Thursday, 30 August 2012

'Echo and Narcissus' by Ted Hughes

I have always been a fan of Greek and Roman mythology and the way it has influenced literature. I find that knowing the myths often allows you to find an extra layer of depth to some works.  Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' are some of the best known Latin myths, many of them retellings of Greek myths. One I always loved as the myth of Echo and Narcissus, the nymph falling in love with a beautiful man who becomes  an echo (yes, this is where the word echo and narcissistic come from) when he rejects her. Obviously they were in Latin and in 1997, Ovid's Metamorphoses were translated and put into free verse by famous poet Ted Hughes. Yes, he was married to Sylvia Plath.

I always felt sorry for the character of Echo, but in a dignified way. It wasn't pity which I felt, but a respect for her being able to love so deeply. Yet Hughes makes her sound almost pathetic, as if she is even below pity. But let me run you through my thoughts on Hughes, how he depicts Echo and what I think that may say about him. I was trying to argue in favor of a argument here and I just anted to say before hand that I do like Hughes and his work and don't think he is some kind of evil overlord.

Hughes describes Echo as a 'starving wolf' that follows 'a stag too strong to be tackled' (Narcissus). In itself, the wolf would seem to be a strong symbol. He's a predator and they live in tight nit communities. Yet no animal is as strong a symbol for solitude as the wolf. Hughes also strips it of its power by making it hungry, thereby weak. In short, he presents her as desperate for something to sustain here and pull her from her solitude. After that he describes her as a cat 'at a fire' that refuses to move away from the fire although it singes her. Again, a cat would be considered a pretty independent creature, but not Echo. She desperately wants to be near Narcissus, even though it might burn her. This isn't romantic, it is, again, desperate.

It seems to be in Echo's nature to need someone else. The very essence of her name and legacy implies this. She was so nicely talkative that Zeus used her as a distraction for Hera when he was having fun with Earth-girls and once Hera found this out, she punished Echo. From that day on, she was only able to repeat the last words of others. It is quite a sad and dramatic story, yet again, Hughes seems dismissive. When Echo catches onto words to talk to Narcissus he says she catches them 'as if they were precious'. I thought this was a rather strange turn of phrase for a poet. Of course words are precious, especially if you have too little of them and none of your own. These words are het life line, yet he mocks her. And this is where I am going to make a link to his personal life.

As I said above, he was married to Sylvia Plath, a rather famous writer in her ow right. However, she was deeply unhappy and committed suicide in 1963 after they separated the year previously. At times I find it hard to read Plath's poetry because it is very intricate and sometimes very depressing, yet it is amazing. I feel that when you read her work you can sense it is an escape for her from her every day depression and struggles. Hughes is, at times, blamed for her depression and suicide and burning part of her diary after her death didn't really help and let's not forget his girlfriend after that also committed suicide. But I feel that most of all, it seems like he looked down at her.

Perhaps he didn't like her writing style or just lost sympathy during their marriage, but after reading his portrayal of Echo I feel he just has something against women. The way Narcissus rejects Echo, with just one look, is very harsh. I understand that her bursting forward 'pleading' and with open arms might be scary, but to then leave her there crying 'touch me' is almost too cruel, especially because Hughes doesn't treat her any better afterwards.

After Narcissus has left her, Echo 'moped' and felt 'humiliated'. Again, these aren't the most beautiful or kind words to describe a woman in pain. Hughes describes her beauty as a 'petal' that is 'wasting away'. The imagery of a flower is often used to describe a woman's beauty, yet by using a petal he shows she wasn't actually that beautiful, begging the question why he decided to use that imagery at all, if not to mock her. And then, the kind of attention he pays to her decay, 'fading', 'shriveling' and the double mention of her 'bones' might almost be interpreted as macabre. Whereas under Ovid I felt that perhaps Echo's existence as  voice might be something good, a change for the better so to say, it is clearly not in Hughes version.

What made his judgement of Echo all the more poignant for me was that Hughes refrains from judging Narcissus for his harsh and vain reaction. Surely, he should judge both ways and not favor one before the other. Have you read 'Echo and Narcissus' or are you a fan of Hughes? What did you think?

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