Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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In “The Old and the New Masters,” Jarrell declares that art is meant to confront and acknowledge human suffering. Through all his poems depicting the victimization of soldiers, women, and children by the great forces of what he calls “Necessity,” he has staked out an aesthetic based upon the perception of suffering as a defining act for the human being. It is a kind of adoration, the kind that can be seen in versions of the Nativity. To attend to the hurt and the helpless is a human’s finest expression of a godlike capacity. The alternatives to such attention become evident in the curious final stanza. Jarrell is not lamenting the disappearance of an overtly religious perspective in modern art; rather, he pleads for a humanistic, overarching sympathy and projects dire consequences in the final passage of the poem:

Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstractUnderstanding, without adoration, the last master putsColors on canvas, a picture of the universeIn which a bright spot somewhere in the cornerIs the small radioactive planet men called Earth.

With the telescopic power of art to bring past, present, and future into synchronous alignment, the poem itself composes this picture with which it ends, a “painting” that seems the logical extreme of the art Auden depicts in “Musée de Beaux Arts”:

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns awayQuite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman mayHave heard the splash, the forsaken cry,But for him it was not an important failure

It is likely that Jarrell has seen Auden’s position as posturing, as a grimly stoic pose. He mockingly calls up the older poet’s interpretation and shows how such an attitude makes possible far greater disaster. Auden’s “Old Masters” are Jarrell’s new ones. The Cold War, an imminent threat when “The Old and the New Masters” was composed, looms over the meticulous re-creations of Renaissance painting within the poem, upping the stakes. At risk here, Jarrell implies, is not a point of aesthetic interpretation but humankind’s very survival. It does not seem too outlandish to read that “abstract understanding” as a version of what Jarrell sees around him in the daily discourse of print journalism and television news: Civilian deaths become “collateral damage,” millions of lives cindered in seconds become “acceptable losses,” and the escalation of nuclear arms development and deployment becomes a policy of “deterrence.” All this abstraction threatens to displace the “human center”; the result is a small radioactive planet off in the corner of the canvas. The “last master,” according to the terms of the poem, is no longer an artist at all but a dictatorial ego far gone into the realms of power for its own sake, and Jarrell subtly juxtaposes the master with a “subject” to reinforce this notion.