Listed: Poems inspired by paintings | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Listed: Poems inspired by paintings
A selection of 10 great poems and the paintings that inspired them
Poetry has always inspired artists. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Dante’s Divine Comedy are two of the most enduring. And according to Art Everywhere, of which I will say little here but have written about elsewhere (see sidebar), the nation’s favourite painting is inspired by a more recent poem: JW Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott shows the ill-fated heroine of Tennyson’s famous verse moving inexorably towards her watery death “like some bold seer in a trance”. The second favourite is, incidentally, another narrative illustration of an ill-fated heroine on the point of meeting her watery fate – Millais’s Ophelia.
The Victorian era was the last big hurrah of literature-inspired visual works of art, and it was decidedly gothic in flavour. But the 20th century saw the death of narrative painting, and illustrations from myth and literature dropped out of fashion.
Painters were still influenced by literature, of course, but the influence, with a few notable exceptions, played out in more abstract, nebulous ways. Instead, we find a decisive switch – it’s writers who turn increasingly to the works of painters and sculptors. Poets looked to the historical canon – I haven’t included it here, but surely Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb is the greatest post-war poem to be inspired by a single work of art. But more often Modernist poets, particularly in America, looked to Modernist artists for inspiration.
The conservative Larkin was no fan of Modernism, seeing ugliness and destruction in its methods. Yet for many other writers, Modernism in the visual arts appeared regenerative in its violence to form. Like visual artists of the 20th century, writers were no longer portraying a window on to the world as it had appeared since the Renaissance, but obviously filtered and changed by the imagination in startling ways. To quote Wallace Stevens (no.4), responding to Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
Below, responding to old and modern paintings, I’ve chosen nine 20th-century poems and one 21st-century one. The poems are illustrated by the paintings that directly inspired their thoughts.
Mourning Picture (main picture), Edwin Romanzo Elmer, 1890
The little-known American artist Edwin Ramanzo Elmer painted this strange and arresting work after the death from appendicitis of his 9-year-old daughter Effie. Here she is portrayed with her pet lamb and kitten, against the clapboard house her father built in Western Massachusetts. The remote and rigid figures of the artist and his wife appear in mourning clothes, though the painting was only given its title decades later, and not by the artist. The narrative voice in Adrienne Rich’s poem belongs to the dead Effie, the couple’s only child. Hauntingly, she compares the veins of the lilac leaf to her father’s “grief-tranced hand”.
1. Mourning Picture, Adrienne Rich (1965)
They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker
out under the lilac bush,
and my father and mother darkly sit there, in black clothes.
Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill,
my doll lies in her wicker pram
gazing at western Massachusetts.
This was our world.
I could remake each shaft of grass
feeling its rasp on my fingers,
draw out the map of every lilac leaf
or the net of veins on my father's
Out of my head, half-bursting,
still filling, the dream condenses--
shadows, crystals, ceilings, meadows, globes of dew.
Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the light
carving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars,
under high early-summer clouds,
I am Effie, visible and invisible,
remembering and remembered.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1558
It takes a while for us to spot the pale legs kicking in the green sea to the right of the picture, since Bruegel’s great painting shows the fall of Icarus as an incidental occurrance, not the main event of this scene. But the insignificance of human suffering to the universe is indeed its theme. The plowman carries on with his task, while the “expensive, delicate ship”, after no doubt witnessing the incident, had “somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” The Imagist poet William Carlos Williams was also inspired to write a poem about this painting, as well as another famous Bruegel work included here (see no.3).
2. Musée des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden (1938)
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565
Bruegel’s breathtaking panoramic painting shows a scene set in harshest winter. The weary hunters of the title are returning home at the end of a disappointing hunt (the rewards of their labours, as we see, are meagre, and even the dogs look a little sorry for themselves, though the expansive view they and we are looking down on is spectacular and uplifting). The scene is described with striking spareness, the poet picking out details that make up the composition as a whole, making us aware of "Bruegel the painter" bringing these elements carefully and strikingly together.
3. Hunters in the Snow, William Carlos Williams (1962)
The over-all picture is winter
in the background the return
from the hunt it is toward evening
from the left
sturdy hunters lead in
their pack the inn-sign
hanging from a
broken hinge is a stag a crucifix
between his antlers the cold
inn yard is
deserted but for a huge bonfire
that flares wind-driven tended by
women who cluster
about it to the right beyond
the hill is a pattern of skaters
Brueghel the painter
concerned with it all has chosen
a winter-struck bush for his
complete the picture
The Old Guitarist, Picasso, 1903
Below are the first four cantos of a poem that extends by a further 29. Stevens’ rigorous and brilliant poem ponders the nature of reality and the quest of artists to profoundly alter it. “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,” we are told in the first canto, and the refrain “things as they are” echoes like a recurring motif in a piece of music. Stevens was hugely influenced by the work of Modernist artists who flattened and fragmented pictorial space. His blue guitarist is a “shearsman of sorts”.
4. The Man with the Blue Guitar, Wallace Stevens (1937)
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.
I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,
To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,
To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,
To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,
To bang if form a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…
So that’s life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.
A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing
And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?
The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in the autumn air,
And that’s life, then: things as they are,
This bussing of the blue guitar.
Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, Rembrandt, 1669
Many of Elizabeth Jennings’s poems are direct responses to paintings; you could take your pick from a prolific pool that takes us from Mantegna to Mondrian. Here she speaks of the searing and unflattering honesty of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits – “Your brush's care / Runs with self-knowledge” – which, through the unflinching depiction of nature’s cruel changes, help divest us “of fear of death.”
5. Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits, Elizabeth Jennings (1975)
You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush's care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here
Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.
Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,
With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint's to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.
Continued overleaf: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, X.J Kennedy, Allen Ginsberg and George Szirtes
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Visual arts
An affectionate but not entirely satisfactory portrait of the artist
From politicians to polar bears, unexpected insights behind the scenes
A recent body of work tells of the painter's craft and the stormy Suffolk coast
A powerful exhibition that takes the long view on the aftermath of war
The writer was profoundly influenced by art and in turn influenced artists
Randall Wright's documentary reveals the sadness in Bradford's iconic blond
A Russian artist who casts an affectionate eye over people going about their business
On the men and women who spent their lives researching sex
Entertaining but two-dimensional, Alan Yentob's account glosses over the artist's flaws
One was driven by a sense of social injustice, the other by a fascination with stories that hint at psychological disturbance
Affectionate family portraits, subtle references to the history of art, and a worthy winner
A brilliant painter derailed by an unfortunate obsession