10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 34

Poetry and passion

Sir: With all respect to Roger Gard (Let- ters, 3 October), I don't believe that combi- nations of open vowels and spitting noises make great poetry. Phedre (it seems that one actually does have to point it out) is a play. The line C'est Venus tout entiere a sa proie attachee therefore has a dramatic con- text. That context is Phedre's distraught confession to her confidante, Oenone, that she is in the grip of a shameful and illicit passion for her stepson, Hippolyte. Mon mal she has called this passion at the begin- ning of her speech, and it has come de plus loin. But having come, it settles into her bloodstream, une ardeur that now erupts from her veines cachee as Venus — not the soft Venus of painful attributes that she's previously described, C'est Venus tout entiere, and Venus tout entiere is to Phedre what Ph6dre craves to be to Hippolyte — tout entiere a sa proie attachee. A sort of suc- cubus with talons.

The image isn't just the ugliest thrust in a pitiably self-lacerating speech, but shocking in its implications for the other characters. For Thesee, the betrayed husband and king; for his innocent son; for Oenone, the loving and now riven confidante; and of course — given the proper audience — for the audi- ence. Abstracted from its dramatic world, the line might have its uses when describing what it's like to be simultaneously victim and perpetrator of a Viagra assault.

Simon Gray

26 Addison Avenue, London W11