Apollo and Marsyas

by Zbigniew Herbert

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

“Apollo and Marsyas” is a meditation or reflection on the meaning of an ancient Greek myth. According to the legendary story, Marsyas, a satyr—part man, part animal—challenges the god Apollo to a musical contest. For a mortal to challenge a deity is always dangerous. Not only will the god or goddess almost invariably win but, in victory, the deity often takes vengeance on the opponent as well. Apollo does win the competition, and he punishes Marsyas by hanging him from a tree and stripping off his skin.

Risking a contest with Apollo was foolhardy for Marsyas: As a satyr, he ranked far below the gods. Satyrs, imagined as having a human body and the tail, ears, and sometimes legs of an animal, were associated with revelry, lechery, and the god of wine and excess, Dionysus. At the opposite extreme would be Apollo, god of the sun, poetry, music, medicine, and prophecy. Because of Apollo’s link with reason, order, balance, and harmony, he would be a natural foe of Marsyas.

Zbigniew Herbert’s poem describes the aftermath rather than the contest. In the first stanza, the contest has been decided. In the second stanza, Herbert describes the howling sound that Marsyas, tied to a tree, makes after losing his skin. Herbert interprets the howling as Marsyas’s real music. In this poem, the contest has not ended but has only begun.

In the third stanza, Apollo is disgusted by the sound, which he hears while cleaning his musical instrument. Always self-controlled, Apollo has not been carried away emotionally by his victory but takes time to prepare his instrument for its next use. Removed from the painful aspects of life, Apollo’s response is an involuntary “shudder.”

The following stanza shows that Apollo’s reaction is not the proper one. Apollo wrongly thinks that the howl of Marsyas is “monotonous,” consisting only of one note, the vowel “Aaa.” By challenging Apollo’s judgment, Herbert is being not only audacious but also ironic. In the contest, Apollo’s music represents “absolute ear,” perfect pitch, but this is overruled by the poet: What seems to be true turns out to be otherwise. In the sixth stanza, the howl expresses the different parts of Marsyas’s body. Herbert describes them as elements of nature: “mountains,” “ravines,” “forests,” and “hillocks.” The bones have become “wintry wind.” Joining this “chorus” is Marsyas’s “backbone,” suspended in mid-air, deepening the sound and adding “rust.”

In the ninth stanza, Apollo leaves, walking along the path of a formal garden. Perhaps sarcastically, he imagines that the sounds emitted by Marsyas may some day become a “new kind/ of art,” perhaps “concrete.” Apollo’s smug departure is interrupted suddenly when a dead nightingale lands “at his feet.” Startled, Apollo looks again at his defeated rival. To Apollo’s surprise, the “hair” of the tree from which Marsyas is hanging has been transformed and is now “white/ completely.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

Herbert’s poem is based on allusion, an abbreviated reference to a historical or literary person, place, or event. The title and first two stanzas of the poem allude to the famous musical contest and to the loser’s punishment. The poet assumes that the myth is sufficiently familiar so that the reader can supply the missing details. Herbert also assumes that the reader will know the qualities with which Apollo is associated. Apollo’s link with reason, order, and harmony explains his “shudder” of disgust at the howl. Herbert also merely suggests Marsyas’s identity as a satyr. Other than the detail of Marsyas’s “tall ears” in the second stanza, Herbert treats Marsyas as...

(This entire section contains 482 words.)

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a person.

“Apollo and Marsyas” does not have the formal appearance of a traditional poem. As in the original Polish, the stanzas of the poem vary considerably in length and the number of words in each line varies from one to several. In addition, only the first word of the poem, the two proper names, and the letter A are capitalized. Adding to the untraditional look of the poem is the almost complete absence of punctuation. The form and style of the poem announce that Herbert’s treatment of the legend will be modern.

Until the sixth stanza, Herbert is sparing in his use of poetic devices. For example, few metaphors are used early in the poem. In the fifth stanza, however, Herbert departs from this straightforward style. Highly original metaphors describe the inner body of Marsyas as natural terrain. “Aliment,” the alimentary system of organs for digesting food, such as the intestines, is transformed into “ravines,” narrow valleys worn by running water. Lungs are compared to “rustling forests,” as they are shaped like an inverted tree and the intake of air can make a “rustling” sound.

In the next stanza, the “backbone” of the satyr, the main support of Marsyas’s body, is added to the sound. Metaphorically, the backbone represents Marsyas’s strength of will. Despite his horrendous punishment, Marsyas remains true to his convictions: He has lost the contest but he has kept his principles.

In the tenth stanza, the nightingale falls at Apollo’s feet. Because of the beauty of its song, the nightingale symbolizes romantic love, lyrical poetry, and intense emotion. The bird’s death, therefore, is ominous. The blame is the god’s for punishing Marsyas, as Apollo’s victory has dealt a mortal blow to passion and lyrical poetry.

In the last stanza, the poem ends on a disturbing note. Shaken by the bird’s fall, Apollo looks again at Marsyas. The tree’s growth has turned white and, like the bird, it is dead. Although Marsyas lives and howls, two natural beings have perished as if in sympathy with the satyr’s pain. The poem concludes with this ghastly image, and Apollo must be unsettled in his triumph.