‘Actaeon’ by A. E. Stallings is based on the captivating mythological story of Actaeon and is told from the perspective of a speaker who taunts the main character for how he lost his life.
It is a five stanza poem that is separated into groupings of four lines, called quatrains. Each one of these quatrains follows a strict rhyme scheme of ABAB, CDCD, and so on for the remainder of the poem. The lines of ‘Actaeon’ follow the meter pattern of iambic tetrameter in which there are four beats per line and each beat is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed. You can read the full poem here.
The Story of Actaeon
The story of Actaeon comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It describes Actaeon as being a young hunter who accidentally saw Artemis, or Diana, the goddess of the hunt, naked while she was bathing. He was frozen to the spot, stunned by her beauty and Artemis caught him spying on her.
As his punishment, he was told never to speak again or he would be transformed into a deer. The young man was unable to abide by this command and when he heard his pack of hunting dogs he called out to them. This transgression resulted in his transformation. The hounds of Actaeon, of which there were 30-50, were very swift and adept hunters. They did not know their master had been turned into a stag and they hunted him down and brutally tore him to pieces.
The poem begins with the speaker reminding Actaeon that he raised each one of his dogs by hand and that he loved them so much that he was able to recognize all the individual voices. The speaker is hoping to reopen a wound, and further punish Actaeon for his transgression. The speaker takes a stanza to describe three of the dogs, Anthee, Pilomel, and Chloe, each of whom “would fetch / A pretty price.”
The speaker describes the power of these hounds and how they are incredibly fast at tracking down a scent and impossible to stop once they are on its trail. The poem concludes with the speaker reminding Actaeon of how he used to brag over their ability to catch deer and how now he does not feel the same way. He can experience sympathy for the animal as he knows what it is like to be a stag hunted by his own hounds. Finally, the speaker asks if he had any idea that by nursing these dogs and managing their upkeep, that he was nurturing his own downfall.
Due to the tone of the speaker in this piece, it is possible that it is being told from the perspective of the goddess Diana, under whose curse Actaeon perished.
You can read the full poem Actaeon here.
Analysis of Actaeon
The hounds, you know them all by name.(…)To know the music of their yelps:
The first quatrain of this poem begins with an introduction to the “hounds” that will bring about the death of Actaeon. For full details regarding the myths of Actaeon, see the introduction. The speaker of this piece is directly addressing Actaeon and will take an imperious, and somewhat smug tone, as she speaks to him.
She begins by confirming with Actaeon that he knows all of his hounds “by name.” They are not just mindless creatures to him, but important companions that he has had by his side since they were young. He, “fostered them from purblind whelps,” or more simply, he cared for them since they were newborn puppies, so small, they had yet to open their eyes. They were then still, at the “teats” of their mother, or “dam.”
Throughout their lives, the listener, Actaeon, has learned to distinguish the sound of one “yelp” from another. He is so close to them that he “know[s] the music” of their voices.
High-strung Anthee, the brindled bitch,(…)A pretty price if you would sell—
In the second stanza, the speaker provides the reader with some more details regarding the dogs. Actaeon, would already know this information. The addition of this stanza contributes to the haughty attitude that the speaker takes. She wants him to know that she understands his animals and is seeking to remind him of how close they used to be.
The speaker takes the time to name three of Actaeon’s dogs and describe their individual characteristics as if to torment him further. While only three are named, in the mythology Actaeon is said to have had somewhere between 30-50 hounds at his side at any one time, and he knew everyone.
There is “Anthee,” with a brindled, or multi-colored brown and white coat. There is also the “blue-tick coated Philomel,” her fur a grayish-blue tone. Then finally there is “freckled Chloe.” All of these dogs would, the speaker says, “fetch” a good price if Actaeon wanted to sell them, which he certainly does not.
All fleet of foot, and swift to scent,(…)But do not mean, and can’t take back.
The speaker continues on, giving more detail about the characteristics of the dogs as a pack. They are “All fleet of foot,” or quick on their feet. It does not take them long to find and follow any scent to which they are tasked. The speaker makes sure to emphasize the fact that the dogs are “Inexorable,” or impossible, to stop once they have found “the track.” There is nothing that one could do that would stop them from getting to their goal.
The speaker compares the actions and temperament of the dogs when hunting to “angry words” that one might have meant and said in a moment of rage, but that one regrets later. There is nothing that can be done to “take back” those words. Nothing can be done to dissuade the dogs from their prey.
There was a time when you would brag(…)You falter now for the foundered hart.
All of these features of the dogs, their swiftness, and “inexorable” attitude, are things that Actaeon once bragged about. He would tell any who would listen to how they would attack a stag. They would “bay and rend apart” a stag while it was “belling.” The speaker knows that Actaeon is incapable of feeling the same way that he once did about his hounds, ignoring the fact that he is dead, after being on the receiving end of their attack, nothing is the same.
Now, he “falter[s]… for the foundered hart.” When he sees an injured or fallen stag he feels for it, he is able to understand what it is going through and is no longer able to cheer his hounds on.
Desires you nursed of a winter night—(…)The master’s hand that leashed and fed them?
In the final stanza of this piece the speaker concludes her taunts of Actaeon and takes the story of the hounds back to the beginning. She directly asks the listener if he remembers when the dogs were just pups and the desire he felt for their successful rearing. It was on “winter night[s]” when he suffered in the cold so that they could thrive that he imagined their future.
The speaker concludes the poem by asking if then, he knew what he was raising them for. If he could understand that the little dogs whose “needling milk-teeth,” or baby teeth, “used to bite” his hand, would one day turn on him and brutally kill him. It was of course not of their own doing or even within their own desires, but still, they were the cause of his downfall.
The speaker is hoping that Actaeon, as well as the reader, will be able to see the irony in the fact that by saving the pups, Actaeon condemned himself.
About A. E. Stallings
A. E. Stallings, full name, Alicia Elsbeth Stallings, was born in 1968 in Decatur, Georgia in northeast Atlanta. She went to the University of Georgia and Oxford University where she studied classics. Throughout her life she has published three collections of poetry, Archaic Smile, Hapax, and Olives. Olives was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her translation work has been favorably received and she has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Her poems have appeared in a number of publications such as Best American Poetry, The New Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry Magazine.