Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Tales from Ovid

24 Passages from the Metamorphoses

Ted Hughes

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Excerpt from Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes. Copyright © 1999 by Ted Hughes. To be published in March, 1999 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Creation; Four Ages;
Lycaon; Flood

Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.

I summon the supernatural beings
Who first contrived
The transmogrifications
In the stuff of life.
You did it for your own amusement.
Descend again, be pleased to reanimate
This revival of those marvels.
Reveal, now, exactly
How they were performed
From the beginning
Up to this moment.

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,
No moon
Played her phases in heaven,
No earth
Spun in empty air on her own magnet,
No ocean
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 cold, moist dry, soft hard, and the weightless
Resisted weight.

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 tortoise.

The fiery aspiration that makes heaven
Took it to the top.
The air, happy to be idle,
Lay between that and the earth
Which rested at the bottom
Engorged with heavy metals,
Embraced by delicate waters.

When the ingenious one
Had gained control of the mass
And decided the cosmic divisions
He rolled earth into a ball.
Then he commanded the water to spread out flat,
To lift itself into waves
According to the whim of the wind,
And to hurl itself at the land's edges.
He conjured springs to rise and be manifest,
Deep and gloomy ponds,
Flashing delicious lakes.
He educated
Headstrong electrifying rivers
To observe their banks--and to pour
Part of their delight into earth's dark
And to donate the remainder to ocean
Swelling the uproar on shores.

Then he instructed the plains
How to roll sweetly to the horizon.
He directed the valleys
To go deep.
And the mountains to rear up
Humping their backs.

Everywhere he taught
The tree its leaf.

Having made a pattern in heaven--
Two zones to the left, two to the right
And a fifth zone, fierier, between--
lSo did the Wisdom

Divide the earth's orb with the same:
A middle zone uninhabitable
Under the fire,
The outermost two zones beneath deep snow,
And between them, two temperate zones
Alternating cold and heat.

Air hung over the earth
By just so much heavier than fire
As water is lighter than earth.
There the Creator deployed cloud,
Thunder to awe the hearts of men,
And winds
To polish the bolt and the lightning.

Yet he forbade the winds
To use the air as they pleased.
Even now, as they are, within their wards,
These madhouse brothers, fighting each other,
All but shake the globe to pieces.

The East is given to Eurus--
Arabia, Persia, all that the morning star
Sees from the Himalayas.
Zephyr lives in the sunset.
Far to the North, beyond Scythia,
Beneath the Great Bear, Boreas
Bristles and turns.
Opposite, in the South,
Auster's home
Is hidden in dripping fog.
Over them all
Weightless, liquid, ether floats, pure,
Purged of every earthly taint.

Hardly had he, the wise one, ordered all this
Than the stars
Clogged before in the dark huddle of Chaos
Alit glittering in their positions.

And now to bring quick life
Into every corner
He gave the bright ground of heaven
To the gods, the stars and the planets.
To the fish he gave the waters.
To beasts the earth, to birds the air.

Nothing was any closer to the gods
Than these humble beings,
None with ampler mind,
None with a will masterful and able
To rule all the others.r
Till man came.
Either the Maker
Conceiving a holier revision
Of what he had already created
Sculpted man from his own ectoplasm,
Or earth
Being such a new precipitate
Of the etheric heaven
Cradled in its dust unearthly crystals.

Then Prometheus
Gathered that fiery dust and slaked it
With the pure spring water,
And rolled it under his hands,
Pounded it, thumbed it, moulded it
Into a body shaped like that of a god.

Though all the beasts
Hang their heads from horizontal backbones
And study the earth
Beneath their feet, Prometheus
Upended man into the vertical--
So to comprehend balance.
Then tipped up his chin
So to widen his outlook on heaven.

In this way the heap of all disorder
Was altered.
It was adorned with the godlike novelty
Of man.

And the first age was Gold.
Without laws, without law's enforcers,
This age understood and obeyed
What had created it.
Listening deeply, man kept faith with the source.

None dreaded judgement.
For no table of crimes measured out
The degrees of torture allotted
Between dismissal and death.
No plaintiff
Prayed in panic to the tyrant's puppet.
Undefended all felt safe and were happy.

Then the great conifers
Ruffled at home on the high hills.
They had no premonition of the axe
Hurtling towards them on its parabola.
Or of the shipyards. Or of what other lands
They would glimpse from the lift of the ocean swell.
No man had crossed salt water.

Cities had not dug themselves in
Behind deep moats, guarded by towers.
No sword had bitten its own
Reflection in the shield. No trumpets
Magnified the battle-cries
Of lions and bulls
Out through the mouth-holes in helmets.

Men needed no weapons.
Nations loved one another.
And the earth, unbroken by plough or by hoe,
Piled the table high. Mankind
Was content to gather the abundance
Of whatever ripened.
Blackberry or strawberry, mushroom or truffle,
Every kind of nut, figs, apples, cherries,
Apricots and pears, and, ankle deep,
Acorns under the tree of the Thunderer.
Spring weather, the airs of spring,
All year long brought blossom.
The unworked earth
Whitened beneath the bowed wealth of the corn.
Rivers of milk mingled with rivers of nectar.
And out of the black oak oozed amber honey.

After Jove had castrated Saturn,
Under the new reign the Age of Silver--
(Lower than the Gold, but better
Than the coming Age of Brass)--
Fell into four seasons.

Now, as never before,
All colour burnt out of it, the air
Wavered into flame. Or icicles
Strummed in the wind that made them.
Not in a cave, not in a half-snug thicket,