’ry, was a thought too mean:
So wou’d believe she kiss’d, and courting more,
Again embrac’d her naked body o’er;
And straining hard the statue, was afraid
His hands had made a dint, and hurt his maid:
Explor’d her limb by limb, and fear’d to find
So rude a gripe had left a livid mark behind:

In place of the epic hexameter, Dryden uses the heroic couplets beloved of seventeenth century English poets. It hums along OK, but it takes more than twice as many lines – possibly because English needs more words anyhow, and because English has a much bigger storehouse of synonyms, but also because the need to find rhymes meant the text had to be expanded. Dryden’s strategy was to give more titillating detail: touching becomes straining, courting, embracing and exploring; we’ve got flesh, a breast, lips, nakedness, none of which is named in the Latin. The creepiness of the set-up is much emphasised. The statue is ‘his maid’, definitely now ‘she’ rather than Ovid’s ‘it’.

Here’s Ted Hughes on page 136:

Incessantly now
He caressed her,
Searching for the warmth of living flesh,
His fingertip whorls filtering out
Every feel of mere ivory.

He kissed her, closing his eyes
To divine an answering kiss of life
In her perfect lips.
And he could not believe
They were after all only ivory.

He spoke to her, he stroked her
Lightly to feel her living aura
Soft as down over her whiteness.
His fingers gripped her hard
To feel flesh yield under the pressure
That half wanted to bruise her
Into a proof of life, and half did not
Want to hurt or mar or least of all
Find her the solid ivory he had made her.

If I hadn’t read the Dryden I would have taken this to be taking huge liberties, but it’s comparatively restrained. ‘Incessantly’ isn’t bad for saepe/often, ‘searching’ for temptantes. ‘Caress’ for admovet can’t be helped really. He does introduce flesh, and lips, and eyes, like Dryden.The ‘fingertip whorls’ are an insertion of a different order, taking the emphasis away from the creepily erotic to the original’s emphasis on the difference between ebur (ivory) and corpus (a body). ‘Kiss of life’ is apt, in spite of (or because of?) its modern connotations. The repetition of ‘ivory’ at the end of consecutive stanzas achieves a rough equivalent of the repetition of ebur. In the third stanza his fingers ‘half wanted to bruise her’. You can see where that’s grounded in the original, but Ovid’s Pygmalion touches and half believes the ivory yields. It is never explicit that he want it  to happen. That doesn’t happen until later. He fears that he will bruise the limbs, but he doesn’t even half desire it. Where Ovid can leave the emotional content partly unsaid, Hughes takes the extra time to spell it out.

Now of course, I’m tempted to go back to the Erysichthon’s terrible hunger and Myrrha’s incestuous agonising to see how much is Ovid and how much Hughes. But really I’m happy to leave it there.

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