.

Apollo in Retirement

Quite early he approached a humble hut,
With saxifrage and canneberge sun-brewed
To melt the stone that galled the shepherd’s gut,
And brighten him with warmth of health renewed.
The healer was a handsome older man,
Not much accustomed to go far beyond
Spheres where his brilliance had a dazzling span.

The Marvejols midsummer market dawned
As he unwrapped fresh simples, fragrant wood,
And seedling laurel slips. A lovesick blonde
Asked whether lovage and heartsease were good;
“Why not a touch of eyebright?” he advised,
“The sun beams long today to show how fair
This earth is, and how greatly to be prized.”

“Pleasures of which you may be unaware
Derive from mental as from senses’ fire,”
He tells a troubadour of ailing flair,
“But sacred sharpness fortifies a lyre.
Try hyssop, cresses, or Parnassus grass;
Stop singing of yourself—my mints perfume
Your minstrelsy, and cure digestive gas.”

The village mayor’s wife complains of rheum.
“Let rhubarb make your temper sweet and bold!
Your splendor and your husband’s should illume
This region where you rule in rank. Uphold
Its glory, as the ancient sun still shines
Undimmed, with radiance rationally revered.”
At twilight he strode home through thickset pines.

Around his lodge a pearly glow appeared,
Brighter than solstice bonfires on the hills.
His sister seldom smiled when others neared;
Tonight her artemisial aura spills
Over his hidden croft of favored plants
For physic, strowing, posies, cookery,
And healthful balance in luxuriance.

Directing random passions’ harmony
Remains his aim as woodsman of Entraygues:
The surge toward strife he stills with betony;
Valerian can assuage spasmodic plague,
And music civilizes men at odds.
Hunters and farmers, jubilantly strong
Though merely human, correspond to gods.

He ventures out for midnight rites of song,
Converses with a sanctifying priest,
And gathers wisdom through hours dim and long
About the greatest who became the least.
The lordly bearer of the silver bow
Had blazed with intellect and reason but
He meets a multiverse of more to know.

.

Marvejols and Entraygues are sparsely populated places in the French Massif Central.

.

.

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments.


CODEC News:

42 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Wonderful, Margaret
    A marvel of learning, invention, and tight control–right down to the rhyme between the 1st and last stanzas. And fun, too: the advice to the troubadour is hilarious.
    Did you want “a otherworldly”?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I believe “a otherworldly priest” might be deliberate, as a way to avoid possible misreading. If the poet had written “an otherworldly priest,” listeners might have heard it as “another worldly priest,” which would have a totally different meaning.

      Reply
      • Cheryl Corey

        I see your point, but I too found myself tongue-tripping over that one line.

    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Julian, for your gracious attention and assistance.
      Instead of “otherworldly,” I first wrote “visionary,” but asked Evan to change it after he had accepted the poem. I am glad he neglected to change “a” to “an,” because this discussion brings up the problem of meaning. I intend to say that the Christian priest has knowledge of a higher order than that of Apollo, but as Joseph points out, the audible “another worldly priest” puts them on the same level of culture in worldly matters. And I dislike the usage error of “a otherworldly priest” as much as Cheryl does. I may have the word changed back to “visionary,” but for now I am considering whether a better word might suit the rhythm.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Margaret, if I put in my two cents I prefer “visionary.” But you could take it in a slightly different direction and say “unassuming.” That would fit in nicely with “the greatest who became the least” and reinforce humility (a sort of St. Francis image) as a key attribute of the new insights being offered.

    • Margaret Coats

      At long last, I have chosen “sanctifying” as the proper description of the priest. As I said earlier, the adjective needed to indicate priestly knowledge of a higher order than Apollo had. With “sanctifying” I indicate as well that the Christian priest has power beyond that of any pagan priest. By the sacrifice the priest performs and the sacraments he administers, he as “alter Christus” has true power to make persons holy. Many words might have been suitable, but “sanctifying” seems most precise to indicate why this local priest can teach a pagan god.

      Reply
  2. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, I’ve fallen in love with this sun god and his intriguing array of lusciously portrayed elixirs, especially the seductively sibilant ‘hyssop, cresses, or Parnassus grass’. This beautiful poem is brimming with literary devices and a soupcon of humor that lifts the words from the page to paint a marvelous picture of ‘Apollo in Retirement’. I can taste the rhubarb and smell those mints that perfume minstrelsy, and cure digestive gas – a lovely touch that has me grinning. This wonderful poem begs for more than one read… I will be returning to its music… regularly. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Susan. The Greek Apollo had so many interests (including music and healing) that it is not difficult to find him things to do when he retires from his career as a god. A solar deity is naturally vital to plant growth, especially to the growth of wild plants with no farmer or gardener to take care of them. And because he represents the sun who sees everything, he knows better than anyone how to use what he cultivates. I am glad he finds a place in your heart!

      Reply
  3. Jeremiah Johnson

    Reading about Apollo at his work – I couldn’t help thinking of Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel, “Laurus,” which follows the life of a Medieval herbalist.

    On another note, does anyone remember who wrote the poem a couple of months back which added two stanzas to the classic “The Owl and the Pussycat”? I’ve been looking all through the site and can’t find it.

    Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Thanks, Mike
        And thanks also for forthright poems much as to combat (and in such variety!), so little time.

    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Thank you for your interest, Mr. Johnson. After a couple of misfires, I’ll have another July 5th.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Jeremiah, for bringing up the recent Russian novel “Laurus” by Eugene Vodolazkin. Its very title suggests Apollo and his laurel! My poem is based on my very vague memory of an enchanting short story I first read about the time Vodolazkin was born. I can’t remember the name of the story or the author, but I used to read it in the public library whenever I went home, until the library discarded the book. What a loss! The story doesn’t say Apollo is the main character; that just emerges from symbolism surrounding the obscure woodsman who acts as a generous healer. At one point the woodsman goes into a church where he is rarely seen, and the priest questions him as to whether he has done his Easter duty of receiving Holy Communion. He indicates that he has, and the reader is left to imagine how and when the pagan god came to converted.

      Reply
  4. Paul Freeman

    Thanks for an intriguing and unique read, replete with amazing imagery, Margaret.

    Just a suggestion, but perhaps ‘a supernatural priest’ would fit the bill.

    Again, thanks for the read.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you for the appreciative comment, Paul. You are thinking along the right lines for a more suitable adjective for the priest. He has supernatural knowledge, while Apollo is a god thoroughly attuned to the natural world, as I try to show from his own words in the second stanza of the poem. But I think “supernatural priest” suggests an angel in disguise, or something of the sort. While this fits the supernatural dignity of a Catholic priest who is an “alter Christus,” I will have to think further about your suggestion. Brian Yapko’s suggestion of “unassuming” also has the correct word rhythm, but gives an entirely different view focusing on humility, also a characteristic of Christ. What a difference a word makes!

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Margaret, another possible word choice: “metaphysic” which, as a clipping of “metaphysical” sounds rather Elizabethan — at least to my ears. It creates the tiniest suggestion of the metaphysical poets, but that might not be unwelcome given the overall style of your poem. I take it in the meaning of “transcending physical matter or the laws of nature.”

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    It is a devilishly difficult task to compose a series of septets with rhymed links, but Margaret has done it brilliantly — a real tour de force. What I especially like about the piece is its use of uncommon diction — not just the various traditional names of herbs and flowers, but older forms like the verbs “to gall” and “to illume,” the nouns “simples,” “minstrelsy,” “rheum,” “croft,” and the adjective “artemisial.” We need more of this fearless employment of the treasures of English.

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Good point, Joseph
      There aren’t that many readers out there on the level of Plummer or Rickman!

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Joe, I agree with you entirely on using the treasures of our traditional English word stock. And as you have said elsewhere, we should ignore modern dictionary makers who label older words “obsolete.” To become acquainted with our treasury, there is no better way than to read older poetry. For this poem, I took a look at Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry” from the 16th century. He has only three points dealing with use of herbs, but I got into the mood by reading at random among his other versified advice to literate landowners. In fact, the popularity of his book, in his time and later, shows that readers must have been willing to accept unusual words even before English dictionaries existed. They might have asked knowledgeable but illiterate farmhands about the meaning of unfamiliar words!

      Reply
  6. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, I’ve read much of your work but I rank this among your very best original poems. I think it would take an essay to unpack most of what is going on in this poem. Although there is much to say about the form, I first want to celebrate the extraordinary conceit of bringing Apollo into his very useful old age. His “retirement” is far from passive. I am curious as to why he has chosen France as his retirement home, but however you answer that question: it works. In fact, it greatly adds to the charm of this poem.

    Back to the form. You have composed 7 stanzas in which each stanza itself is made up of 7 lines. I believe this is a numerological nod to the fact that 7 is the sacred number for both Apollo and his sister, Artemis. The rhyme scheme is superficially simple – until we reach the non-rhyme of every penultimate line. Then we see that this line’s rhyme becomes the first and third lines’ rhyme of the following stanza, finally returning to the first stanza and creating a perfect circle.

    As to tone, you find a gorgeous balance between respect for Apollo’s classical background and attributes and his modern profession as a cross between a physician and herbalist. The time period is not clear, but since we are now in what appears to be a pre-industrial France and since we are dealing with a rather bucolic village setting I’m going to infer that this is late Medieval France. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Derek Jacobi’s character/mystery series “Cadfael” which takes place in early Norman England, but the background seems similar to me – as does the familiarity with herbs, dosages, usages. The source of that knowledge, of course, is quite different.

    There are many sly touches here which speak of great good humor: Parnassus grass which will help “… perfume/Your minstrelsy, and cure digestive gas.” Or even the use of the “artemisial” which delightfully invokes Apollo’s sister.

    And then there is that otherworldly priest who speaks of “the greatest who became the lest.” I think that clearly carries Apollo forward into a Christian context. What does this mean for the god Apollo? Despite his superlative intellect and reason, he is introduced into a whole new world – presumably theologic given the context – of what he doesn’t know. I wonder at the word “multiverse” which for me has a specifically modern quantum-physics meaning, although I understand that it also has a lesser-known philosophical meaning. In a sense, that word brings the poem all the way into the 21st Century which emphasizes Apollo’s immortality. In another sense, it reinforces that it is not just the universe of things he has yet to discover but something even deeper – a whole multiverse of what he doesn’t yet know. But for me this is the one word in an entire piece of ravishing Renaissance-style word-use that makes me wonder why it is there instead of “universe.” I know you write nothing randomly so I’m sure you had good reason for the word choice and I’d love to hear your poetic view.

    Thank you for an extraordinary piece of work, Margaret. If I haven’t made it clear, I love this poem.
    .

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, I’m glad you love the poem as I love the lost story it’s based on. Where I got the idea is explained above to Jeremiah Johnson. Apollo is unemployed as a god, and has retired to a remote place in Christian Europe, although he seems to retain immortality and knowledge and interests and skills of his pagan identity. He chooses France in the original story. I selected the place names because the Massif Central is high in elevation, sparse in population, and northernmost of areas where the langue d’oc of the troubadours is spoken. The retired Apollo is not a pocket of paganism; he graciously adapts to the Christian environment, and seems to have converted. Charity is his law of life. Apollo as a deity champions reason, but in the Middle Ages reason and faith were understood to be in perfect accord. The poem shows a little of this when Apollo exhorts the mayor’s wife to keep up the splendor due her rank. Human anthropology always shows solar deities as upholders of ordered authority and hierarchy.

      I use the number 7 for the structure of the poem because I read an article on Apollo that firmly declared his number to be seven. Few scholars dare to dirty their works with numerology, but this was supported by considerable research in history and religion. Thus there are 7 stanzas of 7 lines each. My linking rhyme scheme is only slightly complicated, and the rhyming is not at all difficult. Only two or three rhyme words are needed for each rhyme sound. The “a” sound repeated in the final stanza then produces a round solar disc!

      Brother Cadfael is a good character comparison. As a modern monk gardener has told me, Benedictines take all God’s creation as their own, but each of them specializes in one area, because otherwise one never learns anything well. At the end of my poem, Apollo (who of course mastered many specialties as a pagan god) attends midnight prayer at a monastic house. Compared to his intellectual achievements, a mere country priest seems to have a “multiverse of more to know.” I use “multiverse” here as a contrast with the purely material universe understood by Apollo. For the modern connotations of “multiverse,” I’ll use another comment box.

      Reply
      • Cheryl Corey

        I never noticed the linking rhyme scheme until Brian pointed it out. The effect is subtle, and you make it look effortless!

      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks for the appreciation, Cheryl. The greatest effort involved in a special rhyme scheme is to remember where you are within your own plan as you write the lines!

  7. Talbot

    Margaret, what a delight. The image of Apollo in retirement as a local herbmonger who begins his day “as he unwrap[s] fresh simples” and closes it “at twilight [striding] home through thickset pines” is truly a transporting image, and I’m quite smitten by it. Perhaps “Gods in Retirement” would be a nice suite of poems!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Talbot. I’m glad the character and his metamorphosis appeal to you. The classical gods have offered us inspiration in varied ways, and further pictures of them in “retirement” might be interesting. This aspect differs from stories of gods in disguise, who return to their known personalities when someone perceives who they are. And we are more used to “apotheosis” or becoming a god (Hercules, for example) than the opposite process that I imagine here. Maybe you have Chinese stories in imagination, as well!

      Reply
      • Talbot

        I’m already imagining Shennong seated quietly in the back of a teahouse putting a pot on the boil . . . .

  8. Julian D. Woodruff

    Good point, Joseph
    There aren’t that many readers out there on the level of Plummer or Rickman!

    Reply
  9. Jack Dashiell

    I’m wondering if you’ve had your formal poems of quality published in poetry and literary magazines? I know these editors enjoy obscure words, but still don’t publish rhythm and rhyme. They also delight in educational credentials and degrees as you have. I’m taking this outside route to find out by submitting poetry they seldom or never publish. I hope it’s not in vain.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Jack, from what I see of your name online, you can probably tell me more about publishing than I can tell you! I spend so much effort writing that I have little left over for the submission and waiting process, and have rarely tried it. Therefore I don’t know if my credentials are any help. As in everything else, what helps most is probably knowing someone in the business, in particular, an editor who has real freedom to publish what he considers good. Aiming at the high-profile free-verse magazines and websites means conforming to their style, unless the editor sees a piece as valuable because it’s a fresh and unconventional exception to his usual material. Best wishes for breaking in any way you can! They need your poems whether they know it or not.

      Reply
      • Jack Dashiell

        Thank you very much, Margaret, maybe I can sneak into a said poetry and literary magazine? Hopefully it’ll get tiresome for these editors to constantly publish the same old types of poems? I don’t follow the crowd.

  10. David Watt

    Margaret, I love the techniques you have used in this piece, especially the clever rhyme linkages between stanzas. This is a delightful poem, for its rich use of language, and for the humorous advice dispensed by Apollo.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, David. I think we’ve all been in need of Apollo’s advice at one time or another. I took a term as well from Joseph Salemi, who describes pretentious but insubstantial poetry or criticism as “gaseous.”

      Reply
  11. Jeff Eardley

    Margaret, this is lovely to read and re-read so many times. As a troubadour with ailing flair, I will seek the mints to perfume my minstrelsy. A most joyful read over here and boy, do we need some joy at the moment.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Jeff. I’ve just come back from a joyful month in England, including the Jubilee, and I have to thank the UK for a warm welcome, especially in throwing aside health scares. I was shocked at the cost-of-living crisis, which probably drives other miseries such as transport strikes. Hope you can get back to singing in the pub, and making some joy for others, even with the cost of staple fish-and-chips at an all-time high.

      Reply
  12. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is an extraordinary poem, Margaret. The narrative flows beautifully despite the challenging rhyme scheme you’ve chosen and although you’ve used many older and more obscure terms, the language never feels archaic. Your poetry in general feels timeless, despite being so solidly grounded in tradition and your exploration of the fading of classical paganism into the emerging Christian world in this and other works feels as timely today as it would’ve in Saint Augustine’s era.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      That’s a great compliment, Shaun, and much appreciated. I often think back to a distinguished historian who said Greece and Rome accepted Christianity in their maturity, and thus bequeathed us a cultural heritage of almost incomprehensible wealth, based on the Faith preserved by millions of martyrs. What a profound concept in a single sentence!

      Reply
  13. Mike Bryant

    Margaret on my first reading of this beautiful poem, I was impressed with its perfection, scholarship and the story. Of course, I appreciate it so much more on reading the knowledgeable comments. Susan is right, the poem gets better every time you read it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks very much, Mike. Your opinion means a lot, coming from the man who tracks all our poems and comments. As you can see, I have the best cooperators, including yourself, helping me out with that adjective needing to be changed. I’ll get to my thesaurus soon and let you know the decision.

      Reply
  14. Margaret Coats

    This comment answers Brian Yapko’s of June 20, concerning the use of the word “multiverse” at the end of the above poem. Primarily, the word reflects the additional spiritual universe that the pagan god Apollo would need to learn about, if he as an immortal being were to encounter Christianity with its profound truth of one Trinitarian God. There is, of course, much more in Christian teaching and practice that would be unknown to a god of the material universe such as Apollo. Even his exalted dwelling place with the other Greek gods is located on the material Mount Olympus. Thus it is fair to imagine that he would consider Christian ideas of the other world, including heaven, to represent a spiritual universe beyond his knowledge. Apollo would have to multiply his known universe by the factor of two. Still, to Christian thought, the universe is a single entity created by God. Apollo had merely ignored the spiritual side of it.

    The multiverse of modern M-theory posits vast numbers of material universes similar to the one we know, each with its own physical laws. Why? The complexities and fine tunings of our material universe could not have arisen by chance. They must be the product of intelligent design, otherwise known as God. But if there are unimaginable numbers of additional universes, one like ours could be the result of chance. With such enormous numbers to compute the probability, it becomes reasonable to imagine all the admirable features of our world occurring just once, or maybe a few times, without intelligent design.

    The so-called multiverse does have some basis in properties of what used to be called its elementary particles. And there are limits to imaginative theory in cosmological constants, as well as in the logic of calculating probabilities. Still, the multiverse is not within the practical purview of more than a few persons in the 21st century. To most of us, the multiverse has less relevance than the Christian concept of God in heaven would have had to the pagan god Apollo. Except in thinking about origins, we find no need to multiply our world by powers of ten that far, far exceed our comprehension.

    Moreover, in the 2012 booklet “Is God Unnecessary,” Walter Alan Ray showed that M-theory actually offers only two choices: either an infinite number of universes or intelligent design. There is no option for any comfortable finite number of universes in the multiverse. The argument is based on known and accepted science and logic (no theology). Anyone interested in the multiverse should read these 60 pages.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Margaret, thank you for this detailed and instructive comment! I understand better why you chose “multiverse” rather than “universe.” I was thrown by my familiarity with only the scientific definition. The poem is absolutely beautiful the way it is — even moreso now with your clarification.

      Now on the subject of “M” theory, I’m glad to see that we are on the same page. Quite candidly, I find it absurd that — in order to avoid having to “resort” to the existence of a Creator — scientists willingly entertain the concept of an infinite number of universes, apparently all stacked together, in which anything that can happen will happen — where Albert Einstein marries Marilyn Monroe, perhaps, or Bill Clinton becomes a plumber. Do such scientists not recognize how thoroughly ideological this is? They are so prejudiced against the concept of God that they will twist and torture reason and all of existence to fit their atheist ideology. I have the same issue with String theory which creates dimensions (I think there are 10 at last count) which are impossible to identify, measure or corroborate in any way. But, again, by invoking String Theory scientists don’t have to invoke God to explain things. But — at least in my view — there is sheer bigoted absurdity in being willing to believe in unverifiable, unmeasurable, almost-certainly-nonexistent things (so long as they are atheist things) rather than apply Ockham’s Razor and accept that the universe was indeed created by a Creator. Given the “scientific” belief in “infinite parallel universes” and double digit numbers of unverifiable dimensions, the existence of God is by far the more sensible explanation. As you can probably tell, I feel warmly on the subject.

      As for the Walter Alan Ray pamphlet “Is God Unnecessary?” I read it several years ago and remember enjoying and agreeing with much of what Ray wrote. I have just retrieved it from my bookcase, it is now sitting in front of me and will with great pleasure give it a second look.

      Thank you again for taking the time to provide these notes, Margaret!

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      To their credit, most scientists are NOT willing to entertain the concept of an infinite number of universes. Because infinity is a concept rather than a number, there are infinitesimally few mathematical calculations that can be done with it. What M-theory wants for the multiverse is a very large but finite number, such as ten to the 500th power (one followed by 500 zeros). With that real number, a scientist can calculate probabilities. With an infinite number, he cannot–and he falls into further mathematical and philosophical problems regarding boundaries. This is why Walter Alan Ray’s scientific proof of only two options (either an infinite number of universes or intelligent design) upsets the multiversal applecart. NEITHER option is acceptable.

      I just noticed that Ray has this very year published a new book entitled “More and More,” dealing with infinity. Unlike the previous book, this one considers Scripture, especially the frequently used expression, “more and more.” From what I see of the book preview, Ray interprets “more and more” as Scripture’s way of describing an infinite progression. Thus the truly useful concept of infinity applies to God and His relation to creatures, especially man. I am looking forward to reading this book by a writer well-trained first in engineering and later in exegesis.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.