Text by D.M.Thomas from his novel Ararat
The palace gleamed. The sinuous dances
To flutes and lyres never ceased;
And the queen's converse and her glances
Sparkled above the splendid feast:
All hearts hung on her smile alone,
But suddenly the queen bowed low,
Bent forward, smiling, on the throne,
Touching her goblet with her brow....
The banquet paused as if it slumbered,
The mirth was hushed, the music checked.
But now she speaks, no longer cumbered
By thought, her head once more erect:
'My royal love you long to savour?
It is a pleasure you may buy....
All of my subjects without favour
I am prepared to satisfy.
By common lot we'll trade in love.
The cost, I warn you, is not light.
Tell me, my princelings, who will give
His life to share my royal night?
By the great Mother Goddess, I
Will serve you in no common fashion:
Upon the bed of lustful passion
All of the harlot's wiles I'll ply.
By the hot Cyprian goddess,
And by Persephone and Dis
Who twine beneath the earth, I vow
I will exhaust my strong desires
So long as the dark night allow,
And slake you with my secret fires;
Each kiss of mine will bring you joy
That overbrims, yet does not cloy.
But when dawn tints the eastern sky,
Turning black night to purple shade,
All of my happy loves will die
' I swear ' beneath the eunuch's blade.'
She spoke ' and horror seized them all,
And desire trembled in their hearts....
As confused whispers hum, she darts
Impudent scornful eyes along
The ranks of suitors. Suddenly
A man comes shouldering through the throng
Towards the throne, his step firm; he
Is followed by two more; their eyes
Are clear; the monarch rises, greets them.
It's done: three nights, the merchandise;
The bed of love and death awaits them.
Suave priests step forward now and bless
Those three, who plunge their hands into
An urn; the guests sit motionless
And breathless, waiting to see who
Will draw the first night. Flavius
It is ' brave warrior, who grew
Grey-headed in the Caesars' pay.
He with the hauteur of a Roman,
Could not endure a scornful woman
Challenging his courage in that way;
For him no dread lies in her arms
Worse than the battlefield's alarms.
And next is youthful Kriton, born
And nursed in Epicurus' groves,
Kriton who loves, and sings the loves
Of Cupid and the Cyprian....
Attractive to both heart and eyes
Like a spring bud that's not yet blown
Was the third lover. His name lies
In history's chasm. The first down
Was tender on his cheeks; with rapture
His eyes shone; and the untried force
Of passions surged in his young breast....
On him the queen, touched by remorse,
Allowed her proud, sad glance to rest....
The queen retires, with her attendants;
Her eunuch stands outside the doors.
Tiaras, necklaces and pendants
Are laid aside; while Iras pours
Bitter-sweet unguents Sheba used,
To lave for Solomon her skin,
Flavius, undaunted but confused,
Feels, in the dark, the fray begin....
Touched lightly on his cheek, he quivers,
He who is scored with livid scars;
As in his first assault, he shivers,
Venus controls him now, not Mars.
The night turns silently, the river's
In flood beneath a million stars;
The fields are still; the Pyramids
Are silent as the kings they keep.
While Mardian sways on guard, his lids
Heavy, and Iras in her sleep
Entwines with Charmian, the queen
Unrestingly perturbs and charms
The bashful novice in her arms '
A nurse who has to feed, yet wean,
The infant sucking at her breast.
Now teased and pushed away, now pressed
More tightly to her bosom...stroked,
Tickled, kissed, hugged, denied, tormented
With hand and tongue and voice, provoked
To pull away, but then prevented,
Held in with all her passion, kept
' It seemed ' forever in her womb...
The man of iron composure wept.
But quitting Egypt, now, for Rome,
Proud Flavius prepares to die.
The grey-haired soldier is as steady
And dauntless as at Philippi;
Signals to Mardian that he's ready.
The fat impassive eunuch lifts
The monstrous axe; the soul is fled
To where it brings its martial gifts
To lead the cohorts of the dead.
Kriton, the scion of love and art,
Turns form the shadow of desire,
' Songs he has fashioned for his lyre '
To plunge into its fiery heart.
Yet, whether he's too highly strung,
Or his strength drained away in song,
He's rigid as the waiting axe:
Except for one thing, which is lax.
She understands, and is amused;
But when an hour's elapsed, confused.
Perhaps he finds her skin is slack,
Withered her dugs, her beauty black?
But no ' he only knows the dawn,
However far away, will break;
Whether she's gentle as a fawn,
Or writhes and shudders like a snake,
He sees her beauty as a swan
Who sings upon a dying lake.
In her faint lustrous eyes he senses
A first reflection of that glow,
At every silken touch he tenses
In expectation of the blow.
It's a gross insult to her pride;
Her ancestress, the Shulamite
Was never once unsatisfied;
Nor Cleopatra, till tonight.
Now she is drowsing: she has tried
Everything; it's almost light.
But Kriton lived, as poets must,
Under imagination's sway,
Saw roses spring where all is dust,
And dust where living roses sway.
Now he sees ponderous Mardian loom,
Like a black statue in the gloom.
Perhaps the Cyprian, in compassion,
Bestowed a last gift on her prey,
Granting a swift uprush of passion
To take his fear of death away;
Or, as the night fades, he relaxes,
Could fall asleep, he feels so calm;
The solid appearance of the axe is
A soothing remedy, a balm;
Or seeing Cleopatra, nude,
Her tawny grace, her amplitude:
Who knows what moved him?...There's a brief
Explosive burst, a conflagration,
A lightning stroke; then sweet relief
Floods through the queen, and exultation,
Mixed with a little bitter froth,
The knowledge that all beauties fade,
And she will lie, like Sabaoth,
With amorous Kriton in the shade.
Then Cleopatra slept; and woke
On the third evening, to embrace
The nameless youth; at midnight's stroke
She gazed at his enraptured face.
As in his mouth her tongue takes root,
They mingle sweat, saliva, breath;
While nodding Mardian sees a flute
Call up the swaying serpent, death,
The boy's slim form, with hers entwining,
Shows her how quickly he can learn,
Now coarsening and now refining
The mutual flame in which they burn.
Often he gets the upper hand;
Despite the difference in years,
She's not completely in command,
And all distinction disappears.
Forgetting faithless Anthony,
She is again the tender bride
Clasped by her brother, Ptolemy,
Her troth to Caesar cast aside.
She'd borne then, black as ebony,
A son, so like him from the start,
In fear of Caesar's wrath she gave
Him straightway to a trusted slave,
Yet ever held him to her heart.
And this is he ' the sable youth
Who loves her, innocent of the truth.
She saw that birthmark on his brow
Before he'd taken his first breath.
Who knows if she's remorseful now
To be the instrument of death?
Maybe her challenge was a whim
When, drunk, she gave no thought to him,
Her youngest squire; or was misled
In thinking him half grown, too young
To be a claimant for her bed,
Since like a desert rose he'd sprung....
Or was she sure the royal line
Had made him passionate and wild,
And threw her challenge by design
To prove her power over her child?
Who knows if, struck by sudden terror
Of slow decline, she wished to see
Her youthful beauty in the mirror
Of yet another Ptolemy?...
But there's no doubting the delight
She took of him, until the night
Had all but faded, and the dawn,
Red-lipped as Iras, would soon rest
On her soft couch, and drive her son,
Nephew, and lover, from her breast.
But just before the morning broke,
Before the palace slaves awoke,
He rose, true son of Egypt's star,
Offered the queen cool wine, and threw
In her gold cup mandragora;
Slid a thin dagger from his shoe
Burst through the doors, slashed Mardian
Who died, amazed, without a sound,
Dashed through the palace, and was gone,
To Asia Minor, and to ground.
(from Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses) translated by Ted Hughes.
Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.
It happened on a mountain where hunters
Had slaughtered so many animals
The slopes were patched red with the butchering places.
When shadows were shortest and the sun's heat hardest
Young Actaeon called a halt:
'We have killed more than enough for the day.
'Our nets are stiff with blood,
Our spears are caked, and our knives
Are clogged in their sheaths with the blood of a glorious hunt.
'Let's be up again in the grey dawn
Back to the game afresh. This noon heat
Has baked the stones too hot for a human foot.'
All concurred. And the hunt was over for the day.
A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress
Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern
That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken
By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.
All her nymphs would attend her.
One held her javelin,
Her quiverful of arrows and her unstrung bow.
Another folded her cape.
Two others took off her sandals, while Crocale
The daughter of Ismenus
Whose hands were the most artful, combing out
The goddess' long hair, that the hunt had tangled,
Bunched it into a thick knot,
Though her own hair stayed as the hunt had scattered it.
Five others, Nephele, Hyale, Phiale,
Psecas and Rhanis, filled great jars with water
And sluiced it over Diana's head and shoulders.
The goddess was there, in her secret pool,
Naked and bowed
Under those cascades from the mouths of jars
In the fastness of Gargaphie, when Actaeon,
Making a beeline home from the hunt
Stumbled on this gorge. Surprised to find it,
He pushed into it, apprehensive, but
Steered by a pitiless fate whose nudgings he felt
Only as surges of curiosity.
So he came to the clearing. And saw ripples
Flocking across the pool out of the cavern.
He edged into the cavern, under ferns
That dripped with spray. He peered
Into the gloom to see the waterfall
But what he saw were nymphs, their wild faces
Screaming at him in a commotion of water.
And as his eyes adjusted, he saw they were naked,
Beating their breasts as they screamed at him.
And he saw they were crowding together
To hide something from him. He stared harder.
Those nymphs could not conceal Diana's whiteness,
The tallest barely reached her navel. Actaeon
Stared at the goddess, who stared at him.
She twisted her breasts away, showing him her back.
Glaring at him over her shoulder
She blushed like a dawn cloud
In that twilit grotto of winking reflections,
And raged for a weapon - for her arrows
To drive through his body.
No weapon was to hand - only water.
So she scooped up a handful and dashed it
Into his astonished eyes, as she shouted:
'Now, if you can, tell how you saw me naked.'
That was all she said, but as she said it
Out of his forehead burst a rack of antlers.
His neck lengthened, narrowed, and his ears
Folded to whiskery points, his hands were hooves,
His arms long slender legs. His hunter's tunic
Slid from his dappled hide. With all this
Poured a shocking stream of panic terror
Through his heart like blood. Actaeon
Bounded out across the cave's pool
In plunging leaps, amazed at his own lightness.
Clear in the bulging mirror of his bow-wave
He glimpsed his antlered head,
And cried: 'What has happened to me?'
No words came. No sound came but a groan.
His only voice was a groan.
Human tears shone on his stag's face
From the grief of a mind that was still human.
He veered first this way, and then that.
Should he run away home to the royal palace?
Or hide in the forest? The thought of the first
Dizzied him with shame. The thought of the second
Flurried him with terrors.
But then, as he circled, his own hounds found him.
The first to give tongue were Melampus
And the deep-thinking Ichnobates.
Melampus a Spartan, Ichnobates a Cretan.
The whole pack piled in after.
It was like a squall crossing a forest.
Dorceus, Pamphagus and Oribasus -
Pure Arcadians. Nebrophonus,
Strong as a wild boar, Theras, as fierce.
And Laelaps never far from them. Pterelas
Swiftest in the pack, and Agre
The keenest nose. And Hylaeus
Still lame from the rip of a boar's tusk.
Nape whose mother was a wolf, and Poemenis -
Pure sheep-dog. Harpyia with her grown pups,
Who still would never leave her.
The lanky hound Ladon, from Sicyon,
With Tigris, Dromas, Canace, Sticte and Alce,
And Asbolus, all black, and all-white Leuca.
Lacon was there, with shoulders like a lion.
Aello, who could outrun wolves, and Thous,
Lycise, at her best in a tight corner,
Her brother Cyprius, and black Harpalus
With a white star on his forehead.
Lachne, like a shaggy bear-cub. Melaneus
And the Spartan-Cretan crossbreeds
Lebros and Agriodus. Hylactor,
With the high, cracked voice, and a host of others,
Too many to name. The strung-out pack,
Locked onto their quarry,
Flowed across the landscape, over crags,
Over cliffs where no man could have followed,
Through places that seemed impossible.
Where Actaeon had so often strained
Every hound to catch and kill the quarry,
Now he strained to shake the same hounds off -
His own hounds. He tried to cry out:
'I am Actaeon - remember your master,'
But his tongue lolled wordless, while the air
Belaboured his ears with hounds' voices.
Suddenly three hounds appeared, ahead,
Raving towards him. They had been last in the pack.
But they had thought it out
And made a short cut over a mountain.
As Actaeon turned, Melanchaetes
The ringleader of this breakaway trio
Grabbed a rear ankle
In the trap of his jaws. Then the others,
Theridamus and Oristrophus, left and right,
Caught a foreleg each, and he fell.
These three pinned their master, as the pack
Poured onto him like an avalanche.
Every hound filled its jaws
Till there was hardly a mouth not gagged and crammed
With hair and muscle. Then began the tugging and the ripping.
Actaeon's groan was neither human
Nor the natural sound of a stag.
Now the hills he had played on so happily
Toyed with the echoes of his death-noises.
His head and antlers reared from the heaving pile.
And swayed - like the signalling arm
Of somebody drowning in surf.
But his friends, who had followed the pack
To this unexpected kill,
Urged them to finish the work. Meanwhile they shouted
For Actaeon - over and over for Actaeon
To hurry and witness this last kill of the day
And such a magnificent beast
As if he were absent. He heard his name
And wished he were as far off as they thought him.
He wished he was among them
Not suffering his death but observing
The terrible method
Of his murderers, as they knotted
Muscles and ferocity to dismember
Their own master.
Only when Actaeon's life
Had been torn from his bones, to the last mouthful,
Did the remorseless anger of Diana,
Goddess of the arrow, find peace.