Ted Hughes’ retelling of the tales of Ovid is one of the most vibrant pieces of poetry I’ve enjoyed. I had read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in an old Penguin translation, and finding it a little plodding had wondered at the enduring fame of this great classic. However, this not being the first time I have had such a response to the first translation encountered, later tumblingly overturned by a more vivid rendition, I didn’t give up on it. Hughes’ version pumps fresh blood into the myths and re-animates them with power, splendour and occasional images of terror.
Here, he kicks off with the story of creation. I love those opening lines descibing the initial amorphous Chaos as an ‘agglomeration of upset’ and, even better, ‘a bolus of everything’.
Then into this mess of nothingness, comes the supreme being’s organising hand, presented here in an almost domestic register as beginning ‘to sort it out’. ‘Land here, sky there’, sounds like decorating a Christmas tree, green bauble to the left, blue bauble to the right, up a bit, yes, that’s it, they are now in their proper place and in balance with each other.
In the coming weeks, we’ll feature more pithy and energetic lines from this masterful, gripping myth-fest.
Before sea or land, before even sky
Which contains all,
Nature wore only one mask –
Since called Chaos.
A huge agglomeration of upset.
A bolus of everything – but
As if aborted.
And the total arsenal of entropy
Already at war within it.
No sun showed one thing to another,
Played her phases in heaven,
Spun in empty air on her own magnet,
Basked or roamed on the long beaches.
Land, sea, air, were all there
But not to be trodden, or swum in.
Air was simply darkness.
Everything fluid or vapour, form formless.
Each thing hostile
To every other thing: at every point
Hot fought old, moist dry, soft hard, and the
God, or some such artist as resourceful,
Began to sort it out.
Land here, sky there,
And sea there.
Up there, the heavenly stratosphere.
Down here, the cloudy, the windy.
He gave to each its place,
Independent, gazing about freshly.
Also resonating –
Each one a harmonic of the others,
Just like the strings
That would resound, one day, in the dome of the