The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” by N. Scott Momaday is a poem divided into six stanzas, each with six verses. As a lyric poem, it is a variation of the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet usually defined as fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Although differing in the number of stanzas and verses, “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” retains the traditional iambic pentameter rhythm of the Italian sonnet and follows the most frequently used rhyme scheme of its second stanza, abcabc.

The title informs the reader of the subject of the poem, an old painting of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion. The title’s opening word, “before,” serves to position the reader with the poet, facing the painting. The subtitle or heading, “The Mission Carmel,” defines the setting. Overlooking California’s Monterey Bay, the Mission Carmel’s landscape enhances the reader’s appreciation of the poem.

The poem opens in the first person: “I ponder how He died, despairing once.” By using the proper pronoun “He,” the poet assumes familiarity with the narrative of Jesus Christ. Christ’s despair is the focus of the first stanza. Momaday suggests that the stillness following Christ’s anguish offers no comfort.

The second stanza continues the pondering of Christ’s Crucifixion and death, using as its subject the “calm” introduced in the first stanza. This quiet following Christ’s cry of despair is one where...

(The entire section is 459 words.)