The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

“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.

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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 “no peace inheres but solitude.” Momaday closes this stanza implying that not only the poet but also the artist(s) of the mural are incapable of comprehending Christ’s agony. He writes, “Inscrutably itself, nor misconstrued,/ Nor metaphrased in art or pseudonym.”

Momaday has now shifted the focus away from the actual Crucifixion and death to the painting itself, which becomes the subject of stanza 3. Momaday ends the first half of the poem by declaring, “The mural but implies eternity.”

The remaining stanzas respond to the first three in a manner not unlike the Petrarchan sonnet (where the second stanza responds to the first). Returning to death in the fourth stanza, the poet joins the reader as he connects Christ’s agony and despair with “our sorrow.” Stanza 4 closes with Momaday’s first criticism of the painting as he writes, “There shines too much a sterile loveliness.” He is referring to the brightness of the blue sky in the mural as well as at the mission.

As evening shadows approach the mural in stanza 5, the visual “Passion” (or Crucifixion story) becomes less apparent. Both the approaching darkness and the centuries that have passed since the mural was painted are “of little consequence.” In response to stanza 3, the poem closes with a comment on the “eternity” of the mural and the message it has held for centuries.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Landscape imagery and storytelling perform important functions within American Indian literature. Although Momaday refers to himself not as an Indian writer but as an Indian and a writer, his poetry is decidedly informed by the importance of landscape and by oral tradition. The subject of “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” while not Indian in nature, is thoroughly informed by landscapes and stories.

Momaday’s use of both landscape imagery and storytelling derives from within the mural itself (Christ and the Judean hills) and his immediate surroundings (the mission at Monterey Bay). The reader not only sees the mural but also hears its silence. This is also true of the reader’s placement with the author at the Mission Carmel as the reader sees and hears the sea.

In “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” Momaday relies on the reader’s knowledge of biblical crucifixion stories that have been handed down for centuries. For instance, the “cry” in stanza 1 is translated in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew (27:26) and Mark (15:34) as, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In his interpretation of the scene depicted in the mural, Momaday contrasts Christ’s cry of “despair” with the “calm” following it. Many of Momaday’s images combine with others, such as the “calm” of the sea in stanza 2 and the “silence after death” in the Judean hills (stanza 4). Both the mural and the sea are “mute in constancy!” (stanza 3).

The author’s use of nautical imagery throughout the poem is both visual and aural. For instance, “calm” can mean lack of sound and lack of movement. In stanza 3, Momaday moves the reader’s vision from the old, fading mural to the “fainter sea” that lies beyond the mission. In stanza 5, he applies the imagery of waves swelling and waning in his description of time passing and its effect on the importance of the Passion. The last nautical image lies in the final verse of the poem. The reader can see and hear the surf while reading of “flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.” The eroding surf represents the time that has passed since the Crucifixion. Here Momaday uses imagery from outside the mural (the surf) in response to the internal message of the painting (the Crucifixion).

Just as Momaday’s nautical imagery is both visual and aural, the landscape imagery, both inside and outside the mural, has a dual nature as well. For example, the “vacant skies” behind Christ on the cross (stanza 1) are not only silent, as the poem informs readers, but also cloudless, while the background of the actual mural to which Momaday refers in the poem is a sunlit blue. Stanza 4 contains another example of duality in the poem’s imagery: The “farther groves and arbors seasonless” of the Judean hills are similar to the area below the mission. Both landscapes have mild climates with year-round vegetation and fruit-bearing trees.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 180

Barry, Nora. Review of Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. MELUS 16 (December 22, 1989): 115-117.

Douglas, Christopher. “The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45 (Fall, 2003): 3-24.

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Owen, Louis. Other Destinies: Reading the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Roemer, Kenneth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Scenters-Zapico, John. “Cross-Cultural Mediations: Language, Storytelling, History, and Self as Enthymematic Premises in the Novels of N. Scott Momaday.” The American Indian Quarterly 21 (June 22, 1997): 499.

Schubnell, Matthias. “Locke Setman, Emil Nolde, and the Search for Expression in N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child.” The American Indian Quarterly 18 (September 22, 1994): 468-480.

Stevens, Jason W. “Bear, Outlaw, and Storyteller: American Frontier Mythology and Ethnic Subjectivity of N. Scott Momaday.” American Literature 73 (September, 2001): 599-631.

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Themes