Sonnets for Pictures.

A Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmeling; in the Academy of Bruges.

Mystery: God, Man's Life, born into man
Of woman. There abideth on her brow
The ended pang of knowledge, the which now
Is calm assured. Since first her task began,
She hath known all. What more of anguish than
Endurance oft hath lived through, the whole space
Through night till night, passed weak upon her face
While like a heavy flood the darkness ran?
All hath been told her touching her dear Son,
And all shall be accomplished. Where he sits
Even now, a babe, he holds the symbol fruit
Perfect and chosen. Until God permits,
His soul's elect still have the absolute
Harsh nether darkness, and make painful moan.

A Marriage of St. Katharine, by the same; in the Hospital of St. John
at Bruges.

Mystery: Katharine, the bride of Christ.
She kneels, and on her hand the holy Child
Setteth the ring. Her life is sad and mild,
Laid in God's knowledge--ever unenticed
From Him, and in the end thus fitly priced.
Awe, and the music that is near her, wrought
Of Angels, hath possessed her eyes in thought:
Her utter joy is her's, and hath sufficed.
There is a pause while Mary Virgin turns
The leaf, and reads. With eyes on the spread book,
That damsel at her knees reads after her.
John whom He loved and John His harbinger
Listen and watch. Whereon soe'er thou look,
The light is starred in gems, and the gold burns.


A Dance of Nymphs, by Andrea Mantegna; in the Louvre.

(*** It is necessary to mention, that this picture would appear to have been in the artist's mind an allegory, which the modern spectator may seek vainly to interpret.)

Scarcely, I think; yet it indeed may be
The meaning reached him, when this music rang
Sharp through his brain, a distinct rapid pang,
And he beheld these rocks and that ridg'd sea.
But I believe he just leaned passively,
And felt their hair carried across his face
As each nymph passed him; nor gave ear to trace
How many feet; nor bent assuredly
His eyes from the blind fixedness of thought
To see the dancers. It is bitter glad
Even unto tears. Its meaning filleth it,
A portion of most secret life: to wit:--
Each human pulse shall keep the sense it had
With all, though the mind's labour run to nought.

A Venetian Pastoral, by Giorgione; in the Louvre.
(*** In this picture, two cavaliers and an undraped woman are seated in the grass, with musical instruments, while another woman dips a vase into a well hard by, for water.)

Water, for anguish of the solstice,--yea,
Over the vessel's mouth still widening
Listlessly dipt to let the water in
With slow vague gurgle. Blue, and deep away,
The heat lies silent at the brink of day.
Now the hand trails upon the viol-string
That sobs; and the brown faces cease to sing,
Mournful with complete pleasure. Her eyes stray
In distance; through her lips the pipe doth creep
And leaves them pouting; the green shadowed grass
Is cool against her naked flesh. Let be:
Do not now speak unto her lest she weep,--
Nor name this ever. Be it as it was:--
Silence of heat, and solemn poetry.


"Angelica rescued from the Sea-monster," by Ingres; in the

A remote sky, prolonged to the sea's brim:
One rock-point standing buffetted alone,
Vexed at its base with a foul beast unknown,
Hell-spurge of geomaunt and teraphim:
A knight, and a winged creature bearing him,
Reared at the rock: a woman fettered there,
Leaning into the hollow with loose hair
And throat let back and heartsick trail of limb.
The sky is harsh, and the sea shrewd and salt.
Under his lord, the griffin-horse ramps blind
With rigid wings and tail. The spear's lithe stem
Thrills in the roaring of those jaws: behind,
The evil length of body chafes at fault.
She doth not hear nor see--she knows of them.

The same.

Clench thine eyes now,--'tis the last instant, girl:
Draw in thy senses, set thy knees, and take
One breath for all: thy life is keen awake,--
Thou may'st not swoon. Was that the scattered whirl
Of its foam drenched thee?--or the waves that curl
And split, bleak spray wherein thy temples ache?--
Or was it his the champion's blood to flake
Thy flesh?--Or thine own blood's anointing, girl?....
....Now, silence; for the sea's is such a sound
As irks not silence; and except the sea,
All is now still. Now the dead thing doth cease
To writhe, and drifts. He turns to her: and she
Cast from the jaws of Death, remains there, bound,
Again a woman in her nakedness.




Last modified: 26 March 1996