Deborah Swift was brought up in small village in Yorkshire where she had an idyllic childhood of fresh air and freedom, spent with a menagerie of horses, hens, dogs and cats. Because of this she was attracted to the bright lights of the city and the theatre, and trained in London for a career as a scenographer and costume designer, a job that lasted more than 20 years. Later she taught undergraduates at the Arden School of Theatre in Manchester. Deborah is the author of The Lady's Slipper, about the rare wild orchid. It is a historical novel set in the 17th century, and was selected for publication by Macmillan New Writing, one of the few imprints that takes unsolicited manuscripts. Pan Macmillan will also shortly publish her second novel, The Gilded Lily, and she is working on a third. Below Deborah discusses Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid.
Deborah Swift on Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes
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.
The absence of things, made even more poignant by the active nature of the verbs.
I've always loved the poetry of Ted Hughes because he is able to pinpoint the beauty of nature without any accompanying sentimentality. I grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, close to Mytholmroyd where Hughes also lived for a time, and could recognize the northern specifics in his work – the soot-stained buildings, the moors, the rain. As a teenager, I loved the dark gothic flavour of Crow, Lupercal, Wolfwatching. Even just the titles. He made me want to be a poet - to tame language the way he could. Thirty years later I realized I was actually a novelist not a poet - that I longed for reams of plot and drama, and could never be concise enough to be a Hughes, nor could I nail my sprawling imagination with such awesome precision.
When I decided to take writing more seriously, I embarked on a course with the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, a bleak 18th century mill-owner's house once owned by Ted Hughes. I can still remember the feeling of terror, looking out through rain-spattered windows over the bare trees, and knowing I would have to read out my fledgling poems to the other participants. There was something about that uncompromising environment that would stand no nonsense. And Hughes's presence seemed to live in the walls like a ghost or a god.
It was my husband who recently suggested Tales from Ovid. He is a mythaholic and said it was a great version of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Arguably the greatest collection of myths in western literature, its influence is evident in our great writers such as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. And if I was after drama, then it's all here, he said. And he was right; it contains every plot, every adventure that might befall the gods and ourselves. Incest, murder, sexual infidelity and jealousy on the one hand; courage, love, hope, tenderness on the other. And yet, Tales from Ovid has a dispassionate quality. It is as much of The Calder Valley as it is of the Mediterranean.
Here are the stories of Icarus, who plunged to his death when he flew too close to the sun on his home-made wings, of Arachne who was shrunk into a spider, of Daphne who shrivelled into a tree, and of Phaeton whose father's heat burned him to a crumple of ashes. And if you think you know the story of Midas, the King whose touch turned everything to gold, then read Hughes's version.
Midas obeyed and the river's innocent water
Took whatever was left of the granted wish.
Even today the soil of its flood plain
Can be combed into a sparse glitter
And big popcorns of gold, in its gravels,
Fever the fossicker.
Midas never got over the shock.
The sight of gold was like the thought of a bee
To one just badly stung -
Hughes is unafraid of modernisms like 'popcorns' to bring life to his description and make it sing to the modern reader. I was continually brought up short by the intensity of the imagery, and as I listened to them one after the other, the poems had a cumulative effect, a grandeur, as if I had indeed visited the world of the gods. In his essay 'Myth and Education', Hughes argues that myths contain cathartic psychic properties - images, or symbols, or a drama - that reunite our inner world's subjective chaotic energies with our conscious life. We recognize the possibility of transformation, of being able to die to ourselves, to become something new.
We read Tales from Ovid aloud, and this is certainly the best way to enjoy it - as tales read to you by somebody else. Later I heard Hughes himself read it on tape and was mesmerized. You can even hear his visceral re-telling of Echo and Narcissus on YouTube. I could not imagine how Hughes's Yorkshire tones would suit Mediterranean myths. But his gravelly not-too-northern voice contrasts well with the richness of his language, which surely must be more than just a dry translation of the Latin.
Many scholars have written about the structure and techniques of the poems and made analyses of Hughes's intentions. What impressed me most, as a 'lay reader', was that Hughes could not rely on mere observation, but had to birth a new vision of the gods. I realized that in Tales from Ovid there is far more in common with his earlier nature poems than I had imagined - these are also concerned with the innocent violence and savagery of nature. In the tales, man is subject to the impartial natural law of the gods. He is a mouse in the claws of the kestrel - just as helpless. If a man has a flaw then the retribution is unstoppable and cruel, and Hughes does not shy away from the blood and gore. Here is the death of Alphenor from Niobe's tale:
A forked barb of Apollo
Touched him beneath his left shoulder blade.
It came out under his ribs, on the right,
With a rag of his liver.
He felt his heart kicking against the shaft
As he dropped into darkness
Beneath his brothers.
The poems are exciting edge-of-the-seat reading and accessible to anyone. You do not need to have had a classical education or know anything about ancient Greek culture to enjoy them. As Hughes says in the introduction, Ovid's characters are just ordinary people whose passionate experiences lead them to stumble out into a 'mythic arena'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]