Thursday, January 3, 2013

Polyphemus' Song: Handel and Theocritus

   ‘Galatea, whiter than the snowy privet petals,
    taller than slim alder, more flowery than the meadows,
    friskier than a tender kid, more radiant than crystal,
    smoother than shells, polished, by the endless tides;
    more welcome than the summer shade, or the sun in winter,
    showier than the tall plane-tree, fleeter than the hind;  
    more than ice sparkling, sweeter than grapes ripening,
    softer than the swan’s-down, or the milk when curdled,
    lovelier, if you did not flee, than a watered garden.
   Galatea, likewise, wilder than an untamed heifer,
   harder than an ancient oak, trickier than the sea;
   tougher than the willow-twigs, or the white vine branches,
   firmer than these cliffs, more turbulent than a river,
   vainer than the vaunted peacock, fiercer than the fire;
   more truculent than a pregnant bear, pricklier than thistles,
   deafer than the waters, crueller than a trodden snake;
   and, what I wish I could alter in you, most of all, is this:
   that you are swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking,
   swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze.’

Here is G.F. Handel's setting of Polyphemus's song to Galatea, which we are now looking at in Metamorphoses 13.

Another version of this scene from Handel's Acis and Galatea can be found a bit after the 45-minute mark in this production of the complete opera.

Ovid had a model for his song of Polyphemus: He based his version on that of Theocritus's 11th Idyll - a very nice translation by D.A. Svarlien is here. It makes perfect sense that in the Metamorphoses, a poem so aware of prior poetry, the moment of Aeneas's setting foot on Sicilian soil becomes the occasion for a pastoral love scene from Ovid's Syracusan predecessor.

It will reward attention to compare the Greek pastoral with Ovid's scene. For one thing, Theocritus's Cyclops, who is quite young, speaks in a fanciful way of his infatuation. The reader alone tingles with the future horror innocently traced in his lyric:
But if I am too shaggy, look: I have
Oak logs, and, unquenched by covering ash,
The spark of never-wearying fire within my cave.
I could endure being singed to the quick by you
My only eye, the sweetest thing to me,
I'd let you burn it.
We see what Theocritus is doing -- but is Ovid's version doing the same thing? Does his setting of Polyphemus's love song seem tonally similar, or quite different, from that of Theocritus?

Also, while Theocritus' Idyll does have a slender narrative frame, Ovid's frame is more elaborate. In the Metamorphoses, the song is actually sung by Galatea, who is recounting to Scylla not just the Cyclops' wooing, but his eventual murder of Acis, and the transformation of her lover into a blue-faced river god.

Polyphemus and Galatea also appear in Theocritus's 6th Idyll.


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