Saturday, March 19, 2011

Randall Jarrell's Rebuttal of W. H. Auden (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 10)

One of my very favorite poems is W. H. Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts (link to my earlier posting of it). The other day, however, while procrastinating on some grading perusing a book review by John Crowley I saw his reference to John Hollander's awesome-sounding anthology The Gazer's Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art, which contains poems, reproductions of artworks they're about, and Hollander's commentary on the twain. (Incidentally, the term for Hollander's subject -- namely, "written descriptions, in prose or verse, of works of art" -- is "ekphrasis", as Crowley mentions in his review.) One of my first questions was whether he discussed Auden's poem, so I went onto google books to look at it.

Browsing through the anthology, I came first upon the following quote from Plato's Phaedrus (which is, I think, at the top of the list of those-of-Plato's-dialogues-I've-never-read-but-really-ought-to-get-around-to-reading (as opposed to the shorter but not insubstantial list of those-of-Plato's-dialogues-I-have-read-but-really-need-to-to-reread)), which has nothing to do with Auden per se, but which I liked so I'll requote it here:
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. (trans. Harold N. Fowler)

Then I proceeded to read Hollander's discussion of Auden's' poem -- and yes, of course, he did include and discuss it. In his discussion he referred to a rebuttal poem (my term, not his) to Auden's poem written by Randall Jerrrell. (Hollander also referenced Williams Carlos Williams's poem about the same painting by Brueghel, and affirmed my sense that it just wasn't in the same league as Auden's.) I found Jarrell's poem online and read it, and it's fabulous. So I thought I'd reproduce it here, as part of Attempts' ongoing Accidental Poetry Month™. It doesn't erase my admiration for Auden's poem, of course -- but it does comment very powerfully, perhaps even inescapably, on it: I'm not sure, not so early, but I wonder if it isn't one of those later literary works which forever change our reading of an earlier one.

Damn you, Jarrell! I love that poem. The only excuse for you is that your poem is really amazing to.

Here it is. But do go read or reread Auden's poem before you read this one, since it really is quite a direct commentary.
The Old And The New Masters

About suffering, about adoration, the old masters
Disagree. When someone suffers, no one else eats
Or walks or opens the window--no one breathes
As the sufferers watch the sufferer.
In St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene
The flame of one torch is the only light.
All the eyes except the maidservant's (she weeps
And covers them with a cloth) are fixed on the shaft
Set in his chest like a column; St. Irene's
Hands are spread in the gesture of the Madonna,
Revealing, accepting, what she does not understand.
Her hands say: "Lo! Behold!"
Beside her a monk's hooded head is bowed, his hands
Are put together in the work of mourning.
It is as if they were still looking at the lance
Piercing the side of Christ, nailed on his cross.
The same nails pierce all their hands and feet, the same
Thin blood, mixed with water, trickles from their sides.
The taste of vinegar is on every tongue
That gasps, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
They watch, they are, the one thing in the world.

So, earlier, everything is pointed
In van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked
Shining baby, like the needle of a compass.
The different orders and sizes of the world:
The angels like Little People, perched in the rafters
Or hovering in mid-air like hummingbirds;
The shepherds, so big and crude, so plainly adoring;
The medium-sized donor, his little family,
And their big patron saints; the Virgin who kneels
Before her child in worship; the Magi out in the hills
With their camels--they ask directions, and have pointed out
By a man kneeling, the true way; the ox
And the donkey, two heads in the manger
So much greater than a human head, who also adore;
Even the offerings, a sheaf of wheat,
A jar and a glass of flowers, are absolutely still
In natural concentration, as they take their part
In the salvation of the natural world.
The time of the world concentrates
On this one instant: far off in the rocks
You can see Mary and Joseph and their donkey
Coming to Bethlehem; on the grassy hillside
Where their flocks are grazing, the shepherds gesticulate
In wonder at the star; and so many hundreds
Of years in the future, the donor, his wife,
And their children are kneeling, looking: everything
That was or will be in the world is fixed
On its small, helpless, human center.

After a while the masters show the crucifixion
In one corner of the canvas: the men come to see
What is important, see that it is not important.
The new masters paint a subject as they please,
And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition
For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ,
The earth is a planet among galaxies.
Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract
Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts
Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe
In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner
Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.

-- Randall Jarrell


Holly said...

I'm a very big Randall Jarrell fan--"90 North" is one of my very favorite poems--but I had never read this poem. Thanks.

Stephen said...


Thanks. I'd never really read much Jarrell before -- or at least none that stuck with me -- but since finding this poem I've been looking around and damn but he's really good.

I'd love to hear what other Jarrell poems you'd recommend in addition to "90 North" (which, yes, is stunningly good).


MB said...

It's a good poem, but not, I think, a valid rebuttal.

Paintings that depict the suffering of Christ or a martyr are actually not about suffering at all. They are about sacrifice, redemption, revelation -- all seen through the very particular lens of Christianity. This extra religious element is what everyone in the painting is paying attention to. Jarrell himself acknowledges this, by drawing the analogy between these paintings and others that depict adoration in the absence of suffering (e.g. the Nativity).

All of this is not to be confused with run-of-the-mill human suffering, about which Auden's earlier point still stands.

Stephen said...

MB: I think you're right. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

this is reportedly Auden's response when someone told him that Jarrell had suicidally leaped to his death in front of a speeding truck:

"Think of the poor driver!"

Anonymous said...

Thanks, you saved me a lot of time. I was going to read Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden by Stephen Burt because I have respected Jarrell as a critic. But his rebuttal poem is simply a refusal to acknowledge Auden's hyperbolic use of the word never. The rest is a tedium.