\“The Truth of Human Suffering\”: Anna Frajlich on \“Apollo and Marsyas\”

By The Editors

by Anna Frajlich

Anna Frajlich talks about aesthetics and ethics in Herbert's "Apollo and Marsyas." Anna Frajlich has been called "the best Polish poetess of her generation." The émigré poet, scholar, and educator teaches at Columbia University.—Editors

Herbert's poetry takes us into a world of deep moral concern, but not by means of an abstract discourse. He instills these concerns in a reader with very concrete images, probing metaphors, and by trotting on a thin line of irony—an irony which, as one critic noted, seldom slips into sarcasm.

I just reread one of his last interviews. In it, Herbert talks about the matters that preoccupied him: the relation between ethics and aesthetics; how beauty and the love of beauty could be an expression of goodness, of moral rightness.

Naturally, the relation of ethics and aesthetics can be reversed. Although in classical philosophy for many ages "beauty" was identified with "goodness," Herbert illustrates that ethics and aesthetics can go their separate ways.

"The ironic twist is the most fruitful device in Herbert's poetry," writes poet Adam Czerniawski. The best example of it is "Apollo and Marsyas. " Marsyas was a Sylen (one of the companions of Dionysus) who challenged Apollo to a music contest and was flayed afterward as a punishment. This punishment became a motif of many classical paintings, the most prominent among them by Carravaggio.[1]

The poem, constructed with great precision, shows the cruelty of Apollo. Three long fragments describing cruelty are interrupted by a two-verse stanza: "wstrząsany dreszczem obrzydzenia/ Apollo czyści swój instrument." ("Shaken by a shudder of disgust/Apollo is cleaning his instrument")

In each line, Herbert underscores that Apollo possesses only the aesthetic instinct, not the ethical one. The sight is repulsive to him and he cleans his "instrument," but he does not stop the torture. The poet shows that Marsyas's cry of pain is more powerful than the classical beauty of Apollo's art. The truth of human suffering is more precious than cold art.

At the time, one could make a comparison with the Nazis, who were so cruel despite their appreciation of art. For Herbert's generation and also for the younger one the war was a very vivid frame of reference, but of course the poem has its universal message, totally independent of its historical context.

Indirect descriptions of the war experience can be found in many of Herbert's poems. Disintegration of the modern culture determines the disintegration of man, who lacks moral imperative. Hence, Herbert demands precision and reserve from modern culture.

One of the most comprehensive works about Herbert—Uciekinier z Utopii (London, 1984), or as it is called in English, A Fugitive from Utopia (1986)—was written by Harvard Prof. Stanisław Barańczak, poet, critic, and scholar. In the inner structure of Herbert's poetry, Barańczak recognized two major oppositions, heritage and disinheritance, and he examined how they manifested on several levels of poetic expressions: key words, spatial and temporal categories, ethical and aesthetical categories, and literary characters. He presents Herbert's "antithetic imagery" as exile from Arcadia and fleeing Utopia. Every such confrontation functions on several levels simultanously, on the level of images, of notions, of associations. He also investigates various "modes of irony." Other critics show that, by introducing a discreet humor and subtle irony, the poet engages the reader in the intellectual game.

In 1972, critic Jerzy Kwiatkowski wrote that Herbert's poetry can be defined by three qualities: measure, harmony, balance. Balance between revelation and communication, construction and emotion, significance of the problems and the strength of the aesthetic impact. But his principle of balance does not have anything to do with compromise, or giving a didactic lesson on practical common sense.

In his construction, he uses age-old principles: gradation, contrast, and climax. He is not avoiding the emotional plan of the poem, although as a classically oriented poet, one might expect he would. In "Apollo and Marsyas," Herbert tries to examine the other side of civilizational progress—its negative, horror-inciting side.

His is the poetry of culture, and in order to perceive it fully one has to understand his allusions to Greek mythology, Judeo-Christian tradition, philosophy, history, "Hamlet." Without knowledge of these sources, one cannot understand Herbert's poetry. There is constant exchange between the past and the present in his poems. He compares and evaluates, and most of the time the comparison is not optimistic.


[1] One may associate this poem with the turpistic trend in Polish poetry, a school in the 1970s that emphasized repulsive imagery, represented by Grochowiak and, to a certain extent, by Rymkiewicz. But the function of this horror scene is different.



Thank you, I don’t take full credit for the these thoughts, I owe them to many more insightful critics, but this is more or less what I talk to may students about while reading this poem.
About Sylen, I know this noun does not figure in English vocabulary, yet in Pierre Grimal “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology” that was translated from French into Polish I read that it is a name given to old Satyrs as well as a proper name of Dionysus mentor, the son of Pan or Hermes and nymph, or was born from the drop of blood etc..

I have to check the English version of the Grimal’s “Dictionary…”  Did he abandon this word all together.
You are right, it is Satyr, perhaps older and uglier.


With all my admiration for your and Czeslaw Milosz translations,


Anna Frajlich
COMMENT: That is me again, my friend upon reading the discussion pointed to me very interesting site in English, explaining the fine difference between Satyr and Sylen (apparently Silenus in English).


There it is:


I am sure Herbert, from above,  appreciates our exchange,


Anna Frajlich
COMMENT: Dear Anna, So insightful. deep appreciations.


Will you be so kind and refer me to a few of the many more insightful critics? Did any of them write or was translated to English?


COMMENT: I don’t think here are many books in English, Baranczak’s book is quite good.
There are many articles but I cannot make a bibliography at this point.
I am placing some editions with the preface or after-words, and one can go from there, meaning look in the catalogs and bibliographies.
My interview will be up shortly on these pages.


Here are some titles;


Herbert, Zbigniew.
Poems. Polish & English. Selections
Selected poems / Zbigniew Herbert ; translated by John and
              Bogdana Carpenter, Czeslaw Milosz, Peter Dale Scott ;
              selected by Tomasz Kunz ; afterword by John and Bogdana
Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2000.
Herbert, Zbigniew—Translations into English.


Herbert, Zbigniew.
Elegy for the departure and other poems / Zbigniew Herbert; translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter.
1st ed.
Hopewell, N.J. : Ecco Press, 1999.


Summary:        Available for the first time in English, Elegy for the
              Departure and Other Poems is an important collection
              from the late Zbigniew Herbert. Translated from the
              Polish by award-winning translators John and Bogdana
              Carpenter, these sixty-eight verse and prose poems span
              forty years of Herbert’s life and work. The pieces are
              organized chronologically from 1950 to 1990, with an
              emphasis on the writer’s early and late poems.


Herbert, Zbigniew.
Essays. English. Selections
The king of the ants : mythological essays / Zbigniew Herbert ; translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter.
1st ed.


Summary:        This New Prose collection from the late Zbigniew Herbert,
              available for the first time in English, is a retelling
              of myths and tales “simple and as old as the world”
              (“Endymion”). Hybrids of the short story and the essay,
              the eleven pieces in The King of the Ants present
              Herbert’s very different “apocryphal” views of the
              mythological past.


Herbert, Zbigniew.
Selections. English. 1968
Selected poems; translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, with an introduction by A. Alvarez.
Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1968.
Herbert, Zbigniew—Translations into English.


The Burning forest / translated and edited by Adam Czerniawski.
Newcastle upon Tyne : Bloodaxe Books ; Chester Springs, PA : U.S. distributor, Dufour Editions, 1988.


Polish poetry—19th century—Translations into English. Polish poetry—20th century—Translations into English. English poetry.


The Mature laurel : essays on modern Polish poetry / edited by Adam Czerniawski.
Bridgend : Poetry Wales Press ; Chester Springs, Pa. :Dufour Editions, 1991.
Seren books.
            Includes bibliographical references (p. [307]-313) and


Best regards,
Anna Frajlich
COMMENT: Hello Pinta. I’m sure Anna can answer your question in more detail, but I can tell you right off the bat that Barańczak’s “A Fugitive from Utopia” was published in English by the Harvard University Press in 1987.
COMMENT: Dear Anna (whom I have never met)


Thank you for introducing me to a meaning in English of “silenus” (lower case) of which I had not previously been aware,
  And I see now that the Oxford Dictionary of Classical Literature says that Marsyas was “a satyr or silenus.” But the Mythography website to which you referred us above says that “Marsyas was a satyr.”
  I’ve had about six large dictionaries out on my knees in pursuit of this. This has filled me with nostalgia—so much like the long evenings I used to spend in the 1960s with Milosz.
Thank you!
COMMENT: It feels so good to remember Milosz together even though we never met, and even though sometimes memories are a mixed bag.


All the best,
COMMENT: Here’s a link to a very fine article on the poem and its reworking of the ovidian myth: Marsyas’s howl: The myth of Marsyas in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Zbigniew Herbert’s “Apollo and Marsyas” (Joanna Nyzynska).
COMMENT: This is great.
Thank you,
COMMENT: Dear Anna,


one more footnote to the iconography of Marsyas: probably the most famous version of “Apollo Flying Marsyas”, or “The Flaying of Marsyas” hangs in Kromeriz in the Czech Republic, ans was painted by Titian.
COMMENT: Dear All,


With permission of prof. Jan Zielinski I am placing two quotation;  from his article:
“A Polish intellectual”, “Partisan Review”, Fall 1991, p. 733-736.


The fragment on p. 734:

Milosz says that Wat could be compared to Saul Bellow’s hero, Mr. Sammler, if Mr. Sammler wrote poetry. But thinking of Wat, another literary character can’t help but come to mind: Marsyas, the protagonist of “Apollo and Marsyas”, a poem by another eminent contemporary Polish author, Zbigniew Herbert. For Herbert, the real duel between the lyre-playing god Apollo and the flutist-shepherd Marsyas starts AFTER their musical duel, as a result of which Marsyas was flayed. Apollo, who won the first round, is defeated in the second: what defeats him is Marsyas’s howl of unberable pain that turns a nightingale into stone and makes a tree turn gray-haired. Nature understands real suffering better than the corrupt judges do.

and p. 736:

One cannot help thinking of Aleksander Wat as a twentieth-century Marsyas. His suffering was a self-imposed curse for having once been too close, skin to skin, to the ideology and system he later considered the greatest illness of our (and his) century.
COMMENT: I think I’ll always read the poem in the light of Titian’s painting - as an allegory of artistic creation, its terrible cost.  The late Titian’s palette looks like he mixed his oils with a solvent of blood.  Herbert’s laconic precision is as cruel.  I’m not so sure whose side H is on: if Marsyas wins the “duel” - creating the art that freezes time dead, exhibiting his range at the price of his life - he does so only under Apollo’s insistent attentions.
COMMENT: What a beautiful and deep thought - it adds one more dimension to the interpretation.
COMMENT: At my suggestion, *nightwords* - our reading group - is reading *Report from the Besieged City*.  We meet tomorrow night for the discussion.  In my first email to the group on Herbert, I included “Apollo and Marsyas” - merely because the poem has become so essential to me. 


I like to think of “The Old Masters” in that volume as a a sort of answer, years after, to “Apollo and Marsyas.”  To Marsyas’ folly in challenging the god, it might say, “I call upon you Old Masters/in hard moments of doubt//make the serpent’s scales of pride/fall from me/let me be deaf/to the temptation of fame” 


I don’t get Herbert as a believer, but in his work he achieves a kind of faith anyway, or at least the blood brother, faithfulness. 


Do I need to say what a Godsend this site has been in thinking about Herbert?  Thank you.


(The Polish poets we’ve read - Milosz, Szymborska - have been favorites.  I’m expecting Herbert will be too.)
COMMENT: Hey Mark! Drop us a line after your reading group meets. Some of your friends might want to contribute to this discussion of “Apollo and Marsyas.”


(They might also want to check out our discussion of “Report from a Besieged City” on this website. We’d love to hear their views.)
DATE: 04/18/2008 3:29:10 PM

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