THE WEEK IN BOOKS
Which poem written in another language has given birth to the most, and best, offspring within English literature? Partisans might push the claims of the Odyssey, the Iliad and even Dante's Divine Comedy. But for the sheer scope and strength of its echoes over the six centuries that separate Geoffrey Chaucer and Ted Hughes, one answer alone suffices: the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Written in the first years of the first millennium, before Ovid's taste for subversive sauce led the Emperor Augustus to banish the poet from Rome to the Black Sea coast in 8AD, these 15 books of changes - gods to humans; humans to beasts and plants; nature itself evolving from one form to another - put down deep roots in the Anglophone imagination during the Renaissance. Shakespeare would have known the Latin via his lessons at Stratford grammar school, but the Ovidian motifs that seed the plays - from the weaver-ass shift in A Midsummer Night's Dream to the living statue of The Winter's Tale - also owe a heavy debt to Arthur Golding's translation, in 1567. Its lolloping but oddly addictive seven-beat lines ("fourteeners") never quite caught on in English, but the poem itself sparked transformations of its own at regular intervals, right up to Ted Hughes's fleshy, rugged and bloodstained Tales from Ovid in 1997.
Now, at the National Gallery, the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 project celebrates not just the Venetian maestro but the enduring power of Ovid's stories to mutate into new art of many kinds. A trio of contemporary visual artists - Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger - respond to the three great Ovid-inspired paintings on show: "Diana and Callisto", "Diana and Actaeon", and "The Death of Actaeon". Working with choreographers and composers such as Wayne McGregor and Mark-Anthony Turnage, the Royal Ballet is performing new works that create a dialogue with the paintings, and their stories. And in the book Metamorphosis: poems inspired by Titian, 15 distinguished British and Irish poets look both at the paintings and, inevitably, back to the ever-fertile poetry behind them. …