(Peter Paul Rubens, Diana and Actaeon)
Over two days at the home of the Librarian’s parents in Somerset, I find I don’t read much at all, the time slipping pleasantly away in a great deal of conversation, some eating, drinking, the odd quiz, a couple of games – not even much walking this year. Still, we return home on Boxing Day with as many books as we set out with.
Among my new acquisitions are two volumes of poetry, Like by A. E. Stallings and Michael Hofmann’s One Lark, One Horse, poets and translators linked in my mind by Ovid. Stallings is one of the many poets—I hadn’t realised until recently just how many—to have translated, recast or reimagined Ovid’s telling of the story of Actaeon, the hunter who came by chance upon the goddess Diana bathing naked. Outraged, she transformed him into a stag and he was torn to pieces by his own hounds. Stallings’ poem begins:
The hounds, you know them all by name.
You fostered them from purblind whelps
At their dam’s teats, and you have come
To know the music of their yelps
There have been numerous translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses since the sixteenth-century version by Arthur Golding, ‘the most beautiful book in the language’, Ezra Pound called it, ‘from which Shakespeare learned so much of his trade’. Golding’s translation has the goddess conjuring antlers onto Actaeon’s head. Then:
She sharpes his ears, she makes his necke both slender, long and lanke.
She turns his fingers into feete, his arms to spindle shanke.
She wrappes him in a hairie hyde beset with speckled spottes,
And planteth in him fearfulnesse.
Michael Hofmann was one of the editors – with James Lasdun – of the celebrated anthology, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, which included four pieces (more than fifty pages in total) by Ted Hughes, a milestone on the road to Hughes’ later Tales from Ovid. His ‘Actaeon’ begins:
Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.
Absolving Actaeon of blame (and apparently absolving Dante too in passing, perhaps all of us, come to think of it) aligns Hughes with several other translators and commentators. A. D. Melville’s version, after stating that Actaeon’s hounds were ‘sated with their master’s blood’, goes on:
Though, if you ponder wisely, you will find
The fault was fortune’s and no guilt that day.
For what guilt can it be to lose one’s way?
No crime, no guilt – but was he not at fault at all? There’s a moment in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry when Amar tells his girlfriend Maddie a story as they skirt around the question of religious belief and she says ‘something about how, once we know the end of an unfortunate story, it’s tempting to ask why its protagonist did not do better to swerve his fate.’ It’s certainly easier to ask such questions if it’s not us in the story – or if we believe that we are, unaided, writing our own.
(Diana the Huntress: École de Fontainebleau, c. 1550-1560)
In Ford Madox Ford’s The Young Lovell, after the battle of Kenchie’s Burn, Lovell is pursuing the Scots and is lost in a great valley between moors where he sleeps on the heather. ‘There he heard many strange sounds, such as a great cry of dogs hunting overhead, which was said by those who had read in books to be the goddess Diana chasing still through the night the miserable shade of the foolish Actaeon.’
Heartless fellow. Ten years after that novel was published, Ford was in Paris, feeling the mounting pressure of people’s expectations upon him to launch what became the transatlantic review: ‘not even Diana herself would preserve me from their fury if I did not provide harbourage for their compositions. I should be torn to pieces as was Actaeon by the hounds of that Goddess’.
A little more sympathy from Ford than from his fictional creation – or at least no disparagement here of the unfortunate Actaeon.
Actaeon also figures in poems by writers as varied as Seamus Heaney, George Szirtes, Wendy Cope, Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage. In March 1915, Poetry published six poems by Ezra Pound, among them ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’:
An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
and beneath them
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
with the movement of gods,
And one said:
“This is Actaeon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.
It’s not immediately obvious what Actaeon is doing here; or rather, why it’s Actaeon as opposed to any other of the illustrious dead who have crossed into Hades. (He appears in Pound’s Canto IV but in his familiar context of pool, goddess, stag and hounds.) James Longenbach comments that here Pound ‘was able to pull his experience of the war into the private world of the Image’ but points out that ‘the sacrifice was a large one’ since the poem ‘addresses the war only by mythologizing it out of its place in history and ignoring the brutality of the actual experience.’
(Titian, Diana and Actaeon, National Galleries of Scotland)
The story that Ovid tells is, in any case, a wonderfully suggestive one, presumably accounting for its strong attraction for poets and translators. The hunt is itself a potent idea, especially the sexual politics of the hunter become the hunted, the mortal man doomed by the arbitrary act of the divine woman. Or is it arbitrary, since the intrusion may be seen as not merely a social solecism but a sacrilegious blunder, a subversion of the natural order? As for the metamorphosis, the transformation, every translation – perhaps every work of art – can be seen as a metamorphic act. But another attraction is surely the tumultuous unfurling in Actaeon’s mind, the dizzying terror, the internal screaming as the words come to his lips, the things he would utter – but his power of speech is gone, his human faculties fled.
Here’s a favourite recent telling of the tale, by Lavinia Greenlaw:
He walks his mind as a forest
and sends of himself into dark places
to which he cannot tell the way.
The hunt comes on and he in his nerves
streams ahead – hounds flung after
a scent so violent no matter the path
or what’s let fall.
A burst of clearing.
Water beads and feathers her presence
as she thickens and curves.
He says words to himself not to look
but his eyes are of their own
and she at their centre a dark star
contracted to itself discarding
wave on wave on flare on fountain.
His skull erupting, branching . . .
And his blood is shaken down.
And he is all fours.
And his noise.
And his hounds.
 A. E. Stallings, ‘Actaeon’, published in Poetry (May 2003).
 Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 127; How to Read (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1931), 45.
 Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 37, 40-41.
 After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 3-20, 94-109, 114-117, 245-258.
 Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 937.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 140-142, translated by A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 55. In a note (392), Melville suggests that Ovid had his own case in mind here, having insisted that the offence for which he was exiled was an error rather than a crime.
 Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (London: Granta Books, 2018), 188.
 Ford Madox Ford, The Young Lovell: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 27. On Actaeon’s connection to Peire Vidal in The Good Soldier, see my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Ford Madox Ford and the City: International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4, edited by Sara Haslam (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 204.
 Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 262.
 Ezra Pound, ‘Actaeon: The Coming of War’, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 285.
 James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 124.
 Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Actaeon’, The Casual Perfect (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 13.