Closer Contact with Classical Sources

Apollo and the Artist, Cy Towmbly, 1975

 

Cy Twombly‘s move to Gaeta in Southern Italy in 1957 gave him closer contact with classical sources. From 1961 to 1963 mythological motifs appear with increasing insistence: Leda and the Swan, Venus, Apollo, Achilles. This line of investigation culminated in 1963 with a series of works called Nine Discourses on Commodus, an obscure portrait of the megalomaniacal Roman emperor conceived while Twombly was reading the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and looking at the paintings of Francis Bacon. These works were shown at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1964, to a New York art world which had by then turned to Pop and Minimalism. Following this exhibition, Twombly’s American enthusiasm ebbed for a number of years. The situation was quite different in Europe, where his work remained a critical success. Nevertheless, the Commodus exhibition represents a crucial moment of rupture in the artist’s career, for, as he commented, it made him ‘the happiest painter around for a couple of years: no one gave a damn what I did’.

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Hymn of Apollo

Apollo, Cy Towmbly, 1975

 

I.
The sleepless Hours who watch me as I lie,
Curtained with star-inwoven tapestries,
From the broad moonlight of the sky,
Fanning the busy dreams from my dim eyes,–
Waken me when their Mother, the gray Dawn,
Tells them that dreams and that the moon is gone.

II.
Then I arise, and climbing Heaven’s blue dome,
I walk over the mountains and the waves,
Leaving my robe upon the ocean foam;
My footsteps pave the clouds with fire; the caves
Are filled with my bright presence, and the air
Leaves the green Earth to my embraces bare.

III.
The sunbeams are my shafts, with which I kill
Deceit, that loves the night and fears the day;
All men who do or even imagine ill
Fly me, and from the glory of my ray
Good minds and open actions take new might,
Until diminished by the reign of Night.

IV.
I feed the clouds, the rainbows, and the flowers,
With their ethereal colors; the Moon’s globe,
And the pure stars in their eternal bowers,
Are cinctured with my power as with a robe;
Whatever lamps on Earth or Heaven may shine,
Are portions of one power, which is mine.

V.
I stand at noon upon the peak of Heaven;
Then with unwilling steps I wander down
Into the clouds of the Atlantic even;
For grief that I depart they weep and frown:
What look is more delightful than the smile
With which I soothe them from the western isle?

VI.
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself, and knows it is divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine, is mine,
All light of art or nature; – to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Byzantium

Watercolor and gouache on paper by John Singer Sargent, ca. 1898

 

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miraclc than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

William Butler Yeats

 

Yeats certainly shares many traits with William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and other, nineteenth century precursors. Nevertheless, despite all the intensity of its emotion and the rich intricacies of its imagery, Byzantium is hardly the sort of effusive outburst one has come to associate with the ode; the speaker seems to be more engulfed in his vision than in any attempt to share its emotional quadrants with the reader.

Yeats never abandoned the Symbolist tradition that shaped him as a poet in his youth. Though Byzantium is a product of his later years, written well after he had transformed himself into a modernist poet, surely the chief device that gives the poem its other-worldly ambiance is the symbol.

Yeats’s studies had taught him that the ancient Romans used dolphins to depict the spirit’s voyage from this world to the next; that the starry dome was symbolic of the soul’s astral destiny in the ancient mystery cults associated with Mithra and Orpheus; that a crowing cock carved on a tombstone was intended to ward off evil spirits and influences; that the Byzantine emperors had mechanical birds that sang to the delight of visitors; that the golden bough signifies that point at which the temporal and eternal mingle their mysteries.

For The Spreading Laurel Tree

pd2758288William Butler Yeats with his son , Michael , and Daughter , Anne , in the grounds of Thoor Ballylee, Ireland.

 

A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER

“Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.”

William Butler Yeats

From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Cuala Press, 1921)

 

This poem it is written to Anne, his daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. Yeats wrote the poem while staying in a tower at Thoor Ballylee during the Anglo-Irish War, two days after Anne’s birth on February 26, 1919. The poem reflects Yeats’s complicated views on Irish Nationalism, sexuality, and is considered an important work of Modernist poetry.

As the poem reflects Yeats’s expectations for his young daughter, feminist critiques of the poem have questioned the poet’s general approach to women through the text’s portrayal of women in society. Joyce Carol Oates suggests that Yeats used the poem to deprive his daughter of sensuality as he envisions a “crushingly conventional” view of womanhood, wishing her to become a “flourishing hidden tree” instead of allowing her the freedoms given to male children. In Oates’ opinion, Yeats wishes his daughter to become like a “vegetable:immobile, unthinking, and placid.”

The tree is an important symbol for Yeats. He gives it qualities of goodness, good health and prosperity. It is also a symbol of growth and since it shelters birds and can give fruit; it also stands for kindness. Yeats adds a further dimension to this by specifying the tree in line 47 (verse 6), The laurel tree is of special significance to the ancient Greeks. Its leaves were used to crown poets and heroes. In Greek mythology the laurel is associated with Daphne, the daughter of a river god with whom Apollo fell in love. When Apollo chased her, she cried for help and was changed into a laurel tree, which became the favorite tree of Orpheus’s father.

In the context of Yeat’s poem the laurel tree carries with it overtones of feminine shyness (hidden tree̱ ‒ line 41) and purity. It also links it with the “chase” in line 45.