“Narcissus and Echo” by Fred Chappell

Shall the water not remember   Ember

my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above   of

its mirror my half-imaginary   airy

portrait? My only belonging   longing,

is my beauty, which I take   ache

away and then return as love   of

of teasing playfully the one being   unbeing.

whose gratitude I treasure   Is your

moves me. I live apart   heart

from myself, yet cannot   not

live apart. In the water’s tone,   stone?

that shining silence, a flower   Hour,

whispers my name with such slight   light:

moment, it seems filament of air,   fare

the world become cloudswell.   well.


Originally published in Shenandoah Issue 50, Volume 1

edFred-ChappellA North Carolina native, Fred Chappell is the author of numerous books of poetry, including The World Between the Eyes and Midquest, as well as several novels and short story collections. He is the recipient of myriad awards, including the Bollingen Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He served as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate from 1997 until 2002.

Chappell’s poem “Narcissus and Echo” recalls the ancient Latin story of the same name that appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid’s tale depicts Echo, a nymph who cannot speak except to repeat the last few words she has heard. Echo sees and falls instantly in love with the beautiful and conceited Narcissus, who famously fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. When Narcissus cruelly rejects her, Echo’s body withers away and eventually turns to stone, leaving only her voice to eternally echo throughout the world.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_ProjectKeeping the original story in mind, the reader can interpret Chappell’s poem as a one-sided dialogue between Echo and Narcissus. The italicized words at the end of each line mimic Echo’s faint, half-heard voice. Like Echo, these words repeat the same sounds as the last words of the non-italicized lines. Read together, the italicized words create a message from Echo to Narcissus: “Ember of airy longing, ache of unbeing. Is your heart not stone? Hour, light: fare well”. The words “Ember of airy longing, ache of unbeing” refer to her formless state—one that is more painful because it keeps her from ever being able to accomplish her love in any physical way. Her desperate question for Narcissus—Is your heart not stone?—and final unrecognized goodbye emphasize how lonely and underserved her love is.

Since the italicized lines represent Echo’s voice, the upright words must represent Narcissus’s. Juxtaposed next to Echo’s quiet agony, his blind self-absorption strikes the reader as ridiculous. Narcissus, too preoccupied flirting with himself in the water, does not recognize Echo’s last desperate attempt to garner his attention. Instead, he teases his own reflection, playing peek-a-boo with himself in the glassy pool. His absorption is so complete that Echo’s final farewell strikes him as nothing more than a flower’s whisper, “with such slight moment, it seems a filament of air”. Chappell’s poem leaves the reader with a sense of the tragedy of unrequited, undeserved love, and of the absurdity of narcissism.

For more information on Fred Chappell, visit http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/fred-chappell

Posted by Emma Nash