The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Old Masters” consists of thirty-five lines of free verse, divided into short verse paragraphs of two or four lines which, though irregular, often resemble stanzas. The poem is broken into two main sections, demarcated by a shift in the left margin; the first section is descriptive, while the second verges on invocation or prayer.

The title refers to the anonymous master-painters of the early Renaissance in Italy, in the eleventh or twelfth century. These artists painted scenes of religious importance and were employed by the Roman Catholic Church to depict events in the life of Christ, the miracles of saints, and well-known figures from the Bible. Many of them were themselves monks or were closely affiliated with religious orders.

The poem begins by emphasizing the anonymity of those Old Masters; they were not concerned, Zbigniew Herbert says, with signing their names to their work in order to achieve fame or notoriety in years to come. Rather, they suppressed their artistic egos, preferring to “dissolve” into the religious wonders they were depicting. As artists, they strove not for personal glory, but to portray the glory of God.

Herbert uses the Old Masters’ native Italian language when he describes their paintings in order to draw himself and the reader closer, linguistically, to the textures and visions that they would have experienced. The reader hears the actual words the painters used. The pink towers “di citta...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Herbert’s streamlined Polish translates extremely well into other languages, and the English here captures his clipped, telegraphic style, as well as the poetic dynamism of his finely crafted imagery. Herbert’s poetry is not pretty or opulent, but strives on the whole for both visual clarity and structural balance. His work has sometimes been characterized as “antithetical”—concerned with holding opposite worldviews or contrary figures in tension in the same poem—but here one finds only a hint of such opposition, when he contrasts the perfection of the Old Masters’ paintings with the present-day fallen state; rather than exploit the ironies of, or discontinuities between, past and present, Herbert chooses to try to immerse himself in the art and technology of his masters, to turn away from the present and rediscover a lost “paradise.”

The tone of the poem is not antithetical, ironic, or argumentative, but pietistic; it recalls the supplications and prayers of a catholic liturgy. Herbert merely substitutes artist for saint as his divine instructor and intercessor. Accordingly, the text is characterized by anaphora, an incantatory repetition of the same words or grammatical forms at the beginning of a syntactic unit, as in “they dissolvedthey foundthey drowned” or “I call on youI call upon you. . . .” The last four lines of the poem repeat an invocation, attempting to name the nameless, godlike painters through their various works....

(The entire section is 476 words.)