Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Robin Hyde & Stella Benson
There’s no question that New Zealand novelist, journalist, travel-writer and poet Robin Hyde (1906-1939) was a great admirer of English novelist, travel-writer and poet Stella Benson (1892-1933). In the following piece, Bronwyn Lloyd suggests that she went a bit beyond admiration, and that her novel Wednesday’s Children (1937) would probably never have come into existence if she hadn’t read Benson’s classic fantasy This is the End (1917).
We've also included a list of books by and about Stella Benson, for any of you who are curious to find out more about her.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
"Your industriousness is a little frightening," says Brett.
Yes, well, I'm just trying to get a lot of things tied away and sorted out before the end of the year. Next year I'm planning to spend a lot more time pursuing my own projects, and a lot less time on editing and bureaucracy generally.
So with that in mind, I've put up a companion to the Poetry Archive website. This one serves a similar indexing function for brief magazine (originally A Brief Description of the Whole World), which I edited between 2002 and 2005.
The longevity of brief is becoming a bit of a phenomenon in itself. It was founded by Alan Loney in December 1995, so with the latest issue, #35 (edited by Brett Cross), it's now reached its twelfth anniversary. (I tried to embed that information in the "profile" page of the new blog, but they informed me that you have to be over thirteen years old to use blogger, so I'll have to wait till next year before fessing up to the magazine's true age.)
I put out a brief index in 2003, shortly after taking over the editorship from John Geraets, and then a short supplementary index in 2005, before handing responsibility for the journal over to Scott Hamilton. So it wasn't all that much trouble to update it, since all that information was still floating around on my computer.
I've put in links to various of the articles which have been reprinted online, notably in the three feature issues - Smithymania (2003), Alan Brunton (2003) and Joanna Margaret Paul (2005) - published as joint ventures with the nzepc, but also to the brief section of the Titus Books website. Other than that, though, the site is really just a big hyperlinked contents list to the issues and authors published by the magazine to date.
Check it out., Hopefully it'll be useful to someone, at any rate.
Oh, and by the by, I'm tendering a bit of an apology to the New Zealand Herald. I was extremely scornful about them in my last post, so I was pleasantly surprised when they named Louise Nicholas as their New Zealander of the year for 2007.
I've just been reading her book, and I have to agree that there doesn't seem to be much serious doubt that the cops she describes did indeed regard themselves as above the law when it came to pressuring young girls into having sex with them (for more thoughts on the whole subject of what constitutes "Consent," see Tracey Slaughter's story of that title. It appears as the opening salvo of my "Open House" issue of Landfall.) The sooner that kind of crap goes out the window, the better. Apparently it was more or less up to individual policemen what "moral standards" they wished to apply in such circumstances. Cops have too much power in the community generally not to be subject to the same rules as teachers and doctors in that respect, I think myself.
So good on you, New Zealand Herald. Maybe you're not so subhuman after all. Though I still think you could break an intellectual sweat from time to time without completely alienating your fan-base, I have to admit that the choice of Louise Nicholas runs precisely that risk, so I do think you deserve hearty congratulations on this one.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Landfall in the news
So it's official. Landfall 214 is in the Weekend Herald's list of 88 "Christmas Cracker" must-reads for the holiday season.
But just a second, if it's so thoroughly "creepy" and disturbing ("like reading a crime report in the paper"), what exactly is the attraction? There isn't one, it appears:
None of that this Christmas (or any time of year).
The amusing thing is that the assembled ranks of the Herald's book-reviewing team have found something nice to say about every other single book in the entire list! (Check it out for yourself if you don't believe me: Canvas, 8/12/07, pp. 12-20).
Even Kate's Klassics, despite Linda Herrick's hatred for "that double 'K'", gets a cautious thumbs-up: "Kate Camp's engagement with 10 literary classics will hopefully lead you to read them yourself." No! You don't say! You mean, I too could read these classics, with the astute guidance of Kate Camp? It's too much -- I can't believe it ...
Well, no, I guess it was a bit too good to be true, but even if you just read Kate rather than Homer, Tolstoy, Austen et al., "it's added something substantial to your knowledge and enjoyment."
I mean, fine - setting aside the heavy sarcasm, I do realise that it's the goddamned NZ Herald we're talking here. It's no revelation that it's a bit on the anti-intellectual side. "This must mean you're the best poet in New Zealand?", as Michele Hewitson guilelessly asks Michele Leggott in the laureate interview on the back page ...
But honestly, do we all have to take a vow of brain-death for the whole of the holiday season? Not just then, the little thumbnail review implies: "any time of year." Correct me if I'm wrong, but the fact that Keith Westwater's chilling little "inter-generational abuse" poem reads "like a crime report in the paper" is surely a good thing, no?
Doesn't that mean that this kind of shit is continually going down in our fair land? And, yes, people do abandon their pets from time to time, too.
Forgive if I'm wrong, Linda, but if I actually cranked round to reading War and Peace and all the others, wouldn't I run into a few unfortunate events such as the Battle of Borodino and the retreat from Moscow? Wouldn't The Odyssey remind me of the sack of Troy and the massacre of the suitors? What about Heathcliff hanging a set of puppies in Wuthering Heights? Vanity and greed rear their ugly heads even in Jane Austen, for God's sake!
I don't know that I'll actually be dashing off to read what Kate Camp has to say about these "Klassics" (personally I kind of like the ridiculous Teutonic affectation of that initial "K" -- is The Trial in her line-up, too?), but I very much doubt that her main point is that a quick read of them will bolster up the smug stupidity of the New Zealand haute bourgeoisie. Good on her for trying to stir the pot a bit.
Shame on you, though, Linda, for being such a dolt. Whether it's a "klassic" or a contemporary, the purpose of literature is to harrow the heart and remind us what it is to be human. That's also, I thought, the function of any periodical, whether in the arts, politics, or any other field. If, on the other hand, we want to get lessons in how to be subhuman, we can always turn to that good old reliable New Zealand Herald.
Saturday, December 01, 2007
With a single bound Jack was free ...
You all know the story. The hack who usually wrote each instalment of the weekly magazine's adventure serial was off on holiday, but at the end of the previous episode he'd provided a true cliffhanger: his hero was bound to the stake, surrounded by hostile tribesmen, with a fire being kindled under his feet, dozens of rifles trained on him, and an erupting volcano in the background.
Nobody in the office could think of any conceivable way of getting him out of this tight fix, so they had to summon the writer back from his vacation with the lure of extra cash in order to extricate them from this embarrassment.
He walked in, sat down at the desk, took a look at the last page he'd written - and then scrawled: "With a single bound Jack was free."
You may have noticed I haven't been doing a whole lot of blogging on this site lately. It's not been through idleness, I assure you - nosiree. "With a single bound Jack was free." Or at any rate that was the plan.
The thing I was trying to get shot of was the Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive. For those of you who don't know, this is a collection of recordings of 171 New Zealand poets, on 40 audio CDs (with two CDs of texts and bio/bibliographical information) which was compiled between 2002 and 2004.
As you can imagine, there's a certain amount of staff work involved in setting up recordings in the four major centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin), and then at least as much again in tidying up all the tapes, and texts, and photos and other impedimenta.
It started off as the brainchild of Jan Kemp and Alan Smythe, who'd collaborated on a similar venture in 1974 (resulting in a set of 3 LP records: New Zealand Poets Read Their Work). Smythe was then (2002) the head of SCAPA, the Performing Arts centre at the University of Auckland, so he seemed well-placed to facilitate the collection of materials. When he left that position in 2003, the archive shifted to Special Collections in the University Library, with the help of funds from Creative New Zealand and from the University of Auckland English Department (then headed by Ken Larsen).
There were many, many other people involved, though, and I was one of them. My particular responsibility was getting all the texts in order. When I say that this involved sorting out more than 2,000 tracks on over 3,000 pages of A4, I think you may get some idea of the scope of the project.
For various copyright reasons, the eventual electronic archive can - at present - only be accessed in two places: University of Auckland's Special Collections (which also has all the raw data from which the 42 Cds were distilled); and the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.
So what's actually in the archive? Well, a list of the 171 poets, together with sample tracks from 12 of them, has been available as a feature at the nzepc since 2004. But up until now it wasn't actually possible to know which tracks had actually been recorded by each one of them unless you visited one of the two institutions mentioned above, and sat down in front of a monitor with the CDs.
I thought that was a shame. It seems foolish to go to all that trouble, and then end up with an artefact no-one can really use. And some of the poets involved let me know as much in no uncertain terms.
(And while we're on the subject, d'you feel like modifying your tone a bit when you send me emails out of the blue, guys? I mean, I don't actually spend my life plotting ways to derail your literary career ... There is in fact a certain amount of idealism involved in putting together these huge compilations - and that applies not just to me and Jan (and Mark King, who made order out of the chaos of all the different recordings), but also to the people who organised the recordings in the four centres. Elizabeth Alley in Wellington, David Howard & Morrin Rout in Christchurch, and Nick Ascroft & Richard Reeve in Dunedin did a great deal of work for a not conspicuous amount of reward).
So what I've been doing over the past month is compiling an index to the whole kit and kaboodle. It takes the form of an immense interconnected and hyperlinked blog, because that was the only way I could think of to do it which didn't involve further requests for funding from the various agencies who've already sunk so much into this project. You'll find a link to it at the side of this page.
* an alphabetical index of all 171 poets included in the 2002-2004 AoNZPSA (Aotearoa New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive), with a list of the poems they recorded, a picture (where one was avaialble), biographical and bibliographical information.
* an alphabetical index of all 52 poets included in the Waiata Archive of recordings compiled for the 3 1974 LPs. I've included photos and bio / bibliographical information with these where it was readily available, but should note that collecting such details was not part of the original brief 30 years ago. I don't even have dates of birth for some of the poets included.
* Contents lists for all four publications which have come from these two archives: the 3-LP set New Zealand Poets Read Their Work and New Zealand Poets Read Their Work for Children (Waiata Records, 1974); and the set of three chronological audio / text anthologies Classic, Contemporary and New New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland University Press, 2006-8) edited by myself and Jan.
Useful? I certainly hope so. I should note that it contains no actual copyright materials: no recordings, and no texts of poems. Those are all reserved for the archive itself. I have, however, tried to link to homepages or websites which do include such features.
The selection of poems was, in each case, the poet's responsibility. So, generally, was the format of their bio / bibliography (in the few cases where this was missing, these were compiled by me or by Edmund King). I'm perfectly happy to update them, but to start with I've just posted what we collected in 2002-2004. I'd also like to receive more pictures (jpegs under 50 kb in size are ideal) for those 73 (of 196) poets we don't have photographs of.
To my mind, this puts at least a provisional full stop to the whole project. To my involvement with it, at any rate. If you're interested in a particular poet or poets, you can now easily see which poems of theirs are included in the archive, and then go and listen to them either in Wellington or Auckland (and, yes, I wish the materials were available elsewhere - all I can say is that we tried very hard to arrange it, and will continue to do so).
Beyond that, I can only refer you to the three chronological volumes of recordings (one of which, New NZ Poets in Performance is still in production at present: due out on Poetry Day next year) now available through AUP. I'd rather, myself, that the whole collection could be up on the internet, but that's a project far beyond my resources and technological expertise.
This could be seen as the beginning of such an online digital archive, perhaps, but we aren't quite there yet. Certainly, in the future, the internet will be the place for such extensive collections.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
The Academic as Hero
Bronwyn told me that the irritating woman who buttonholed her yesterday in the Airport Departure Lounge was especially scornful when she heard what I did for a living.
"Who on earth would want to study Creative Writing? What can you possibly do with that?"
What indeed? It put me in mind of having to apply for some documents from tne New Zealand embassy in Brussels. When the man behind the desk heard what I'd been studying abroad (Comparative Literature - especially the creation of imaginary countries in fiction), his remark was: "You'll be a real asset to the country when you go home ..."
Well, maybe so. But then, I don't have any quarrel with people who want to study and specialise in more practical subjects. Why do they feel the need to express an opinion on what us Bohemians are getting up to? What is it that so gets up their noses?
Granted, our interests don't sound that useful sometimes. But when I turn on the TV and listen to a bunch of absolute morons discussing the absolute necessity of starting a war with Iran in order to (get this!) "avoid World War III," I begin to wonder if their time mightn't have been better employed in GETTING AN EDUCATION, rather than attending endless thinktank sessions on counter-terrorism.
Thinking outside the box, that's what I mean - seeing the other guy's point-of-view. Having the flexibility, above all, to observe the contradictions in your own position.
Those are all skills that any aspiring fiction-writer has to master - not to mention philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and all the rest of us frivolous egghead geeks.
It isn't that we can't fool ourselves just as easily as other members of the population. The sign of the true intellectual, I often think, is someone with the ability to rationalise any intellectual position, however absurd or abhorrent (Sartre as apologist for Stalin's show trials; Bertrand Russell advocating a unilateral nuclear strike on Russia in 1948 ...) The point is rather that our disciplines do at least encourage us to see more perspectives and take up less kneejerk stances. Whether we end up actually doing that or not is down to our own individual proclivities.
So, yes, I'm an advocate of the traditional university education. I have no problem at all with vocational degrees and departments, but I still think that they need us at least as much as we need them - possibly more.
One of my colleagues in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey, Eleanor Rimoldi, is trying to put together an anthology of responses to this whole question of the beleaguered Academy (assaulted from within as well as without - witness the horrific debacle of the new PBRF [Performance Based Research Fund] system: a bureaucrat's wet dream and a teacher / researcher's nightmare).
She's given it the rather provocative title of The Academic as Hero, since (as she explains):
The title is from William Clark’s (Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, 2006) account of medieval Bolognese jurist Bartolus and his pupil Baldus who referred to the Roman law code of the Emperor Justinian that defined “an athletic hero as one who had withstood at least three trials of courage in competition” (74).My own reply to the invitation is contained in the following three poems, which I've grouped under the collective title:
Bartolus claimed a scholar also underwent three trials of courage at the university, firstly as a student tested by masters and doctors, second in private examination tested by representatives of the faculty, and thirdly “in the public examination and disputation one was tried under the auspices of the university and academic public generally” (74). And thus became a hero, entitled to a hero’s rewards.
Clark traces the development of the academic from medieval forms up to modern incarnations. The latter inhabit the research university, the origins of which this book seeks to illuminate:A German Protestant academic had to pass muster with bureaucratic or rationalized criteria for appointment, which included productivity in publication, diligence in teaching, and acceptable political views and lifestyle. But to achieve success, one also had to acquire fame, be in fashion, and display ‘originality’, a spark of genius, in writings. This became a new sort of academic charisma tied to ‘applause’ and ‘recognition’. The modern academic emerged ... from the cultivation of this new legible charisma. But, despite the dominion of writing in modern academia, aspects of traditional oral culture persisted and, among other things, played an important role in fabricating reputation” (2006:3-4).As players in the continuing history of the university, how do we see ourselves as academics, and what is the university to us, to our disciplines, and to society at large?
Kickstarting Your Research Career
Let me know what you think.
(for Bronwyn Lloyd)
“Out of the box is where I live …”
– Battlestar Galactica
i – Conshie
Would you walk barefoot?
rather than work
in a rubber factory
said Rita Angus
ii – Jean
Don’t write to me again
from a launderette
she told her sister
The prison blocks
of your modernity
Kickstarting Your Research Career
(for Cluny Macpherson)
“Her heart was in perfect condition – in fact I have it over here …”
i – Spreading Yourself Around
I started to get involved
How is it
work in the laundry
on the bridge?
as the sun goes down
ii – Entertaining the Visiting Professor
I took him to the zoo
he was bored
I took him to the museum
he was bored
we all took bets
as he nodded off
on whether his cigar ash
would set fire
to his crimpoline suit
(for Lisa Clements)
“I like to ambush my brain before fear and reason can kick in …”
– Joan of Arcadia
OFF END OF LINES
the wine-shop sign
I watch Gaston
joshing with his buds
Out in the sun
all day - poor you!
married to a Japanese
(Yuko, was it?)
does he recognise me?
Are you getting popcorn
for all of us?
the kids shrill
I stand queuing
right behind them
has no answer
I make sure
that I get served
no matter what
It’s always already
that sharp blow
to the back of the head
throwing the pen
in the language student’s
He’s having trouble at home
of red trousers
in a shop
in the park
– with whom?
I always think the ideas behind my poems are crystal clear, but (as a young Zen-Buddhist hippie of my acquaintance once complained): “You put in only about 70% of the meaning.”
Anyway, with that in mind, I’m going to have a go at contextualising these three poems I’ve written in response to Eleanor’s challenge to consider the “Academic as Hero” – as the simple protagonist in a drama (one meaning), or as the individual who surmounts great dangers and difficulties for his culture or community as a whole (Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces).
I begin with the model of the artist-as-hero: in this case, the feminist, pacifist, self-proclaimed High Priestess of New Zealand painting, Rita Angus. These two poems record two anecdotes which I heard from my wife Bronwyn, who’s writing a PhD thesis on Rita. The first is her defiant reply to a tribunal which questioned her right to refuse to do war-work in a rubber factory. The second is from a letter she wrote to her younger sister Jean, also a talented artist, but one who (in Rita’s eyes) had chosen domesticity and children over the pure monastic calling of High Art.
The second exhibit is a similarly “found” pair of poems – taken from Cluny MacPherson’s talk, at our School research day last year, on how best to start your career in this area. I guess my point here is the contrast between the feisty, irrepressible grandstanding of the (admittedly personally rather insufferable) Rita, with the rather apologetic tone of Cluny’s talk – the lack of inspiration to be gleaned from many of one’s intellectual heroes when one meets them in the flesh. Also, the fact that one so seldom sees perceptible amelioration in the lives of one’s research subjects as a result of one’s efforts. What exactly are we in it for? is, I guess, the question I’m posing here.
I suppose one is entitled to expect this dialectic paralleling of thesis and antithesis to produce a synthesis, at any rate within the world of the poem. In part three I do my best to provide an (admittedly personal) solution which I can more-or-less imagine living up to. I hate the fact that I didn’t greet my old language-school colleague Gaston, but I doubt that he felt the same fervour about his failure to greet me. It’s just the way things go. Colleagues slip off the radar as time goes by. Nor do I respect the way I tend to guarantee my own interests first before worrying about those of others (as in the cinema queue). I lose it sometimes, too – as in the incidents referred to in the third section of the poem. Nevertheless, there can be a kind of transcendent boldness in small things – the wearing of a daring pair of trousers, half-proud, half-anxious, as I saw a girl doing in Western Park one day. If that’s all the heroic gesture can come down to in my case, too, then so be it.
Perhaps that’s also my main motivation for presenting you with a set of poems when you might have (not unreasonably) preferred me to stick to the world of analytical prose …
[14 May, 2008]
Friday, October 12, 2007
I have an announcement, and I have a question.
The announcement is that Michael Steven at Soapbox Press has just published my sequence of versions from Sappho in a limited edition of seventy signed chapbooks. It's called Papyri, and it's the second in a series which already includes his own first book of poems, Homage to Robert Creeley.
Further titles are promised later in the year ...
If you'd like to buy a copy, they're available in Parsons, Jason Books and Moa-hunter books, but they can also be ordered directly from the publisher at:
The question is, what's your opinion of single-author collections of essays?
Bronwyn says she thinks essays are better off jostling with other kinds of writing in a magazine or anthology.
Scott Hamilton, on the other hand, claims that unless our critical statements, manifestoes, reviews etc. are collected in some kind of permanent form, then literary discourse remains entirely in the hands - or between the covers - of the establishment.
I'd like to agree with him. I 've read plenty of interesting books of that sort by the likes of Leslie Fiedler (No! In Thunder) and George Steiner (Bluebeard's Castle), not to mention collections of tarted-up reviews by writers I admired for their poetry or fiction.
However, I do wonder how many essays can really survive transplantation from their original contexts? This especially applies to reviews, of course, but also to pieces written for a particular magazine at a particular time, to combat some particular injustice or misapprehension.
Anyway, what do you think? Do you think it would be useful if more essay collections came out in New Zealand? At the moment it's mainly Victoria University Press that issues them, and their list is generally reserved for big guns such as Wedde, Manhire and O'Brien ...
Monday, October 08, 2007
Pania Strikes Again
So Pania Press's Opus 3 is now out and ready for purchase.
This time we've branched out from poetry chapbooks, and are offering a sumptuous handmade art catalogue instead.
The book is THE ETERNALS. It's designed to accompany Graham Fletcher's show of the same name, on display in the Anna Bibby Gallery, Newmarket, between 2 and 26 October.
The book includes an essay on Graham's work by Bronwyn Lloyd, "Tar-Babies & Taboos," a full chronology of his work to date, and - most excitingly of all - a unique, original drawing by the artist.
Each of these drawings records one of the sculptures in his show, so (as you can imagine) some collectors of Graham's work have already gone to considerable trouble to try and hunt down the drawing that matches their sculpture ...
That's why we've had to limit this edition to 45 signed, individually-numbered copies. There won't be a reprint, so if you're interested, it might be advisable to get in quickly.
Details of how to order the book are available on the Pania Press website here.
The price is $75, payable either by cheque or bank transfer.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Between 1991 and 1995, I spent a huge amount of my time reading and collecting different editions and translations of the Arabian Nights.
It's a bit hard to say why, in retrospect. I guess it might have been a reaction against the brain-strain of finishing my dreadful Doctoral thesis - An Elusive Identity: Versions of South America in English Literature from Aphra Behn to the Present Day (University of Edinburgh, 1990). At the end of all that labour I seemed to have lost the ability to take any pleasure at all in reading or writing, so I tried to recover by making a beeline for my ultimate fantasy book, the ubiquitous yet strangely invisible Nights, with all its proliferating texts and versions, all its competing codes and overlapping cultural frames.
The plan was always, eventually, to write a book on the subject. But it soon became obvious to me that I lacked the learning to produce anything really scholarly. I can read a few languages, but Arabic isn't one of them - let alone Persian - and there's no longer all that much room for amateurs in these fields of study.
So I compromised by trying to compose a series of very limited vignettes on particular aspects of the influence of the Nights, within the larger field of Comparative Literature.
After that, though, I shifted my attention out of the academic area altogether, back to fiction and poetry, so the Arabian Nights stuff got sidelined until now.
This set of essays is to be considered as a work-in-progress, then. There are many adjustments still to be made, and the fact that it's been ten years or so since I last looked at most of it means that there's a lot of more recent work in the field which I haven't been able to take account of. For what it's worth, though, here's a set of links to the various sections of my projected critical opus on one of the most fascinating, mysterious and least-understood books in world literature ...
Introduction: Redu ‘92
The School for Paradox
Chapter 1: Malory and Scheherazade
Chapter 2: Europe, Christianity and the Crusades
Chapter 3: Voyage en Orient
Chapter 4: Parodies of the Arabian Nights
Chapter 5: The Poetics of Stasis
J. L. Borges: Metaphors of the 1001 Nights
A List of the Stories in the 1001 Nights
Monday, September 17, 2007
Metamorphoses XV (1632): Hippolytus
Perhaps y' haue heard of one Hippolytus;
By Step-dames fraud, and fathers credulous
Beliefe bequeath'd to death. Admire you may
That I am he, if credit, what I say.
Whom Phoedra formerly solicited,
But vainely, to defile my fathers bed.
Fearing detection, or in that refus'd;
She turnes the crime, and me of her's accus'd.
My father, banishing the innocent,
Along with me his winged curses sent.
Toward Pitthean Troezen (1) me my charriot bore:
And driuing now by the Corinthian shore,
The smooth seas swell; a monstrous billow rose,
Which, rouling like a mountaine, greater growes;
Then, bellowing, at the top asunder rends:
When from the breach, brest high, a Bull ascends;
Who at his dreadfull mouth and nosthrills spouts
Part of the sea. Feare all my followers routs:
But my afflicted mind was all this while
Vnterrifi'd; intending my exile.
When the hot horses start, erect their eares:
With horror rapt, and chaced by their feares,
O'r ragged rocks the totterd charriot drew:
In vaine I striue their fury to subdew,
The bits all frotht with fome: with all my strength
Pull the stretcht raiynes, I lying at full length,
Nor had their heady fright my strength o'r-gon;
Had not the feruent wheele, which roules vpon
The bearing Axel-tree, rusht on a stump:
Which brake, and fell asunder with that iump.
Throwne from my charriot, in the raignes fast-bound,
My guts drag'd out aliue, my sinewes wound
About the stump, my limbs in peeces hal'd;
Some stuck behind, some at the charriot traild;
My bones then breaking crackt, not any whole,
While I exhal'd my faint and weary soule.
No part of all my parts you could haue found
That might be knowne: for all was but one wound.
Now say, selfe-tortred Nymph, (2) or can, or dare
You your calamities with ours compare?
I also saw those realmes, to Day vnknowne:
And bath'd my wounds in smoking Phlegeton. (3)
Had not Apollos Son (4) imploid the aid
Of his great Art; I with the dead had staid.
But when by potent hearbs, and Paeons skill, (5)
I was restor'd, against sterne Plutos will:
Least I, if seene, might enuie haue procur'd:
Me, friendly Cynthia (6) with a cloud immur'd:
And that, though seene, I might be hurt by none;
She added age, and left my face vnknowne.
Whether in Delos, doubting, or in Creet;
Reiecting Creet and Delos as vnmeet,
Shee plac't me here. Nor would I should retaine
The memory of One by horses slaine:
But said; hence forward Virbius (7) be thy name
That wer't Hippolytus; though thou the same.
One of the Lesser Gods, here, in this Groue,
I Cynthia serue; preserued by her loue.
(1) A city of Peloponesus, where Pittheus the Grandfather of Theseus by his mother Aethra once raigned.
(3) A burning river in Hell.
(5) Physick; of Paeon an excellent Physitian.
(6) Diana, of Cynthus a mountaine in Delos.
(7) Twice a man.
Sandys' Marginal Note:
Virbius once Hypolitus, now a God of those groues, goes about to comfort Aegeria; and extenuate her sorrow with the relation of his former calamityes; torne in peices by his horses through his stepmothers fraud and fathers imprecations. The Curses of Parents fall heauy on their Children, allthough vndeserued, as this of credulous Theseus. Rash beleife is the author of much mischiefe, and vnsuspended rage of too late repentance. The chast youth suffers for anothers vnchastety. But virtue, though afflicted for a time, can neuer be finally suppressed: Eminent in the example of Bellerophon; but especially of Ioseph and his miraculous aduancement. Miserably disioynted Hypolitus is set together and restored to life by Aesculapius, Diana, his patronesse (changing his youth into age, and his former ominous name into Virbius, which signifies twice a man, the better to conceale him,) conueyed him hether and made him one of the Inferior Deities. But what saith Lactantius? Diana when she had allmost lost her louer, much bruised and torne by his vnruly horses, called Aesculapius, an excellent Phisitian (and therefore feigned to restore life vnto the Dead) to his timely helpe, whom she as soone as he was recouered, conueyed to those sequestred aboads. What showed this diligence in his concealed cure? these priuate retreates? his long conversation with a woman, and that in a place vnfrequented? the change of his name? and lastly her detestation of horses? but the guilt of her incontinency, and of such a loue as agreed not with a virgin. This Virbius, who boasted to haue beene Hipolytus was according to some authors a cunning Imposter, suborned by the Preists of Diana Aricina, to draw a greater concourse to that Groue, that their gaine might increase by more frequent deuotion. Nor haue others in latter ages serued their turnes with lesse incredible forgeries.
I've already discussed in my comments on the story of Aegeus and Medea in Metamorphoses Book VII how much an early reading of Mary Renault's The King Must Die affected me:
Horses go blindly to the sacrifice; but the gods give knowledge to men. When the King was dedicated, he knew his moira. In three years, or seven, or nine, or whatever the custom was, his term would end and the god would call him. And he went consenting, or he was no king ... When they came to choose among the Royal Kin, this was his sign; that he chose short life with glory, and to walk with the god, rather than live long unknown like the stall-fed oxen. (Renault, 24)
And what was Moira? "The finished shape of our fate, the line drawn around it. It is the task the gods allot us, and the share of glory they allow; the limits we must not pass; and our appointed end. Moira is all these." (23)
I looked eagerly for its sequel, The Bull from the Sea (1962), but when I finally read it, I found it disappointing. Renault seemed to have trouble with the figure of Hippolytos. He became a pious prig in her version. Nor did she seem particularly sympathetic towards Theseus's Cretan bride Phaedra. The impulsive child, sister to Ariadne, we meet in the first book has become a "little Cretan lady, just like the portrait I had been sent." The real loves of Theseus' life are the Amazon woman Hippolyta, mother of his son, and his buccaneering friend Pirithoos.
The main problem with the book, I guess, si the need to run through all the salient events of Theseus' life: the meeting with Oedipus at Colonus, the attempted abduction of Helen, and (of course) the death-curse put on his son.
Parents, as Sandys reminds us, should be more trusting of their offspring. Is that the whole meaning of the story, though. It's in the mould of other stories where ageing heroes destroy their own sons. Sohrab and Rustum, from Firdausi's Shah-Nameh, the epic of the Kings; Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster, and his son Connla; Zeus and his father Saturn ...
It's another denial, I suppose, of the cyclical nature of the things. Sons should grow to full strength to succeed their fathers, but it's not in the nature of the masculine ego to retire into the shadows gracefully - there's always that midlife temptation to reinvent oneself totally, try to recover one's own youth (perhaps with a new young partner) rather than moving on to the latter maturing stages of life.
And, as so often in Ovid, this attempt to arrest time leads to disaster. What Theseus sees as an attempt by his son to usurp him prematurely by raping the queen, is in fact his own inability to understand his son's more reflective nature.
Of course Phaedra, in this reading, comes out as the villain, but again it's not difficult to see how she might prefer Hippolytus, much closer to her in age, to the grizzled ferocious husband who killed her father Minos and abandoned her sister Ariadne despite all the help she'd given him.
Metamorphoses XIV (1567): Pomona
In this Kings reigne Pomona (1) livd. There was not to bee found
Among the woodnymphes any one in all the Latian ground
That was so conning for to keepe an Ortyard as was shee,
Nor none so paynefull to preserve the frute of every tree.
And theruppon shee had her name. Shee past not for the woodes
Nor rivers, but the villages and boughes that bare bothe buddes
And plentuous frute. In sted of dart a shredding hooke shee bare,
With which the overlusty boughes shee eft away did pare
That spreaded out too farre, and eft did make therwith a rift
To greffe another imp uppon the stocke within the clift.
And lest her trees should die through drought, with water of the springs
Shee moysteth of theyr sucking roots the little crumpled strings.
This was her love and whole delyght. And as for Venus deedes,
Shee had no mynd at all of them. And forbycause shee dreedes
Enforcement by the countrye folke, shee walld her yards about,
Not suffring any man at all to enter in or out.
What have not those same nimble laddes so apt to frisk and daunce
The Satyrs doone? Or what the Pannes that wantonly doo praunce
With horned forheads? And the old Silenus whoo is ay
More youthfull than his yeeres? And eeke the feend that scares away
The theeves and robbers with his hooke, or with his privy part
To winne her love? But yit than theis a farre more constant hart
Had sly Vertumnus (2), though he sped no better than the rest.
O Lord, how often being in a moawers garment drest,
Bare he in bundells sheaves of corne? And when he was so dyght,
He was the very patterne of a harvest moawer ryght.
Oft bynding newmade hay about his temples he myght seeme
A haymaker. Oft tymes in hand made hard with woork extreeme
He bare a goade, that men would sweere he had but newly then
Unyoakt his weerye Oxen. Had he tane in hand agen
A shredding hooke, yee would have thought he had a gardener beene,
Or proyner of sum vyne. Or had you him with ladder seene
Uppon his necke, a gatherer of frute yee would him deeme.
With swoord a souldier, with his rod an Angler he did seeme.
And finally in many shapes he sought to fynd accesse
To joy the beawty but by syght, that did his hart oppresse.
Moreover, putting on his head a womans wimple gay,
And staying by a staffe, graye heares he foorth to syght did lay
Uppon his forehead, and did feyne a beldame for to bee,
By meanes wherof he came within her goodly ortyards free.
And woondring at the frute, sayd: Much more skill hast thou I see
Than all the Nymphes of Albula. Hayle, Lady myne, the flowre
Unspotted of pure maydenhod in all the world this howre.
And with that woord he kissed her a little: but his kisse
Was such as trew old women would have never given ywis,
Then sitting downe uppon a bank, he looked upward at
The braunches bent with harvests weyght. Ageinst him where he sat
A goodly Elme with glistring grapes did growe: which after hee
Had praysed, and the vyne likewyse that ran uppon the tree:
But if (quoth hee) this Elme without the vyne did single stand,
It should have nothing (saving leaves) to bee desyred: and
Ageine if that the vyne which ronnes uppon the Elme had nat
The tree to leane unto, it should uppon the ground ly flat.
Yit art not thou admonisht by example of this tree
To take a husband, neyther doost thou passe to maryed bee.
But would to God thou wouldest. Sure Queene Helen never had
Mo suters, nor the Lady that did cause the battell mad
Betweene the halfbrute Centawres and the Lapythes, nor the wyfe
Of bold Ulysses whoo was eeke ay fearefull of his lyfe,
Than thou shouldst have. For thousands now (even now most cheefly when
Thou seemest suters to abhorre) desyre thee, both of men,
And Goddes and halfgoddes, yea and all the fayryes that doo dwell
In Albane hilles. But if thou wilt bee wyse, and myndest well
To match thyself, and wilt give eare to this old woman heere,
(To whom thou more than to them all art (trust mee) leef and deere,
And more than thou thyself beleevst) the common matches flee,
And choose Vertumnus to thy make. And take thou mee to bee
His pledge. For more he to himself not knowen is, than to mee.
He roves not like a ronneagate through all the world abrode.
This countrye heerabout (the which is large) is his abode.
He dooth not (like a number of theis common wooers) cast
His love to every one he sees. Thou art the first and last
That ever he set mynd uppon. Alonly unto thee
Hee vowes himself as long as lyfe dooth last. Moreover hee
Is youthfull, and with beawtye sheene endewd by natures gift,
And aptly into any shape his persone he can shift.
Thou canst not bid him bee the thing, (though al things thou shouldst name)
But that he fitly and with ease will streyght becomme the same.
Besydes all this, in all one thing bothe twayne of you delyght,
And of the frutes that you love best the firstlings are his ryght:
And gladly he receyves thy gifts. But neyther covets hee
Thy Apples, Plommes, nor other frutes new gathered from the tree,
Nor yit the herbes of pleasant sent that in thy gardynes bee:
Nor any other kynd of thing in all the world, but thee.
Have mercy on his fervent love, and think himself to crave
Heere present by the mouth of mee, the thing that he would have.
And feare the God that may revenge: as Venus whoo dooth hate
Hard harted folkes, and Rhammuse whoo dooth eyther soone or late
Expresse her wrath with myndfull wreake. And to th'entent thou may
The more beware, of many things which tyme by long delay
Hathe taught mee, I will shewe thee one which over all the land
Of Cyprus blazed is abroade, which being ryghtly skand
May easly bow thy hardned hart and make it for to yild.
... The God that can uppon him take what kynd of shape he list
Now having sayd thus much in vayne, omitted to persist
In beldames shape, and shewde himself a lusty gentleman,
Appeering to her cheerefully, even like as Phebus whan
Hee having overcomme the clowdes that did withstand his myght,
Dooth blaze his brightsum beames agein with fuller heate and lyght.
He offred force, but now no force was needfull in the cace.
For why shee beeing caught in love with beawty of his face,
Was wounded then as well as hee, and gan to yeeld apace.
(1) It may be interpreted Appleby
So Pomona (or "Appleby"), the goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards, married Vertumnus ("Turner") because he fooled her into listening to him by disguising himself as an old woman.
This, we're informed, is the only purely Latin story in the whole of the Metamorphoses, and is perhaps included to make a contrast to the Rape of the Sabine Women and all the other bloody episodes from Roman history which fill the last couple of books.
Are they, in fact, meant as a pair of rustic rivals to Virgil's tragic protagonists Dido and Aeneas?
The whole talky episode certainly contrasts strongly with all the rape scenes earlier in the poem. The turning seasons require fertility - it's appropriate that the goddess should give in, rather than being frozen in place as yet another virgin Laurel tree or fountain ...
Golding is, of course, the first and most influential translator of Ovid into English. His rhyming fourteeners sound very clumsy now, but even if they had no particular distinction in themselves, they would still be worth reading for their influence on Shakespeare.
Popund famously declared Golding's translation to be the "most beautiful book in the language." And it never does seem to go out of print, so there must be something in it. See what you think, anyway ...
Metamorphoses XIII (1955): Glaucus
... So ended
The story, and the Nereids went their ways
Swimming the peaceful waters. Scylla only,
Fearing the far-off deeps, came wandering back
To the shore, and there she strolled along, all naked
Over the thirsty sands, or, growing weary,
Found some safe pool to swim in. But here came Glaucus,
Sounding his shell across the sea, a dweller
New-come to ocean: change had come upon him,
NOt so long since, near Anthedon, in Euboea.
He saw her, and he loved her, and he said
Whatever words might make her pause to listen,
But she was frightened, and fled, and swift in her fear
Raced to the top of a mountain that hung over
The shore, one sharp high peak, whose shadow fell
Far over the water. Here she was safe, and watched him,
Monster or god, wondering at his color,
The hair that fell across his back and shoulders,
The fish-form fig-leaf at his groin. He saw her,
Leaned on a nearby mass of rock, called to her: “Maiden,
I am no freak, no savage beast, I am
A sea-god; neither Proteus nor Triton
Nor Athamas’ son Palaemon, none of these
Has greater power than I. I once was mortal,
But even then devoted to deep waters
From which I earned my living. Thence I drew
My nets, or by the ocean side I dangled
My rod and line. I can recall a shore
That bordered on green meadows, which no cattle,
No sheep, no goats, had ever grazed, no bees
Came there for honey, and no garlands ever
Were gathered there, nor sickle plied. I first
Came there and dried my nets and lines and spread them
Along that bank, counting the fish I caught
By luck or management or their own folly.
It will sound to you, no doubt, like a fishy story,
But why should I tell you lies? – My catch, on touching
The grass, began to stir, to turn, to swim,
To jump on the land the way they did in the water.
And as I stood in wonder, they slipped down
Into their native element, and left me.
I was a long time wondering: had some god
Done this, or was there magic in the grasses?
I plucked a blade and chewed it, and its flavour
Had hardly touched my tongue, when suddenly
My heart within me trembled, and I felt
An overwhelming longing: I must change
My way of life. I could not stand against it,
‘Farewell, O Earth!’ I cried, ‘Farewell forever!’
And plunged into the sea, whose gods received me
With every honor, and called on Oceanus
And Tethys, to dissolve my mortal nature.
They purged me of it, first with magic singing,
Nine times repeated, then with river water
Come from a hundred streams, and I remember
No more, but when my sense returned I knew I was
A different kind of creature, body and spirit.
I saw, for the first time, this beard, dark-green,
These locks that flow behind me over long waves,
These shoulders and blue arms, these legs that trail
Into a fish-like end, and all of this
Of little good to me. Where is the profit
In being a sea-gods’ sea-god, if my Scylla
Cares not at all?’’ There was more he would have spoken,
But Scylla fled once more, and he, in anger,
Went to the marvellous palace-halls of Circe,
The daughter of the Sun.
Why, why, oh why, another one of these stories where a nymph or goddess is surprised naked by a god or lustful monster, and pursued until she's transformed into soemthing else? Persephone and Hades, Arethusa and Alpheus, Daphne and Apollo, Zeus and ... well, name your candidate: Semele, Io, Europa etc. etc.
What was it Ovid meant to say by relating so many of them? Glaucus gets an unusually long time to put his case, this time. His lovesickness seems to be treated more sympathetically than, say, Apollo's. And yet there's a basic monotony to the situation which makes it difficult to save - in narrative terms. The mythological equivalent of a Soap Opera cliche.
The story goes on to tell us, after the piece quoted above, how Glaucus went to ask Circe for a love potion. Circe promptly fell for him herself and, when he scorned her in favour of Scylla, poisoned the pool her rival was bathing in and transformed her into a monster.
Circe, in the Odyssey, is adept at showing sailors their true, animal selves. Is that the point of her transformation of Scylla? That one who rejects so faithful a suitor simply because he looks a bit fishy, is a monster of ingratitude? Certainly Glaucus was generally seen as a fairly benevolent water deity, coming to the aid of drowning sailors in storms, having once been one himself.
As usual in Ovid, in the Metamorphoses as a whole, there's a curious fusion between human psychology and the impersonal processes of Nature. The stories constantly veer from one level to the other, as in his earlier set of Love Letters from Abandoned Heroines.
It's a curious kind of sentimentality, like Sterne's in The Sentimental Journey, feeling for birds in cages, but getting his real entertainment from indulging in feeling, rather than plotting any concrete remedies for injustice. Perhaps it's typical of a hierarchical slave society, where the concept that some human beings are inferior to others is an inescapable reality.
Metamorphoses XII (2004): Rumour
Picture a space at the heart of the world, between the
the sea and the sky, on the frontiers of all three parts of
Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter
and here there are ears whose hollows no voice can fail
This is the kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a
with numberless entrances into her house and a
holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a
gate or a door.
Open by night and by day, constructed entirely of
brass, the whole place hums and echoes, repeating
it hears. Not one of the rooms is silent or quiet, but
is disturbed by shouting. The noise is merely a
low like the waves of the sea which you hear from afar,
or the last faint
rumble of thunder, when storm-black clouds have
clashed in the sky.
The hall is filled by a crowd which is constantly coming
a flimsy throng of a thousand rumours, true and
wandering far and wide in a turbulent tangle of
They chatter in empty ears or pass on stories to others;
the fiction grows and detail is added by each new teller.
This is the haunt of credulity, irresponsible error,
groundless joy, unreasoning panic, impulsive sedition
and whispering gossip. Rumour herself spies every
on earth, at sea, in the sky; and her scrutiny ranges the
David Raeburn, trans. Ovid: Metamorphoses. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2004. 466-67.
Unpleasant irony, again, that has Ovid writing about the unpleasant, ubiquitous powers of rumour, when it must have been rumours about his scurrilous verses and lifestyle which landed him in trouble in the first place.
This is, of course, a very influential passage. It directly inspired Chaucer's description in The House of Rumour in his early poem The Hous of Fame - and the vein of allegory, rather than mythology, it introduced into European literature (along with a few key passages in Virgil's Aeneid) would have a long and complex prgency -- not least the appearance of Rumour "painted full of tongues" at the beginning of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part Two:
Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world:
And who but Rumour, who but only I,
Make fearful musters and prepared defence,
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it. ...
David Raeburn’s Penguin Classics translation is certainly a worthy rival to Charles Martin’s for best contemporary verse translation. Personally, I prefer it. I like his attempt at hexameters, and if one can get over the awkward layout his publishers have given him, the stories flow very well through his intricate lines.
I fear he may have been scooped by Martin's more widely publicised version, but I think it's nice to have both of them side by side -- rather like the Rolfe Humphries / Horace Gregory double-act in the 50s, or the Melville / Boer scrap in the 80s ...
Metamorphoses X (2004): Pygmalion
“Pygmalion observed how these women lived lives of sordid
indecency, and, dismayed by the numerous defects
of character Nature had given the feminine spirit,
stayed as a bachelor, having no female companion.
“During that time he created an ivory statue,
a work of most marvellous art, and gave it a figure
better than any living woman could boast of,
and promptly conceived a passion for his own creation.
You would have thought it alive, so like a real maiden
that only its natural modesty kept it from moving:
art concealed artfulness. Pygmalion gazed in amazement,
burning with love for what was in likeness a body.
“Often he stretched forth a hand to touch his creation,
attempting to settle the issue: was it a body,
or was it – this he would not yet concede – a mere statue?
He gives it kisses, and they are returned, he imagines;
now he addresses and now he caresses it, feeling
his fingers sink into its warm, pliant flesh, and
fears he will leave blue bruises all over its body;
he seeks to win its affections with words and with presents
pleasing to girls, such as seashells and pebbles, tame birds,
armloads of flowers in thousands of different colors,
lilies, bright painted balls, curious insects in amber;
he dresses it up and puts diamond rings on its fingers,
gives it a necklace, a lacy brassiere and pearl earrings,
and even though all such adornments truly become her,
she does not seem to be any less beautiful naked.
He lays her down on a bed with a bright purple cover
and calls her his bedmate and slips a few soft, downy pillows
under her head as though she were able to feel them.
“The holiday honoring Venus has come, and all Cyprus
turns out to celebrate; heifers with gilded horns buckle
under the deathblow and incense soars up in thick clouds;
having already brought his own gift to the altar,
Pygmalion stood by and offered this fainthearted prayer:
'If you in heaven are able to give us whatever
we ask for, then I would like as my wife –' and not daring
to say, '– my ivory maiden,' said, '– one like my statue!'
Since golden Venus was present there at her altar,
she knew what he wanted to ask for, and as a good omen,
three times the flames soared and leapt right up to the heavens.
“Once home, he went straight to the replica of his sweetheart,
threw himself down on the couch and repeatedly kissed her;
she seemed to grow warm and so he repeated the action,
kissing her lips and exciting her breasts with both hands.
Aroused, the ivory softened and, losing its stiffness,
yielded, submitting to his caress as wax softens
when it is warmed by the sun, and handled by fingers,
takes on many forms, and by being used, becomes useful.
Amazed, he rejoices, then doubts, then fears he's mistaken,
while again and again he touches on what he has prayed for.
She is alive! And her veins leap under his fingers!
“You can believe that Pygmalion offered the goddess
his thanks in a torrent of speech, once again kissing
those lips that were not untrue; that she felt his kisses,
and timidly blushing, she opened her eyes to the sunlight,
and at the same time, first looked on her lover and heaven!
The goddess attended the wedding since she had arranged it,
and before the ninth moon had come to its crescent, a daughter
was born to them – Paphos, who gave her own name to the island.
Ovid: Metamorphoses. Translated and with notes by Charles Martin. Introduction by Bernard Knox. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004. 350-52.
... blank verse it has been, for the most part. There are a few passages where I have departed from its rule ... Ovid ... turns from the imitation of conversation [in Book V] to the imitation of poetry in the tenth and fifteenth books of his poem. In Book V, it is the song of the Muse Calliope; in Book X, it is the songs of her son, Orpheus; and in Book XV, it is the long, inspired (so he says) monologue of the philosoopher Pythagoras ... All three figures are related: Calliope and Orpheus are mother and son, and Pythagoras is bound to them by his habit of writing in verse and by the emphasis that Pythagorean thought placed on the importance of music. Whether Ovid is using these figures to signal that his epic of fifteen books can be structurally divided into three equal parts, I cannnot say: Ovid is very skillful at playing with our structural expectations. However, because of the relationship between these speakers, and because they are all speaking poetry, as it were, I have used the same meter for all three of them
So Charles Martin in pp. 9-10 of his "Note on this Translation."
Indeed, some might think that Martin's translation is somewhat over-introduced. It begins with a long piece by Bernard Knox (reprinted from the New York Review of Books) explaining why Martin is so much more satisfactory as a translator than either Ted Hughes or David R. Slavitt. Martin then contributes his own nine-page "Note," and concludes with 40 pages of notes and glossaries at the back.
I guess the reason for reprinting Knox's piece, though, was because he'd also written introductions for Robert Fagle's phenomenally-successful translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Martin's publishers wanted to imply that this was to be regarded as a similarly standard work. Who knows? In any case, Martin's choices seem, by and large, sensible and well thought-through, and while there's no particular distinction in his blank verse to set it apart from A. D. Melville or Rolfe Humphries or Horace Gregory or any of the other toilers in the vineyard who've employed that metre, I fell that there's an extra zest to these rough five-beat lines in a kind of modified version of G. M. Hopkins' sprung rhythm. They look like hexameters, but they're not - not really. They seem to accommodate more elaboration than a lot of the rest of his version, though.
And what of the story itself? Martin brings out, I think, just how sensual an awakening Pygamlion's ivory lover undergoes: "... he went straight to the replica of his sweetheart,/ threw himself down on the couch and repeatedly kissed her; / she seemed to grow warm and so he repeated the action, / kissing her lips and exciting her breasts with both hands ..."
Ovid is obviously playing here with the idea of the sun bringing forth life, like crocodiles being formed from the Nile's mud - a belief which persisted in Europe until the eighteenth century. And yet he also succeeds in sounding faintly ironic:
Aroused, the ivory softened and, losing its stiffness,
yielded, submitting to his caress as wax softens
when it is warmed by the sun, and handled by fingers,
takes on many forms, and by being used, becomes useful.
Is that Martin's choice of tone, or Ovid's, I wonder? It comes down to yet another example of that intense modernity we feel in Golden Age Latin poets such as Catullus and Ovid. And yet, in attributing to them a kind of hip, street-wise consciousness, are we eliding over a hundred more significant points of difference?
Never mind. I guess it's better to feel a kinship with poets from the distant past than to hear them as pompous reminders of the mutabliity of any advanced culture ...
Charles Martin gets a definite thumbs-up, I feel - alert to the subtleties of his poet's changes of mood and style - and a good serviceable poetic voice of his own. Perhaps it's no accident that Pygmalion is so foregrounded by him. Isn't every translator's desire to breathe life into his own hand-carved replica of an otherwise unattainable original?
Metamorphoses VIII (1958): Icarus
Weary of exile, hating Crete, his prison,
Old Daedalus grew homesick for his country
Far out of sight beyond his walls – the sea.
“Though Minos owns this island, rules the waves,
The skies are open: my direction’s clear.
Though he commands all else on earth below
His tyranny does not control the air.”
So Daedalus turned his mind to subtle craft,
An unknown art that seemed to outwit nature:
He placed a row of feathers in neat order,
Each longer than the one that came before it
Until the feathers traced an inclined plane
That cast a shadow like the ancient pipes
That shepherds played, each reed another step
Unequal to the next. With cord and wax
He fixed them smartly at one end and middle,
Then curved them till they looked like eagles’ wings.
And as he worked, boy Icarus stood near him,
His brilliant face lit up by his father’s skill.
He played at snatching feathers from the air
And sealing them with wax (nor did he know
How close to danger came his lightest touch);
And as the artist made his miracles
The artless boy was often in his way.
At last the wings were done and Daedalus
Slipped them across his shoulders for a test
And flapped them cautiously to keep his balance,
And for a moment glided into air.
He taught his son the trick and said, “Remember
To fly midway, for if you dip too low
The waves will weight your wings with thick saltwater,
And if you fly too high the flames of heaven
Will burn them from your sides. Then take your flight
Between the two. Your route is not toward Boötes
Nor Helice, nor where Orion swings
His naked sword. Steer where I lead the way.”
With this he gave instructions how to fly
And made a pair of wings to fit the boy.
Though his swift fingers were as deft as ever,
The old man’s face was wet with tears; he chattered
More fatherly advice on how to fly.
He kissed his son – and, as the future showed,
This was a last farewell – then he took off.
And as a bird who drifts down from her nest
Instructs her young to follow her in flight,
So Daedalus flapped wings to guide his son.
Far off, below them, some stray fisherman,
Attention startled from his bending rod,
Or a bland shepherd resting on his crook,
Or a dazed farmer leaning on his plough,
Glanced up to see the pair float through the sky,
And, taking them for gods, stood still in wonder.
They flew past Juno’s Samos on the left
And over Delos and the isle of Paros,
And on the right lay Lebinthus, Calymne,
A place made famous for its wealth in honey.
By this time Icarus began to feel the joy
Of beating wings in air and steered his course
Beyond his father’s lead: all the wide sky
Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.
Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back
And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid
Ran hot that once was wax. His naked arms
Whirled into wind; his lips, still calling out
His father’s name, were gulfed in the dark sea.
And the unlucky man, no longer father,
Cried, “Icarus, where are you, Icarus,
Where are you hiding, Icarus, from me?”
Then as he called again, his eyes discovered
The boy’s torn wings washed on the climbing waves.
He damned his art, his wretched cleverness,
Rescued the body and placed it in a tomb,
And where it lies the land’s called Icarus.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
It’s interesting to see just how carefully Breughel must have studied Ovid’s text before painting his famous picture. The fisherman, shepherd and farmer are all there, as is that breath-taking vista of the Greek islands, stretching off to a honey-bright horizon.
The emphases in Auden’s “Musee des Beaux-Arts” (1940) are of course quite different. He wants to praise Breughel’s psychological insight into basic human reactions to catastrophe. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this must indeed have been in Breughel’s mind. Why else so deliberately decentre the main event?
And, given that the poem was written at the time of the phoney war, when only Poland seemed to be taking the brunt of Hitler's wrath, its hard not to see the ongoing validity of Auden's pessimism, also.
Curiously enough, Ovid’s text too goes on to add an extra frisson to his characterisation of Daedalus, the Frankenstein-like inventor of so many dubious devices and machines – from the bondage gear he designed for Queen Pasiphae, to the convoluted Panopticon he made to hide her monstrous offspring in.
The poem continues:
As Daedalus gave his ill-starred son to earth,
A talking partridge in a swamp near by
Glanced up at him and with a cheerful noise
The creature clapped its wings. And this moment
The partridge was a new bird come to earth –
And a reminder, Daedalus, of crime.
For the inventor’s sister, ignorant
Of what the Fates had planned, sent him her son
A brilliant boy and scarcely twelve years old.
The boy studied the backbone of a fish;
This image in his mind, he made a saw
And was the first to bolt two arms of iron
In a loose joint: while one was held at rest,
The other traced a circle in the sand.
Daedalus, jealous of his nephew’s skill,
Murdered the child by tossing him head-first
Down the steep stairs that mount Minerva’s temple,
Then lied by saying the boy slipped and fell.
But Pallas, who rewards quick-witted creatures,
Restored him with the feathers of a bird,
Saved in midair. The quickness of his mind
Was in his wings and feet; he kept his name.
Even now the bird does not take wing too high,
Nor makes her nest in trees or up a cliff,
But claps her wings in shallow flight near earth;
Her eggs drop in thick brush, and not forgetting
Her ancient fall, she fears high resting regions.
Horace Gregory’s blank-verse translation seems competent and well judged. A friend of Robert Lowell’s, and member of that Classics-infused generation of poets, he clearly saw it as essential to provide them with a Metamorphoses they could call their own (like Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 Odyssey, his 1974 Iliad and – eventually – his 1983 Aeneid).
Certainly Lowell thought so. His comments (quoted on the backcover of my paperback Mentor Classics edition) are laudatory in the extreme. "It is the only literate and readable version I've come across," he says. "A large and wonderful job ... I'm sure I will be using it the rest of my life to return to the old stories."
A bit unkind to Rolfe Humphries, perhaps, but certainly nice for Gregory to hear such an accolade from the author of "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid."
Metamorphoses VII (1717): Theseus
Aegeus, King of Athens, has taken the sorceress Medea as his new wife: "The only blemish of his prudent life."
... Mean-while his son, from actions of renown,
Arrives at court, but to his sire unknown.
Medea, to dispatch a dang'rous heir
(She knew him), did a pois'nous draught prepare;
Drawn from a drug, was long reserv'd in store
For desp'rate uses, from the Scythian shore;
That from the Echydnaean monster's jaws
Deriv'd its origin, and this the cause.
Thro' a dark cave a craggy passage lies,
To ours, ascending from the nether skies;
Thro' which, by strength of hand, Alcides drew
Chain'd Cerberus, who lagg'd, and restive grew,
With his blear'd eyes our brighter day to view.
Thrice he repeated his enormous yell,
With which he scares the ghosts, and startles Hell;
At last outragious (tho' compell'd to yield)
He sheds his foam in fury on the field,-
Which, with its own, and rankness of the ground,
Produc'd a weed, by sorcerers renown'd,
The strongest constitution to confound;
Call'd Aconite, because it can unlock
All bars, and force its passage thro' a rock.
The pious father, by her wheedles won,
Presents this deadly potion to his son;
Who, with the same assurance takes the cup,
And to the monarch's health had drank it up,
But in the very instant he apply'd
The goblet to his lips, old Aegeus spy'd
The iv'ry hilted sword that grac'd his side.
That certain signal of his son he knew,
And snatcht the bowl away; the sword he drew,
Resolv'd, for such a son's endanger'd life,
To sacrifice the most perfidious wife.
Revenge is swift, but her more active charms
A whirlwind rais'd, that snatch'd her from his arms.
While conjur'd clouds their baffled sense surprize,
She vanishes from their deluded eyes,
And thro' the hurricane triumphant flies.
The gen'rous king, altho' o'er-joy'd to find
His son was safe, yet bearing still in mind
The mischief by his treach'rous queen design'd;
The horrour of the deed, and then how near
The danger drew, he stands congeal'd with fear.
But soon that fear into devotion turns,
With grateful incense ev'ry altar burns;
Proud victims, and unconscious of their fate,
Stalk to the temple, there to die in state.
In Athens never had a day been found
For mirth, like that grand festival, renown'd.
Promiscuously the peers, and people dine,
Promiscuously their thankful voices join,
In songs of wit, sublim'd by spritely wine.
To list'ning spheres their joint applause they raise,
And thus resound their matchless Theseus' praise.
Great Theseus! Thee the Marathonian plain
Admires, and wears with pride the noble stain
Of the dire monster's blood, by valiant Theseus slain.
That now Cromyon's swains in safety sow,
And reap their fertile field, to thee they owe.
By thee th' infested Epidaurian coast
Was clear'd, and now can a free commerce boast.
The traveller his journey can pursue,
With pleasure the late dreadful valley view,
And cry, Here Theseus the grand robber slew.
Cephysus' cries to his rescu'd shore,
The merciless Procrustes is no more.
In peace, Eleusis, Ceres' rites renew,
Since Theseus' sword the fierce Cercyon slew.
By him the tort'rer Sinis was destroy'd,
Of strength (but strength to barb'rous use employ'd)
That tops of tallest pines to Earth could bend,
And thus in pieces wretched captives rend.
Inhuman Scyron now has breath'd his last,
And now Alcatho's roads securely past;
By Theseus slain, and thrown into the deep:
But Earth nor Sea his scatter'd bones wou'd keep,
Which, after floating long, a rock became,
Still infamous with Scyron's hated name.
When Fame to count thy acts and years proceeds,
Thy years appear but cyphers to thy deeds.
For thee, brave youth, as for our common-wealth,
We pray; and drink, in yours, the publick health.
Your praise the senate, and plebeians sing,
With your lov'd name the court, and cottage ring.
You make our shepherds and our sailors glad,
And not a house in this vast city's sad.
This piece was translated not by Dryden but by Nahum Tate (1652-1715), "like Dryden a posthumous contributor" says Garth Tissol in his introduction to the recent Wordsworth Classics reprint of this classic version.
Does it make much difference? It's hard to say. There's a - slightly worrying -continuity between all the various voices included in Samuel Garth's collaborative Metamorphoses. It's fluent and effective and yet somehow slighlty uninspired. Though I suppose one occasionally feels the same about Pope's Odyssey (1725-26), compiled according to a similar scheme.
One of the most influential reading experiences of my life was the discovery of Mary Renault's The King Must Die (1958) in my early teens. it was sexy, violent, revisionist, and full of the dark passions of the ancient Matriarchal Mediterranean before the advent of the Apollonian values of Classical Greece.
Renault made full use of Sir Arthur Evans' reconstruction of the Minoan culture of Crete, and wrote as if the seasonal theories of Frazer's Golden Bough (and perhaps even Graves's White Goddess) were established fact.
The result seemed fantastically original and electrifying to me at the time. I can still recite long passages of the book in my head. I fell in love with her Ariadne at once - only her Minotaur seemed a bit disappoinitingly rationalised.
Every age must create their own Theseus, but mine will always be fixed in the image created by Renault:
The tradition that he emulated the feats of Herakles may well embalm some ancient sneer at the over-compensation of a small assertive man. Napoleon comes to mind.
If one examines the legend in this light,a well-defined personality emerges. It is that of a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly-sexed and rather promiscuous; touchily proud, but with a feeling for the under-dog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny. (Renault, 345)
Mary Renault would go on to create an image of Alexander, in her three novels of the subject: Fire from Heaven (1970), The Persian Boy (1972) and Funeral Games (1981), even more compelling than this initial recreation of the nature of Theseus.