The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

“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 sue mare,” meaning “of the city above the sea,” may refer either to Venice—where many of these painters lived—or to the celestial city—the New Jerusalem of Revelation—which was often depicted floating above the earth’s surface. The life “della Beata Umilta” refers to Saint Humility, or Rosana, a pious abbess of the thirteenth century. That “they dissolved/ in sogno/ miracolo/ crocifissione”—into dream, miracle, and crucifixion—suggests the emerging oneness of artist and religious subject matter.

Herbert asserts that the Old Masters discovered “paradise” in their art. Their paintings are “mirrors,” he suggests, in which to view the divinity in the self, but they are not “for us” in the present spiritual state of alienation, disaffectation, and what he elsewhere calls “disinheritance.” They can have meaning only for those who have somehow been “chosen” or sanctified.

The second section of the poem is a prayer for this sanctity, which calls upon the Old Masters as intercessors. Herbert pleads with them, as his brother artists, to help him defeat the satanic temptations of fame and pride and to rediscover the holy “Visitation” that has passed him by. This plea seems rather strange coming from the mouth of an avowed doubter and apparent agnostic, but nevertheless carries a large amount of spiritual and poetic energy.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

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. Indeed, the original Polish of this section further emphasizes the sense of a writer calling out in desperation to his lost gods, when the poet employs a rarely used vocative case: “Malarzu. . . .” (Malarz means “painter”). Herbert’s anaphoric style creates an aura of beatification and divine wisdom around the subjects of the poem; one senses, through the tone of the poetry, the spiritual qualities of their paintings.

“Old Masters,” as with most of Herbert’s other poems, uses little or no punctuation. Herbert demarcates the ends of sentences or of grammatical units either with line breaks or with separate verse paragraphs. His lack of periods or commas does not impair the clarity of his writing. On the contrary, by eliminating unnecessary typographical clutter from his pages, he gives the reader a sense of transparency and simplicity, which, though sometimes deceptive, nevertheless invites one to participate closely in his work, just as he would “melt” into the work of the Old Masters. The reader feels no offensive rhetoric or grandiloquence in his poem.

Furthermore, when combined with his sparing use of initial capitals, this lack of punctuation gives Herbert’s verse a fluidity across the frequent line breaks, and a sense of motion that plays against the innate tendency of a syntax to close off into discrete sentences, implanting a type of musical tension into his poetry. The reader hears the pull, in Herbert’s work, of a pure, musical continuum against the logical order of proper grammar.

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