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...

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Archer in the Marrow, subtitled The Applewood Cycles, 1967-1987, is an epic lyric poem composed of eighteen cycles, a preface, an epilogue, and notes. The preface identifies the speakers, establishes the poem’s motifs, and presents an initial “Showdown on Land’s End” to establish the conflict or war of contraries that is played out in dramatic fashion throughout the book. The epilogue provides both resolution and direction, a blank canvas that serves as prologue to a new spiral, and there is a lengthy “Appendix: Form in Poetry” that discusses the biology of verse and likens the rhythm of iambic pentameter to the throbbing of the human heart. Strict form in poetry, according to Peter Viereck, is the holy essence of human nature. The section of notes and the “Glossary of Names, Foreign Phrases, Classical, Biblical, and Historical References” were added at the publisher’s request.

Peter Viereck’s book-length poem serves as a rite of passage into a harmonious world of spheres that includes a rebirth of rhyme. Poetry is likened to human physiology, and this analogy links the matter of the appendix to the cycles of the poem.

The three main speakers of the poem (identified in lowercase letters) are the father, the son, and “you”—the human of today who imagines the voices of the father and the son; the son is both Jesus and Dionysus (the annually hacked mythical vine god is presented as the son’s lost half). In addition, there is Eve, who is Mary Magdalene in the first cycle of the poem and Aphrodite in the last. A system of delineation helps determine who is speaking throughout. When the father speaks, the text is set at the left margin; his voice is additionally indicated by the use of Roman numerals. The son’s words are indented and represented by arabic numbers. The words of “you” are set in italics and quotation marks.

The text circles around the choice of whether to make a cross or a liberating arrow from the wood of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. If man should become more than a thing, determined by things, he must be “self-surpassing” (Viereck’s term). According to medieval legend, the wood of the apple tree was used to make the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The “archer” in the bone marrow symbolizes Viereck’s idea that man should use applewood to make a liberating arrow rather than a cross.

The second section of the preface is entitled “Motifs,” and Viereck begins it by stating that “Eden’s forbidden appletree of knowledge lit man’s eyes with consciousness” (page 15). This awakening causes a conflict between man, who wants to be “more than a thing, to expand from dot into circle” and his Father-god, who wants to keep the human toy blank-eyed and robotized. Thus a duel takes place at Land’s End—the beach on which a mutant “rogue” gene, the lungfish, man’s forebear, first breathed air—and sets into play the motif of self-surpassing.

The discovery of lungs enables man to invade another realm—the sky—with the weapon known as human song or lyric poetry. The acquisition of this “formcraft” (Viereck’s term) is an additional motif. It involves the biology of poetry that is discussed at length in the book’s appendix. The blood of the poet is “Rh positive,” Viereck says, and in Archer in the Marrow, the Rh is the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Archer in the Marrow embodies Peter Viereck’s contention that poetry is inseparable from biology. Functional form is alive and liberating; mechanical or decorative formalism is dead.

The appendix of the book, subtitled “Form in Poetry: Would Jacob Wrestle with a Flabby Angel?” provides an assessment of Viereck’s theory of poetic “formcraft.” He asks if modern poetry is alive and has a structure, and points out that a metronome cannot feel; it is a mechanical tic. The rhythms of a lyric, however, are “the onomatopoeia of the flesh” (page 215). Life and poetry are organic recurrent vibrations. Viereck asserts that the formal poet marshals words “the way the body organizes its nervous system”...

(The entire section is 529 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, October, 1987, p. 316.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 27, 1987, p. 19.

Library Journal. CXII, February 15, 1987, p. 150.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 14, 1987, p. 6.

National Review. XL, February 5, 1988, p. 55.

The New Leader. LXX, August 10, 1987, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, January 16, 1987, p. 65.