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...
(The entire section is 502 words.)