As I was strolling through the National Gallery of Art a week and a half ago, marveling at the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses involved in their adventures around nearly every corner, as well as the beautiful architecture of the museum, I was reminded of a wonderful summer I once spent immersed in classical mythology. The names forming the cast of characters came rushing back as I spotted a marble sculpture of a Nereid next to a bronze statue of Neptune; and saw a fleet-footed Mercury dance nimbly atop a fountain in the rotunda while one of Diana’s nymphs posed prettily on her pedestal. Carved from marble by Jean-Louis Lemoyne, the latter was titled A Companion of Diana (shown below), and though she was chiseled from hardened stone, the fabric clinging to her rococo physique made her body seem downright supple.
The Mythic in Art and Poetry
The statue was one of ten that Louis XIV commissioned for the grounds of his Château de Marly, each to serve as an artful representation of the goddess’s nymphs. After his death in 1715, Louis XV installed some of the completed statues in the forests of La Muette, another hunting retreat favored by the Bourbon kings. Though the nymph drew me a bit off course when I spotted her, I wasn’t simply ambling at the time. I was making my way through the sculpture hall to find a painting I’ve always wanted to see in person—Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Apollo Pursuing Daphne.
It was magnificent to stand in front of it and soak in the luminescence emanating from the chaotic scene. The beautiful young sun god Apollo is pointing toward Daphne, who is leaning upon her father, the river god Peneus. She is beginning her transformation into a laurel tree, the solution Peneus had concocted when his daughter asked him to save her from Apollo’s determination to have her. As she leans into her father, one of her legs has become trunk-like, sinking its roots into the ground, and her fingers are sprouting leafy limbs. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to snap a photo of it, but the painting is featured on the NGA site.
I did find the image of Robert Lefèvre’s painting of Apollo’s pursuit above. It is nothing like the Tiepolo tableau, but it is a beautiful depiction of the fabled story all the same. It struck me as I was experiencing so many artifacts within one grand building that most of us can only dream of homes and gardens imposing enough to hold such masterpieces—the sheer scale and unbelievable elegance of which demand such refined settings. I visited such a place yesterday: The Frick Collection here in New York City. I was able to see another of Tiepolo’s mythological paintings in person—a bit more about it near the end of this piece.
Classical Mythology as Poetic Inspiration
It was art of this caliber, and poetry presenting the slings and arrows of the gods and goddesses (quite literally) which led me on that summer exploration of mythology years ago.
Reading Louise Glück’s book The Triumph of Achilles presented a watershed moment in this respect, the title poem of the collection an example of how a poet can mine a mythical story for emotional heft—in this case, exploring how Achilles deals with the death of his dear friend Patroclus:
The Triumph of Achilles
In the story of Patroclus
no one survives, not even Achilles
who was nearly a god.
Patroclus resembled him; they wore
the same armor.
Always in these friendships
one serves the other, one is less than the other:
is always apparent, though the legends
cannot be trusted—
their source is the survivor,
the one who has been abandoned.
What are the Greek ships on fire
compared to this loss?
In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.
© Louise Glück
Over two decades later, I am proud to say I am presenting my own attempts at rendering the mythic in poetic form, as Sharktooth Press recently published Anywhere But Here—my first book of poetry. It contains a number of poems about the deities, one of which is Mythical Models for Twenty-First-Century Wives, a poem in which Daphne and Persephone riff on marriage.
Daphne is now sheathed in bark and Persephone, whose husband Hades forces her to reside in hell for a good part of each year, must travel earthward for the remainder of each year at her mother Demeter’s behest:
Mythical Models for Twenty-First-Century Wives
I was frozen at first, afraid to move.
Splinters fester, you know.
If one invaded my taut skin,
who would remove its dark heart?
So, from the start it was too late.
I was already thinking, lost,
as wooden as the bed frame we’d bought
the week before the wedding.
My marriage is hell. No, really.
A difficult address for a precocious girl
who once delighted in the profusion of hibiscus—
those yellow tongues protruding
toward the clamor of bees.
In early Spring, when Japonica pushes
her passion-tinted blooms from icy stems,
my husband puts on his dark mask of longing.
It’s always a fight. But I have no choice
but to rise like that one dry, restless leaf
remaining from autumn,
made nervous by the wind.
He could never live like this: baffled
like the butterfly that stubbornly fidgets
outside the plate glass window,
confounded by the invisible wall
of unattainable sky.
© Saxon Henry
Like so many writers and artists throughout history who have explored the archetypal themes in mythology, plumbing the echoes of the vanished past was too much for me to resist, and I feel fortunate to have the art displayed in museums like the National Gallery of Art and The Frick Collection to continue to inspire me. As a fan of classical architecture, I am also happy to be able to experience the buildings they left as legacies.
It was Andrew W. Mellon who donated his collection and the funds to build the NGA to the people of the United States. And industrialist Henry Clay Frick constructed the other exemplary milieu for a collection that began as his, the mansion an example of one fortunate person who was able to create the type of residence that succeeds so brilliantly in presenting some of the world’s finest treasures. During my visit, a painting by Tiepolo was once again one of my favorites, as it brought me face to face with a magnificent mythic work—Perseus and Andromeda. Shown above, it was truly a sight to behold!
If you decide to put Anywhere But Here on your summer reading list, I hope you will let me know what you think of the book. And, as always, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my ramblings on the Improvateur blog.
Text of Musing Through Classical Mythology © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. Saxon is also a contributor to Architizer.by