‘I was a nymph of Achaia.
None loved the woods,
And setting their hunting nets, as keenly as I did.
I was all action and energy,
And never thought of my looks.
Even so, my looks, yes, my beauty
Made others think of me.
The fame of my appearance burdened me.
That all the other girls were sick to have
Sickened me, that I had them.
Because they attracted men, I thought them evil.
‘There came a day
I had exhausted myself
In the Stymphalian Forest. The heat was frightening.
And my efforts, harrying the game,
Had doubled its effect on me.
I found a stream, deep but not too deep,
Quiet and clear – so clear,
Every grain of sand seemed magnified.
And so quiet, the broad clarity
The poplars and willows that drank at it
Were doubled in a flawless mirror.
I waded in – footsoles, ankles, knees.
Hung my clothes on a willow
As I played there, churning the surface,
To and fro, diving to the bottom,
Swimming on my back, my side, my belly,
I felt a strange stir bulge in the current –
It scared me so badly
I scrambled up on to the bank.
A voice came after me:
“Why leave in such a hurry, Arethusa?”
It was Alpheus, in the swirl of his waters.
“Why leave in such a hurry?” he cried again.
I saw my clothes on the willow across the river.
I had come out on the wrong bank.
Naked as I was, I just ran –
That brought him after me
All the more eagerly – my nakedness
Though it was no invitation
Gave his assault no option.
I was like the dove in a panic
Dodging through trees when the hawk
Rides its slipstream
Tight as a magnet.
‘The peak of Orchomenus went past,
And Psophis –
They were stepping stones
That my feet barely touched. Then Cyllene
And the knapped, flinty ridges
Of Maenalus, Erymanthus, and Elis –
The map rolled under me
As in a flight in a dream. He could not
But he could outlast me.
Over savannahs, mountains black with forest,
Pathless crags and gorges. But soon
The sun pressed on my back and I saw
That I ran in a long and leaping shadow
The very shape of my terror –
And I heard the stones flying
From his striding feet, and his panting breath
That seemed to tug at my hair.
‘In an agony of effort
I called to Diana:
“Help, or it’s all over with me.
Remember how I carried your bow,
Your quiverful of arrows. Help me,
Help me, Oh help me.”
‘The goddess heard and was stirred.
She brought up a dense mist
And hid me.
I smothered my gasping lungs. I tried
To muffle my heartbeat. And I froze.
I could hear the river-god, Alpheus,
Blindly casting about -
Twice he almost trod on me
Where I crouched under deep weeds.
“Arethusa!” he kept shouting, “Arethusa!”
As if I would answer!
You can imagine what I was feeling –
What the lamb feels when the wolf’s jaws
Are ripping the edge of the shed door.
Or what the hare feels
Peering through the wall of grass blades
When the circling hounds lift their noses.
But Alpheus persisted.
Circling the clump of mist, he could see clearly
My track that had gone in had not come out.
When I understood this
A sudden sweat chilled my whole body.
It streamed from me.
It welled from my hair. It puddled under my feet.
In the time it takes to tell you this
I had become a spring, a brisk stream,
A river, flowing away down the hillside.
But the river-god recognised me.
And he too dissolved his human shape,
Poured himself into his true nature
And mingled his current with my current.
‘But Diana helped me again. She split earth open.
I dived into the gorge
And underground I came to Ortygia –
Which bears the name of my own beloved goddess,
Brought me back to light. That is my story.’
Ted Hughes included four pieces in the book After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, ed. Michael Hofmann & James Lasdun (London: Faber, 1994). I've suggested elsewhere that his subsequent book has tended to overshadow this anthology of different pieces in multiple voices unjustly, but that could hardly be said to be Hughes's fault. One might, in fact, argue that the immense success of his translation / adaptation of crucuial passages from the epic served as a kind of advertisement for the Hofmann / Lasdun book (it's a pity he makes no reference to it on his copyright page or in his preface, but them's the breaks).
Anyway, I think this story, the Arethusa story, shows the strengths of Hughes's method. He uses a vaguely iambic, free-verse line rather than the blank verse or loose hexameters which other, more conventional translators tend to employ. He also picks and chooses far more when it comes to the detail of each particular story. And, after all, if you really do want all the detail of an original, best to read it in the original - time spent poring over a translation might well be better employed with a Loeb classics crib ...
The story is one of those whose essential lines are recognisable long before it meanders to a conclusion. It's Apollo and Daphne, Scylla and Glaucus all over again. A nymph flees a god intent on raping her, until she's tranformed into some feature of the landscape, and thus escaping him forever - but also losing her human attributes at the same time.
I guess, in aggregate, the stories are a kind of parable of attraction / repulsion, those fundamental forces behind the universe, visible in the form of gravity and centrifugal force, but also - especially significant in the medieval and classical world - in the form of love and hate.
It's love which moves the sun and the other stars, says Dante in the Commedia, faithfuly repeating Aristotle and his other Classical sources. The (male) gods in these mythological stories of Ovid's seem instantly attracted by beauty, the (female) nymphs as automatically repelled. They're like magnets with reversed polarities, in fact. Nor is it masculine roughness or ugliness which repels them necessarily. Apollo could hardly be said to be unattractive in his human garb.
Rather, it seems to be an instant revulsion from the whole cycle of sex and preganancy and childbirth and child-rearing - mortality, in short - which sends them haring off. It's that they're punished for, perhaps. Not so much punished as fulfilled - given the stasis they were seeking (however unconsciously) all along.
Ted Hughes should know about all that, with his emotional history - not one but two women committing suicide after being involved with him.