Metamorphosis – Poems Inspired by Titian

– a collection published by The National Gallery

Sadly, this short note has already come too late to alert the reader to the National Gallery’s exhibition Metamorphosis – Titian 2012.   This event, which closed in late September, featured contemporary responses to three of Titian’s paintings based on episodes in Ovid’s epic poem ‘Metamorphoses’.   The particular myths are those of Actaeon and Callisto. Actaeon is a young hunter who has the (mis)fortune to catch the goddess Diana naked, bathing with her nymph companions and he is punished by being turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his own hounds.  Callisto is one of Diana’s nymphs who, after being raped and impregnated by the god  Jupiter, is thrown out of Diana’s entourage and subsequently turned into a bear and then into a constellation.

Responses to Titian’s paintings came from Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger and more about their works can be found at
(for as long as this link is available).  The link also gives information on three new ballets that were also commissioned, portraying the story of Diana and Actaeon.

 Fourteen well-known poets were also invited to write about the paintings and the underlying myths and the resulting collection is available as an e-book (and perhaps also still in print form) at
It is this collection I’d like briefly to discuss.

The poets involved are Patience Agbabi, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Lavinia Greenlaw, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Frances Leviston, Sinéad Morrissey, Don Paterson, Christopher Reid, Jo Shapcott, George Szirtes and  Hugo Williams.   Videos of them reading their work can be found at

 The approaches taken by these poets are quite different.   The male poets seem to have rather fewer ways into the story, since only one man appears in the paintings.  Several of them are prepared to identify with Actaeon’s “peeping” and to acknowledge that it involves an awkward mixture of accident and opportunism.  Harrison accosts his reader straight away: And you, sir, yes, sir, you  … / Haven’t you half thought that while you view / Actaeon’s intrusion, you’re intruding too?    Paterson owns up to the wrong turn in the changing rooms I took / when I was six, and stood too long to look; and Williams admits his reaction to the painting was I thought of all my girl friends / … on a stage / each of them holding up her year.  Perhaps these both move the focus too much away from the classical era and onto the poets themselves?  Reid neatly sidesteps such a question by writing in the voice of Titian himself.  He skilfully combines the artist’s detachment – the dogs I can handle / if I keep the brushwork fluent – with the drama of the story – a flood, a torrent / of muscular flanks and backs and squabbling / yelps and scent maddened muzzles.

Some of the women poets seem also to relate to Actaeon rather than in Diana or any of the nymphs.  Morrissey half-transposes the setting to another time and shows some sympathy for his inadvertent predicament, likening him to a servant / standing slack-jawed in the doorway  / having stupidly dropped the chocolate tray – / a whole life’s wages’ worth of china.  Others take on the characters of un-named nymphs at the edges of the pictures.  Agbabi’s elegant mirror-poem tells Actaeon you should have looked at me; and Cope adopts the voice of the one half-hidden by a pillar whose visualising of the horror of the horns, the hide is the most powerful feature of a fairly straightforward narrative sonnet.   Two poets take on the role of poor, hard-done-by Callisto.   Greenlaw handles the change into a bear boldly and vividly: My voice at first gaudy with argument / took on a rip, wrench and boom; but the typographic trick used by Shapcott to deal with the subsequent starry transformation seems less successful and rather detracts from the poem’s verbal energy.  Only Duffy takes on the unsympathetic character of Diana; but in doing so she also deconstructs the myth (in a more offhand way than Reid’s impersonation of Titian):  my point, / ladies, is this – it’s all about paint.

This is a book that I’d recommend, both as a souvenir of (or a small substitute for!) an intriguing exhibition and also a fascinating side-by-side display of how some of our best poets tackle a single subject.   In addition to some fine poems, the book also includes colour reproductions of details from the Titian paintings and an interesting and informative introduction by Nicholas Penny.

                                                                                                                              Thomas Ovans