Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

In “Apollo and Marsyas,” Herbert departs far from the Greek myth. The poet restates the nature of the competition as one of “absolute ear” (Apollo) versus “immense range” (Marsyas). This parenthetical comment lets the reader know that Herbert sees the rivalry in terms of contrasting views of poetry. Apollo’s strength, “absolute ear,” indicates that his goals are purity, distance from life, and flawless form. To achieve formal perfection, a poet must restrict the subject matter. In contrast, Marsyas seeks “immense range,” scope being more important in his music than purity, as he tries to encompass the wide variety of life. Herbert’s sympathy with Marsyas’s approach is revealed by the absence of formal symmetry in his poem.

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Beginning with the fourth stanza, “Apollo and Marsyas” focuses on Marsyas’s pain. The superficial interpretation of the howl is that the sound consists only of one vowel, a. As the letter a is the first letter of the alphabet, Herbert suggests, great pain may be the basis of human experience. The connection of the letter a with Marsyas’s backbone supports the idea that pain is fundamental to language and poetry. The reference to “rust” implies the passage of time and links this cry to history. Poetry is one way that humans vent their pain throughout time.

An ambiguity present in the treatment of the vowel is its conflicting association with pleasure. Although Marsyas is in great pain, his sound expresses his body’s “inexhaustible wealth.” The description of his body includes pleasurable aspects, for example, the “sweet hillocks of muscle.” As a satyr, Marsyas is identified with bodily pleasure, especially drinking and sex, in contrast to Apollo, a god distanced from ordinary human pleasures.

Instead of lamenting his skinned body, Marsyas is defiant. Perhaps influenced by Apollo’s disgust, Marsyas celebrates the joys of the body at a moment when he suffers enormously. Preparing to depart, Apollo indeed may wonder who is the victor.

The god may also hesitate because of the effect of Marsyas’s howl on nature. Herbert describes the deaths of the bird and the tree as brought about by fear. The nightingale lies “petrified” and the tree’s “hair” has turned white. According to the Greeks, Apollo was capable of inflicting such terror that even the gods feared him. In punishing Marsyas, Apollo has created dreadful consequences: The bird of poetry and romance has died and a tree has ceased to grow.

Herbert’s unusual use of the word “hair” to describe the growing part of the tree links human and natural life. By maiming the satyr, Apollo strikes a blow at the heart of nature itself. Marsyas’s association with sensuality and the pleasures of the body indicates that punishing that side of life is not only wrong but also a crime. Sensual life is impure and is associated with animals, but the description of Marsyas’s insides shows that the human body is an integral part of the earth. The god of reason and harmony recoils in disgust at the cry of a creature who indulges in pleasure, but Herbert sides with Marsyas, affirming a poetry which is all-inclusive. Herbert argues that the poet should accept and articulate all aspects of human existence, both great joy and rending pain. If the type of poetry represented by Marsyas loses—poetry filled with the impure essences of sensual life—then the consequences will be serious. To Herbert, poetry cannot be separated from the earth.

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