Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Rivers and Mountains” presents a collage of aspects of life both before and during wartime: Strategy and tactics are intermingled with descriptions of animal life, tax assessments, geography, and the acts of workers trying to maintain normal activities in extraordinary times.

While some critics proclaim Ashbery’s immediate progenitor to be Wallace Stevens, or—rather absurdly—T. S. Eliot, it is with the work of Auden that much of Ashbery’s early work, and most especially this poem, grapples. Marjorie Perloff’s comments that Ashbery’s landscape is “like a comic strip version of Auden’s” is unfair to both Ashbery and comic strips. Auden’s early poetic landscape is rather similar to Ashbery’s.

The poem parallels Auden’s description of the quotidian activities surrounding the fall of Icarus in his “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Similarly, Ashbery limns the area without focusing upon any specific occurrences, reemphasizing the fact that the description of a territory, like a map, may show much while revealing nothing. By the end of the second verse, both the map used by the assassins and the territory described by Ashbery are equally invalid interpretations. Phrases such as “the forest floor/ Fisheries and oyster beds” highlight a narration more concerned with juxtapositions than meaning, more impressionistic than objective. The first two verses of the poem, with more unsaid than said, create a comprehensive image of absence and destruction, leaving only hints of hope.

The poem acknowledges “Musée des Beaux Arts” directly with the phrase “light bounced off the ends/ Of the small gray waves to tellAbout the great drama.” This reflects the reality of a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting in which the waves from his splash are the evidence of Icarus. Ashbery draws a contrast to Auden’s sentiment, continuing the line with “that was being won,” surely not the feeling of either Icarus or those receiving the “light.”