Explain the poem "Illustration" by John Ashbery.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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John Ashbery, a twentieth century poet, wrote his poems using free non-structured conversational verse.This is the style of the poem “Illustration.” The poem’s title refers to the representation of the poem’s scene and its meaning. His language is elevated and rarely colloquial. The poet intends to be studied and discussed.

According to biographical information, this poem is related to an event in Ashberry’s life when one of his teachers committed suicide.  The poem might be read as a character sketch of the figure of the “novice” or young nun who has entered the religious order but has yet to take the final vows.

Many of his poems use dialogue in telling his stories and are often divided into parts. The two parts of the poem should be regarded as a stimulus and a response. 

Part I Summary-

A  novice was sitting on a a cornice

High over the city…

Initially, a novice nun sits atop a tall city building. The townspeople and police beg and bribe the woman to come down. Prayers are offered up for her, yet she rejects everything from friendship to flowers and candy.  Instead of material possessions, she desires what was not worldly. Naked, she jumps from the top of the building and takes her life. Using a stark simile, the poet compares her nakedness to a large, mythological bird egg, floating to the angels and out of the minds of men.

Part II Summary-

But she, of course, was only an effigy

Of indifference, a miracle

Not meant for us…

In the second half of the poem, Ashbery describes the attitude and reasoning behind the nun’s suicide. He explains that most of what is beautiful on earth must be ignored so that people can become better human beings.  The moth is drawn to the flame and for some inexplicable reason commits suicide by flying into its death. In the same light, why people do the things that they do cannot always be explained.  

We are weighed down by our sins. How is it possible to tell why the nun did what she did when she wore the cloth of God--his vestment? Life goes on; even that night, there were rockets in the sky and festivities. People do things that have no explanation.

If we were able to, we might have watched her glide upwards, wearing only her clothing made of leaves.  She would have been only an imitation of herself or a miracle not intended for our eyes.  She was not ours just as the leaves of fall do not belong to the winter season.

Ashbery’s poetry requires the second and possibly the third reading to grasp his message.  Once, the reader has found it; then, the pleasure comes rushing forth.


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