Drowning in a Sea of Love

The slippery meanings of the Hero and Leander myth as seen in Cy Twombly's painting and the poem Christopher Marlowe died writing.

"Like the ocean, language presents the paradox of a homogeneous heterogeneity, like a Twombly painting." Cole Swensen on Cy Twombly's Hero and Leandro


In 2007 the Poetry Foundation and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts collaborated to bring poets together in conversation with works of art based on the Pulitzer Foundation's Water exhibition. John Yau served as a curator for this collaboration. He invited poets Cole Swensen, Andrew Joron, and Arthur Sze to reflect on and react to artists including Roni Horn, Cy Twombly, Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse.

What did you lose . . . is the sound of the sea. And why from a tower does an ocean seem to stumble, to fall on its knees and bleed a pure thin salt that could have stained a cheek had she been inclined, but not she, who decided, after all, to go with him. That’s what grief is, an accompaniment.

Death ends the story, as it always seems to. He died at sea, as he often does, and the sea goes on. Life handed him a lemon and the sea made sand. Hero and Leander were like every other pair of lovers: one died.

Hero & Leandro (1981) by the painter Cy Twombly is an inverse ekphrasis: literature turned to a painting. Our basic story: a woman in a tower and her lover swimming nightly across the Hellespont guided by her lantern; he drowns as soon as the weather turns.

And drowns of it: water is the perfect metaphor for love—formless, it will be shaped by outside forces and, knowing this, becomes a wanderer upon the earth, in search of embrace, as was Leander, as is anyone in love.

It is also the perfect metaphor for painting. Of the four elements, only land can be painted, while water, fire, and wind are among the hardest things to capture because paint is a solid object, albeit one always trying to refute that. And yet all paint is liquid when alive, and thus all painting is the property of water, with which it must make its peace before it can go on to anything else. Twombly addresses this by addressing the sea, over and over, because it is that which must be crossed. In such paintings as

The Pulitzer building. Architect: Tadao Ando. Photo: Robert Pettus. Copyright: The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Second Voyage to Italy, Fifty Days at Illium, Téméraire, and Lepanto, the sea is in itself a battle, and Leander fought it: The Wilder Shores of Love. And there it is again, in Twombly’s brush, in which a surrogate ocean of color is led shuddering across.

Life crawled out of the sea. In Hero and Leander (1962), numerous vigorous things emerge from an even background, and the farther we travel from the center, the more specific they become until they begin to take on form: a square, a tower, an X that starts to speak, to excise, one man from the sea of them. Twombly painted the first Hero and Leander canvas on a human scale—a great span composed of the myriad, minute conflicts and harmonies that accumulate into a human life.

From 1981 to 1984, he painted it again on an elemental scale, opening it out into Leandro, an O for ocean and a shocked exclamation in a huge sweep that breaks; the name howls in a swoop through a green and wine time across three canvases to a stark observation scrawled across a sheet of paper: oh amorous breath, he will not be breathing. When next we see him, he will have exceeded. She watched light brand the sky from her window where she’d watched all night, trying to distinguish the line between water and air. What did you lose at sea?

In the 20 years between the two projects, one language slips into another, English becomes Italian, and the story changes, which was the whole point of the oral tradition; it’s a different story every voice because language is the epic that the ocean is, directionless as a painting.

By 1984, it had become a migration, this wave of unchained and uncharted emotion, of that mixture of love and despair that makes of love a mythic act and lets it participate in eternity, which love alone cannot do because it is one-sided; it requires its own opposite, which is not hate, but a despair borne of the recognition of the impossibility of experiencing love’s eternity. Which is why this wave is composed of opposing colors—reds heading toward purples and greens heading toward blue—opposites that nonetheless lean toward each other and crash together into two more long canvases that quell. “To paint involves a certain crisis,” Twombly states.

Hero and Leander, epic poem by Christopher Marlowe, who died as he wrote it. Some say that, with Marlowe’s flair for the irreverent, had he finished it, Leander might have lived.

Here where water is defined
as the where in which Aphrodite was born
is dissolution. (She will not
save you.) Some call it drowning, some calling
just above the pounding of the waves, some just below

the fleeting impression of a life as heaven, indebted, together we were going to live
by my lamp, I see

that water makes us equal everything.

We don’t know how many times Leander made it across and back perfectly fine, but we are told that it was with the arrival of winter that all his troubles started, and we see it there in the 1962 canvas, the white foam of the colder, harder waves breaking through the surface.

Which is to imply that he died, as most of us do, of excess, of zest (he should have been satisfied with summer), of pushing our luck. It is precisely this tendency to exceed that constitutes art, that is Leandro in his nightly unlikely stroke after stroke. Philip Fisher has claimed that Twombly sees an analogy to painting in Leander’s nightly swimming. Swimming as an act of serial reaching, always outward is a suspended arriving, as is the stroke of the brush. To show that stroke is to trust, and just beyond, where the line turns to language, which is to say, to the absence that each word guarantees.

And then to scrawl through that until it reaches a name. Why is it that Twombly always seems to be writing with his wrong hand? As if it pains him, the line that falters between language and image. In the 1962 canvas, among the names are other words that remain emergent, not yet fully separated, reminding us that written language is always the line abstracted, the living line that distilled itself from life, that stood aside and watched a man pass.

But how easy it is to make an A by accident, or the loop of the lowercase L or an E, and then suddenly a calle, a road through the sea. Which, 20 years later, had shifted its balance, and all the emergent words had consolidated into this one, this name of all un-anchoring, of hurtling, of the one and only no Hero and no slowly redeeming symbology. Just that scream that turned to stone on touch, that remained engraved on the sky above a wave, and above which, small and illegible, something else tries to say.

Twombly is dedicated to the crisis of the line, which is the crisis of signification. Is he writing or drawing or painting these words? And what would be the difference? The written word remains symbolic; the word “ocean,” for instance, remains a road sign pointing to enormous water until the word is drawn, at which point it becomes the blueprint for reality, but only when it is painted does a word actually become, a real thing in a real world, the more barely legible, the more indelible.

We picture Leandro rolling over and over in the tumultuous sea, one particle that refuses homogenization, that precipitates from the saturated solution that is anything deserving of the term: ocean: internally overflowing: breaking out into all its own, taking place in myriad forms: arms, legs, hope.

Like the ocean, language presents the paradox of a homogeneous heterogeneity, like a Twombly painting. In an evenly chaotic medium, we find particularity, the odd particle amid a wave of light, the body borne in on the tide.

Originally Published: October 15th, 2008

Cole Swensen was born and raised near San Francisco and earned her BA and MA  from San Francisco State University and a PhD from the University of California Santa Cruz. She is a former director of the creative program at the University of Denver and taught in the Iowa Writers’...

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