The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)