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Guardian Poem of the Week: ‘Actaeon’ by George Szirtes
Lovely! We didn’t even know that the Guardian organizes a poem of the week every week. This week’s selection is “Actaeon,” a poem by George Szirtes. Here’s the Guardian’s write-up about the poem and the poem itself, too:
From Victorian times at least, women writers have been retelling classical myths and folktales from a woman-centred or feminist perspective. In this week’s poem, “Actaeon” by George Szirtes, the myth is experienced intimately from the male perspective. The larger parables that emerge concern bodily limits and mortality. The hounds that run Actaeon into the ground may be those of time as well as desire.
The epigraph draws attention to Donne’s enthralled and enthralling “Elegy XX”, (sometimes numbered XIX), “To His Mistress Going to Bed”. After a slow, perhaps imaginary, feminine disrobing, “O, my America, my Newfoundland”, expresses the lover’s delight in the vision of his mistress’s newly undressed body, and in the forthcoming conquest. Actaeon’s untouchable “America” is, of course, Diana, the “chaste and fair” goddess of the hunt and the moon. Any conquest is all hers.
The poem’s structure helps reveal the paradoxes. The stanzas, though uniform in length, have an odd number of lines, the five quintets making a pattern which complicates symmetry. Rhythmically, there’s often an impatient forwards-rush, while the “sheer profusion” of rhyme checks it and creates a back-and-forth movement, as the rhyme-word of one stanza’s third line is picked up in the first and last lines of the next. It’s an innovative and intricate form, and one that seems organic to its subject. Between the stases of desire and death, the hunting dogs rush and circle.
In the fifth stanza, Actaeon, it will be revealed, is finally looking straight at himself. The last word of the poem, rhyming pointedly with “dress” and “less”, is “nakedness” (his). The “O, my America” quotation, now with a lower-case “o”, has become grimly ironical and, more importantly, part of an address not to a lover’s body, but to his own. In discovering his own, isolated male nakedness, Actaeon breaks another taboo. He has no alternative, as before, and no further story, except, perhaps, that he will be forced (by loneliness or ill-health) to get to know this nakedness more intimately. His body may be a Newfoundland, but it’s one which can be greeted only with irony. He’s not even a stag any more.
Head to the Guardian to read the poem. And consider subscribing to the Guardian’s poem of the week newsletters here.