This Myth Rated NC-17…

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces,
The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

Algernon Swinburne, from Atalanta in Calydon

One day when she had nothing to do,
Sing rickety-tickety-tin,
One day when she had nothing to do,
She cut her baby brother in two,
And served him up as an Irish stew,
And invited the neighbors in, -bors in,
Invited the neighbors in.

Tom Lehrer, from Irish Ballad

So, where the hell are the hounds? Today was a nice day, but the forecast calls for drizzle again in the next few days. Something about it made me think of poor, boozy Swinburne, or perhaps it was only my own “hang-dog” look when I realized I was going to have to spend hours at the computer today doing a mindless, numbingly repetitive task.

Whatever the cause, Swinburne fits my mood this evening. I’ve always enjoyed the way he forces high and low sentiments upon one simultaneously. In these few lines, for example, his suggestion that the procession of the seasons is rather like a fox hunt (“Tally ho, old chap…”) leads straight into his recollection of King Tereus of Thrace.

For those who slept through mythology class, Tereus, husband of Procne, ravishes her sister Philomela and then cuts out Philomela’s tongue to keep her quiet. Philomela, clever girl, manages to rat out Tereus through some sort of narrative needlework (the story is apparently set in pre-literate times). In revenge Procne and Philomela murder Itylus, Tereus’s son by Procne, and serve him up for Tereus to eat. The gods, appalled by this savagery, turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.


You just can’t beat Greek mythology for the down and dirty. But the business of cooking and eating poor Itylus has left me with Tom Lehrer’s Irish Ballad on the brain. Probably the thing to do is to eat the carrot cake I’ve just been offered and try to forget about myths and Irish ballads.

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