A painter who wanted to paint the figure
of Apollo on a laurel wood panel.
I wetted my brush with colour in vain
to flesh out, O Phoebus, your figure
on a laurel panel: Oh, the colours
obey neither the mind nor the hand,
Daphne even flees a painting of you,
the tree still has not forgotten your love.
She lost the snow and rose that once
tinged her forehead and mouth,
but not the chastity she lived with
as she keeps it still in her hard bark.
She lost only
Elusive Daphne, do you live on in the coarse trunk
in your disdain, still your living image?
I painted Dawn across the horizon
amongst flaming and distinct clouds,
with pure highlights and rosy trappings.
Of the Nymph who lives in the dark hollow
I made a gesture of my desire with the brush,
giving body to her at the same time with various tints.
And you, proud Mars, though a warrior,
did not shake your shining steel at me
because I showed you with my colours .
Only this virgin shows her hardness
to me, because I tried
to make Apollo embrace the formless wood.
Daphne has conquered art,
O Cynthian Apollo, and it is your fault!
Where is your bow, where is the divine breath?
From such weak power she has to run away
and hide away from it somewhere.
Tell me, does the old fire
still flow imperiously in your blood?
Disdain can only conquer one who has given in!
Now I feel for her disdain of you and not of art
because your story (illustrious Apollo)
remains without glory, without lustre to the world alone.
Francisco de Rioja
Francisco de Rioja is another of the poets in the circle of Francisco Pacheco in seventeenth-century Seville. Pacheco included this poem in his Treatise on Painting, which is a mine of information about the techniques, iconographical problems and personalities of his time. He also produced a book called the Libro de Descripción de Ilustres Varones, which includes drawings and biographies of famous men of his time: Francisco de Rioja is one of these.
This poem is put into the mouth of a painter who is trying to paint a scene with Apollo but is having trouble. Apollo is the Greek God of learning, music and culture. He is also associated with the sun. As is common with many Greek Gods he engaged in amorous adventures the most famous of which was immortalised by Bernini in the wonderful statue that shows him descending on Daphne. This is how Ovid describes the moment:
So the virgin and the god: he driven by desire, she by fear. He ran faster, Amor giving him wings, and allowed her no rest, hung on her fleeing shoulders, breathed on the hair flying round her neck. Her strength was gone, she grew pale, overcome by the effort of her rapid flight, and seeing Peneus’s waters near cried out ‘Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!’ Her prayer was scarcely done when a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.
(from Poetry in Translation)
She was turned into a laurel tree.
The poet imagines the painter having difficulty painting Apollo and ascribing his difficulties to the fact that the panel he is working on is of laurel wood. Apollo is a the god of the intellectual side of art. It is no surprise that we imagine angels with harps- that is the Apollonian harp. The devils play wind instruments and drums. This means that the poem works simultaneously at metaphorical level: the painter’s desire to impose his creative will on the panel is dierctly equated with Apollo’s desire to impose his procreative will on the nymph. Both are frustrated.
I’m not sure what I make of the conclusion. It seems to be an argument for rape. What do you think?