cover image Tales from Ovid: 24 Passages from the Metamorphoses

Tales from Ovid: 24 Passages from the Metamorphoses

Ovid. Farrar Straus Giroux, $25 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-374-22841-5

During his lifetime, the first-century Latin poet Ovid made a notoriously reluctant moralist. Ever since the Middle Ages, however, when commentators took the Metamorphoses for divinely inspired Christian allegory, readers have freely attached their own morals and glosses to Ovid's witty, melancholy tales of supernatural lovers in hot pursuit. Hughes is no exception. With a bravado that recalls Robert Lowell's Imitations, Hughes riffs at every turn on his original. Punished by Zeus with floods, mankind ""Floats like a plague of dead frogs."" Pygmalion's prudishness turns ""Every woman's uterus into a spider."" These extra-Ovidian flourishes are not Hughes's only innovation. In his ""Pygmalion,"" for instance, it is suddenly Galatea, ""sick of unbeing,"" who possesses Pygmalion and brings herself to life through his hands. Clearly, Hughes proves a more resistant medium than his sculptor-hero: as a translator Hughes prefers partnership to possession. Luckily, there's a natural affinity between Ovid and the British poet laureate, a writer known for both his delightful bedtime stories and dark, earthy animal myths. Hughes captures brilliantly the ""human passion in extremis"" that is for him Ovid's chief interest, while Ovid's compression curbs Hughes's old penchant for list-making, show-stopping oratory. Yet for all their insight into the feeling between Ovid's lines, these absorbing fables are unmistakable, very welcome Hughes. (Dec.)