Poet Jane Flanders uses the sky as a central metaphor that unites the strands she presents. She traces the development of one painter’s art and life along with the evolution of painting in his era, as the poem is suggested by John Constable. At the same time, she offers the viewer’s reaction to art and implies how the viewer’s art and life parallel that of the painter. As the art viewer and the poem’s speaker seem to be the same person, the artist and painting apparently stands for the poet and poetry.
The early and later years of life frame the central part of the painter’s life and career. He finds success late in life but endures personal tragedy:
. . . [H]is young wife dies.
His landscapes achieve belated success.
His is invited to join the Academy.
The general evolution of subject and style begins with literal, optimistic, and keenly observant, and ends with abstract, resigned, and more concerned with the art work than the subject. The sky itself goes full circle, at first as a backdrop and at the end as beyond significance.
When he starts to paint, “the sky is incidental . . . a backdrop . . . ” In the middle stage, the artist achieves technical precision and focuses on the sky: “the sky becomes significant. / Cloud forms are technically correct . . .” After his wife’s death and the professional recognition, “the literal forms give way / to something spectral, nameless . . . ” In his old age, the artist himself recedes and allows the vision to take primacy:
Finally the canvas itself begins to vibrate
with waning light,
as if the wind could paint.
It is only in this last stanza that the speaker addresses the viewer, joining them as fellow audience members and implying their shared position in the “waning light,” at the end of life: “the world can vanish along with our need for it.” While the sky is still present—perhaps as an imagined heaven—the terrestrial world no longer matters.