March 1, 2020
Pygmalion had seen the shameless lives
of Cyprus’ women; and disgusted by
the many sins to which the female mind
had been inclined by nature, he resigned
himself: for years he lived alone, without 5
a spouse: he chose no wife to share his couch.
“Meanwhile, Pygmalion began to carve
in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art,
a female figure more exquisite than
a woman who was born could ever match. 10
That done, he falls in love with his own work.
The image seems, in truth, to be a girl;
one could have thought she was alive and keen
to stir, to move her limbs, had she not been
too timid: with his art, he’s hidden art. 15
He is enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame. He often lifts his hand to try
his work, to see if it indeed is flesh
or ivory; he still will not admit 20
it is but ivory. He kisses it:
it seems to him that, in return, he's kissed.
He speaks to it, embraces it; at each
caress, the image seems to yield beneath
his fingers: and he is afraid he’ll leave 25
some sign, some bruise. And now he murmurs words
of love, and now he offers gifts that girls
find pleasing: shells, smooth pebbles, little birds,
and many-colored flowers, painted balls,
and amber tears that the Heliades 30
let drop from trees. He—after draping it
with robes—adorns its fingers with fine gems,
its neck with a long necklace; light beads hang
down from its ears, and ribbons grace its breast.
All this is fair enough, but it’s not less 35
appealing in its nakedness. He rests
the statue on the covers of his bed,
on fabric dyed with hues of Sidon’s shells;
he calls that form the maid that shares his couch
and sets its head on cushions—downy, soft delicately, 40
as if it could respond.
“The day of Venus’ festival had come—
the day when, from all Cyprus, people thronged;
and now-their curving horns are sheathed with gold—
the heifers fall beneath the fatal blows 45
that strike their snow-white necks; the incense smokes.
Pygmalion, having paid the honors owed
to Venus, stopped before the altar: there
the sculptor offered—timidly—this prayer:
‘0 gods, if you indeed can grant all things, 50
then let me have the wife I want’—and here
he did not dare to say ‘my ivory girl’
but said instead, ‘one like my ivory girl.’
And golden Venus (she indeed was there
at her own feast-day) understood his prayer: 55
three times the flame upon her altar flared
more brightly, darting high into the air—
an omen of the goddess’ kindly care.
At once, Pygmalion, at home again,
seeks out the image of the girl; he bends 60
over his couch; he kisses her. And when
it seems her lips are warm, he leans again
to kiss her; and he reaches with his hands
to touch her breasts. The ivory had lost
its hardness; now his fingers probe; grown soft, 65
the statue yields beneath the sculptor’s touch,
just as Hymettian wax beneath the sun
grows soft and, molded by the thumb, takes on
so many varied shapes—in fact, becomes
more pliant as one plies it. Stupefied, 70
delighted yet in doubt, afraid that he
may be deceived, the lover tests his dream:
it is a body! Now the veins—beneath
his anxious fingers—pulse. Pygmalion
pours out rich thanks to Venus; finally, 75
his lips press lips that are not forgeries.
The young girl feels these kisses; blushing, she
lifts up her timid eyes; she seeks the light;
and even as she sees the sky, she sees
her lover. Venus graces with her presence 80
the wedding she has brought about. And when
the moon shows not as crescent but as orb
for the ninth time, Pygmalion’s wife gives birth
to Paphos—and in honor of that child,
Cyprus has since been called the Paphian isle.” 85
- The story of Pygmalion is narrated by Orpheus who is bitter from having lost Euridice to Hades. In his prologue, he states the subject of his narrative: “I sing of boys the gods have loved, and girls / incited by unlawful lust and passions, / who paid the penalty for their transgressions.”
- Ovid (1993) . The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated by Mandelbaum, Allen. New York: A Harvest Book. pp. 335–37.
- I doubt he had much say, really. He seems like a pig, really, suggesting that all women are whores “by nature.” Likely, none of them gave him the time of day, so he developed his misogyny as perhaps literature’s first incel.
- Purple or red, an expensive Phoenician dye from shellfish.
- Galatea, unnamed here by Ovid.