Tales for Our Time

By Reade, Simon | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Tales for Our Time


Reade, Simon, The Spectator


Those chilling euphemisms of the 1990s - `ethnic cleansing' and `collateral damage' - are lies pedalled as truth. They stop us feeling what we ought to feel: about the systematic and murderous hounding out of one race from its home by another; about innocent bystanders murdered without much care while terrorising planes try to hit an inanimate target. Without articulating the truth, we can't truly feel, which is why we must cling on to the language of feeling and always question the context in which truth is disseminated. I would argue that there's a collection of contemporary poems - a reworking of 2,000-year-old Latin verse - which has re-ignited our desire to know the truth because it has revitalised our appetite for visceral, truthful language in a world of otherwise desensitised, dehumanising words: Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (published by Faber & Faber in 1997).

From Ovid's free-forming, 15-book Metamorphoses, Hughes has refashioned just 24 passages to encompass all human experience: the irrationally jealous squabbles of Juno and Jupiter, the devastating unrequited love story of Echo and Narcissus, the vision of the blinded Tiresias, the greedy folly of King Midas and so on. One of the many reasons Tales from Ovid has made such an impact is because of the raw vigour of the gut-wrenched language. Here is a poetic sensibility for our time, drawn from all time, taking ancient myths and convictions and putting them into our world, into our own words.

It's what the director Tim Supple, recently re-rehearsing the current revival of the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage adaptation at the Young Vic Theatre, called the `epic meat' of the language. He encouraged the acting ensemble to bite into it, chew it, relish it. Procne - in the tale of `Tereus and Philomela' that inspired Shakespeare's Thus Andronicus - is faced with the honor of her husband's rape and mutilation of her sister. The fact is appalling. The language with which Hughes renders the machinations of her mind bears witness to it, demands our awe:

. . . Tears were pushed aside By the devouring single idea of revenge. Revenge

Had swallowed her whole being. She had plunged

Into a labyrinth of plotting . . .

`Devouring', `swallowed', `plunged', `a labyrinth of plotting' - these are words to which we have to make as full a commitment in speaking them as Procne has to in acting upon them.

Hughes's great achievement in Tales from Ovid - to take the distant epics of gods and myth and make them immediate, intimate and human by embracing the terror and the ecstasy of life in extremis - is mirrored by his parallel collection, Birthday Letters, published a year after Tales from Ovid, the year of Hughes's death. In these poems, written across four decades, Hughes charts his tempestuous relationship with Sylvia Plath and the consequences of her suicide, when their children were very young, as she was reaching a creative climax with her Ariel poems. In Birthday Letters Hughes has taken the most personal pain, the most minute details of his life, elevating and projecting them onto an epic, universal plane of passion and violence. …

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