Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
In spite of the lighthearted tone, “Lines for the Prince of Venosa” is a serious poem about what it means to be an artist. The three themes that the poem considers are the artist’s need for fame and for affirmation of his or her work, the artist’s needs as a human being, and the artist’s search for truth. The most immediate concern is the need for affirmation of one’s work. Most of the artists that Gustafsson mentions had difficulty finding popular acceptance. For example, Mahler’s reputation was hampered by his unpopularity as an exacting conductor and by the fact that he was a Jew. Even though Bruckner had written three masses that were performed in Linz, Austria, he was treated in Vienna like a rustic outsider. Walt Whitman’s poetry, with its disjoined lines, likewise languished in obscurity. Of himself, Gustafsson says that people in Gothenburg do not understand him “(as usual)” and that the press considers him too “learned.” However, the narrator’s own appreciation of Mahler and Bruckner is qualified by the description of their symphonies as being interminably slow and ponderous in order “to convince us that death isn’t so bad after all.” Whitman’s disconnected rhyming catalogs are juxtaposed with the piles of disjointed body parts found in Saint Catherine’s monastery. Finally, Defoe’s widely read novel is dismissed because it is only “an adventure story/ that everyone’s read before.”
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The second theme, the artist’s needs as a human being, is tied to the meaning of home. For Prince Venosa, home became a place of shame rather than a place of rest and comfort. Even the Renaissance composer, who was noted for his devotional masses, did not possess faith strong enough to forgive his wife for her infidelities. In contrast, the narrator is happy to settle for a wifeless homecoming with only a bouncy dog to greet his arrival. Concerning the meaning of home, the narrator comments that one will always “find a way home,” but he warns that it will not be the same safe haven that was left behind.
The most important theme is the artist’s search for truth, a concept that the poet uses interchangeably with the concept of beauty. The following lines occur three times in the poem: “Yes/ beauty is the only thing that lasts.” The first comment ends the pontifical professor’s lecture, and the third is part of Donna Maria’s cocktail chatter about her husband’s music. In spite of the comical contexts, the reveries that follow these lines indicate the serious purposes of the poem. The first reverie begins with a comparison of beauty to stones, both of which are not only long lasting but are also “pure and simple.” Then, both the first and second reverie continue the comparison by commenting on what is inside the stone. The narrator says that certain types of quartz trap water that is “older than all the seas in our world.” Furthermore, this water, never having been exposed to light, is both clean and pure. The darkness inside the stone stands in sharp contrast with the blinding but often sterile light in the mountains of the Sinai and other sterile areas of the earth. Gustafsson suggests, then, that truth is ancient, pure, and encased in darkness or in misunderstanding. Therefore, it is the task of often-misunderstood artists to release the truth, but the price that artists pay for their efforts may be high indeed.