A Poem About Gods

I’m discovering Zbigniew Herbert’s (1924 – 1998) poems as we speak. In one of his poems, Herbert described himself as a bard who merely knocks on doors behind which truths are revealed. Herbert’s Apollo and Marsyas below (orig. “Apollo i Marsjasz”) describes a torture-execution. In Greek myth, satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest. The contest was judged by the Muses, Marsyas lost and was flayed alive for his affrontery in challenging a god.

As always, I recommend reading along with the musical interpretation. It’s not an inviting proposition, given the language barrier, which is why I made the line-by-line translation.

“Apollo and Marsyas” — Zbigniew Herbert

właściwy pojedynek Apollona  / the actual duel between Apollo
z Marsjaszem  / and Marsyas
(słuch absolutny  / (an absolute ear
contra ogromna skala)  / vs. immense scale)
odbywa się pod wieczór /  takes place in the early evening
gdy jak już wiemy  / and as we already know
sędziowie /  the judges
przyznali zwycięstwo bogu  / ruled in favor of the god

mocno przywiązany do drzewa  / tightly bound to a tree
dokładnie odarty ze skóry  / meticulously stripped of his skin
Marsjasz  / Marsyas
krzyczy  / cries
zanim krzyk dojdzie /  before the cry reaches
do jego wysokich uszu /  his mighty ear
wypoczywa w cieniu tego krzyku /  he reposes in the shade of that cry

wstrząsany dreszczem obrzydzenia /  shaken with disgust
Apollo czyści swój instrument /  Apollo cleans his instrument

tylko z pozoru /  only seemingly
głos Marsjasza  / is Marsyas’ voice
jest monotony /  monotonous
i składa się z jednej samogłoski /  and composed of one vowel
A  / A

w istocie Marsjasz opowiada  / in fact Marsyas relates
nieprzebrane bogactwo  / of the inexhaustible richness
swego ciała /  of his body

łyse góry wątroby  / the bald hills of the liver
pokarmów białe wąwozy  / the white digestive gorges
szumiące lasy płuc  / the murmuring forests of lungs
słodkie pagórki mięśni /  the sweet mounds of muscle
stawy żółć krew i dreszcze /  the joints bile blood and shudders
zimowy wiatr kości  / the bones’ winter wind
nad solą pamięci  / over the salt-flats of memory

wstrząsany dreszczem obrzydzenia  / shaken with disgust
Apollo czyści swój instrument  / Apollo cleans his instrument

teraz do chóru  / now the choir
przyłącza się stos pacierzowy Marsjasza  / is joined by the spinal stack of Marsyas
w zasadzie to samo A  / in principle the same A
tylko głębsze z dodatkiem rdzy /  only deeper and with a touch of rust

to już jest ponad wytrzymałość  / this is now beyond the endurance
boga o nerwach z tworzyw sztucznych /  of a god with nerves of synthetic fiber

żwirową aleją / down the gravel alley
wysadzaną bukszpanem  /  lined with boxwood
odchodzi zwycięzca /  departs the victor
zastanawiając się  / wondering if
czy z wycia Marsjasza  / Marsyas’ howls
nie powstanie z czasem /  aren’t the birth of
nowa gałąź /  a new branch
sztuki – powiedzmy – konkretnej /  of – shall we say – concrete art

nagle /  suddenly
upada mu  / at his feet falls
skamieniały słowik  / a petrified nightingale

odwraca głowę /  he turns his head
i widzi  / and sees
że drzewo do którego przywiązany był Marsjasz /  that the tree to which Marsyas is tied
jest siwe  / has turned white

zupełnie /  completely


12 thoughts on “A Poem About Gods

  1. Pingback: A Poem About Gods | Reaction Times

  2. The notion of gods being humans but more perfect? — how dull must have been their music.

    I always thought that there’s a joke somewhere about being in Heaven with Jesus and having to sit around all day (on the clouds) and listen to him and his harp.

    Or is that not what it’s about?

  3. This is one of Herbert’s more obscure ones. Didn’t find much online about it beyond a couple of college essays. Don’t have a year of publication either. I wondered, what to make of “concrete art”. Translate it as “representational art,” which would have kind of worked? Web search revealed a school of art I wasn’t familiar with, “Concrete Art.”


    No idea how it figures into Herbert’s poem or why he called it out by name. Concrete Art has a 1930 manifesto:

    We say:
    1.Art is universal.
    2.A work of art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data. We want to exclude lyricism, drama, symbolism, and so on.
    3.The painting must be entirely built up with purely plastic elements, namely surfaces and colors. A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond “itself”; as a consequence, a painting does not have any meaning other than “itself”.
    4.The construction of a painting, as well as that of its elements, must be simple and visually controllable.
    5.The painting technique must be mechanic, i.e., exact, anti-impressionistic.
    6.An effort toward absolute clarity is mandatory.”

  4. — Violent, PA!

    Yeah, that second scream “A” being rusty and deeper brought it home. The musical version makes it sound like an afterthought, as opposed to the drawn out first scream.

    — The Gods — fuck them and their pettiness.

    Herbert got into Apollo’s head pretty well.

  5. Physiogamy is real, PA.

    Slavs wear their darkness on their faces. You can see it on the men and the women.

    I heard it once said from a Russian “our history necessitated a Stalin.”

  6. Pussies, not WNs, would run east without a fight.

    Western Europe’s problem is political, not demographic. One stroke of the pen can make French police round up every shitskin in the country. EE countries would be foolish to let any Europeans in. All that would do, is spread liberalism just like CA and NY/NJ/MD refugees have turned CO, OR, NC, and VT into Democrat states.

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