from Book Eleven of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Proteus, old as the ocean,
Said to Thetis: “Goddess
Of all the salt waters,
When you bear a son the boy will be
The wonder of the world.
He will make a man of himself
So far superior to his father
His father’s fame will be—to have been his father.”
Jupiter heard the prophecy just in time
To deflect his lust
From the maidenhead of Thetis.
He switched it
To the next on his list. But as a precaution,
Too well aware of his own frailty,
He sent a substitute to neutralize
The prize of the prediction and its sequel:
Peleus, his grandson, son of Aeacus.
“Go,” he commanded. “No matter what it takes
To bring it about, impregnate that virgin.”

Tucked into Harmonia’s coast is a bay
Between promontories, deep incurved,
Like a sickle.
A perfect harbor if only the water were deeper.
But the sea sweeps in
Barely covering a plain of pale sand.
The beach is perfect,
No seaweed, and the sand
Powdery light, though firm to the foot.
The hanging bulge of the land is plumped with myrtles.
Beneath those leaves a cave climbs from the sea.
It looks like the work of man. But a deity used it.
This was the secret bedchamber of Thetis.
Naked, she surfed in on a dolphin
To sleep there. And there Peleus found her.

He woke her with a kiss.
First she was astonished, then furious.
He applied all his cunning to seduce her.
He exhausted his resources. None of it worked.
His every soft word hardened her colder.
If they had been two cats, he was thinking,
She would have been flattened to the wall,
Her mask fixed in a snarl, spitting at him.
He took his cue from that. Where argument
Fails, violence follows. His strength
Could have trussed her up like a chicken
If she had stayed the woman he woke with a kiss.
But before he knew
He was grappling with an enormous sea bird,
Its body powerful as a seal, and its beak
Spiking his skull like a claw hammer.
A bird that was suddenly a wren
Escaping towards the tangle of myrtles,
Bolting past his cheek like a shuttlecock
That he caught with a snatch of pure luck,
And found himself
Gripping a tigress by the shag of her throat
As her paw hit him with the impact
Of a fifty-kilo lump of snaggy bronze
Dropped from a battlement.
He rolled from the cave and landed flat on his back
In cushioning shallow water.

Then he slaughtered sheep,
Burned their entrails, heaped incense
Onto the fatty blaze, poured wine
Into the salt wash and called on the sea-gods,
Till a shade, from the depth-gloom beyond,
Darkened into the bay’s lit shallows,
And a voice hissed from the tongues of suds
That shot up the sand: “Son of Aeacus,
This woman can be yours if you can catch her
Sleeping as before in her cavern.
But this time, bind her, bind her tight with thongs,
Before she wakes. Then hang on to her body
No matter what it becomes, no matter what monster.
Do not let her scare you—
However she transforms herself, it is her,
Dodging from shape to shape, through a hundred shapes.
Hang on
Till her counterfeit selves are all used up,
And she reappears as Thetis.”
This was the voice of Proteus. It ceased
And the long shape faded from the shallows.

Peleus hid in the myrtles. Towards sundown
The goddess came up from the deep water,
Rode into the bay, climbed into her cave
And stretched out on her couch.

She was hardly asleep
When the noosed thongs jerked tight.
Her ankles and her wrists made one bunch.
Her feet and hands were a single squirming cluster,
As if she were to be carried, slung from a pole,
Like an animal.

Peleus clinched his knot, then bundled her up
In his arms, and embraced her with all his might
As her shapes began to fight for her.
He shut his eyes and hung on, ignoring
Her frenzy of transformations
Till they shuddered to stillness. She knew she was beaten
By that relentless grip. “Heaven has helped you,”
She panted. “Only heaven
Could have given me to you, and made me yours.”

Then he undid her bonds. As he massaged
The circulation into her hands and feet
His caresses included her whole body.
She was content to let them take possession
Of her skin, her heart, and, finally, of her womb
Where now he planted Achilles.

This Issue

July 17, 1997