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“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.

Published Jan 15, 2008   Copyright 2008 The Editors

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