Poems Inspired by Titian

Hear leading contemporary poets including Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage reading their new poems inspired by Titian.
Poetry reading
Seamus Heaney: 'Actaeon'

Poetry reading

Seamus Heaney: 'Actaeon'

About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Seamus Heaney reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'Actaeon'.

 

Hear Seamus talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9 and Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

Seamus Heaney: This poem is called 'Actaeon' and a number of details come from Ovid's account of the event in his 'Metamorphoses'.

'Actaeon'

High burdened brow, the antlers that astound,
Arms that end now in two hardened feet,
His nifty haunches, pointed ears and fleet
Four-legged run... In the pool he saw a crowned
Stag’s head and heard something that groaned
When he tried to speak. And it was no human sweat
That steamed off him: he was like a beast in heat,
As if he’d prowled and stalked until he found

The grove, the grotto and the bathing place
Of the goddess and her nymphs, as if he’d sought
That virgin nook deliberately, as if
His desires were hounds that had quickened pace
On Diana’s scent before his own pack wrought
Her vengeance on him, at bay beneath the leaf-

lit woodland. There his branchy antlers caught
When he faced the hounds
That couldn’t know him as they bayed and fought
And tore out mouthfuls of hide and flesh and blood
From what he was, while his companions stood
Impatient for the kill, assessing wounds.

More from Poems Inspired by Titian (13 videos)

02:28
Poetry reading
Seamus Heaney: 'Actaeon'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Seamus Heaney reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'Actaeon'.

 

Hear Seamus talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9 and Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

Seamus Heaney: This poem is called 'Actaeon' and a number of details come from Ovid's account of the event in his 'Metamorphoses'.

'Actaeon'

High burdened brow, the antlers that astound,
Arms that end now in two hardened feet,
His nifty haunches, pointed ears and fleet
Four-legged run... In the pool he saw a crowned
Stag’s head and heard something that groaned
When he tried to speak. And it was no human sweat
That steamed off him: he was like a beast in heat,
As if he’d prowled and stalked until he found

The grove, the grotto and the bathing place
Of the goddess and her nymphs, as if he’d sought
That virgin nook deliberately, as if
His desires were hounds that had quickened pace
On Diana’s scent before his own pack wrought
Her vengeance on him, at bay beneath the leaf-

lit woodland. There his branchy antlers caught
When he faced the hounds
That couldn’t know him as they bayed and fought
And tore out mouthfuls of hide and flesh and blood
From what he was, while his companions stood
Impatient for the kill, assessing wounds.

03:22
Poetry reading
Patience Agbabi: 'About Face'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Patience Agbabi reading from her Titian-inspired poem 'About Face'.

 

Hear Patience talking about the process of writing her poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9

Patience Agbabi: I am Patience Agbabi reading a poem inspired mainly by the 'Diana and Actaeon' painting. It's called 'About Face (after Titian)'.

Actaeon, you’ll pay the price for looking
like a god; athletic, proud, immortal.
Diana, goddess of the hunt, will hound you.
She is too harsh; you should have looked at me.
I am her shadow, black yet fairer than
the mistress, clad in cloth finer than cirrus.
I want you, Actaeon. I wish I were
shroud white; O that you’d notice me and mouth
each monumental curve. Her handsome face
off-guard, you brushed aside the drape to see
how cool she bathed; with the pool’s spray, she cursed you
for looking. In this pine-sweet grove, you turned
from man to horned and dappled stag: sentenced.
Look how your fate reflects itself in water.

Look! How your fate reflects itself in water
from man to horned and dappled stag, sentenced
for looking. In this pine-sweet grove, you turned.
How cool she bathed! With the pool’s spray she cursed you.
Off-guard, you brushed aside the drape to see
each monumental curve, her handsome face
shroud white. O that you’d notice me and mouth
I want you. Actaeon, I wish I were
the mistress clad in cloth finer than cirrus.
I am her shadow, black yet fairer than
she is. Too harsh! You should have looked at me.
Diana, goddess of the hunt, will hound you
like a god, athletic, proud, immortal.
Actaeon, you’ll pay the price for looking.

03:07
Poetry reading
Jo Shapcott: 'Callisto's Song'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Jo Shapcott reading from her Titian-inspired poem 'Callisto's Song'.

 

Hear Jo talking about the process of writing her poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-9

Jo Shapcott: I am going to read a poem called 'Callisto's Song'. Callisto was a nymph who was flung up into the heavens and became a constellation. So, in order to write the poem I had to imagine what a constellation might sound like. On the page, I've translated her noise into an asterisk between every word of the poem and I hear it myself as a sort of white noise, a crunching, crackling sound. I can't speak like she probably would, but I will do my best.

'Callisto's Song'

* stars * stars * stars * stars * and * I *
 * am * made * of * them * now * looking *
* down * on * myself * then * a * colorito * woman * yes *
 * that * was * me * in * my * red * sandals * the * great *
* outdoors * curtained * golden * embroidered *
 * and * heatshimmer * above * blue * mountains *
* nothing * vertical * not * even * the * plinth* and *
 * no * speech * no * names * then * just * a * cry *
* as * the * busy * body * nymphs * stripped * me * because *
 * we * all * had * rounded * bellies * then * but *
* nine * months * gone * so * my * navel * curved *
 * like * a * gash * and * o * so * noticeable *
* among * all * the * diagonals * and * everyone *
 * looking * a * different * way * looking * a * lot *
* especially * the * goddess * at * me * her * arrow-arm *
 * pointing * bow-mouth * strung * and * dogs * crouched *
* because * they * sensed * consequences * and * gods *
 * arriving * and * doing * what * gods * do * upstairs * and *
* the * artist’s * finger * loaded * and * the * paint * alive *
 * alive * with * stars * stars * stars * stars * stars *

02:03
Poetry reading
Wendy Cope: 'Actaeon's Lover'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Wendy Cope reading from her Titian-inspired poem 'Actaeon's Lover'.

 

Hear Wendy talking about the process of writing her poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9

Wendy Cope: I am Wendy Cope and my poem is a sonnet called 'Actaeon’s Lover'.

I am the one half hidden by a pillar,
Gazing out at him with loving eyes,
Alarmed, although I cannot see his killer
Reacting to the terrible surprise.
A man! My secret love, who loved me too.
He used to meet me by a certain tree.
That day I couldn’t make our rendezvous
Because the goddess said she needed me.
He searched the woods and stumbled on this place.
You know the rest: the dreadful way he died.
This moment: the last time I saw his face
Before the horror of the horns, the hide.
I rage and mourn. There can be no redress
Against divine Diana, murderess.

02:37
Poetry reading
Simon Armitage: 'Diana and Actaeon'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Simon Armitage reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'Diana and Actaeon'.

 

Hear Simon talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9

Simon Armitage: I am Simon Armitage and this is my poem 'Diana and Actaeon' from Titian's painting of the same name.

The whole hillside being smeared and daubed
with the blood of the hunt, I dropped down
to a stream whose water ran clear and cool,
and followed its thread through a wooded fold,
among branches dressed with pelts and skulls.
Then stumbled headlong into that sacred grove.

That’s when the universe pitched and groaned,
and I shrank from cloud-coloured flesh,
from calf and hip, curve and cleft,
from a writhing feast of fruit and meat:
salmon, silverside, redcurrant, peach;
from fingers worming for gowns and robes,
from eel and oyster, ankle and lip,
from bulb, bud, honeycomb, nest... And flinched

from Diana’s arm bent back like a bow,
and flinched from Diana’s naked glare –
a death-stare arrowed from eye to eye.
All seen in a blink but burnt on the mind.

The pink-red curtain of noon, drawn back,
unleashes the white wolves of the moon.

02:42
Poetry reading
Frances Leviston: 'Woodland Burial'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Frances Leviston reading from her Titian-inspired poem 'Woodland Burial'.

 

Hear Frances talking about the process of writing her poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

Frances Leviston: My name’s Frances Leviston, and this poem is called 'Woodland Burial'.

Thrown water touched him and where it touched it said
his body was the same brownness leaves turn
when autumn is upon us, a swept-up heap
trembling where it stood,
that when the huntress concentrated
trees, tree-shadows, underbrush and bushes made a wood
and it was ever thus, that nothing can be other than as known
by a god, no truth a lie, no death long sleep.

Poised with springy longbow drawn
and back to the sun, the one who had revealed her form
from landscape or eyes
independent as a streak of white paint on a mirror
held him on her gaze
and held the torn canopy of clouds on the water
how she might have kept a spoonful of honey in the warm
fold of her tongue before it dissipated.

Not the greatest possible harm,
which needs to be known and named as such
to achieve its end, not what he fled, but the unofficial crime,
the moment she let her attention crop
those deep recursive avenues of beech to a backdrop
he broke against, confused,
so nothing in the landscape escaped his touch
and nothing left of him was in the picture she composed.

02:08
Inspired by Titian
Tony Harrison
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Tony Harrison describing his creative process and how he drew inspiration from the artist.

 

Hear Tony reading his poem 'Diana and Actaeon'.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9

Tony Harrison: Well, originally when someone got in touch with me I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do The Flaying of Marsyas’, which is my favourite Titian. They said, ‘Oh no, that’s not in the exhibition’. So, I looked at the others, and as soon as I looked at 'Diana and Actaeon' I saw the only eyes looking out at the viewer were sockets, astounding. I’m very used to responding to images and I said how long do you want? If it had been longer I would have responded maybe to more elements of it, but I wanted to focus on that thing which is slightly hidden, seems to be hidden, but is actually incredibly prominent.

Actaeon stares at the stag skull, the flayed skin
above the nymph who dries Diana’s shin.

I mean, I’m happy to retire the poem and let the Titian work its own magic.

02:26
Poetry reading
Don Paterson: 'A Call'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Don Paterson reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'A Call'.

 

Hear Don talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

Don Paterson: My name’s Don Paterson. This is a poem inspired by 'The Death of Actaeon' and I guess it is a poem about desire and transgression and the way they’re bound closely together. It’s also about comeuppance. I would say it’s a poem of middle age.

'A Call'

A winter train. A gale, a poacher’s moon.
The black glass. Do I honestly still blame
the wrong turn in the changing rooms I took
when I was six, and stood too long to look?
The scream Miss Venner loosed at me. ‘The nerve!’
I was ablaze. And it was worth the shame,
I thought; of course I did. It was too soon
to tell the dream from what I’d paid for it.
Then soon too late. Two sides of the same door.
So was it the recoil or the release
That lashed the world so out of shape? Tonight
I stare right through the face that I deserve
as all my ghost dogs gather at the shore,
behind them the whole sea like the police.

02:55
Poetry reading
George Szirtes: 'Actaeon'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear George Szirtes reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'Actaeon'.

 

Hear George talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9

George Szirtes: I chose to write about Titian’s 'Diana and Actaeon' because it’s a painting about discovery and desire. And it made me think of John Donne’s lines about a lover – ‘O, my America, my Newfoundland’ – which is about finding the naked body.

'Actaeon'

'O, my America, my Newfoundland'
John Donne, Elegy 20

O, my America, discovered by slim chance,
behind, as it seemed, a washing line
I shoved aside without thinking –
does desire have thoughts or define
its object, consuming all in a glance?

You, with your several flesh sinking
upon itself in attitudes of hurt,
while the dogs at my heels
growl at the strange red shirt
under a horned moon, you, drinking

night water – tell me what the eye steals
or borrows. What can’t we let go
without protest? My own body turns
against me as I sense it grow
contrary. Whatever night reveals

is dangerously toothed. And so the body burns
as if torn by sheer profusion of skin
and cry. It wears its ragged dress
like something it once found comfort in,
the kind of comfort even a dog learns

by scent. So flesh falls away, ever less
human, like desire itself, though pain
still registers in the terrible balance
the mind seems so reluctant to retain,
o, my America, my nakedness!

02:52
Poetry reading
Sinéad Morrissey: 'Diana and Actaeon'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Sinéad Morrissey reading from her Titian-inspired poem 'Diana and Actaeon'.

 

Hear Sinéad talking about the process of writing her poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9 

Sinéad Morrissey: I am Sinéad Morrissey. The poem I wrote is based on the painting 'Diana and Actaeon' and on the story depicted in that painting.

'Diana and Actaeon'

It could be over Strangford Lough:
that hoop of sky beyond the archway
with its midsummer blue of a northern country
and corridor of clouds

and Actaeon the servant
standing slack-jawed in the doorway
having stupidly dropped the chocolate tray—
a whole life’s wages’ worth of china

exploding in confetti
no praying to all the Saints in Heaven
might possibly take back, lift up, undo,
obliterate—

like the sight of his reverend mistress
caught languidly in flagrante
with five of the shyest housemaids
and a cousin from the city.

Stone animals crouched in the dusky gardens
cover their ears. And immediately
he sees, in the uplifted anvil
of her naked heel, his punishment—

whipping, stocking, damaged hands,
a four-day journey south, or, if he’s lucky,
a sign slung round his neck
—houseboy for hire—

out in Van Diemen’s Land.

02:27
Poetry reading
Hugo Williams: 'Actaeon'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Hugo Williams reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'Actaeon'.

 

Hear Hugo talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9

Hugo Williams: I really had no inspiration for this poem at all until I thought of all these Renoir-esque lovelies as a kind of beauty contest containing all the girls I’ve ever known: all my girlfriends. And then it occurred to me that they could be holding up their year, as in a conventional beauty contest, holding up their year and smiling attractively.

And the poem, which was one I wrote about forty years ago, originally had a last couple of lines which was ‘very old one in a bedjacket / held up her hand to go to the lavatory’ and I decided to leave that out and just keep the attractive ones.

'Actaeon'

I thought of all my girlfriends
gathered together on a stage,
each of them holding up her year
and smiling attractively.
I lifted one corner of the curtain
and there they all were,
but shy and resentful now,
covering themselves from my sight.

‘I didn’t know you girls all
knew one another,’ I said,
seeing only a tumble of looks and limbs.
‘What are you doing here?’
They answered that they might as well
ask me the same question.
What was the matter?
Couldn’t I make up my mind?

If I had stood my ground
and said nothing, or claimed
to be just passing through,
I might have escaped their mockery,
I might have been forgiven.
Alas, I fled the scene,
dogged by indecision and regret,
torn apart by my imaginings.

02:47
Poetry reading
Lavinia Greenlaw: 'The Dark'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Lavinia Greenlaw reading from her Titian-inspired poem 'The Dark'.

 

Hear Lavinia talking about the process of writing her poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-9

Lavinia Greenlaw: My poem is about Titian’s depiction of Callisto.

'The Dark'

What was I in their story? The dark.
An electric unknown, a girl
who slipped off the path and found
herself alone in the forest’s locked room,
who set aside her quiver and bow
and lay down. When I woke
the world was in bright version.
I believed what I saw. He was not
what I saw. My body opened.
It was not my body. I became
a question that must not be asked
of the gods. I grew ripe with it.
I lost my place, my people.
I took the white ribbon from my hair.
Yet to her I was still what lit him.
She reached down and obscured my form.
My voice at first gaudy with argument
took on a rip, wrench and boom.
My body warped and cracked.
I was sinew and claw, my odour
that of a crowded cave in winter.
I was night torn from day.
I ran to escape my own shadow.
The beasts of the forest drove me out.
The villagers barred their doors.
The gods turned the page.

02:58
Poetry reading
Christopher Reid: 'The Change'
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About the video:

 

Leading contemporary poets have been invited to respond to three Titian paintings inspired by the Diana myth.

 

Hear Christopher Reid reading from his Titian-inspired poem 'The Change'.

 

Hear Christopher talking about the process of writing his poem.

 

Find out more about the exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012.

 

More about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

Christopher Reid: This poem is called 'The Change' and it’s about Titian’s great painting 'The Death of Actaeon'. In it, I put words into the mouth of the painter himself. So, imagine that he’s in his studio, taking a visitor around, showing him this painting, which is still unfinished and leaning against the wall.

The goddess with her killer glare:

no problem there. I’ve seen that look myself
often enough, aimed straight at me,
and it wasn’t hard to swivel it
through ninety degrees and fix it in profile.
(That dinky quiver, wrong size for the bow,
I’ll adjust later.) The dogs, too, I can handle,
if I can keep the brushwork fluent:
less a pack of them than a flood, a torrent,
of muscular flanks and backs and squabbling
yelps and scent-maddened muzzles
dragging your man down. Now, he’s the trouble,
which is why I’ve put him in the middle distance,
an arrow’s flight away. He’s turning into a stag.
But how do you do that, exactly?
Head first, as I’ve tried here, following Ovid?
Ping! – he’s got antlers and a long neck,
but the rest of his body’s slow on the uptake,
so he’s left looking less like prey brought low
than some tipsy idiot taking a spill at a carnival?
Forget it. What I want is the change itself,
when he’s neither man nor beast, or somehow both at once,
and you don’t just see but feel the combined
horror and justice of his fate. Some way to go.
Never mind, I’ll be patient. It can wait.