Archer in the Marrow

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Peter Viereck’s first book of poetry since New and Selected Poems 1932-1967 (1967), Archer in the Marrow: The Applewood Cycles of 1967-1987 is the culmination of twenty years of poetic exploration, a lengthy and difficult song cycle celebrating the triumph of human will and creativity over the forces of doubt and repression. Consisting of a poetic prologue, eighteen cycles, two recapitulations and reversals of cycles, a poetic epilogue, an appendix on form in poetry, notes, a glossary, and numerous epigraphs, Archer in the Marrow chronicles the evolution—both physical and spiritual—of the drive of humans to “selfsurpass” or transcend their limits.

Viereck, a distinguished professor of European and Russian history as well as a poet, has treated the theme of individual will and repression in his earlier historical works such as Metapolitics: From the Romantics to Hitler (1941), an account of the Nazi mentality. In Archer in the Marrow, as in his other poetic works, including The Persimmon Tree: New Pastoral and Lyrical Poems (1956) and New and Selected Poems 1932-1967, Viereck employs both rhyme and meter, but within its traditional form, Archer in the Marrow also represents a significant new stage in the poet’s development of a supple meter and rhyme scheme.

To some extent the traditional versification of Archer in the Marrow resembles the wry, witty forms of W. H. Auden or the energetic rhythms of Theodore Roethke. Such masters of traditional forms are the exception in contemporary poetry, dominated as it is by free verse, yet there are signs of a counterreaction. If this return to traditional forms can be called a movement, Viereck has written its manifesto: “Form in Poetry: Would Jacob Wrestle with a Flabby Angel?” In this vigorously argued appendix to Archer in the Marrow, Viereck defends and promotes the use of meter and rhyme; using Ezra Pound as an example, Viereck also argues that the poet’s ethical stance cannot be ignored in evaluating poetry. Form in poetry, Viereck maintains, is a biological necessity, stemming from the infant’s learning of iambic rhythms from its mother’s heartbeat. To ignore such a basic lesson, as modern poets such as Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams have done, is to ignore the reader’s most elemental needs; indeed, poetry attains its most complex meaning not in the denotations of its language but in the frequent tension between meaning and rhythm. Rhyme is perhaps not as basic as meter, but it often serves to punctuate and set off the line. Furthermore, rhyme need not be the stultifying restriction it so often is in English, for the innovative poet may set up internal rhyme and cross rhyme as well as end rhyme; Viereck envisions such an enriching of rhyme by new poets.

This evaluation of modern poetry greatly oversimplifies its accomplishments and subtleties, but even those who find Viereck’s aesthetic program overly simple will probably admit that he has successfully carried out his aims in Archer in the Marrow. A densely textured drama of freedom and repression, the book avoids the dryness of much academic poetry through its intricately varied rhythms and its playful wit. The poem emerges as a profound meditation on life and death—profound not because of its overt didactic proclamations but through its harmony of form and content.

Viereck’s emphasis on the ever-changing organic structure of poetry recalls the variety and unity of the work that most often surfaces in Archer in the Marrow, namely Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. As in Faust, a hero struggles to transcend his limits and finally does so with the help of a woman (the man and woman in Archer in the Marrow being the male and female sides of the character “you”). The antagonist in the modern dramatic poem, however, is not Mephistopheles but God (“father”), who wants human beings, represented by “you,” to remain static, faithful puppets. The father is at times aided by the son (Christ), who as a modern messiah counsels “you” to find comfort in materialistic salvation. Yet toward the conclusion of the poem, the son merges with his half-brother, Dionysus, who symbolizes innovation as the son symbolizes restraint. This synthesis simultaneously allows “you” to “selfsurpass” and enables the poem to effect its own resolution. This individual struggle recapitulates the broader struggle of all humans caught up in history to move forward, to avoid stagnation or regression.

Such a struggle falls into three periods: a pre-Christian stage, in which man begins to emerge (physically from the primordial swamp and spiritually from unconsciousness) as an entity independent of his creator; a Christian stage, in which man is lulled into a false sense of comfort by a religion that promotes meekness and self-denial, a religion that allows atrocities such as Auschwitz to occur; and a post-Christian stage, in which humans reject the dichotomy between self-denial and hedonism in order to attain a true fulfillment. The poem uses a central image—wood—to mark these stages: According to a medieval legend, the tree from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple became the Cross of Christ’s crucifixion. The apple represents not sin or pride but the attempts of humans to exceed the stagnating perfection of Eden. The cross, then, becomes a symbol not of liberation but of oppression through its message of self-denial. Viereck envisions a third use for the wood, to...

(The entire section is 2288 words.)