Themes and Meanings
“In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see” alludes to powerful sketches of predatory death in order to highlight the dangers of American society. The poem moves from recalling Goya’s well-known and influential criticism of war to the poet’s view of what is destroying American society. In linking the two, Ferlinghetti takes a risk. Will the reader accept the view that American life is as destructive as war? Is American society so predatory? The reader must decide whether Ferlinghetti has made his case. By beginning with such powerful images of suffering, the poet must, to be credible, establish the reality of the danger he sees in American society. Ferlinghetti seeks to convince the reader that internal destruction is taking place in America on the same scale as the overt destruction that Goya witnessed in Spain. The brutality of Goya’s sketches illustrate a lack of humanity. Likewise, the American culture depicted in the poem suggests a lack of human warmth and contact. The people are far “from home,” and they are amassed on “freeways fifty lanes wide.” As Goya’s sketches downplay any natural growth in the landscape, the Americans live “on a concrete continent.” The suggestion is that America is being eaten away from the inside by a dearth of humanity. Materialism and mechanism have replaced human interaction. Ferlinghetti admits the America scene has “fewer tumbrils”: The death and destruction are not graphic or immediate or physical. However, the poet claims Americans are being devoured just the same.
Goya’s war sketches are all the more powerful because of the frankness about the horrors of war. Goya rejected the conventional view of his time; the sketches refuse to glorify the combatants or the cause but instead zoom in on the brutal acts of war—destruction, rape, death, dismemberment of corpses. The Goya section of the poem builds in intensity with the penultimate line asserting that the suffering is “so bloody real.” Like Goya, the poet refuses to take the conventional view: He does not extol the wealth and freedom of America but focuses on the destruction. The climax in the second section depends not so much on building to intensity but on withholding, until the last word of the poem, the new landscape of suffering. It is not until the last word that Ferlinghetti tells his readers, predominantly Americans, that he is speaking of them as the new suffering humanity.