.

Apollo’s Lament

He pounds his naked chest and looks for bones
Suspecting that the bay tree is a sham.
At last he falls upon his knees and moans
“My little doe, my tender dove, my lamb!”

He scans the forest but he knows the truth:
His longed-for Daphne has become this tree!
She sacrificed her beauty and her youth
To foil his theft of her virginity.

“‘Twas Cupid,” moans Apollo, “Wretched boy!
He shot us both with arrows, mine for love
And Daphne hate to sabotage our joy
And mock our dueling passions from above!

“And then her meddling father cast a spell
To change my Love into a form botanical,
Her tender bosom rough and hard as shell,
Each luscious arm a stiffened branch-shaped manacle.”

Apollo rubs his thighs with male frustration
Desiring Daphne to be flesh once more.
His thwarted lust droops, withered with deflation.
His heart is lead. His eyes burn sad and sore.

He strokes the tree and presses his bare chest
Against the bough and tickles at the bark.
The breeze-swept branches moan. Though changed, her breast
Still feels! He holds her gently through the dark.

Apollo sleeps and dreams of guilt-rent pleasure—
A warning not to love what is external.
He grasps that Daphne’s virtue was a treasure
Which with his love might yet become eternal.

At dawn’s first light he plucks a laurel leaf
And with it crowns his head—a victor’s hood.
He knows now gods and trees may both know grief
And love can burn to ashes—just like wood.

.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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31 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    A very nice retelling of the Apollo-Daphne myth, in excellent ABAB quatrains. I especially like the rhyme of “botanicals” and “manacles.”

    This is one of the few myths where a god acts out of character — in this case, Apollo loses his well-known self-control, ataraxia, and rationality, and is driven by pure lust. The fifth quatrain here is particularly randy, where Apollo “rubs his thighs with male frustration,” and his “thwarted lust droops, withered with deflation.” Those phallic lines would have sent Anthony Comstock into a rage.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Joseph. I’m especially pleased that you liked the “botanical” “manacle” rhyme! As for the poem’s eroticism, I realized the fifth quatrain was a bit of a risk but my inspiration for the poem was the Bernini statue which, when seen in its highly sensual entirety, makes it clear that Apollo’s interest in Daphne was not exactly “courtly love.”

      By the way, I’d never heard of Anthony Comstock and looked him up. I’m sure he would have despised what I wrote but — seeing as how he considered George Bernard Shaw “an Irish smut dealer” and won an admirer in J. Edgar Hoover — I’m content to carry on even without his favor.

      Thank you again for your comment!

      Reply
  2. Julian D. Woodruff

    Brian,
    I like especially that Daphne (of whom I wish there were a bit more in the poem) both prizes her virginity and is physically responsive (even as a tree!) to a caressing hand.
    I have 2 questions: 1) I don’t quite get the construction in the passage “He shot us both … passions from above”: it seems to me “mock” wants to be “mocks,” to agree with Cupid (with a comma added after “joy”; how am I misconstruing this passage?; 2) what was your purpose in resorting to hexametric lines at 2 points? Was it more than simply expanding to accommodate your thought more naturally?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I believe “mock” is being governed by the “to” in “to sabotage.” They are both infinitives, complementary to the phrase “He shot us both…”

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Thank you, Joseph. Your reading is quite correct as I mention in my reply to Julian’s comment.

  3. Brian Yapko

    Julian, thank you for your comment! The reason I didn’t focus on Daphne more is because I actually started this poem as a first person dramatic monologue by Apollo, trying to show everything from his point of view. After a couple of tries, I couldn’t get that poem to work. So I, um, metamorphosed it into a third person narrative which still kept the spotlight on Apollo and included a lengthy quote by him.

    On the “mock” construction, Dr. Salemi is precisely correct. The sentence could be shortened to read “He shot us both with arrows… to sabotage and mock our dueling passions…”

    Finally, the extra-syllabic lines that you’re referring to (I believe the botanical/manacle” lines) do have extra syllables, but both lines still have only five stresses and end with feminine rhymes, so I believe they still quality as pentameter. I could have written a line like ” To change my Love into a plantlike form” and rhymed it with “warm” or “storm” or some such (in general I’m over-reliant on masculine rhymes), but that just felt uninteresting in the face of the magic that had just taken place. I felt the feminine rhyme was unusual, didn’t do violence to the meter, and was vaguely suggestive of Daphne now being transformed into something remarkable. I also liked the Greek sound of “botanical” for a poem steeped in Greek mythology.

    Hope that explains my thinking on the creation of this poem. Thanks again for commenting!

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Thanks, Brian. On the “mock” q I feel a bit dense. More sleep for me is in order, though elusive. “Manacle,” especially when slipped into an accommodating 5-foot line, conveys to me angularity and crampedness–plum branches more than laurel–an appropriate contrast, however, to the gracefully extending and welcoming arms of Daphne (don’t you just wish, Apollo!).
      Thanks for another of your always informative explanations!

      Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Brian, you have given us a remarkable re-telling of one of the most universal myths.

        As you move most gracefully from one stage of romantic involvement to another, from flesh to wood to ash, I can empathize, having made those transitions myself.
        A remarkable poem !

      • Brian Yapko

        Sally, I’m very grateful for your kind comment. Thank you so much!

  4. Paul Freeman

    As often happens on the SCP, I’ve learned something new from classical history.

    Thanks for the poetic education, Brian.

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is such beautiful writing, Brian! “Each luscious arm a stiffened branch-shaped manacle” — what great imagery! “And love can burn to ashes — just like wood.” — how poignant!

    Reply
  6. Yael

    What a great way to enjoy Greek mythology! I find your poetic re-telling quite superior to English prose renditions, thank you.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Yael. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    I like it, Brian–failure of the external. Your poem is not dependent on the sculpture, but a frontal focus on the Bernini faces shows Daphne’s terror, while Apollo seems handsome yet impassive at the point of having captured her. Your “Lament” is mostly afterstory, becoming more intensely meaningful in stanzas five through eight. When “his heart is lead,” he’s not just heavy-hearted. It’s as if Cupid had hit him with a lead-tipped arrow rather than the golden one that inspires passion. And then he’s able to sense the Daphne-tree’s feelings, spend the night with her, and thanks to the warning of dreams, arrive at something like authentic love in grasping her virtue. At first light he can justly crown himself as victor in this experience, taking the laurel leaves that are what his beloved is willing and able to give him. In the above view of the sculpture, it seems Daphne is handing them backward to him. His passion has burned to ashes (as often happens), but your final words “just like wood” return the focus to Daphne (now wood) who has sacrificed youth and beauty to give this incident the eternal value symbolized in the laurel crown.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Margaret, for your generous comment. I’m particularly pleased by your acknowledgment of Apollo’s character arc — in the first four stanzas he is quite callow but in stanza five, he moves beyond shallow sexual frustration into something deeper as revealed in his eyes. This, in turn, leads to tentative remorse and, finally, compassion and understanding. He’s sadder but wiser, and when he finally does achieve victory it’s not because he’s conquered but because he’s able to turn that newfound compassion into something that selflessly elevates Daphne’s reputation and makes it immortal. And you’re quite right — this poem is all after-story. I wanted to capture the change in Apollo’s thinking. Thank you again, Margaret.

      Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    I think that one reason we like stories of Greek gods so much is that these gods are all too human. Their stories are really, in a strange way, our stories.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      I agree with you 100%, C.B. In a way, the Greek and Roman gods were like contemporary celebrities who people want to either emulate or gossip about. Or, maybe even more on target, celebrity royals. People love to hear about the rarified lifestyles and all of the foibles — to know that, despite a life in the palace — or on Mt. Olympus — they are just like the rest of us.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        When I teach Classical Mythology, one of the papers I assign is for the student to pick an Olympian deity and write up a detailed comparison of the god or goddess with a well-know celebrity, entertainment personality, or political-historical figure of similar character. Here a few of the parallels I get:

        Zeus: Bill Clinton (major sexual predation and adultery).
        Aphrodite: Marilyn Monroe (or some current sexy starlet).
        Dionysos: Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious (or some current freaked-out, drug-abusing hard rock performer).
        Athena: Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I (warlike virgins).
        Apollo: Carlos Hathcock (or some other top-scoring military sniper).
        Hades: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot (or any darkly evil ruler).
        Ares: John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone (or any well-known warrior).
        Demeter: Rachel Carson (or some other tree-hugging environmentalist type).
        Poseidon: Jacques Cousteau or some famous naval commander.

        Many of the submitted papers are absurdly comic, but it helps students to remember the characteristics of the gods.

      • Brian Yapko

        That’s brilliant! I would have greatly enjoyed your Classical Mythology class. Great assignment and some of those parallels are very insightful. In fact, the concept of bringing together an Olympian deity and a modern personality has some interesting poetic potential…

  9. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is a fantastic piece, Brian. You’ve managed to tell the story with great economy without sacrificing any clarity and the eroticism is given full expression whilst being tastefully rendered, much like Bernini’s statue. The sixth stanza, where the Daphne-tree responds to his caress is a particularly ingenious touch.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Shaun. I very much appreciate the comparison with Bernini’s statue, which is one of my favorites!

      Reply
  10. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, your splendid poem had me drifting back to the day that we gazed upon this wonderful artwork some years ago. Your words have led me to read more of the legend and for this, I thank you. You are a fine poet and inspirational educator.

    Reply
  11. David Whippman

    Masterful retelling in verse of a Greek myth. Loved it.

    Reply
  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, you always manage to breathe life into the characters inhabiting your stanzas, and this poem pulsates with Apollo’s pain… even I can feel his ‘male frustration’ and I’m a woman, such is the power of your depiction! You have taken on a challenging myth, given it the masterful magic of your musical words, and (at the same time) made it real, accessible, and thoroughly entertaining – an admirable accomplishment. Very well done, indeed!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Susan! I’m grateful for your kind words about my attempts at characterization. Creating characters is a favorite focus of my poetry and it’s not always easy to get into someone else’s head. And trying to keep things interesting and accessible are essential values for me in writing poetry — both of which seem much easier to achieve than they actually are. I seldom enjoy obscurity which is why I rarely invoke it in my writing — unless it’s called for by the character. Thank you again, Susan. Your generosity as a critic (as well as a poet) always inspires me.

      Reply
  13. Margaret Coats

    This second comment from me more clearly outlines subtle stages of the lament you have created, further explaining the character change it displays. In stanza 2, Apollo realizes a truth his wooing and pleading cannot change: Daphne is now a tree. He immediately and wrongly blames this on Cupid, who may have incited Apollo’s lust, but did not cause Daphne to hate him, as stanza 6 reveals. There Apollo learns that her refusal was (presumably always) accompanied by favorable feelings that as a tree she still has. Apollo is pleased but confused, and works toward a greater knowledge of himself and her, through relieved sleep and a dream-warning acknowledging guilt, in stanza 7. As I said earlier, he can justly claim victory in the final stanza of the poem. His love, like her form, is changed, but not burnt to ashes. That’s a warning he can now address to others. He crowns himself as the new possessor of eternal love because he has learned the value Daphne placed on herself. He is now able to value her in a similar way, and to overcome his earlier, guilty frustration, in favor of lasting love. A truly remarkable story, told in a few words that are just enough for a discerning reader to prize it.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret, for revisiting Apollo’s Lament! I think your summary of Apollo’s internal struggle and growth is quite perceptive. Reading it, you make me realize how completely human I’ve made him seem despite his status as a god and the powers that he possesses. In the end, his most impressive “powers” are the ability to love, remember and honor.

      Reply

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