Themes and Meanings

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.

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...

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