In order to understand Randall Jarrell’s “The Old and the New Masters,” one must look first to English poet W. H. Auden’s “Musée de Beaux Arts,” which begins: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters.” Auden’s poem claims that the master painters—his primary exemplar is mid-sixteenth century Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel—recognized and depicted humankind’s callous indifference to the suffering of others. Their depictions are endorsed by Auden, not as the way things should be but as the way they are, and the title implies that art at its best presents this view. In “The Old and the New Masters,” Jarrell initially challenges this assertion by means of example, a series of paintings elaborately and lovingly described. As readers move through his argument, they see that in order to dispute Auden’s glib characterization of the old masters, Jarrell has created a gallery of his own, made up of other artists for whom the suffering in the world is the single most important fact of human existence.
Jarrell has little interest in formalistic constraints on his poetry. He intends for the subject and the dramatic occasion to determine the shape of the verse. This sixty-one-line poem is constructed of three parts. The first section sounds the Auden echo and posits Jarrell’s own poem as response. It goes on to describe French Renaissance painter George de La Tour’s Saint Sebastian Mourned by Saint Irene in such a way that the martyr’s pain and the witnesses’ responses to it are connected to the agony of Christ. The second part moves chronologically backward in art history to Belgian Renaissance painter Hugo van der Goes’s Nativity from the “Portinari Altarpiece.” Jarrell notes the way in which the painting manipulates time so that “everything/ That was or will be in the world is fixed/ On its small, helpless, human center.” The brief third section advances to the “new masters” who “paint a subject as they please.” These artists are contrasted with Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese and a description of his Feast in the House of Levi. The poet reminds readers of how the Inquisition challenged the painter’s overly realistic depiction of Christ sitting at the feast with dogs playing about his feet. Jarrell bemoans the “abstract understanding” of the “new masters,” how they diminish the human element. The final image of the poem becomes both a jab at Auden and a lament for art in which Earth itself is that “small radioactive planet” off in the corner of the canvas.
One of Jarrell’s foremost critics, Suzanne Ferguson, has described him not as a born poet but as a born teacher, and in a poem such as “The Old and the New Masters” that desire to instruct comes through forcefully. Just as strong as the desire to instruct is the desire to correct: Jarrell sees a mistake with dire consequences in Auden’s assumptions about art, and he sets about putting it right.
Forms and Devices
This poem is fueled by allusion , and to grasp the full import of this device readers should remember that an allusion does not merely force another text into their consciousness; rather, it borrows a mood, announces a debt, calls up another context that no longer exists, reminds the reader of an absence, and interjects a tone of pity for the reader’s loss. Another term for this effect is “intertextuality,” the acknowledgment that no text can be read outside its relations to other, already existing texts. In this case, the poem begins by calling to mind another poem (therefore another poet) that, by its title, declares as its subject the whole realm of fine arts. Jarrell then follows Auden’s lead in calling forth the exemplary works that will make his case. His careful choice of examples—religious subjects, emphatically Christian—brings into his poem the very elements that Jarrell fears are disappearing from more contemporary art: respect for the human being and for human suffering. Through...
(The entire section is 1,110 words.)