Friday, September 28, 2007

Scheherazade's Web:

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

Plot Summaries

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

Textual Notes

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.
(2) Aegeria.
(3) A burning river in Hell.
(4) Aesculapius.
(5) Physick; of Paeon an excellent Physitian.
(6) Diana, of Cynthus a mountaine in Delos.
(7) Twice a man.

George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures. Oxford: John Lichfield, 1632.

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
(2) Turner

Arthur Golding, trans. Ovid's Metamorphoses. 1565-67. Ed. Madeleine Forey. Harmondsworth: Penguin English Poets, 2002. 425-28.

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.

Rolfe Humphries, trans. Ovid: Metamorphoses. 1955. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. 335-37.

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

Lucie Plato, "Justice" (2003)

Picture a space at the heart of the world, between the
the sea and the sky, on the frontiers of all three parts of
the universe.
Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter
how distant;
and here there are ears whose hollows no voice can fail
to penetrate.
This is the kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a
with numberless entrances into her house and a
thousand additional
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
murmuring babble,
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
and going,
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.

Tischbein, "The Mocking of Anacreon" (1754)

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. ...

Zazie, "HumourRumour" (2006)

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.

Horace Gregory, trans. Ovid: The Metamorphoses. A Complete New Version. 1958. New York: Mentor, 1960. 220-22.

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.

Ovid: Metamorphoses. Translated by John Dryden et al.. Edited by Sir Samuel Garth. Introduction by Garth Tissol. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1998. 220-222.

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.

Metamorphoses VI (1994): Marsyas

from "The Flaying of Marsyas"

by Robin Robertson

nec quicquam nisi vulnus erat
vi, 388


A bright clearing. Sun among the leaves,
sifting down to dapple the soft ground, and rest
a gilded bar against the muted flanks of trees.
In the flittering green light the glade
listens in and breathes.

A wooden pail; some pegs, a coil of wire;
a bundle of steel flensing knives.

Spreadeagled between two pines,
hooked at each hoof to the higher branches,
tied to the root by the hands, flagged
as his own white cross,
the satyr Marsyas hangs.

Three stand as honour guard:
two apprentices, one butcher.

Let’s have a look at you, then.
Bit scrawny for a satyr,
all skin and whipcord, is it?
Soon find out.
So, think you can turn up with your stag-bones
and outplay Lord Apollo?

This’ll learn you. Fleece the fucker.
Sternum to groin.Tickle, does it? Fucking bastard,
coming down here with your dirty ways ...
Armpit to wrist, both sides.Chasing our women ...
Fine cuts round hoof and hand and neck.Can’t even speak the language proper.
Transverse from umbilicus to iliac crest,
half-circling the waist.
Jesus. You fucking stink, you do.
Hock to groin, groin to hock.That’s your inside leg done:
no more rutting for you, cunt.

Now. One of you on each side.
Blade along the bone, find the tendon,
nick it and peel, nice and slow.
A bit of shirt-lifting, now, to purge him,
pull his wool over his eyes
and show him Lord Apollo’s rapture;
pelt on one tree, him on another:
The inner man revealed.

3 ...

After Ovid: New Metamorphoses. Edited by Michael Hofmann & James Lasdun. London: Faber, 1994. 154-55.

from "Down Under"

by Ciaran Carson

... 2

I flipped the tissue-paper and took in the Christian
Its daguerreotype-like, braille feel. The spiky instruments.
The pincers.
The man who’d invented the saw had studied the anatomy
of a
Fish’s spine. From bronze he cut the teeth and tried them
out on a boxwood tree.

That ancient boxwood flute of Greece will haunt him yet.
Through olive groves
Its purple aura bleats through dark and sheep. The dozing
With his flute abandoned. Wrapped up in his mantle,
independent, fast asleep.

... 4

Fletcher cut the nib of a quill with a Stanley knife
and sliced the palp
Of his finger off. It quivered with its hinge of skin,
then rivuleted
On the parchment. He didn’t know where it was going.
It obscured
The nice calligraphy that looked definitive: like a
Proclamation or a Treaty.

In fact, he’d been trying to copy the Inquit page off
the Book
Of Kells, as if it were a series of ‘unquotes’. The way
you’d disengage
The lashes of a feather, then try and put them back together.


The place was packed with expectant academics, but my
marking slips
Had flittered away from the text. They’d been Rizla papers
in another
Incarnation, when I’d rolled a smoke between my thumbs
and fingers, teasing
Out the strands. I waffled on about the stet-detectors
in the library

Basement, security requirements, conduits, wiring,
laminates and ducts.
Up above, the floors and stacks and filing systems, the
Machinery of books, where I materialized. I strummed
their rigid spiny gamut.


There’s a shelf of Metamorphoses. Commentaries. Lives.
The Mystery of Ovid’s
. This is where the Phrygian mode returns, by way
of an Australian stamp
That’s slipped out from the covers, bearing the unlikely-
looking lyre-shaped
Tail of the lyre-bird. Printed in intaglio, it’s playing
a barcarole.

I think of it as clinker-built, Aeolian, floating down
the limpid river which –
Said Ovid’s people – sprang from all the tears the
country fauns and nymphs
And shepherds wept in Phrygia, as they mourned their
friend the fettered satyr.

7 ...

After Ovid: New Metamorphoses. Pp.157-60.

That's why I like this compilation so much. It's hit-and-miss, admittedly. There are some tiresome adaptations which whinge on and on for pages, but mostly they're distinct hits, I'd have to say.

It's great to have these two versions of the story of Marsyas to put side by side. The Robin Robertson piece is terrifyingly brutal: a couple of executioners joking like Shakespearean bullies as they divide up the carcase of this untermensch:

A man dismantled, a tatterdemalion
torn to steak and rind,
a disappointing pentimento
or the toy that can’t be reassembled
by the boy Apollo, raptor, vivisector.
Robertson is alert to the possibilties of medieval idealisation of the innocent songster Marsyas as a kind of proto-Christ, too:

Marsyas the martyr, a god’s fetish,
hangs from the tree like bad fruit.
I particularly like that last echo of the Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit," about lynch law in the Deep South:

Strange fruit hanging
from the poplar trees

Yet when we turn to Ciaran Carson, the poet of modern Belfast, we immediately become aware of a world of possibilites scarcely hinted at in the Scot Robertson's vicious little poem.

Carson makes a series of exploratory incisions into the body of the Marsyas story, seeing it in the fish-spine of a ringbound academic monograph, in an Irish postage stamp, in the tail of an Australian lyre-bird (hence, presumably, his title: "Down Under").

LIke a classical composer, he begins by stating the theme:

Then they told the story of the satyr who played the flute
so brilliantly
In Phrygia, he tried to beat Apollo. Apollo won, of course;
for extra measure, thought
He’d bring the satyr down another peg or two: stripped
off his pelt, ungloving it from

Scalpwards down. And could he play then? With his fingertips
all raw,
His everything all peeled and skinless? You saw the score
of veins
Externalized, the palpitating circuits. The polythene-like
arteries. The pulsing bag
Of guts you’d think might play a tune, if you could bring
yourself to blow and squeeze it.
Carson's ending is more vicious, even, than Robertson's. The cruelty of the gods is an immutable principle in the world of this poem, the world (one is tempted to say) of the Troubles:

So they tell their stories, of the cruelty of gods and
words and music.
The fledglings of the lyre-bird’s song. Its arrows.
They stare into
The water – ‘clearest in that Realme’ – and see the
fishes shingled,

Shivered, scalloped on the pebbles. The arrows of the
wind upon the water,
Written on the water; rolled like smoke, the fluted
breath that strolls
At midnight. They gaze into the stream’s cold pastoral,
Fossil ribs and saws embedded there, the flute player’s
outstretched fingers.

Stephen Dobyns retells the story of the flaying of Marsyas too, in his terrifyingly deadpan collection Cemetery Nights (1987). His Marsyas is a kind of hapless hippie goof, unable to resist the flattery of the crowd, even though he knows where it'll lead him in the end.

Perhaps that's the point of the story, in fact: bad things happen to nice people. Beware the radiance of the god Apollo, too: there's no room for clumsy emotions like mercy or forgiveness in the searchlight of his dispassionate intellect. He'll rationalise you as soon as look at you.

A little like the god Augustus with that nosey little gadfly Ovidius, in fact.

Metamorphoses V (1997): Arethusa

‘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.
The attractions
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
Hardly dimpled.
The poplars and willows that drank at it
Were doubled in a flawless mirror.
I waded in – footsoles, ankles, knees.
Then stripped,
Hung my clothes on a willow
And plunged.
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
Overtake me
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 –
This land,
Which bears the name of my own beloved goddess,
Brought me back to light. That is my story.’

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid: Twenty-four Passages from the Metamorphoses. London: Faber, 1997. 68-71.

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.