Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “The Old and the New Masters,” Jarrell declares that art is meant to confront and acknowledge human suffering. Through all his poems depicting the victimization of soldiers, women, and children by the great forces of what he calls “Necessity,” he has staked out an aesthetic based upon the perception of suffering as a defining act for the human being. It is a kind of adoration, the kind that can be seen in versions of the Nativity. To attend to the hurt and the helpless is a human’s finest expression of a godlike capacity. The alternatives to such attention become evident in the curious final stanza. Jarrell is not lamenting the disappearance of an overtly religious perspective in modern art; rather, he pleads for a humanistic, overarching sympathy and projects dire consequences in the final passage of the poem:

Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstractUnderstanding, without adoration, the last master putsColors on canvas, a picture of the universeIn which a bright spot somewhere in the cornerIs the small radioactive planet men called Earth.

With the telescopic power of art to bring past, present, and future into synchronous alignment, the poem itself composes this picture with which it ends, a “painting” that seems the logical extreme...

(The entire section is 469 words.)