In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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The Poem

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Within a few months in 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote twenty-nine poems that he envisioned as a unit. In his second book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, they appear numbered, without titles. Number 1, “In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see,” is a lyric written in open form, having no regular rhyme, meter, or line length. Placed on the page so as to have a visual effect, the poem has six sections of varying length, ranging from twenty lines to three words. (Anthologies vary in the way they present the poem, not always retaining the original spacing between lines and thereby varying the number of sections.)

The title, taken from the first line of the poem, immediately introduces the first of two topics: works by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. The poet directs readers first to Goya’s works, which present “suffering humanity.” Ferlinghetti then suggests scenes of war through words such as “writhe,” “veritable rage,” and “adversity.” Specifically, the poem alludes to Goya’s Disasters of War, created in 1810 but not published until 1863, years after his death. This series of sketches depicts the brutality, on the part of both the French and the Spanish, in the Peninsular War (1808-1814). Although Ferlinghetti never names the Disasters of War, he uses words to bring Goya’s images from those sketches to mind: “bayonets,” “landscape of blasted trees,” “wings and beaks,” “carnivorous cocks,” “gibbets,” and “cadavers.”

The grammar and syntax of the first twenty lines (section 1) reveal three sentences, although the lack of straight margins and terminal punctuation suggests fragmentation rather than grammatical units. (Ferlinghetti uses no punctuation in the poem except for quotation marks and an apostrophe, but capital letters help locate new grammatical units.) The open form and line design contribute to a tone of confusion and isolation that matches the tone of Goya’s sketches. The next two sections of the poem, each one line long, provide transition to the second topic: The poet maintains that the suffering humanity of Goya’s sketches is still alive more than a century later but is now living in another “landscape” and, as the reader soon learns, on another continent: America. The last three sections of the poem describe these new sufferers and this new landscape.

As with Goya’s sufferers, these people are “ranged along the roads” instead of being pictured in their homes or communities; again the landscape is bleak, and again the people are seen as victims of a senseless, predatory power. Yet the images of suffering are very different. Goya’s sketches focus on the people, often with no background buildings, objects, or vegetation. When buildings or vegetation are included, their presentation adds to the plight of the people instead of taking the focus away from them. In Ferlinghetti’s poem, however, the landscape is central and the people are in the background. They are not physically depicted as in the Goya prints; rather, they are described only as “maimed citizens.” The landscape is now bleak, not because it is barren, gray, or war torn, but because it is morally vacuous—“freeways fifty lanes wide” are crowded with “bland billboards” and automobiles. The people are trapped in a world built for machinery and advertising.

Forms and Devices

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The poem depends, for its power, on the connection Ferlinghetti makes between the people in Goya’s sketches and those of twentieth century America. The allusion to art is not unusual for Ferlinghetti. A painter and art critic himself, he is influenced not only by great works of art but also by painters’ techniques. Just as he calls up Goya’s sketches through...

(This entire section contains 435 words.)

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words, Ferlinghetti presents his poem, in part, as a picture. The page is a canvas, and his words and lines are placed for visual effect. The design on the page suggests an unexpected or brutal separation of parts that reinforces his theme. Goya’s prints graphically show dismemberment; the poem envisions American culture as an isolating force. What is physical brutality in the Goya section becomes spiritual brutality in the section on America. Even Ferlinghetti’s alliteration signals the difference: Goya’s sketches link “babies and bayonets” and “cadavers and carnivorous cocks,” while the section on America speaks of “bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions” and “a concrete continent.” The physical destruction gives way to a spiritual nothingness. Yet despite the move from blood to banality, the poem highlights the continuity between the Spanish and the American scenes through the lack of terminal punctuation; one flows into the other. America has discovered its own form of brutality.

Ferlinghetti repeats key images and grammatical structures from the Goya section of the poem in the America section in order to draw a parallel between the sufferers of early nineteenth century warring Spain and those of twentieth century America. In the Goya section, the sufferers “writhe upon the page”; in the second section, they are “ranged along the roads.” First they are “under cement skies,” then they are “on a concrete continent.” The Spanish scenes include “slippery gibbets,/ cadavers and carnivorous cocks”; the American sufferers see “legionaires/ false windmills and demented roosters.” A powerful image in the Goya sketches that Ferlinghetti alludes to is the predatory nature of grotesque birds as a symbol of the death and destruction of war. In the America section of the poem, however, the bird is not “carnivorous” but “demented.” Instead of predatory birds, car “engines/devour America.” A poet who enjoys puns and wordplay, Ferlinghetti suggests the irony of the word “freeway.” Instead of “tumbrils” (carts carrying revolutionaries to the gallows), “painted cars” on “freeways fifty lanes wide” lead Americans to a barren existence. The poet indicts a society that foregrounds technology and privileges merchandising rather than people. In the second half of the poem, Ferlinghetti indicts the American way of life as being every bit as deadly as war.