This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 29 2014.
Last week, I gave an introduction to the life and literary reputation of the American poet, short story writer and, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). This week, I will attempt a close analysis of a single poem by Schwartz.
Schwartz on Seurat
My favourite poem by Delmore Schwartz is “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine”, written in 1959, in which the poet examines Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting. The painting is usually referred to as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting was also the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The painting shows members of all social classes mingling in the sun and participating in various Sunday afternoon leisure activities. It took Seurat two years to complete this ten foot-wide painting, much of which time he spent in the park sketching in preparation for the work (there are about 60 studies). It is now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago – which explains Schwartz’s reference in his poem to:
Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine has gone away,
Has gone to Chicago: near Lake Michigan,
All of his flowers shine in monumental stillness fulfilled.
And yet it abides elsewhere and everywhere where images
Delight the eye and heart, and become the desirable, the admirable,
Icons of purified consciousness.
Schwartz dedicates the poem to Meyer and Lillian Schapiro. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was an American art historian known for forging dynamic new art historical methodologies that incorporated an interdisciplinary approach, engaging other scholars, philosophers, and artists, to the study of works of art. Although an active Marxist, Schapiro was an expert on early Christian art. Schapiro was interested in the social, political, and the material construction of art works. He spent his entire career at Columbia, where he knew Schwartz.
The full text of the poem can be read online:
Sunday is traditionally a day for Christians to do their worship. Perhaps it can also be a day for non-Christians and atheists to celebrate something. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Sunday Morning”, stripped away Christian delusions in shimmering, flamboyant, rococo language.
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Those whom Schwartz sees in Seurat’s painting are enjoying “The comforts of the sun” and enjoying the freedom, albeit temporary, of a day off from quotidian cares.
They are looking at hope itself, under the sun, free from the teething
anxiety, the gnawing nervousness
Which wastes so many days and years of consciousness.
Schwartz seems to be asking: Is there a higher power, though? Is there a deus outside the frame of this picture?
The one who beholds them, beholding the gold and green
Of summer’s Sunday is himself unseen. This is because he is
Dedicated radiance, supreme concentration, fanatically threading
The beads, needles and eyes -at once- of vividness and permanence.
He is a saint of Sunday in the open air, a fanatic disciplined
By passion, courage, passion, skill, compassion, love: the love of life
and the love of light as one, under the sun, with the love of life.
There is permanence in the stasis caught in the frame, a permanence that defies the anicca we actually experience in real life outside the picture.
A little girl holds to her mother’s arm
As if it were a permanent genuine certainty:
Her broad-brimmed hat is blue and white, blue like the river, like the
And her face and her look have all the bland innocence,
Open and far from fear as cherubims playing harpsichords.
This is the celebration of contemplation,
This is the conversion of experience to pure attention,
Here is the holiness of all the little things
Offered to us, discovered for us, transformed into the vividest con-
Schwartz refers to “supreme concentration”. Is there a hint there of a supreme being? WH Auden and Iris Murdoch both referred to the act of concentration, of paying attention, as being akin to prayer. Buddhism explores the concept of “mindfulness”. Concentrating on writing a poem can seem like praying. Reading a poem in an analytical way can be like praying. Schwartz examines Seurat’s picture in a prayer-like manner and suspects prayer-like qualities in the demeanour of the people in the painting.
If you look long enough at anything
It will become extremely interesting;
If you look very long at anything
It will become rich, manifold, fascinating:
If you can look at anything for long enough,
You will rejoice in the miracle of love,
You will possess and be blessed by the marvellous blinding radiance
of love, you will be radiance.
A prayer, a pledge of grace or gratitude
A devout offering to the god of summer, Sunday and plenitude.
The Sunday people are looking at hope itself.
Is the deus Seurat himself, the artist, the artificer?
An infinite variety within a simple frame:
Countless variations upon a single theme!
Schwartz uses internal rhymes and repetitions to create a mantra-like chant. Seurat is at once painter, poet, architect, and alchemist:
The alchemist points his magical wand to describe and hold the Sun-
Mixing his small alloys for long and long
Because he wants to hold the warm leisure and pleasure of the holiday
Within the fiery blaze and passionate patience of his gaze and mind
Now and forever: O happy, happy throng,
It is forever Sunday, summer, free: you are forever warm
Within his little seeds, his small black grains,
He builds and holds the power and the luxury
With which the summer Sunday serenely reigns.
Seurat’s technique was to use tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-coloured paint allow the viewer’s eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colours physically blended on the canvas. Meyer Schapiro had written about the painting and had described Seurat’s technique as being like an alchemist’s. An alchemist transmutes the mundane into the wonderful; an artist uses gross material or plain words to create the numinous.
Although God or the painter threaded permanence into the picture in the frame, the painter himself did not enjoy permanence; Seurat died at the age of 31. The cause of his death is uncertain, variously attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and diphtheria. His son died two weeks later.
the painter who at twenty-five
Hardly suspects that in six years he will no longer be alive!
-His marvellous little marbles, beads, or molecules
Begin as points which the alchemy’s magic transforms
Into diamonds of blossoming radiance, possessing and blessing the
For look how the sun shines anew and newly, transfixed
By his passionate obsession with serenity
As he transforms the sunlight into the substance of pewter, glittering,
poised and grave, vivid as butter,
In glowing solidity, changeless, a gift, lifted to immortality.
Perhaps the painter does live on, despite his early death, in the beauty he created in his work. To quote Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” again: “Death is the mother of beauty”.
This is the nervous reality of time and time’s fire which turns
Whatever is into another thing, continually altering and changing all
identity, as time’s great fire burns (aspiring, flying and dying),
So that all things arise and fall, living, leaping and fading, falling, like
flames aspiring, flowering, flying and dying-
Within the uncontrollable blaze of time and of history:
Hence Seurat seeks within the cave of his gaze and mind to find
A permanent monument to Sunday’s simple delight; seeks deathless
joy through the eye’s immortality;
Strives patiently and passionately to surpass the fickle erratic quality
of living reality.
In emulation of the fullness of Nature maturing and enduring and
toiling with the chaos of actuality.
At the end of the poem, Schwartz acknowledges the sense of escapism that art allows, and also the poignancy of the fact that it is impossible really to enter the world of the painting. This is the final line of the poem:
They all stretch out their hands to me: but they are too far away!
Next week, I will analyse some more of Schwartz’s poetry and discuss themes that run through his work.