The Poem

“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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Forms and Devices

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 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 entire section is 482 words.)